Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach: So good! Hilarious and fascinating the whole way through. It's about all the aspects of space travel you don't normally think about in detail: nausea, psychology, disorientation, hygiene, food, toilets, showering, sleeping, digesting, relationships, claustrophobia, chimpanzee behaviors, and so on and so forth. I'm always a little skeptical of popular science books written by non-scientists but in this case it's a benefit: she's a great writer and describes things from the perspective of an incredulous, amazed outsider, which is of course how readers see it too.

Tenth of December: Stories, by George Saunders: Obviously he's a great writer, but not my cup of tea. Mostly, he's really a downer.

By the River Piedra I Lay Down and Wept, by Paulo Coelho: This book is as awfully melodramatic as the title. It seriously didn't have a single redeeming quality. I want those three hours of my life back. I only kept reading because it's really short and the ending was alluded to from the start and I wanted to see how they got there. It was meaninglessly anticlimactic.

In particular: When a girl who consciously abandoned religion as a child and consciously takes a cautious approach towards relationships then meets her childhood friend and fall in love overnight and refinds her faith in the next 48 hours after that so she can join this man she effectively just met in his religious path for the rest of their lives, who on earth could take that seriously? It sounds like a story by an 11 year old girl who has just enough sense to at least pay fleeting lipservice to the idea that maybe you shouldn't redefine your whole self in an hour for a boy you've just met.... but not enough sense to realize that anyone who does so is transparently not to be taken seriously when they claim they honestly had a revelation about their life philosophy.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

reference dependent life satisfaction

When I was a kid, I heard people say that college was the best time of their lives and I should look forward to it. I always thought that was a little sad. Seems like an early time to peak.

But now that I can look back on childhood, high school, college, the real world, and grad school, comparing the happiness of my memories of those phases indicates to me that I was misinterpreting what all those people meant by happiness.

I'm about to go to my 10 year high school reunion, so the tiny, very special math and science public boarding school I went to has been on my mind a lot, and I have such great memories of it. I remember being almost ecstatically happy for two whole years there, despite being catastrophically sleep deprived and working very hard, all the time, and having every minute of my day dictated by a draconian staff (seriously, no other school I've ever talked to anyone about, anywhere in the world, had as many crazy and strict rules as this place) that also made several infuriatingly awful decisions that luckily didn't impact me directly. Objectively speaking, I've had a much better quality of life at almost any point since then. So why do I remember it as the happiest time of my life?

Reference dependence. I left home and left my purely-average school system to go live with a bunch of nerds and take tons of really interesting and challenging science and math classes. I got to take three physics classes simultaneously! I had friends I could really relate to for the first time, and lived with my best friend in the world, who I was constantly involved in miscellaneous antics with. The adults around me understood what I wanted from life and how I was getting there and how to help. After six weeks or so, I had a sudden epiphany about what seemed so weird about my new life: no one ever screamed at each other. I got to skip half of those awful teenage years when my parents would have been trying to stop me from having any control over my life. It was amazing.

College was maybe objectively better, and grad school objectively better still, but neither was such an unexpected and huge increase in quality of life as OSSM was. Most people have this experience when they go to college, and they remember it as the best time of their life. I got that a couple years early, so I remember OSSM in that light.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

draft revisions

Does this pattern of optimism about one's academic writing sound familiar to anyone else?

Almost invariably, when I finish a draft or a draft revision of a paper, I think, well that's certainly not perfect, but it'll do for now. Then over time, the longer I let it sit, the more awful I think it is. I can't even believe I could have written certain things in certain ways or left things in that form without being so embarrassed by the awfulness that I wouldn't allow anyone else to look at it.

Then at some point, I go back to do another revision, read through it, and think, huh, that's not actually so bad. Not perfect, things missing, but it at least reads like an intelligent person wrote it.

And the cycle repeats.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

unincentivized surveys

This was obviously written by an economist :) I would have emphasized the final paragraph rather than the first one. Psychologists definitely rely on unincentivized surveys too much, but economists are too distrustful of unincentivized questions, because they don't distinguish between situations in which biased answers are likely from those in which they aren't. It's not always possible or practical to incentivize survey questions, and if you don't have a reason to doubt people's responses, why not accept them at face value for the time being?

Experimental economics started off focusing only on the domains in which incentivization definitely matters, such as market activities. But now behavioral economics is invading psychology, and it's not always so important to incentivize correctness when you're just trying to directly measure thought processes. That is, if you ask someone what they think about an economic activity, they might tell you something that bears little resemblance to their actions when participating in that activity. But you're quite likely to hear something that resembles what they actually think about the activity...

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Nothing makes me so mad as abusive power-tripping law enforcement. (That sentence is redundant, come to think of it...) I can't even get through most news articles about it, because I'm so quickly so angry I can't even react to it, and have to look at some lolcats to prevent the next hour from being destroyed by debilitating fury.

So imagine my surprise when, amidst stories about the NYPD planting evidence and SWAT teams entering the wrong houses without announcing themselves as required and shooting innocent people and pets just for being there and the constant slew of unnecessary force incidents and arrests of people for recording abusive law enforcement incidents (and just the fact that almost every mundane interaction with cops is exploited as an opportunity to play thug!), I read this story that actually makes me optimistic about the situation.

TL;DR: Half of the officers in a police department started wearing tiny cameras that record every interaction with citizens. The total number of complaints against the department dropped by 88% and use of force dropped by 60%.

How soon can this be ubiquitously deployed?

[Stolen from MR.]

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

pareto efficiency

I haven't been reading SMBC for too long, but long enough to be more and more irritated by his intentional spreading of misinformation about economics (I say intentional because he's obviously smart enough to know better; most of his comics are extremely clever and hilarious.)

So rather than taking Matt's suggestion and sending him an email, which he would probably turn into yet another comic making fun of economists for being pedantic and inhuman, I'm just gonna redo the comics...

re-SMBC part 1, 3045: