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?