Monday, November 12, 2018

Rising to expectations

A new working paper says:
We develop and estimate a joint model of the education and teacher-expectation production functions that identifies both the distribution of biases in teacher expectations and the impact of those biases on student outcomes via self-fulfilling prophecies. Our approach leverages a unique feature of a nationally representative dataset: two teachers provided their educational expectations for each student. Identification of causal effects exploits teacher disagreements about the same student, an idea we formalize using lessons from the measurement error literature. We provide novel, arguably causal evidence that teacher expectations affect students' educational attainment: Estimates suggest an elasticity of college completion with respect to teachers' expectations of about 0.12. On average, teachers are overly optimistic about students' ability to complete a four-year college degree. However, the degree of over-optimism of white teachers is significantly larger for white students than for black students. This highlights a nuance that is frequently overlooked in discussions of biased beliefs: less biased (i.e., more accurate) beliefs can be counterproductive if there are positive returns to optimism or if there are socio-demographic gaps in the degree of teachers' optimism; we find evidence of both.
I love this (because it fits my prior so nicely :) I went to a 2-year public math and science boarding school for 11th and 12th grade, and the education I got there was fantastic and clearly ahead of anything else available in the state. Of course many factors made that possible, including the selective admissions process, hiring of teachers with PhDs, having control over our entire daily schedules rather than just classroom hours, etc. But what stood out to me was the high expectations. The history teacher used to say "It's easy to raise expectations; what's difficult is raising performance" but on the contrary, I think raising expectations was the single most important trick OSSM pulled off, and it was able to do so credibly because of its unique position as an alternative school. Anyone who wasn't able to meet those expectations or who didn't like the inevitable slaughter of their GPA was free to go back to their home high school (and many did).

After OSSM I went to Caltech, another school that has no sympathy for those who can't keep up. The 4 year graduation rate at the time was only 77% (compared to 86% for Harvard) and 6 year rate was only 88% (compared to 98% for Harvard). This notoriously cost them the #1 position on the US News and World Report rankings after the weighting function was adjusted to put more emphasis on graduation rates. This practice certainly harms many students who were at the top of their high school classes, would have been at the top of their classes at other great universities, but struggled at Caltech. But on the flip side, this is a necessary consequence of having credibly high expectations, which are in turn critical for motivating educational achievement. I don't expect US News to quantify this nuance, but it's surely recognizeable, no?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


Yesterday Queensland legalized abortion on demand during the first 22 weeks of pregnancy. Obviously I think this is fantastic, but even if you disagree, the less controversial and even more fantastic side of the story is how civilized the democratic process leading up to the vote has been. There are people protesting outside abortion clinics and people distressed by the protestors outside abortion clinics, but no violence or doctors fearing for their lives or shutting down of all abortion clinics in great swaths of the state. How sad is it that, as an American, I expect worse?

This hit me last week when I noticed a billboard near my house saying simply "Should abortion be legalized in Queensland? Take our poll [link]". Implicit in this is the assumption that reasonable people can disagree on the issue, that it's up for debate, and subject to democratic decision-making. I think this has been lost in the American political rhetoric. Certainly on the issue of abortion, and increasingly so in other domains. Instead, both sides believe the other is inhumanly immoral, that the laws of whatever god or ethical code they adhere to don't allow any debate at all, and that any political means are justified in ensuring their side wins.

This is an attitude I associate with dysfunctional and brutal theocracy, not American democracy. A strong belief in democracy is a very effective way to sustain culturally heterogeneous states, as in the U.S., India, Australia and New Zealand, etc, both because it provides a point of common identity that those very different cultures can rally around, and because it directly insists on respect for alternative views. I don't know if moralistic political attitudes are increasing for the same reason that belief in democracy is declining, but I'm worried about both.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Which language has a word for this?

English is lacking an important word; Matt and I have had at least three whole conversations defining this and trying to figure out if there's a word for it and we haven't come up with anything. Help!

What we're trying to capture is the phenomenon where you're living your life, probably traveling but not necessarily, nothing unexpected is happening, but you're suddenly hit by a big picture perspective of what you're seeing/doing and it blows your mind. More specifically, you suddenly realize that long ago you had an abstract notion of the situation you're in, broadly speaking, and now you're actually in that situation, and your previous self never would have imagined it really happening.

This has happened to me countless times since moving to Australia but a few memorable times before then as well. When I was 12 I briefly lived in Germany and we visited the church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses, and although I'd been seeing amazing historical things for months, this one really hit me for some reason as I realized, wow, a year ago I was learning about this place in a history class, and I didn't really think about it beyond as an abstract story about a place that may as well not actually exist. And now here it is, physically in front of me, one stop on a meander during a gap in the train schedule. When I moved to LA for college, the first time I drove through Hollywood and passed the exits for Sunset or Venice or Santa Monica Boulevards, all those Beach Boys songs and thousands of other movies and TV shows etc, suddenly became real. And one day when I was driving along the New Jersey Turnpike back to Brooklyn, I suddenly felt the tangible connection through time to the zeitgeist of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs.

Most often this is triggered by particular landmarks. The first time I walked through Circular Quay in Sydney and saw that image of the opera house and bridge over the harbor that had been on my TV every New Year's Eve of my childhood. Hiroshima, as a whole. The African tropical rainforests. The Great Barrier Reef. Uluru. But it's certainly possible for this feeling to hit you in pretty unremarkable places or places you didn't even know about before as well; in fact sometimes it's even more surprising then. Camping in some random national park I've never heard of and waking up to a field full of wallabies and I'm suddenly struck by the realization that I live in Australia and here I'm am just camping in the bush with a bunch of kangaroos. Watching sunrise from Mount Ramelau with a bunch of monks-in-training who are just as entertained to be there with two white people as we are to be there at all, and I suddenly realize, East Timor?? How did I get here again?

What is it called? What language has a word for it?

Edit: Actually, the pleasure of such experiences is similar to the pleasure of connecting visible reality with abstract, much more complex, understanding of what it is, e.g. celestial mechanics.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

high on life

Around now you can see four planets across the full evening sky. One of my favorite things to do in this situation, especially when the Milky Way is also visible, is to visualize how I'm spinning through the solar system and the galaxy. Kinda like XKCD's habit, but with movement along with orientation.

Having four planets overhead makes this really easy and vivid. You can literally see the layout of the solar system in front of you (or rather, looking backwards :) And with a little bit of prior knowledge about the relative distance of things, you can un-project the celestial map back into three dimensions.

Excuse the kindergarten-level illustrations, and the fact that these are outdated from the time of Mars opposition two months back, but here's what I mean. First, here's the view just after sunset, facing north, on August 1st, from Australia.* The sun is just below the horizon to the left, and Mars is rising to your right**. It's a day past full moon, so the waning moon will be rising shortly.***  Jupiter is almost directly overhead, Venus is above and to the left, and Saturn is above and to the right.

The planets are moving right to left across the sky, and that tells you the first key element of your movement through the solar system: You're spinning on the Earth's axis in the direction of doing a cartwheel to your right (except tilted north/forward a bit, since you're not on the equator). The earth's axis is directly below your feet by a few thousand miles, and parallel to a the line from about the back of your neck to your sternum.

The second key piece comes from the knowledge that, looking down on the solar system from far above the north pole, the Earth spins counterclockwise and also revolves around the Sun counterclockwise. So, right at sunset you're flying around the sun in the direction of your feet if you lean forward enough to compensate for the fact that you're not on the equator.

Now, project outwards a bit, and imagine yourself standing on the globe of the Earth instead of the flat ground. The visibility line shows the horizon. Since you're looking North, this diagram is zoomed way out in a basically southerly directly, so the south pole is a little above the center of the Earth's disk. It would have been much simpler if I'd done this assuming you were standing on the equator, but that's not very practical is it! That means that the "flying around sun" arrow is actually pointing down and a little bit right and a little bit up out of the paper.

Lastly, imagine the relative distance between the planets that you know about. All planets revolve counterclockwise around the sun just like the Earth, so Venus, up to your left, is flying down between you and the Sun and will soon catch up and pass us, putting it in the morning sky. Mars is at opposition, so we're passing it by currently and it's rising into the evening sky over the months. Jupiter and Saturn, similarly, are MUCH farther away, much farther than I could ever indicate in a scale diagram, so they move through the sky relatively slowly. You should be able to picture something like this:****

You can see all the angles between what you're seeing in the sky are the same as in the previous two diagrams, but knowing the relative distances lets you imagine yourself flying through space, waving as you pass Mars and waiting for Mercury and Venus to catch up.

Accounting for the solar system's movement within the galaxy is left to the reader as an exercise.


* For the North American view, you'd have to walk forward in this image about 70 degrees around the globe, thereby putting the arc of planets behind you to the south, instead of directly overhead. The east/west movement doesn't matter because wherever you are on an east-west axis when you go outside after sunset in North American is the same place I'll be in Australia after waiting ~8 hours for the Earth to spin me around to same easterly position.

** This is what Mars opposition means (or any other opposition). On July 31st we were exactly between the Sun and Mars, putting Mars closer to us than it's been since 2001, and correspondingly bigger and brighter in the sky than it's been since 2001. Since we're flying around the Sun about twice as fast as Mars is, in the downward direction designated with the red arrow, now Mars is much higher in the sky at the time of sunset.

*** The moon comes up about 50 minutes later each day, so at full moon it rises at the same time the sun sets, thereby putting us directly between the two and able to see the fully illuminated face. The next day, it comes up a little later and the top edge is in shadow.

**** Yes, planets revolve counterclockwise around the Sun, and I've indicated clockwise orbits. That's because this picture is looking up through the solar system from below (at the south pole) instead of from above.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

An Ode To Free Trade

or, Things That I've Received In Thankfully Nontransparent Tiny Packages From Hong Kong Via Ebay (with Free Shipping!)

10 sawtooth frame hooks (+20 screws) $1.90
1 purple breakaway cat collar, $1.89
1 green breakaway cat collar with engraved tag, $5.99
1 dust brush universal vacuum attachment (as seen on TV) $6.83
1 instant hair bun maker donut, $1.58
10 heavy-duty D-ring frame hooks with screws, $6.99
10 CR2016 batteries, $8.99
10 CR2032 batteries, $7.89
1 77mm UV filter for Nikon cameras, $11.19
8 yards cheese cloth, $3.97
1 citrus press squeezer, $2.19
1 thin hard shell for Nexus 5X phone, $1.93
5 telescoping BBQ roasting skewers, $16.35
3 3-in-1 knife-fork-spoons, $5.58
2 braided micro USB cords, $5.90
1 77mm circular polarizing filter for Nikon cameras, $7.03
1 77mm center pinch lens cap, $3.89
3 2A 2-port USB wall chargers, $16.80
1 red leather coin purse wallet, $5.99
3 77mm neutral density filters for Nikon cameras, $15.59
1 100-LED string of solar powered fairy lights, $15.71
3 50-LED strings of solar powered fairy lights, $34.35
1 1080P HDMI Male to VGA Female adapter, $6.99
2 4K HDMI cables, $15.98
500g pharmaceutical-grade sucralose, $149.87
3 oil filters for Suzuki VL250 Intruder, $28.62
1 large motorcycle cover, $16.89
2 braided USB-C cables, $7.90
1 replacement touch screen LCD for Nexus 5X phone, $67.19
1 silicone dish washing sponge, $3.98
1 pull-up bar for doorways, $14.50
1 personalized engraved pet ID tag, $4.90
20 scopolamine motion sickness ear patches, $29.41
1 mini-DP to HDMI adapter, $4.99
1 Swiss Tech Utili-key multi-tool, $1.87
1 replacement backlit keyboard for Lenovo thinkpad, $39.64
1 tempered glass screen protector for Nexus 5X, $1.00
50 meters heat-resistant double-sided tape, $8.87
4 1600mAh batteries plus charger for GoPro 4, $23.99
1 stainless steel mesh sink strainer, $1.69
10 hair bun spiral claws, $2.29
100g sumac, $6.95
1 large tea infuser ball, $6.00
50 N35 neodymium magnets, $4.90
3 A3 black picture frames, $29.97
20 3M Command small poster strips, $12.98
250g andydrous caffeine, $19.07
1 replacement wrist band with metal buckle for Fitbit Flex, $1.67
100 cinnarizine motion sickness tablets, $30.80
1 pair boot laces, $1.80
1 remote shutter release for Nikon cameras, $19.99
8 mandolin strings, $3.99
1 rocket air duster for camera lenses, $4.47
150 packets of Emergen-C, $30.82
2 aluminum bicycle water bottle holders, $2.38
100 colored push pins, $3.16
4 power cable adapters for Lenovo thinkpads, $6.80


Australia is really expensive, compared to the U.S. But with ebay, given a little bit of patience, I can save ludicrous amounts of money (even more than with Amazon Prime, which I do miss for the things that need to be higher quality than you can count on from Chinese Ebay sellers) and skip the hassle of shopping. I have no idea how sellers are making any money on some of these things. That's the magic of the invisible hand.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Reference-dependent political leanings

Australia has a new Prime Minister. The outgoing right-wing PM left office with a speech highlighting successes of his term, including legalization legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile in Oklahoma, the most recent Democratic governor supported the death penalty, opposed gun control, and implemented the two largest tax cuts in state history.

This is why I don't call myself a "lefty" libertarian*. Context is key :)

*Or a libertarian, for that matter. "Classical liberal" is the term of the week, I hear...

Sunday, July 1, 2018

civility; furthermore respect

I can't possibly agree more with Tyler's recommendations regarding civility. Read the whole thing; it's short!

One highlight I want to comment on, especially for the sake of reiterating the point that civility is tactically smart, is:
[T]he Left is picking more issues that, whatever you think of them, don’t have as much upside with the American public, such as say bathrooms in North Carolina or the abolition of all profit.  The Left is a lot “less cool” than it likes to think, which militates in favor of civility, if for no other than tactical reasons.
After Trump was elected there were gazillions of think pieces on what the left failed to understand about the right. That's all well and good* but looking inward and realizing "you're a lot less cool than you think" would have been more useful.

Tyler's 7th rule of thumb for proper civility is also another reason I'm blogging less** nowadays. Things that are angering disproportionately motivate me to stop what I'm doing and blog now. But I'm generally a really positive and optimistic person and I don't want my blog to be such a skewed representation. And, again, it's not helpful even if it were a true representation.


* so long as you're not doing so in search of reasons to deplore your opposition.
** but perhaps more now that I've set up my favorite RSS feeds to be delivered to my email... we'll see.

Monday, June 18, 2018

loyalty is not black and white

A brief break from actively avoiding politics...

My soul is middle American and my politics are centrist. I can't stand the far left any more than I can stand the far right, and I definitely empathize with the disgust of the far left that led to Trump. I aggressively believe in trying to figure out what good intentions underlie things we disagree with, rather than being quick to attack. I aggressively believe in solidifying the common ground of worthy goals before arguing over how to achieve them. This is easier said than done but it's the standard I strive for.

With that said, I'm at a complete loss as to what good intentions could ever possibly motivate forcibly separating young children from their parents, not even to put the children in more nurturing environments (quite the opposite), but as political bait or threat.*

Thankfully (my faith in humanity is not yet extinguished) this policy has been rightly denounced along the entire political spectrum. Not so thankfully, 7% of Democrats, 28% of Independents, and 55% of Republicans say they support it**

If you are someone who is supporting this practice out of loyalty to leaders you trust, I'm begging you to please rethink your loyalties. I don't think you're evil; I think you're human. Humans of all political stripes rationalize the actions of the leaders and groups they are loyal to, so successfully that things like the Holocaust, the Gulags, and the Cultural Revolution can happen with the sanctioning of the general public. At this point in history, however, we as a species have enough self-awareness to recognize that process in action and course correct in time to avert disaster. But it takes self-reflection on an individual level to succeed.

Jonathan Haidt's research on moral foundations theory has found that conservatives place a much greater emphasis on loyalty than liberals. I'm agnostic as to whether that's a bad or a good thing in general, but in instances like this, it's critical to recognize that loyalty is conflicting with the other pillars of morality. Equally so, it's critical to recognize that loyalty is not all or nothing. It's feasible to fight against a particular policy without abandoning your entire party. It's ok to say "I voted for Trump but I didn't vote for this."

To those on the left, my plea is to graciously accept agreement from conservatives on this issue. Child abuse is something that should be trivial to rally against in unison, and gloating and blaming the other side and conflating an issue with an entire political philosophy is what will prevent that from happening.


* The qualifiers in this statement do not, at all, indicate that I'm ok with everything up to this line. They indicate that I'm confident that at least this is something we can all agree on and progress from.

** Note that the question (#25) asks about the practice of separating children from parents in the process of immediately prosecuting those who attempt to enter the country illegally. However, some children are also being separated from parents who are attempting to legally seek asylum at the border. Presumably, support for this policy would be lower across the board.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

death of (my) blogging

I've obviously nearly quit blogging at this point. That's ok; it's a clear waste of time but one that I got a lot of addiction-like joy from for... most of my life, at this point. I'll still post occasionally I'm sure.

That's the necessary context but beside the point. I'm curious why my blogging addiction petered out, and I can't put my finger on it. I think there's a lot of factors actually, but "for a lot of reasons" isn't a satisfying story and often indicates aimless rationalization (we're by nature amazingly good at coming up with endless plausible hypotheses, and less good at narrowing them down to the truth).

Contributing factors, in no particular order:
  1. Specialization. As I've gotten more specialized in my career, what I read is also more specialized, and what I spend time thinking about is more "cutting edge" for lack of a better word; that is, there simply aren't answers or data available, or sufficiently conclusive, for me to reach some coherent idea that I want to write down. Fluid brainstorming isn't as fun to write down as solid conclusions.
  2. Brainstorming with Matt, however, is very fun, which lowers the relative price of thinking-out-loud versus thinking-with-keyboard. (It's so great having a partner who is also very STEMish, also very INT(P|J), but not specifically an economist.)
  3. I'm less argumentative than I used to be. I've mellowed out generally and simultaneously grown weary of trying to persuade anyone of anything. Good or bad? The way it is.
  4. Photography. At the end of grad school I got a DSLR camera, which was gasoline on the fire of my lifelong love of (very amateur) photography. Taking and developing photos has replaced many of my former free-time activities, especially those that also serve as life record-keeping or creative outlets. Blogging is both.
  5. Facebook. Brief thoughts or links or whatever that I want to record or share more naturally go on facebook now. (Others use twitter for this.)
  6. Death of blogosphere. Blogging has dramatically declined overall; my desire to follow blogs has declined dramatically since only a few don't get stale (MR, Econlog, Kottke, SSC); my skimming-the-newspaper-over-morning-tea attention has drifted from my RSS feed collection to facebook. Following blogs => wanting to blog.
  7. This isn't and has never been a "professional" blog, but it's a fine line, since most of what I write about is naturally related to economics. It's become harder to maintain that division since people I meet at seminars and conferences and such google me and find it. My comfort level with that waxes and wanes.
  8. Relatedly, let's face it, saying anything in public is dangerous lately. I love my job and am not willing to risk it, but I inadvertently do anytime I discuss anything controversial.
  9. Intentional change in time use. It probably all boils down to this. I think of something I want to blog, but work is more pressing. Each instance is trivial, but of course it adds up.
Until next time, whenever that may be.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

I really love Brisbane

I love it here so much.

Friday afternoon I was supposed to go to the hospital for a blood test but got delayed at work. Driving from UQ to South Brisbane at 5:30pm is not something I expected to go well, but apparently my expectations are still partially calibrated on SF/NY/LA data, so it was absolutely no problem. I lane filtered through the one or two blocks of red zone traffic and got there in 15 minutes.

Parking in South Brisbane during the dinner hour? No sweat, free motorcycle parking right by the entrance.

The pathology lab was closed by this point (but how awesome is that, that you can show up with no appointment for a blood test at a giant public hospital and wait about ten minutes total?!), so I followed the after-hours instructions to the emergency department desk. They told me I should go to the emergency department at the private hospital on the next block.

Uh-oh, this is where I get screwed... I've been carefully sticking to Mater Public for absolutely everything related to this freak knee infection debacle, so as to avoid the cluster#@*$ of dealing with multiple medical bureaucracies and getting charged out the wazoo the second I inch away from what I know is covered by medicare, but I guess I have to bite the bullet. I walk over to the gleamingly empty private hospital and try to ignore the impending bills.

They tell me they'll have to page someone to come do the test. Uh-oh, this is where I have to settle in for a four hour wait. Ah well, I didn't have any Friday evening plans anyway. I pull out my laptop and headphones and get psyched for a few hours of uninterrupted work.

Approximately 43 seconds later, my name is called.

Approximately 5 minutes after that, I'm back at the front desk. The ladies look at me quizzically. "Uh, I'm finished with the blood test." [More quizzical looks.] "Is there anything I have to do?" "Oh no, you're all set, have a good weekend!" [Amused looks at the silly American.]


[Previously, after an overnight hospital stay for four rounds of IV antibiotics that cost exactly 0 dollars and 0 cents (plus very high taxes but if this kind of logistical functionality is what you get for the public funding it's worth it ten times over), I was discharged with prescription antibiotics to take at home. Prescriptions are subsidized but not covered by medicare, so I was pretty nervous about getting screwed on that front. In fact, the doctor brought them up and asked me hopefully "Do you have a concession card or anything...? There's an invoice in here but it didn't have any discounts applied." My stomach immediately tied itself up around the expectation of hundreds of dollars of fancy-pants drugs and I didn't even dare look at the invoice until two days later when the fever subsided enough to give me the energy to deal with a new hit of bad news. The total? $27.30.]

I've now spent a total of about 20 minutes in both hospitals, so my bike is still warm when I take it back around the river under all the prettily lit bridges. It's the dead of winter, but with my regular jacket it's still a great evening for riding. Then after a cosy night in with hot cocoa and Bailey's, all weekend it's cloudlessly sunny and 70 degrees. [Recently a colleague from the UK visited UQ for a couple weeks and after four days I said "It's a little grey lately, hopefully it'll clear up for your weekend." He replied "I've been in the UK for twelve years and haven't had four days this nice." I guess my reference point has moved a bit after all.]

Maybe more relevantly, being done with lecturing for the year puts me in a really great mood :)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

RD in neuroscience

Economics is invading nearby sciences (and some not so nearby, judging by the inclusion in the most recent NBER papers of "The Health Effects of Cesarean Delivery for Low-Risk First Births") mostly because the methodology is so good. Econometrics is the field that has thought hardest about causal inference. And now it seems that one econometric technique may also be useful for understanding the learning mechanisms of biological neurons.

Too cool!

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 [see update below]. (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.

Update: The video and its followup are now on youtube.

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...