Wednesday, February 7, 2018


I need to catch up on book reviews so I can delete these from my kindle...

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky: Most excellent if you have patience. He takes a looooong time to build up to the key chapters, and those earlier chapters definitely could have used a more aggressive editor, but since I found it all independently interesting I didn't mind. He tends to like cute studies too much (you know, the ones that make headlines but have a knack for not replicating or at least for not proving anything real), which may be an intentional expositional choice, but I wish it weren't since he's generally so excellent at emphasizing how evidence should be interpreted critically. I recommend watching his human behavioral biology lecture series first.

A Natural History of Human Morality, by Michael Tomasello: I really loved reading this book although there were a number of things I disagreed with - the disagreements were of the satisfyingly thought-provoking type. And I think it could stand a lot more contextualization from game theory. And since it is such a condensed summary of so much research, it's sometimes hard for field outsiders to decipher what is established knowledge and what is Tomasello conjecturing or being controversial, but I can do further research when necessary.

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell: Super interesting book about culture of cetaceans, but more than that, about cultural evolution and culture-gene coevolution and regular genetic evolution and how to tell these things apart and the state of the evidence for them.

House of God, by Samuel Shem: Couldn't put it down. Scott Alexander said any doctor should read it and I loved it (in an exhausting way) even with zero medical background. Matt agrees.

Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler: I initially stopped reading it since I already knew the science and found the style irritating, but after the Nobel I pushed through purely for the sake of not being out of the loop of something so many people have read. The science side would be good for the layperson, but I didn't enjoy the second half any more than the first half. You should only be the lone hero of your story when someone else writes it. Let someone else call you a vindicated renegade once per paragraph...

Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene: For me this was one of those amazingly satisfying books that you read at exactly the right time so it's exactly on topic of what you've been thinking about in multiple dimensions for quite awhile all linked together and you agree with all of it and there's plenty of new detail to keep it interesting. Best defense of the right kind of utilitarianism that I've read.*

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, by Noo Saro-Wiwa: Couldn't finish, too depressing. Quite interesting until I had to give up though. The author comes across as not really wanting to be a travel writer, oddly.

The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis: So good, and surprisingly touchingly sad.

Your guide to the 2017 total solar eclipse, by Michael Bakich: I actually read this after the eclipse, but oh well. Nice history of eclipses and descriptions of Saros cycles and such. The pragmatic advice would be useful to unexperienced amateur astronomers, for those of you already planning for 2024. The one thing missing from his photography advice is that even if you're an absolute beginner you can experiment by having your camera shoot automatically, driven by your computer and free software like darktable. I was only distracted by camera logistics for about ten seconds and am really happy with a couple shots I got; not that they compete with anything professional, but I don't have to explain to the phone camera-ed public that you always appreciate your own photos more than better ones taken by others... (but yeah, stop trying to take pictures in the dark with phone cameras :)

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante: Look I read some fiction! Four fictions in fact! I loved this book because the characters were so good, and I simultaneously wanted to give them hugs and shake them for being idiots. I more often like male authors than female authors since so much female writing has to be overtly feminist, and I strongly prefer my moralizing and philosophizing in nonfiction format, but this was a book about women by a woman that managed to deal explicitly with issues of womanhood without "making a point" with it. She uses too many comma splices though.

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante: Part two of the series; this and the next were my favorites. The characters had aged past childhood and into the follies of youth and love.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante: My stream of consciousness thoughts while reading this kept looping through 1) I'm so glad I didn't grow up in Italy as a woman at this time in history, 2) In the last generation or so, the institution of marriage has simultaneously deteriorated in terms of 'success' rates, but also strengthened as people have put a great deal of effort into figuring out how to create relationships that both people want to stay in, since not-having-an-option is no longer enough to keep them together. And I'm extremely grateful to be born recently enough to fall in that wave. 3) Nonetheless, how can people do things in the name of love that are so transparently idiotic?? 4) Maybe it's an illusion that (many) relationships are more intentional and enlightened now because realistically the kinds of passions that led these characters to be so obviously dumb are emotional and no amount of reason can trump that, and I just can't identify because I'm so far extremely lucky in my own partnership (and not even married yet). 5) I'm so glad I didn't grow up in Italy as a woman at this time in history...

The Story of a Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante: Strange ending.


*But I still haven't read anything really digging into the conceptual issues with utilitarianism that I haven't figured out relating to whose utility trumps whose when they are in direct opposition and/or psychological in nature; I have strong opinions on this that I can't satisfactorily back up.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

MTurk demo

This may be useful to other researchers, so I'll share publicly. If you use MTurk for research, you most likely will save a lot of time if you set up the command line tools. These allow you to add assignments to HITs, grant qualifications, pay bonuses, and much more, all automatedly. I did a demo of setting up and using them, and a screencast is available here. (If you get an error that the file is corrupted, your browser is lying. Download it.)

Disclaimer: I am very far from being an expert on MTurk, I've just figured out how to do the things I want to do as I go. Also, cut from the beginning of the demo: If you use mac, pretty much everything works exactly as I show even though I'm using linux. If you use windows, things will be very slightly different, but the online documentation gives instructions for both platforms so refer to that as needed.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

experiments should always be grounded in theory

"Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials":

As with many interventions intended to prevent ill health, the effectiveness of parachutes has not been subjected to rigorous evaluation by using randomised controlled trials. Advocates of evidence based medicine have criticised the adoption of interventions evaluated by using only observational data. We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

me too?

It's almost certainly idiotic of me to chime in at all, and my normal policy is to avoid gender issues at all costs, but I'm apparently feeling stupid today... 

What do people mean when they say "me too"? 

Yes, I've been catcalled and I've been creepily followed. I've been aggressively hit on to the extent I was concerned for my safety on many occasions, most recently last month. I've had to physically resist men who didn't take no for an answer. I have only compassion for those who have experienced worse.

On the other hand, every male who has ever been in a position of authority over me has been very overtly very concerned with not doing or saying anything that might possibly be interpreted as harassment*. When I quit the one real job I ever had I had at least four meetings with different people terrified that I would accuse someone of harassment (while nothing could be further from the truth). In my current job I have senior male colleagues who actively look out for situations in which women are inadvertently being taken advantage of. And people say economics is particularly bad for women! The only time I've regretted being a woman in economics is when I have to be on committees because it's required that there be at least one woman on every committee...

Maybe I'm exceptionally lucky, but I believe I'm in the first generation of women for whom this is generally true, and I believe that's amazing progress. Assholes will always be assholes, but they're a small and inevitable minority.

(Being an extreme introvert, now that's something I wish I could change...)


* I particularly like to tell the story of how uncomfortable my mentor looked when telling me, at age 16, about the source extraction software called "sextractor".

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


In case anyone else is googling around about the same problem, or just wants to hear a funny story about the joys of cloud* services...

Part 1: Elsevier has a centralized editorial website for all their journals that you can log into as either an author, a reviewer, or an editor. This is a recent agglomeration of many individual websites for individual journals, so you can link those individual journals to your central account as you encounter them. This works ok, but then Chrome remembers my old passwords for the specific journals, and I paranoidly question whether I've set up a different password for reviewer login versus author login, so the end result is I've reset my password with them many times. I always reset it to the same password though, so the rate has been falling steadily.

Recently though, I haven't added any new journals to my account, and I've still had to change the password several times in the last two weeks. I used the saved Chrome version, verified in Chrome's password manager that it is in fact the password I remember setting, reset the password to exactly the same thing, and then it works fine. I feel like I'm going crazy, but hey, never underestimate the ability of the cloud to screw up basic things.

Part 2: For organizing papers, I use Mendeley desktop. Mendeley is buggy as a bog, which for a long time I was forgiving of because it was a brand new and free service, but now it's been 10 years and I pay them to keep my papers synced across my work and home computers, so my patience is waning. But at least I've got my workflow set up, I know the bug workarounds I need, and it runs in linux well-ish, so so far the switching costs have kept me there (but if anyone has tested alternatives please let me know...) Anyway, many of the bugs are related to network access and syncing, and in the process of unplugging-and-replugging as many things as I can think of in an attempt to fix the situation, I end up resetting my password a lot. Always to the same thing, but still.

Recently though, and in an unfortunate coincidence with updating mendeley versions on my two computers so that I thought the upgrade was related to the problem, I've been forced to reset my password nearly everytime I open it on my desktop or try to log in online. Again, I check that the saved password is what I remember, reset it to the same one, and then it works.

Resolution: I couldn't find anything helpful on google and since I am a paying Mendeley customer I was optimistic they would actually respond, so I wrote off the Elsevier problem as a lost cause and emailed Mendeley support. And amazingly enough within 24 hours I had a useful response (addressed to "Dear Joel", but oh well, details.....) Apparently when the login page on the Mendeley website says "Mendeley now supports signing in with your Elsevier credentials." what it really means is "You MUST now sign in with your Elsevier credentials, and when you change your password here it will also change it with Elsevier". There is of course absolutely no message of the sort in the desktop client at all, which is what I use for everything except resetting the password. So I've apparently been resetting both passwords simultaneously, alternating between the two.

I don't remember actively linking my Mendeley and Elsevier accounts, but I'll acknowledge the possibility that I've just forgotten or didn't realize that that's what I was doing. If so, I apologize for complaining about this particular issue and instead ask you to redirect my complaints towards the fact that Mendeley crashes on me several times a day and has to be restarted every time I ask it to sync something and gives me meaningless ungoogleable connection errors randomly when I open it and won't let me just skip the damn login process and see my local database while it ponders whether to connect this time around. And as for Elsevier, well we all know what else we can complain about with them...


* The cloud is one of things about which I drift pretty close to the fearmongers' warnings about impending dystopia. I'm not sure who came up with the idea, after seeing how Web2.0 royally fubared the web, to put everything on it. So use syncthing instead of dropbox, back up your gmail (gmvault works well), and use distributed/opensource/offline/encrypted/whateverelse systems when possible.**

**And linux and emacs just because it will make your life so much better. And road bikes.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Behavioral Economics get the Nobel

Many congratulations to Thaler!

This is a prize recognizing behavioral economics as a field, and there are of course many other deserving pioneers (a couple of whom have already won prizes for slightly different things). No matter whose name is singled out, I'm happy the field as a whole is being recognized.

I won't add more commentary now; the blogosphere has it thoroughly covered. Maybe another time I'll write about why I simultaneously love and hate nudges. (Hint: It's for approximately the opposite reason George Loewenstein does.)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

recent travel notes

Germany: In June I got to show Matt around Berlin and see some key things I'd missed in 1999 and 2014. We packed a lot into just over a week of holiday.
  1. I'm not sure whether the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima or the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin wins the prize for most emotionally intense, depressing museum I've ever seen. It starts off horribly, and gets worse, and worse, and worse, and worse, until four hours later (which was a rush job) I barely felt human anymore. Then we went to the Stasi secret prison. Delightful day!
  2. As expected, I heard some of the most amazing classical music; even Firebird (which was the only Philharmonic concert on offer that week, and I wasn't going to let Matt miss it entirely) was pretty great. In particular, not a single recording on youtube can satisfy the standard set by the Noga Quartet in their free lunch concert in the Philharmonic foyer of Beethoven's 16th string quartet (my favorite - what luck!) If anyone has recommendations, please let me know...
  3. The other free lunch quartet exceeded expectations even more (because my expectations were low - I should have known better.) Whoddathunk a woodwind arrangement of the Goldberg variations could be so compelling.
  4. Why do so many Germans* respond to questions with a tone of "how can you ask such a ridiculous question?!" When I ask (in my best apologetic pseudo-German) if a pharmacy carries a lint brush, how is "this is a pharmacy!" a useful response? Do you think it's more likely I wandered through a random door asking for lint brushes, or that pharmacies in other countries carry such things...?
  5. I like to have a backup plan. But somehow neither of my USB keys were readable by the seminar laptop, my personal laptop couldn't connect to the projector, and gmail decided not to let me access my account from a new computer without a cell phone code (which obviously I couldn't get with my temporary German SIM card - cloud security ftw!) despite the fact I don't use two-factor encryption for exactly this reason. I've never started a seminar so frazzled. I then saw nearly the same thing happen to someone else at a conference. So, useful tip: put your presentation on a webserver...
  6. Berlin is still one of my favorite cities in the world but its reputation and prices are starting to catch up, so visit soon. Why are so many of the good cities in such horrible climates? (Oh right, that's why I moved to Australia.)
In August I was in Chile again for two more weeks. 
  1. The suburbs of Santiago way up in the foothills, around my coauthor's new university, are stunning. It looks like Mountain View (very rich, with similar style houses and types of vegetation) but with 20,000 foot snow-capped mountains in the background. Also, you're above most of the smog.
  2. I went to a ski resort that is the same height from top to bottom as all of Australia, almost exactly. And it starts at 11,000 feet. That's definitely the first time I've had to stop to catch my breath during downhill skiing. But skiing totally above the tree line is bonkers beautiful.
  3. Why isn't Peruvian food ubiquitous in the rest of the world? I can't get enough lomo saltado.
Then the U.S., which isn't exactly a foreign country but nonetheless things have changed noticeably since I left. I had at least three conversations along the lines of "I met this really friendly person and then realized they had a Trump bumper sticker! *shock*" Really.....? Did you think half the country were just plain old assholes? It is unbelievably depressing how divided the population has become, not only in political beliefs but in lack of respect, or even basic trust in human decency and good intentions.

This is getting too long so I'll write about Israel separately.

* Yeah yeah #NotAllGermans goes without saying. I'm a social scientist, I'm only interested in aggregate frequencies :)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

the eclipse

It is very disconcerting to point your telescope directly at the sun, take the filter off, and immediately look through the eyepiece. I've spent most of my life learning to be very careful not to do just that. But that sight, with true-color bright pink prominences, glowing tendrils of the corona against a royal blue background, and the enormous, terrific void in the center, was hands down the single most incredible thing I have ever seen.

I've seen thousands of photos of the sun and its various types of surface features, and I've seen thousands of photos of eclipses, and read hundreds of elated accounts, and I've seen lunar eclipses and an annular solar eclipse, several partial eclipses and a Venus transit, but this was the difference between reading a textbook about string theory and sneaking a glance through a fleeting crack in spacetime itself. It's the difference between kissing a man and marrying him; the difference between a ferris wheel and skydiving; between a bathtub whirlpool and a tornado. No matter how much you objectively know what is coming, it's impossible to be adequately prepared. I am not at all surprised that ancient humans thought they were staring into the end of times, and they didn't even have a magnified view.

Eclipse progression from Madras, OR

And if anyone should have been prepared, it's me. I've been looking forward to this eclipse for the last 20 years (ironically because it was supposed to be the first eclipse I wouldn't have to fly around the world for. Whoops.) This was even before I owned my first telescope and was still contenting myself with learning constellations, hunting for Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, measuring latitude with a protractor, and waiting 45 minutes on dial-up internet to download photos of Neptune. (I was not the most popular kid...) I can't adequately describe the eclipse directly, but surely you can infer from that kind of history that I had pretty high hopes and expectations, so if I'm still paralyzed by awe 36 hours later, it really had to have been pretty great.

Partial phase, with (unusual for this time during the solar cycle) sunspots. The grainy surface appearance is due to temperature variation (not digital noise).

Why exactly is it so incredible? I wish I had the faintest idea. I've experienced sunset and the associated sky colors, drop in temperature, and darkness. It's "just" a black circle in the sky. I don't even believe in anything supernatural that could have turned it into a spiritual experience. Sure, seeing things with your own eyes is often much more powerful than in photos, but nothing else purely visual, not even looking into the Grand Canyon, or seeing supernovae in other galaxies with my own eyes, or swimming with manta rays, has come close to giving me an adrenaline rush that took half an hour to dissipate. I've watched my own little gopro video of totality (below), in its gloriously crappy quality,  a dozen times already and it gives me chills just from remembering it. Vividly remembering bungee jumping also gives me a bit of an adrenaline rush, but that's a memory of jumping off a bridge and repeated freefall, not ... looking up. Matt's knees were shaking ages after totality was over, I had trouble firmly taping the solar filters back on the telescope with shaking hands, people around us were crying. I think if we could figure out what primal nerve these things hit and why, we would understand humanity much better.

Matt and I drove up to Oregon to see it with two friends who live in the Bay Area. On the way there I read up on photographing it, which I hadn't had time to think about and which I'd assumed I would only make a very cursory attempt at since there is no spare time during 2 minutes and 5 seconds of totality to waste fiddling with equipment instead of looking at it directly. But I found out that it's really easy to automate the shooting by plugging the camera into a laptop and scheduling a series of bracketed captures in darktable (the open source imitation of lightroom). I set my camera to F4, ISO200, 200mm (the maximum of my good quality lenses), 1/30 basic exposure, but then 10 exposures around that value ranging from 3 seconds to 1/3200 in order to capture different levels of detail. All during the partial phase I was doing something similar with manually tweaked settings as the conditions changed, but I planned on these values ahead of time for totality based on a bit of experimentation the day before and recommendations from the internet. Luckily I wrote them down, because with 2nd contact rapidly approaching I was already losing it over watching the tiny sliver in the telescope break into individual Bailey's beads and then disappear. With 30 seconds until totality or so I hurriedly punched in the settings, pulled off the filter, and pressed start (telling it to cycle through those exposures repeatedly until I stopped it) and looked up just in time to see the spectacular diamond ring, more clearly than I could have ever expected, more clearly than anything I was able to capture photographically (due to not controlling which exposure it was taking at the exact second needed), and I swear more clearly than I've seen in almost any other photo either. Unbelievable.

Outer corona during totality

Shorter exposure showing the inner corona and three pink prominences (at 11:30, 1, and 3).

And just that fast, it was gone, and we plunged into darkness. Venus showed up like a spotlight, and sunset colors spanned all 360 degrees of the horizon. People cheered; Matt played Pink Floyd's "Eclipse", which at 2 minutes and 1 second, almost had to have been specifically written for this time and place... I was completely taken aback by the naked eye sight overhead, but Matt had the sense to look through the telescope and exclaimed about the bright pink prominences. I took a look, and did a double take, and then a triple take, and now that image is permanently seared in my memory. I obviously can't stop myself from continuing to fail to describe it, so one more try: it's not just more beautiful than you expect, it's not just surprisingly moving, it's like staring straight at something you know in your core you're not supposed to be allowed to see, something that may have dire consequences, but that you most certainly can't look away from. And again, I have no idea why. Is it the strongly conditioned hesitancy about looking straight at the sun through a telescope? Is it the hole in the fabric in the universe that looks like a tunnel to the afterlife? Is it simply too alien to process with existing neural connections? Perhaps all of the above would begin to come close to explaining the adrenaline rush it caused. I wish I could at least share a picture, but nothing I can find online matches that view.

Even faster than it began, it ended. A neighbor set off fireworks; skydivers landed at the airport across the street; I flipped the filter back on the telescope as fast as possible with some dubious bits of scotch tape that Matt sensibly reinforced and watched the second set of Bailey's beads form and merge into a larger crescent, and when I looked up ten seconds later it was once again hot and brilliantly sunny, even with only a few percent of the sun uncovered. As soon as the moon fell behind the sun on the tail end we hit the road, which turned into an Oregon crossing at an average of 12 miles per hour. And it was worth every single second.

See you in Oklahoma in 2024.

Any photoshop experts want to help me make a better exposure stack than this one...?

Friday, August 11, 2017

MTurk tips

2 easy hacks to make MTurk/Web/Qualtrics data collection/management easier:

1. isn't actually a hack, just a recommendation to send users to an experiment that is either hosted on your own server or goes through your own server as a landing page (before redirecting to qualtrics or whatever). This serves a couple of purposes. You have complete control and complete records of absolutely every interaction anyone has with the website. You can see the IP and entry point and time of everyone who loads the site, you can record exactly when and where they click, you can manage random assignment to treatment groups yourself in a way that keeps samples balanced or meets any other constraint you have, you can see how many people open the survey and decide not to do it, etc. I also send users back to my server (with an automatic redirect from qualtrics) so I can mark them off as having completed the study.

2. is a hack assuming you do #1: make sure your server keeps all access logs from a long enough time span that at the end of the study you can keep a full record of all interaction. I cannot tell you how many times this data has been useful to have. With the timestamps and IPs I can tell when someone in the lab changed computers because he entered the wrong url and got an error on his first computer, I can tell you who used their phone, who restarted, who finished but just didn't click "submit" at the end, etc etc etc. There are always a few mystery people in the data who didn't do things the right way or had technical issues and I've always been able to track down what happened this way.

3. is a hack assuming you do #1 and #2 in combination with using qualtrics (or any similar third-party platform). Instead of hosting photos or other imported media on the third-party platform, host them on your own server and load them via url on the other platform. Every access of this kind will show up in the access logs, giving you better timing information and IP tracking than those platforms will usually tell you. Even qualtrics, which is phenomenal and and will give you timing information for every page of every survey, only records the time of the first and last click, but if the page is loaded and immediately exited you won't be able to tell, and if something is clicked that opens a sub-question and then closed to avoid the sub-question you won't be able to tell, and if someone fails a verification check and has to re-do a page you can't tell, and so on and so forth. You can make hacks of this kind arbitrarily fancy with custom code.

Friday, July 14, 2017

great leaders

The clearest benefits of Trump's election, from my perspective, are: 1) Matt wants to stay here and get Australian citizenship, and 2) my esteemed prime minister doesn't seem like such a blowhard by comparison.

Or, at least he's much funnier about it? More like W? (Oh watch me wax nostalgic for the days of W...)
Asked by reporters how legislation would prevent users simply moving to encryption software not controlled by tech companies, Turnbull said Australian law overrode the laws of mathematics. 
“The laws of Australia prevail in Australia, I can assure you of that. The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only laws that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”
Matt says "The good news is, if we can pass a bill repealing Shannon's theorem, we can finally get decent internet speed." 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Sokal v.2017

I am crying simultaneously from laughter and sadness.

I can't even pick a favorite quote:
  • After completing the paper, we read it carefully to ensure it didn’t say anything meaningful, and as neither one of us could determine what it is actually about, we deemed it a success.
  • We cited and quoted from the Postmodern Generator liberally; this includes nonsense quotations incorporated in the body of the paper and citing five different “papers” generated in the course of a few minutes.
  • Five references to fake papers in journals that don’t exist is astonishing on its own, but it’s incredible given that the original paper we submitted had only sixteen references total (it has twenty now, after a reviewer asked for more examples).
  • Another cites the fictitious researcher “S. Q. Scameron,” whose invented name appears in the body of the paper several times.
  • For example, one reviewer graded our thesis statement “sound” and praised it thusly, “It capturs [sic] the issue of hypermasculinity through a multi-dimensional and nonlinear process”.
  • The other reviewer marked the thesis, along with the entire paper, “outstanding”
    in every applicable category.
  • [W]e suspected that gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil. On the evidence, our suspicion was justified.
My only objection is calling this "social science". Don't give real social science a bad name by associating it with crap that is entirely unhinged from the scientific method.

Monday, May 15, 2017


On Ethics and Economics, by Amartya Sen: I'd be curious how he would update these arguments after seeing the last 30 years of behavioral economics. Most of his argument is based on a far too narrow notion of what can constitute "utility".

The Brain, by David Eagleman: Entertaining book companion to the equally entertaining documentary miniseries. Lots of interesting phenomena but frustratingly lacking in deep/detailed explanations. Very pop-sci.

Why Nations Fail, by Daren Acemoglu: Very impressively thorough, but the ratio of facts to ideas is about a thousand times too high for my personal taste. Highly recommended to history nerds. In terms of ideas, my main complaint is that he dismisses culture too quickly. Culture and institutions are inextricably linked but not trivially and not constantly and that interaction should have been discussed. This is even more true in modern, politically-inclusive societies in which culture drives institutions more than anything else and more than the other way around.

Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha: Hoo boy. I'm gonna have to write a separate blog post about this one and Sex at Dusk.

Sex at Dusk, by Lynn Saxon*: A response to Sex at Dawn. In case I don't get around to writing that separate blog post, this is the most satisfying slam-dunk takedown of not only irresponsible but intentionally misleading pseudoscience that I've ever read. There is no shortage of pseudoscience masquerading as legitimate research out there, but most of the time the response from credible scientists is to laugh/sigh it off and get on with work, because responding would be both Sisyphean and Pyrrhic. Given the cult status Sex at Dawn has attained (I've lost count of the number of times I've heard it casually referenced as proof that humans are naturally polyamorous), thank goodness Lynn didn't leave it alone.

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas: The first quarter of the book would have sufficed; after that the amateur navel-gazing got more tiring than it was worth. But it was nonetheless interesting.

Economics Rules, by Dani Rodrik: I'm not sure who this book was written for. Non-economists wouldn't be interested and economists don't need to hear it. To the extent it could be valuable to professionals, it would be much moreso as a concrete and detailed JEP paper (for example; or something similar). Anyway, as far as the content goes it was pretty much fine; while I don't agree with some of what he says within microeconomics, I can't argue about macro. But, I will say that if you don't want to think of economic models as special cases of some hypothetical grand unifying model, but you do want people to apply specific models more carefully and according to some objective principles, those objective principles sound like a key part of a unifying model to me.

Guys can be cat ladies too, by Michael Showalter: I'm waiting for the sequel, "How to turn your reluctant guy into a cat lady".


* For some reason I might infer was nefarious if I were the type to do that, I can't find this book by searching within amazon. What the heck....? But the amazon link is the first hit with google...

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

norms and immigration

One more immigration post and I promise I'll get off this topic for awhile.

I forgot to explicitly say another thing about the cultural effects of immigration that I'm not particularly concerned about: that immigrants will bring foreign social norms with them that are inferior to existing American norms, and our society will succumb to the bad effects of those norms. This is probably closer to what most people are referring to when they object to immigration on cultural grounds*.

It's true that detrimental norms could come into play in the whole gamut of societal contexts: academic cheating, bribery, corruption, nepotism, vigilantism, trust, respect for the rule of law**, etc etc etc. So it's hard to confidently assert that that there is no risk in any area, or to confidently say at what point exactly we should start to worry, but I'm pretty sure we're not remotely close to a concerning margin yet.

The reason is that stable norms are equilibria in the repeated game of life. Of the five types of norms I've previously listed, category 4 (decision heuristics that aren't just chosen individually but are promoted as a society and thus take on some quality of a norm, such as not hitchhiking, eating breakfast, not drinking alone) and category 5 (arbitrary signals and traditions like wearing ties) are victimless when broken and thus already handled by various arguments here. Category 1 norms are coordination norms that are easily self-enforced, like driving on the right side of the street. I trust it's obvious why we don't need to be worried about immigrants undermining these norms. But Category 2 and 3 norms, which are group cooperation norms that facilitate the common good, are also self-enforcing, just not quite as easily as bare coordination norms (because some external enforcement is necessary). And so for the exact same reason, I'm not terribly worried about their survival.

These norms are self-enforcing through social sanctions and, sometimes, the law itself. An isolated individual may easily be able to casually shoplift but he couldn't promote a norm of acceptability of casual shoplifting because anyone more integrated in the culture would gasp in horror at the thought, tell him to quit, and/or distance themselves from him. A critical mass of likeminded immigrants would have to simultaneously push for this new norm, and that's incredibly unlikely. If you don't believe me, I dare you to try: a lot of what development economists do is try to promote new norms and it is not easy. Add on top of that the fact that immigrants are an outgroup that Americans are even more resistant to taking cues from, that immigrants' offspring will be raised in the American context, and that new immigrants themselves will be strongly motivated to adopt American norms in order to fit in and succeed in their new home, and cultural assimilation in terms of cooperative norms seems all but certain.

Hence my narrow focus previously on cultural effects in terms of people's preferences over the types of communities they live in, rather than these more fundamental aspects of culture that are much less fragile.


* Although, I suspect the true desire is more often to preserve your culturally familiar and homogeneous community, but claiming a morally higher ground position that your community's norms are superior and should be protected is a convenient way to argue. Motivated reasoning is powerful (and usually subconscious - I'm not accusing anyone of lying, but of subconsciously being more likely to come up with and believe arguments that favor their underlying motives).

** This one can, in my opinion, be taken too far: Australians are downright comically respectful of the letter of the law. My favorite example is when Matt and I, a couple South Africans, a couple Europeans, and some Australians were hanging out and our plan to find a quiet pub to keep chatting at was thwarted by holiday crowds, so Matt suggested we pick up some beers at a bottle-o and take them to the park. Non-australians, in unison: "Great!" Australians, in unison: "*gasp* but... but that's illegal!" This took me by surprise when I moved here since Australia is supposed to have a kind of rugged outback culture reminiscent of American frontier culture, with its independent live-and-let-live, keep-the-government-off-my-back mentality, but the big cities at least seem to have very little of that hanging on.

Sunday, April 30, 2017


What's the strongest argument against immigration? A commenter on my last post asked this and it's a good question.

We should restrict immigration to protect the American* worker? Does that mean we should also restrict invention to protect the American worker? Of course not - in neither case is it reasonable to prevent society at large from advancing to protect a small number whose jobs have been replaced by more efficient means of production. The overall gain is even more than enough to compensate the minority who has suffered from progress - the economy is not a zero-sum game.

We should restrict immigration to protect the American taxpayer? The fact this argument has any traction is the number one biggest downside to the welfare state. Victimless "crimes" often indirectly victimize taxpayers when the welfare state is on the hook for individuals' mistakes, and this provides much too easy of a justification to regulate individual choice, especially choices that are unpopular. Smoking causes cancer, and medicare pays for cancer treatment, so let's ban smoking. Immigrants might want to use social services, so don't let them in. Who cares where these things rank on the list of government expenditures, it provides an argument for someone who wants one. There are obvious ways around this dilemma (e.g. don't allow immigrants access to government benefits) so I don't think this is a strong argument at all.

Immigrants might be criminals and terrorists so we shouldn't let them in? I don't think anyone is arguing for open borders for al Qaeda, and existing checks already ensure that crime rates among immigrants are lower than the native population. Want more assurance? Strengthen the checks or conditions or something then. Next...

Immigrants might take over politics and vote out cherished American freedoms? I also care deeply about these cherished American freedoms and am extremely concerned by their erosion under post-911 security paranoia. But I have confidence in the U.S. constitution to withstand attacks on the rights that are clearly laid out in it** in the unbelievably unlikely scenario that hundreds of millions of immigrants decide to move to a country built on core values they disagree with. I am far more concerned with the betrayal of American values that preventing immigrants from pursuing their American dreams entails.

Immigrants will fundamentally change American culture? That might be true, and this is what I consider the strongest argument against immigration. I still don't think it's a very strong argument, but the strongest. (By the way, it's annoyingly and obtusely dismissive of Bryan for this "culture matters" argument to leave him speechless. It's not only common but the overwhelmingly dominant situation that a fact is known without all of its implications being realized. It's completely understandable to think about abstract aspects of immigration and conclude that it should be unrestricted for economic reasons, and then to finally realize that this policy would have other side-effects as well, one of which is changing culture, and to change your mind about immigration on those grounds. It perhaps means your original position wasn't too thoroughly considered, but let's face it, most people's opinions about most issues aren't very thoroughly considered. If you update your opinions only when new information arrives and you instantaneously consider all possible implications of this new information, good on you, but the rest of us are human.)

So why is this the strongest argument for immigration and why am I still not persuaded by it?

Thoroughly going into this would take me down a rabbit hole of utilitarian philosophy and I would emerge still wishy washy, so let's just start from the premise (that most would not find controversial in the first place) that people find value from living in communities that are compatible with their preferences and values. So of course people wouldn't want their towns overrun by foreigners with customs they can't relate to. I can empathize with that - I won't even give you a sermon about the value in learning from other cultures and how we're stronger together and how the only moral thing to do is to welcome those who are less fortunate than you into your community. I honestly think the Amish are heroes for forming exactly the community they want, in the midst of a hostile external world, without attempting to force anyone else to conform to their ideals. Scandinavia obviously derives benefits from being very homogeneous, and more power to them (although I would never move there myself.) It would be convenient not to believe in the utility of cohesive communities, but denying the truth would only make me feel less cognitive dissonance at the expense of my credibility.***

But that single legitimate tick in the con column of the immigration pro-con list is completely dominated by the ticks in the pro column. America and Australia are already strongly multi-cultural, but every diverse type of community can be found - you aren't forced to interact if you don't want to. There are Chinatowns you could mistake for China, neighborhoods where you can't avoid being woken up by the Muslim calls to prayer on those godawful tinny loudspeakers placed every few blocks, and suburbs where every house is occupied by WASPs. You can form your own reclusive Amish community if you want, and you don't have to hold the rest of the world hostage with your anti-immigration policies to do so. And if you can't find enough like-minded people to choose to exclude foreigners in your sub-community, surely you don't think your personal preference for homogeneity should trump everyone else's preferences to integrate?

What I think people are really afraid of when they say they don't want their culture to be overrun by foreigners is that they don't want to lose their special status as the majority (race/religion/whatever). I get that, but stating it that way makes it obvious how indefensible it is. The country was built on protecting minority groups from majority tyranny, so as long as you don't erode that foundation too successfully you'll be fine when/if the tables turn.


* I'm writing this about the U.S. specifically because I'm American but it applies equally to Australia (I am completely sure) and most of the rest of the world (I am less sure but still very confident) as well.

** Privacy is unfortunately not one of them, hence the post-911 security paranoia.

*** Ahem, libertarian climate change deniers, please take note...

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

1,470 economists on immigration

From the Open Letter from 1,470 Economists on Immigration, published last week:
We view the benefits of immigration as myriad: 
• Immigration brings entrepreneurs who start new businesses that hire American workers. 
• Immigration brings young workers who help offset the large-scale retirement of baby boomers. 
• Immigration brings diverse skill sets that keep our workforce flexible, help companies grow, and increase the productivity of American workers. 
• Immigrants are far more likely to work in innovative, job-creating fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math that create life-improving products and drive economic growth.
This is one political letter I had absolutely zero hesitations about signing.

On the heels of Trump's action against the H1-B visa program, and Turnbull's (not to be outdone) actions against the similar Australian 457 visa program, this is all the more important.

This simultaneity of anti-immigrant sentiment cropping up around the world puts a sheen of surreal hilarity on the whole issue, though. H1-B made it easier for Matt's bosses to work in California, and 457 made it easier for Matt and me to work in Australia, yet both sides somehow think that limiting immigration gives them the best of both worlds just because the other side of the mutually-beneficial trade isn't salient.*

This is also why I crack up every time I buy "Australian grown!" produce.


* Of course there are plenty of immigrants coming from places no one wants to go, but gains from trade arise in other ways than strict body swapping (not to mention the long list of other reasons to support freer immigration).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

I worry this is also happening to Australia

Cute study finding that emigrants from Scandinavia in the latter half of the 19th century were disproportionately individualistic, thus (speculatively) leaving behind a more homogeneous population amenable to Scandinavian-style social democracy.

I worry this will also happen in Australia. There are a multitude of factors preventing Australia from being as innovative as the U.S., from tax laws and regulations that discourage venture capital, startups, and small businesses more generally, to a culture that is a bit more skeptical than celebratory of the crazy people who might actually want to do a startup. But not least on this list is brain drain, in which the best university students are encouraged to go to the U.S. for graduate school and innovative engineers move to Silicon Valley if at all possible.

Anecdotes prove nothing but are memorable, so: In an ironic demonstration of this pattern, my boyfriend Matt is an American aerospace engineer who is now working for his fourth Silicon Valley startup but who had the bad luck of getting attached to someone in a much more global job market who dragged him to Brisbane. He continues to work remotely for these firms* because there are only half a dozen locations in the world where he could work for the type of company he wants to work for (he is admittedly very picky)**. But his boss at Planet was an Australian who defected to the U.S. to work in aerospace but still won the 2014 "Advance Global Australian of the Year" award. Matt left that company a year ago and now has yet another Australian boss based in California at Swift Navigation.

Unfortunately, every sensible city in the world wants to promote innovation and entrepreneurialism in the hopes of becoming Silicon Valley 2.0, and they haven't yet succeeded, so I certainly don't have the answer either. I would think that medicare and a stronger welfare system would encourage startups in Australia (because leaving your regular job is comparatively low risk) but that's obviously not enough. It's great that Australia is so open to immigrants, so hopefully that will prevent Scandinavian homogenization. In the meantime, the U.S. would be well-advised to guard this comparative advantage by embracing the immigrants who want to come put their noncomplacent energy and talent to work.

* Note to students: study STEM so you will also have a skill set that gives you this kind of leverage.

** Anyone in Denver/Boulder hiring behavioral economists? :)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

internet privacy

Matt and I are doing a small workshop on internet privacy this weekend, which I've been meaning to blog about previously, so that seems like a good excuse.

The idea that we should be ok with broad-stroke internet surveillance as long as we have nothing to hide is one of the most ridiculous ideas that I hear propagated by large numbers of reasonable people. Legend* credits Bruce Schneier with the best way of putting it:
Guy defending surveillance: "Why should I care about internet surveillance? I have nothing to hide!"
Bruce Schneier: "What's your wife's favorite position?"
But if that isn't obvious:
  1. Privacy is a core value enshrined in the constitution**, for self-evident reasons. I don't want to live in a glass house and I don't want anyone reading over my shoulder for the 12 hours a day I spend on my computer, not because I'm a criminal or a terrorist but because privacy is a valuable thing in and of itself. 
  2. We don't live in an ideal world where laws and black and white and perfectly enforced. Just as you should never make any statement to police even if you are completely innocent, you should expect any information collected about you will be used against you in whatever distorted form is necessary as soon as it's convenient for anyone who has access to it. This is not paranoia. Elaborating with examples*** would lead me down a day-long rabbithole so you can look them up yourself if you're skeptical; you won't have to search long. 
  3. You should care for altruistic reasons. Right now usage of tor is small enough that its mere usage legally gives the U.S. (and other) governments reason enough to surveil increase their surveillance of you. There are millions of people in the world who do have something to hide for very good reasons, and normalizing the usage of anonymizing and/or encrypting technology makes it easier for them to do so.
  4. Even if you are an exhibitionist who wants to live in a glass house and broadcast your internet browsing activity in Times Square, surely you don't think this should be required. Especially without consent or notification that it's happening. Rights atrophy if not exercised and the right to privacy is being actively attacked, so stand up for it.
So with that said, here are some tools you should ALL be using****:
  1. Signal: This is a drop-in replacement for your text messaging app that works exactly like your normal text messaging app. But, if the person you're texting is also using signal, your communication will be private (encrypted and authenticated). You can also use the chrome extension to talk to your signal contacts from your computer.
  2. Privacy Badger: A browser extension that prevents websites (mostly advertisers) from tracking your browsing activity. If (or should I say when) you've been creeped out by websites like facebook knowing about something you were reading about on a completely different site, it's because they are tracking you and storing your data without your permission. Privacy badger forces them to stop. You can easily view and change detailed settings.
  3. HTTPS everywhere: A browser extension that forces websites to use secure (authenticated and encrypted) communication protocols whenever possible.
  4. Syncthing: A replacement for dropbox with encrypted file sharing. Data stored by dropbox is unencrypted and therefore vulnerable to misuse or theft. Syncthing is a replacement for dropbox that encrypts and authenticates all file transfers. Files are sent directly from one computer to another and are not stored by any third party, so 1) both computers need to be online at the same time for file transfer to be completed, and 2) there is no limit on how much data you can share! It's easy to use and also allows you to customize how each device saves backup versions of files.
  5. Tor browser: A web browser that disguises the source of internet activity by sending it through a random network of computer around the world. This prevents website from knowing who you are and it prevents your ISP from monitoring what you are looking at. Browsing is slowed down, but I try to at least use it for casual web surfing (see 3 above).
You can read more at or


* I can't find a source; let me know if you have one.

** Unfortunately not well enough to be robust to modern technology...

*** I thought this was a particularly hard-hitting one, though.

**** And here is the flyer Matt and I made to hand out. It is in the public domain so please use it however you like. You can email me for the svg files.

Monday, February 27, 2017

behavioral economics in the news

Or at least in the newspaper.

More accurately: Having five cats allows you to have cat companionship about two-thirds of the time*. Corollary: More than five cats are necessary to maximize your cat companionship potential :)

Actually, does this all-too-common statistical error even have a name? Surely the psychologists have named it.

Hat tip to my mom. (Obviously - who else would email me newspaper clippings of terrible cat jokes?)


* Assuming cats' desire for companionship is independently distributed, which isn't true but innocuous enough as these things go...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

biggest unanswered question

I'd like to hear people's answers from other fields and from a variety of economic subfields as well. Go, mysterious meme powers...

My answer for economics generally and behavioral economics specifically is exactly Tyler's: "culture".

To try to be slightly more specific: I basically see cultures as collections of norms and methods of norm enforcement.  There are various types of norms (but note that particular norms do not often fall clearly into exactly one bucket):

  1. Coordination norms, like which side of the street to drive on, are fairly well understood both in origin and enforcement (i.e. self-enforcing).
  2. Social enforcement of norms that provide public goods (e.g. littering) is getting to be fairly well understood. But which public goods are provided by norms and how this comes to be is utterly mysterious and of utmost importance. There are lots of pieces of the puzzle identified but not put together at all.
  3. Norms for division of goods (splitting the pie) is a sort of subcase of #2 but it's a weird area of study because these are some of the simplest and most universal norms yet the theories (e.g. Binmore's) of them are some of the most complex. It's really really interesting, but almost overkill.
  4. There are also many norms that are better described as heuristics for dealing with uncertainty and limited information (don't pick up hitchhikers; eat breakfast), and I don't think the selection and enforcement of these norms is at all well understood, nor given serious attention. I'm sure most are written off as individual heuristics, but the degree of social enforcement and arbitariness suggest to me something more is going on that just judgmentally inferring bad things about other people from their stupid decisions. I could be wrong. At the very least, the individual motivations for adhering to these norms are closely related to individual motivations for adhering to cooperative norms, so the literatures are intertwined.
  5. Lastly there are norms that are completely arbitrary, don't fit in any of the above categories, and exist solely for signaling value, like wearing ties to weddings. These are not very mysterious, in the same way that sexually selected traits are arbitrary but evolutionarily well understood.
In summary I'd say the most important and mysterious unanswered question of economics is the point from #2: which cooperative norms are chosen to be enforced and how does this come about?

Saturday, December 24, 2016


Before signing off of the internet for the last time in 2016...

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard: Crazy stories from the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole, in which the pole party made it there one month after the Norwegian team beat them and then all perished on the return. And that isn't even the worst journey in the world referred to in the title...

The Economics of Rights, Cooperation and Welfare by Robert Sugden: Good, but outdated now.

The Commitment, by Dan Savage: Funny followup to The Kid but not as interesting.

The Kid, by Dan Savage: Both funny and interesting tale of gay open adoption.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson: You can't not love Bill Bryson, and these make me homesick for small-town America. I can't tell how much of my enjoyment of these essays is due to being written from the perspective of an expat returning from another commonwealth country but the humor definitely transcends it.

In the interest of time I've been watching lots of Antarctica-relevant documentaries rather than reading the books... Highly recommend Around Cape Horn, Life in the Freezer, Antarctica: A Year on the Ice, Welcome to Union Glacier, Encounters at the End of the World, Race for the Pole, and The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Of course March of the Penguins is also great, and Operation High Jump is dated in a hilarious American military/cold war/exploration manner that will almost make you forget what an asshole Admiral Byrd was.

See you in 2017!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I knew this must exist somewhere!!

I am so happy right now. Linguaphiles, musicophiles, cartophiles, geographiles, politiphiles, and surely many others will love this: (If it doesn't work, try a different browser).

Unfortunately lots of the African stations are unresponsive but I'm quite satisfied with Nigeria's Beat 97.9 for the time being.

Friday, December 16, 2016

price inequality

I can't believe I haven't done this before, but I finally went to a really nice concert at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, a gorgeous 160 year old theater* that reminded me eerily of certain great European tiered-style theaters like the Berlin Staatsoper. We heard a lovely solo piano program of Beethoven, Scriabin, Chopin, Mozart, and Schumann. The best part: it was $3.

This is an instance of a very convenient phenomenon in Chile (and many other non-Euraustramerican countries) in which great economic inequality is matched by great price inequality. Of course prices are correlated with quality for the most part (although my daily $1.50 fresh chicken fajita bought from the street vendors outside PUC is much, much tastier than a $6 Starbucks sandwich) or at least search costs (I tried several very underwhelming hamburguesas before finding the delicious fajitas) it means that cheapskates price sensitive people like me can get by on dramatically less money than average Chilean upperclassman. It's my penny pinching paradise.**

Nonetheless I was surprised this also applies at a fancy concerthall. My 12 year old self already experienced the thrill of a partial view ballet (at the aforementioned Berlin Staatsoper) in which graceful swans leapt into oblivion and then reappeared in midair after a suspense-filled indeterminate delay, so now that I'm an adult with a good income I would certainly be willing to spring for floor seats in such a situation. But for a piano recital, why on earth would I pay $60 for the privilege of seeing the guy's head swaying above the piano lid?

Peacocking is such a waste of money...

Obviously nothing can compare to the cultural scene of New York or Berlin or London or other such cities, but after this experience I might be even more aggressive about seeking out live music opportunities outside of those places than in them. The bang for your buck is just incredible.

Actually, this goes back to what I've said before about the merits of small university towns. You may expect a town of 38,000 people isolated in the Oklahoma plain to be the cultural middle of nowhere, but because Stillwater is a university town there were more free or nearly-free concerts than any normal person wants to go to. I certainly never would have had so much classical music exposure growing up in a big expensive city.


* Unoriginally, great composers and playwrights' names were inscribed over the ground floor entryways, and also unoriginally, Beethoven took the honored center aisle position. I don't care how unoriginal, deference to Beethoven*** will always put me on your side.

** Q: Who invented copper wiring? A: Two dutchmen on either side of a penny. (HT to my uncles).

*** or emacs

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

free normative lunches

Lots of social norms are arbitrary (kiss or shake hands) and lots are obvious encouragement to contribute to public goods (don't double park) and there's no great, comprehensive model of which norms should arise in a given society, but any model I would consider credible would predict that if public good is free to contribute to, a norm will dictate that you should.

Apparently I would be wrong.

Speaking in generalities (as always), Chileans are ... not the most polite. Not like the Italians, who seem to be impolite even by their own definitions, but definitely impolite by German or even American definitions. The most obvious difference is that the concept of proactively getting out of the way doesn't exist. If you say permiso, they'll always move (albeit grudgingly if it's a crowded subway), but walking down the sidewalk is like an endless chicken series; I always lose and weave through so I have no idea how right of way is negotiated usually... a bit like bumper cars, I can only imagine.

The obvious explanation would be that conscientiousness of this sort is not zero cost and Chile is simply in the noncooperative equilibrium. It seems more efficient to choose the everyone-habitually-cooperates-and-socially-punishes-noncooperation-to-maintain-the-equilibrium equilibrium, but inefficient norms abound so that's not a mystery.

But in some situations I just can't imagine that the cost isn't zero! In one instance (only the most clearcut, but a thousand subtle variations prove it wasn't a singular bitchy woman) someone was standing squarely in the middle of a doorway, and I walked up to her and stopped right in front of her, obviously wanting to go through. There was nowhere else for me to go, no one else around, and although she was talking to her friend down the hill, she looked right at me and still didn't scoot six inches to the side so I could pass. This was shortly after I arrived in Chile for my first longish stay*, so I was too confused to gather enough wits to string any Spanish together, so I ljust ooked over my shoulders and turned in a circle trying to figure out what was going on, but nope, nothing. Luckly she left on her own volition around then and spared me further embarrassment.

If this is a phenomenon, it's strange that I can't think of other examples of this (although most costless cooperative actions at least require paying attention, like merging to the right when not passing). So which is it? 1) I'm culturally blind to other zero-cost public goods that aren't provided and the true model of norm selection needs to explain these, or 2) I'm culturally blind to hidden cost of taking a step to the left?

* I'm currently in Chile for two months visiting my wonderful coauthor Rosario Macera at PUC Santiago.

Friday, October 7, 2016

a reminder to assume good intentions

I was happily ignoring American politics in my happy Australian bubble, but then made the mistake of coming back to visit the bay area a month before the election, and was forcibly exposed to more than I wanted to be. So now I have to blog at least once about it.

But at least not directly about it. Instead I just want to remind everyone of Hanlon's Optimistic Razor. Never attribute to malice what can be explained with misguided good intentions, or different but still good intentions, or ignorance. No matter how true you think it is (or how demonstrably true it is!), dismissing a disagreement with bafflement at the other side's stupidity and/or insanity and/or malice is counterproductive, not just unproductive.

Maybe instead of calling people racists directly descended from the Hitler tradition, we could try understanding the concerns that lead to calls for wall-building. Maybe saying "Like you, I care about the wellbeing of Americans who are struggling to find work and feel their communities fracturing. And like you, I care about the American public and economy. I think it's better for the overall economy and certainly more humane for immigrants not to build a wall, but I don't want to leave you behind either, so tell me, what are your concerns and what can we do to ensure you remain free to build/maintain the kind of community you want to live in?" might put people less on the heel-digging defensive than "You backwards idiots should read a book and come talk to me when you agree with me. Or build a wall around Mississippi and go banish yourselves there."

Maybe instead of calling people raving misogynistic racist lunatics, we could try to interpret people in a way that provides more benefit of a doubt instead of calling out anyone who hasn't got the hang of the secret elite PC code. (At which point the "offenders" band together in defensive resentment against those who jumped to such malicious conclusions so quickly.*) I'll comfortably label someone a racist who says "I hate all Arabs" but my first reaction to "All lives matter!" is more like "You're right, all lives matter and maybe sloganizing a huge issue meant that some important content was lost. It's not that only black lives matter, or that police are only awful to black people, but it seems like they have to put up with a lot more abuse so focusing on this clearly unjust disparity is a useful approach to reigning in the police state. If we're successful, this will hopefully have great spillovers for everyone else as well. Do you still object to that goal?" And then listen to the answer. It astound and depresses me that an issue like the out-of-control police state, which small-government conservatives should be absolutely irate about, was so badly bungled into a highly partisan issue instead of a common ground to build from, just by highly ineffective rhetoric and dismissiveness of the Other Side.

I assume the hellfire will die down after the election when everyone remembers we have things like checks and balances that will prevent the world from ending no matter the outcome.** But in the meantime, if you honestly want to persuade people, it's not going to help to start from the assumption that they're stupid and evil.


* People ask why the popularity of Trump, and that's my confident answer. Well, combined with the fact that said dismissive liberal elite is in power and dominates the national conversation; otherwise they would simply be reciprocally dismissed.

** I'd rather not put them to an extreme test, especially given the fractures in the balance of powers that have emerged in the foreign policy arena since 9-11 or even earlier, but they're there.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

behavioral genes are preprogrammed heuristics

I've been thinking more and more about the whys of prosociality. The "identify/model a behavioral consistency" game[1] hasn't entirely played out, but its size has reached punchline proportions, so the whats seem rapidly less interesting than the whys to me personally.

"Why" leads to evolutionary and rational irrationality explanations[2]. Evolutionary explanations say there is some fitness advantage to having a particular type of social preference written into our genes. Rational irrationality[3] explanations say there is a reason to act prosocially given the contextual details and constraints of the game of life. I have a fetish for rational irrationality models, but these sort of beg the evolutionary questions because these models are mostly meant in an as-if sense. I don't consciously calculate the exact type of information to seek or the optimal heuristics to use, so what evolutionary pressures existed that led me to act like I do?

So, now I'm interested in evolution, which I know nothing about from a sociobiological standpoint and very little from the evolutionary economic standpoint, but I'm learning. And from this ignorant starting point, I'm thinking about why we evolved prosocial genes. Hopefully in a few months I will be able to identify most of the wrong or stupid steps in the train of thought I'm going to spell out next.

Prosocial norms/behavior/preferences are useful because we can overcome coordination problems with them. We're all better off if we cooperate but once everyone cooperates each individual wants to freeride. We maintain cooperation through punishment, a la folk theorems. But for this to work in a group the punishment must be cheap (which I don't think is a problem; social exclusion is pretty much free to the punishers and very harmful to the punishee) and accurate monitoring. The accurate monitoring is a much bigger problem. There might be a lot wrong or oversimplified in this paragraph because I still don't know very much about the anti folk theorem literature (another thing I'm learning about currently).

So, how to overcome the anti folk theorems? The first impulse might be to claim group selection, but there are problems with that that the evolutionary biologists/psychologists have thoroughly documented (I dare you to suggest it off-hand in a seminar with those folks in the audience!) that I think I finally understand and agree with[4]. Instead, I suspect imperfect monitoring isn't a fatal problem if the punishment is free/beneficial to the punisher and very bad for the punishee. Which is plausibly true in the setting of human evolution: I can get away with privately gorging on my hunted rabbits or gathered blueberries for awhile, but if I'm caught or if enough suspicion builds up against me, I'm ejected from the group, and then I'm really in trouble. From another group member's perspective, they want to eject me from the group because I'm free-riding, and they want to continue cooperating with the rest of the group because it's still the equilibrium that's being enforced, so by definition they want to perpetuate it. Punishment is therefore neither altruistic nor a coordination problem in itself.

But if cooperation is once again a self-enforcing Nash equilibrium, why don't individuals simply choose to cooperate when it's rational and stop behaving prosocially in contexts in which it's no longer the equilibrium? I'm not going to rehash the evidence here, but people clearly have prosocial impulses even when there is no selfish incentive to. It's worked its way into our genes. But how? A gene telling you to do what you already want to do may drift in but will just as easily drift out.

Individuals aren't perfectly smart, though. We learn what works over time and with experimentation. Someone with a mutant gene that tells them to cooperate will never learn their lesson the hard way. Someone without this mutant gene is likely to try cheating a little bit, notice they've gotten away with it, and continue cheating until they get caught and pay the price.

So prosocial genes are just preprogrammed heuristics. They help us avoid very costly mistakes and they lead to minor "mistakes" when we, for example, share with strangers in double-blind dictator games. And it makes perfect sense that social image would be such a strong motivation relative to e.g. pure and impure altruism, because a gene that prevents you from being caught as a cheat is more useful than one that tells you to be more concerned about others than yourself.

That's enough hand-waving for today. I'm sure the parts that aren't wrong are also not new, so suggestions as to where credit belong and what to read that's related are very welcome.


[1] in which I am, yes, a player. And yes I intentionally said "behavioral consistency" rather than "bias".

[2] I suppose there might be a third possible level of ingrainedness, in which we learn or are taught or habituate (perhaps intentionally) prosociality to such a deep degree that it's hard to override even in situations in which it's clearly not beneficial. This would act like a genetically programmed motivation, but would not need to have been evolutionarily advantageous in the setting in which human genes evolved (i.e. hunter gatherer society, so I am told by various evolutionary social scientists who are not actually biologists or geneticists so I don't know how much stake to put in that story). But does this kind of subconscious-level learning even exist? Any biologists out there?

[3] I wrote this phrase and immediately disliked it because it uses "rational" first in the economic, utility maximizing sense, and then in a more colloquial, bad-by-some-external-judgment-of-bad decision making sense. Then I thought someone must have used this phrase before and found Bryan Caplan's usage, which is almost but not exactly what I mean by it. Despite both of these counts against the phrasing, I'm too stupidly amused by the oxymoronity not to use it anyway. It's the simple things in life, ok?

[4] It's not actually that complicated, I just didn't make a point of learning about it until relatively recently. The stupidly obvious point that I was missing is that genes:individuals::individuals:groups is an invalid analogy because a single mutation in a gene is all it takes for a mutant individual to form, while a single mutant individual is not enough to create a mutant group.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

obesity statistics

I've heard a lot of Australians say that Australia has higher rates of overweightness and/or obesity than the U.S. I've been quite skeptical of this, because, well, take a walk around Oklahoma sometime and you'll see why. I finally looked it up and it is indeed definitely not true.

Summary: As of 2009-2012 in the U.S., 68.7% of adults were overweight, and 35.3% were obese. As of 2011-2012, 63% of Australian adults were overweight, and 28% were obese.

I'm not saying the truth is any less scary, and Australia and U.S. are indeed duking it out ahead of most of the rest of the world, but rest assured, we're still Mississippi to your Texas.

*Because it costs at least $15 to eat at McDonald's, I mean Maccas, for one thing.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

first seven jobs

I'm such a sucker for list memes.

1. Selling headbands made out of woven loops of colorful nylon for 50 cents at school. Unfortunately I was such a goody two shoes prior to teenagerhood I actually asked the school counselor if I could do it, and of course they made me stop. (Way to go corrupting harmless little kids with lessons about asking forgiveness later, Stillwater Middle School :)

2. Paper delivery. This was like hitting the jackpot since it was the only job I could legally do at age 13; correspondingly, it paid about a third of (1999 Oklahoma) minimum wage. (Way to go, nanny state!) I did it for 17 months until I had enough money to buy my first telescope, a Meade 10 inch equatorial Newtonian that I still use.

3. Sporadic babysitting, which I hated, but making $10 in one day was a rare opportunity not to be turned down. I think it was evident how much I hated it though, because the only family who called me more than once was the one with the kids who were such hellions no one else would take them... I also tried to sell my lawnmowing skills but never had any takers, for reasons that still elude me.

[Two year hiatus while I went to a boarding school and summer science programs.]

4. Research assistant at the Jet Propulsion Lab. This was my third astronomy RA job but the first one that was paid, the summer before college. I got to analyze some photos of the most distant non-quasar galaxies known at the time and attended the talk that made me decide to double major in economics, never to return to astronomy research.

5. Research assistant in the Caltech department of economics during the three summers between college years. Caltech is awesome for having such a ridiculously high faculty to student ratio, so RA jobs are everywhere, and OSSM and RSI were awesome for teaching me programming, linux, and LaTeX, so that I actually had some skills that were in demand. That's my advice to any smart high schooler who wants to get involved in science: learn programming fundamentals and get confident at figuring out computer-related details in new situations independently. It's not hard, gets easier with experience, and should be a basic part of education, but it isn't yet so grab the low-hanging fruit.

6. Assistant trader at Susquehanna International Group, a private hedge fund. I would have preferred babysitting, but at least I got to live in NYC for a year. And make a bigger pile of money than my 21 year old brain could imagine spending. I went back to grad school to make approximately minimum wage for six years and then get hired for less pay than I made straight out of undergrad, and it was totally worth it. Don't sell your life satisfaction.

7. Research assistant in the Berkeley department of economics, first three years of grad school. As in #5, computer literacy paid off, but of course as soon as I was able to do independent research rather than being a code monkey, that was the more important thing to focus on. Actually the computer literacy paid off even more in that phase...

I guess the only legally recognized jobs I've ever had have been in research (defacto true on Wall Street); I had phenomenally good luck with stumbling into great opportunities...

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Certified Random

Yay! I love it. For obvious reasons.

Explanation for non-economists: Economics has a very unusual tradition of listing authors in alphabetical order by last name, which is nice in the sense that it obviates squabbling, but is not nice in the sense that authors with last names from the end of the alphabet end up being forgotten or lost in the "et al." or are less willing to coauthor in the first place. This has been shown to be significant. The paper above suggests randomizing author ordering and putting an ® symbol at the end of the list to indicate that order was randomized.

The paper points out the excellent feature of this trend which is that it can invade the current norm in a decentralized way, and doesn't even have to take over as the norm to be helpful. It preserves nonsquabbling and other nice attributes of alphabetical ordering but spreads the benefits around. What the authors don't mention, though, is that the decision to use random ordering may itself be a source of squabbling or at least tension. Aaron Aaronson has no incentive to suggest it, while Zach Zeno might not want to suggest it for fear of seeming petty. We'll see what happens.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


I have major catchup to do on book reviews, and am surely forgetting some.

Natural Justice, by Ken Binmore: I actually read a draft of this book in 2005 when Ken was visiting Caltech and taught a class on it, but I've forgotten 90% of what I learned in college and 100% of that class, other than that I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was thrilled when my reading group picked it. It's one of the most thought-provoking and deliciously idea-dense books I've read in a long time and I say this despite the fact is it horrifically badly organized (not badly written, per se - I loved most sentences but then had no idea what they added up to...) I planned to read the two-volume treatise that it is a condensation of in order to get a better handle on what the actual theory is, but Robert Sugden's review pans the original version for being miserably organized/written and expresses hope that the condensation will clear things up, so I guess I'm out of luck either way. We'll see; fingers crossed since I'm now working on project pretty directly related to his theory. As best as I can tell it is written in reverse order (half a book of justification for approaches that will only be revealed later), so maybe the second time through will make more sense.

Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms, by Vernon Smith: Unnecessarily long and dense, but hey, Ken Binmore makes him look like a literary master. Very interesting, needless to say. I loved his memoir but found this one merely good without it taking up residence in my subconscious, in part I think because I'm the choir.

Feeling Smart, by Eyal Winter: Fluffy.

On Democracy, by Robert Dahl: Oh boy I could rant about this one at length. Maybe I'll do a separate blog post on it.

Evolution and Rationality: Decisions, Co-operation and Strategic Behaviour, edited by Ken Binmore and Samir Okasha: This was the first book I read (most of) with the interdisciplinary reading group that has become a reliable weekly highlight. It, and readings since, have definitely changed how I think about behavioral economics, spending much more thought on the evolutionary context in which behavior arises. I therefore recommend it highly.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov does it again. I've only read three of his books but I can't even express how great each of them was, in completely different ways, although with the common denominator of the most amazing prose and character development I've ever encountered. This was definitely the strangest; it opens with a poem taking up a quarter of the book, which put me off of it for years (my eyes glaze over and reading comprehension plummets to an elementary school level at the first sign of lyricism) but Matt eventually persuaded me, and boy was he right. Go read now.

Museums and Women, by John Updike: Picked up this short story collection on the communal bookshelf of Barry's "eco-lodge" on Atauro Island, East Timor, when Matt and I were there on vacation prior to my teaching a class at the ministry of finance (unlikely things happen when you can't say no to travel opportunities). It was great and definitely reminded me why I loved John Updike when I first read The Same Door, but man that guy was obsessed with infidelity.

Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, by Robert Kurzban: I saw a fantastic seminar by Robert when he visited UQ and had a thoroughly enjoyable dinner with him and a couple other behavioral economists and psychologists afterwards, so I read his book, which was a little underwhelming comparatively. I think I'm not the audience he is arguing with, and by the time he backs down from the polemic, I can't quite tell how literally to take him anymore. I'm sure there is some degree to which I disagree. He aggressively argues that brains are composed of modules, rather than having coherent preferences. Modularity is certainly and obviously true, but it doesn't mean you have to model reasoning as a bunch of independent modules running around! We have executive function (which he seems to deny exists, and I admit I may be using the term incorrectly by psychologists' standards) to integrate modular function, perhaps subconsciously, and ultimately choice tells you which module(s) have won out in a given situation, which he seems to ignore. Models that treat the brain as weighing competing incentives (the definition of choice...) therefore work well even if biologically "competing incentives" are represented by "different modules".

Hiroshima, by John Hersey: An extended essay, really, from the August 1946 New Yorker. Seeing the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima was extremely powerful, and two years later, I finished reading this before even making the conscious decision to start. Intense stuff.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, by Walter Mosley: During those couple of weeks in East Timor I also crashed an ex-pat book club, which had read this. Relatively entertaining. Writing in accents annoys me, although I don't know what better alternative there is.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion: Couldn't put it down.

This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin: This would probably be great for someone who isn't already quite educated about the mechanics/physics of music.

Surviving Maggie, by John Fingleton: This was a good story, engrossing despite not being great writing, based in Brisbane. It was recommended to me by a colleague when I first arrived here but took forever to read just because I couldn't get a kindle version. It's always fun to read books based in a location you're familiar with so I'd recommend it to Brisbanites but probably not others.

What Women Want, by Daniel Bergner: If Dan Savage says everyone needs to read a book, I believe him. It was good but not as illuminating as I'd hoped, perhaps because I'm a woman so what it's like to be a woman is kind of old news, and also because the scientific questions I'm really curious about simply don't have answers yet (stunningly).

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson: Not as entertaining as his travel stories but it's definitely the most entertaining history of science I'm aware of. Most of it was old news to me, given how much science and history of science I read as a kid, but the parts and anecdotes that weren't made it very enjoyable.