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.