Thursday, December 20, 2018

Kahneman and approaches to social science

This conversation with Daniel Kahneman is so great.

First of all, I love that he persistently pushes back against the notion that everything vaguely "behavioral" is a "bias". It's a terrible misconception of behavioral economics that we study the myriad ways in which people make bad decisions. Nonstandard preferences are not biases and many "biases" are sensible heuristics and error management strategies in disguise.
COWEN: Well, sports. You’re consuming bias, right? You don’t actually think your team is better.
KAHNEMAN: No, but you identify. There are emotions over which you have very little control. It’s a fact that you feel pride when your team wins. In fact, you feel pride if a stranger who lives on your street gets a prize. That tendency to identify with what’s around us, and with things that we are connected to, is very powerful. We derive a lot of emotion from it. I wouldn’t call that a bias because you can call any emotion a bias.
COWEN: If you think of the literature on what are called cognitive disabilities — ADHD — do you think of that as bias or somehow in a different logical category? Or . . . ?
KAHNEMAN: I don’t think it’s a bias, no. I think it’s an attention deficit. It means that people have difficulty controlling their attention, focusing on what they want to focus on, and staying focused. That’s neither bias nor noise.
COWEN: If you think about the issue of, when people think about the world, they find some kind of transactions repugnant. Sometimes they just don’t like to sell what they have. Other times, they seem to object to markets, say, in kidneys or kidney transplants. Do you view that as bias? Or where does that come from?
KAHNEMAN: In the sense that this is a norm, and there are things that we’re trained or socialized to find disgusting, to find repugnant. So there are repugnant transactions. And you have to treat them as you treat every other moral feeling. We have lots of moral feelings, things that we find unacceptable without any ability to really explain why they are unacceptable. There is such a thing as moral emotion. There is such a thing as indignation, as moral disgust. And that’s what we’re talking about here.
COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?
KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.
Secondly, I love Kahneman's unwillingness to speculate / unwillingness to engage in ex post rationalization. E.g.
COWEN: But the idea of attention-switching costs — so Israeli bus drivers, it takes time for them to switch attention from one event to another. Is that not an underlying micro foundation of your, say, 1980s papers on bias?
COWEN: That people aren’t switching their attention to the new problem?
KAHNEMAN: It’s not. We didn’t think of it. That really happens a great deal, and quite often, it happens in a different way. It happens when somebody’s insulted because you didn’t cite him. He looks at your work, and he says, “That’s just the same as what I’ve said before.” And in some way, it may be true. There may be some resemblance. It may be true, and yet you were completely uninfluenced by that. And it’s the same thing. I was uninfluenced by my earlier work, I think.
COWEN: Do you think of those in functionalist terms? Some people might argue, “Well, Israelis, they have a tendency to speak directly because they’ve had a lot of crisis situations, where you can’t beat around the bush. You need to say what you think.” Or we don’t know?
KAHNEMAN: I don’t like those kinds of explanations. They look facile to me.
COWEN: Do you have thoughts on the potential cognitive advantages of bilingualism or trilingualism?
KAHNEMAN: It’s an empirical matter. It’s not a matter of thinking. And I don’t know enough. It appears to be advantageous, but I don’t know the literature.
This approach, in contrast with a more freely speculative approach, reminds me of another issue I've thought a bit about. There's kind of a divide in behavioral economics (and economics more generally, but I'm going to write what I know best...) between what you might call the Matthew Rabin camp and the Ariel Rubinstein camp. The former says that economic theory is a slave to empirical results; regarding the evaluation of theories their motto would be Kahneman's great line "It's an empirical matter. It's not a matter of thinking." The latter says that economic theory consists of informative fables, regardless of empirics.

In my heart, I'm on team Rubinstein. I love math because it's beautiful and abstract and I honestly couldn't care less if it has anything to do with the world; I love economic theory because it's beautiful and clear and it teaches important lessons regardless of how it performs empirically in a particular situation. And in discussions like this one I'm more like a Camille Paglia (whose interview I also love), wildly theorizing from intuition and experience*, not because I think that's a valid way to go about producing knowledge but because it's at least a valid way to hypothesize and more importantly it's fun**.

But cognitively, as a scientist, I have to be on team Rabin. No matter how aesthetically pleasing a theory is, it doesn't mean anything if it isn't empirically useful. You can't think your way to the truth, even in the social sciences, and in these fields where it is so tempting to proceed on intuition, it's all the more important to insist on a rigorous scientific method.


* I realize there's more going on than wild speculation in the humanities, and that's what a lot of Paglia's theorizing is based on, but I can't tell the difference. The point is, don't take this characterization as a criticism of Paglia; I'm quite a fan, actually.

** Case in point: there's probably not a solid connection between interview style and scientific approach, but that isn't stopping me from analogizing freely.

Monday, December 17, 2018

beliefs-based altruism

I wrote a thing about my research for The Conversation, which is a great news outlet where the stories are written by academics and researchers.

The most entertaining thing about it is that the comments so far all call me out for screwing up my translation from American to Australian. I got halfway there - I translated "girl scouts" to "girl guides" (I even consulted with an Australian friend!) but I accidentally left "biscuits" as "cookies".

Whoops, my citizenship will never get approved now :)

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.