Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘human nature’ Category

Productivity Notes to Past-Me

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I’m not the most productive academic out there, but my improvement from the start of graduate school 9 years ago is huge. I used to chronically procrastinate, saving problem sets and studying for the last minute and so not spending enough time on them to do well. I spent most of graduate school stressed about how I should be working more and worrying about failing out (which I almost did 3 times).

Now I’m able to publish several papers per year while teaching 3 classes and chasing a toddler, all with much less stress and anxiety. What happened?

Honestly, part of it is likely just a few more years of brain development together with a kind of work that I find more enjoyable. But think another part is the discovery of some tricks that would have been helpful all along.

1. The idea that you should be working 80 hour weeks is actually harmful. 30-40 hours is plenty if it is quality time. Rather than thinking you should be working all the time and feeling bad when you don’t, set specific realistic goals (solve these problems, or write this section, or work for 3 hours) and be happy when you accomplish them and ready for more the next day, setting up a virtuous circle. The classic “work smart, not hard” advice applies.

2. A lot of “working smart” is finding ways to avoid or minimize non-crucial work. You want to have clear medium-term goals (like pass this class, or get this paper to a journal) and figure what the most important proximate step is to accomplish it. This sounds obvious but it is amazing how much work does not proceed in this manner. For coursework, the most important proximate step is usually doing problem sets; if you are spending your time doing something else like reading the notes/textbook this should be because you think it is actually the best way to solve a specific problem. Reading blogs is definitely not work.

Right now, I have a paper I want to get published. If that’s going to happen, it must be submitted to a journal; for that to happen, I absolutely need to update the background/theory section to indicate how I expect the variable of interest to affect the dependent variables. There are all kind of other things I could do that I could call “working on the paper”, like reading more of the literature or running more regressions. Doing those things might improve the paper 10% but only the background/theory section is going to bump it from unpublishable-at-a-legitimate-journal to publishable, so that’s what I’m going to start with (and possibly, end with; I have other things to get to).

3. Related to this, the Pareto Principle is everywhere- there are just so, so many situations where putting in 20% of the effort gets you 80% of the way there. A big part of what “working smart” means is to figure out what that 20% is and always do it, and do it first; then to figure out what is the 80% of the work that gets the last 20% and do it second or possibly not at all.

4. This is probably a good time to talk about exercise. You think you are “too busy”, but you’re wrong. For one, in the long-run exercise up to at least 1hr/day is a free lunch because it puts you in a mental state that improves your productivity that much (the same thing applies to 8hrs/night of sleep). And yes, you should be thinking about the long-run and not just the next deadline; there is always a next deadline and you’ll be at this for a lifetime. Also, the Pareto principle goes even further with exercise than it does with most of the rest of life. You don’t bother lifting weights because you imagine you need to spend 1hr/day in the gym to make a difference, but actually 0.5hrs/WEEK is enough to make huge improvements if you’re doing it right and consistently.

5. You’re reading a lot less than you used to, with non-fiction books going almost to zero, because it feels like reading is using the same mental muscles that work/school does. I’m reading more non-fiction than ever, largely because I’m not reading but listening (audiobooks). You have this vague prejudice against them, thinking that you don’t absorb the material as well this way. This might actually be true, but think Pareto- better to absorb 80% of all the books I’m listening to than 100% of the zero books you are reading. Lots of free audiobooks at the library, now downloadable to your phone. E-books on the phone also provide a higher quality of distraction than e.g. social media.

6. I know you want to hear about software, since that seems like the easiest thing to change, and in some way’s you’re right. The combination of Google Calendar and Workflowy has made me much less likely to totally forget about things while also reducing stress somewhat (I’m not worrying about what I’m forgetting to do). The challenge is to remember to enter events and deadlines into the calendar as soon as you hear about them, and to remember to check it every day for what’s happening; this is hard at first but soon becomes second nature. The same applies for to-do lists in Workflowy, which is also a great way to take notes or keep things like paper ideas (I now have 11k words worth of paper ideas stored in there; coming up with ideas might sound hard now but once you start reading the recent literature and going to conferences you’ll get plenty). Workflowy is free to use, but charges $5/month for a pro version, which you’ll only need if you actually find it super useful. Which makes this a good time to talk about money…

7. You’re super-cheap, which isn’t a bad thing generally but is pretty dumb when it comes to anything likely to enhance productivity. Think what better productivity means for your expected lifetime income and happiness. Anything that could detectably improve it is likely to be quite valuable, whether that is software or coffee or books or proper climate control. Think- if it were logistically and ethically possible to buy outputs like higher grades or more papers, wouldn’t your willingness to be huge? Now, there are all these inputs that are easily and ethically available that will probabilistically raise those outputs, so shouldn’t your willingness to be be an appreciable fraction of that huge number? Also, if you’re such a fan of Milton Friedman, maybe you could at least 10% act like the Permanent Income Hypothesis is true.

8. Some things just work differently for different people or different types of work. I feel like there has to be a lot you can learn from how Eleanor does what she does, but 2018 me still hasn’t figured that one out.

Overall though, it does get much better, keep at it.

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Network Externalities Can Be Negative

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Economists often explain tech monopolies by reference to (positive) “network externalities”- basically the idea that the more people that use a service, the more valuable it is to each person. So, I want to use Windows not because it has the best features of any operating system in principle, but because most people use it and so lots of programs are made for it, there will be few compatibility issues working with others, et c.

Social media is often said to have the same network externality feature- I want to be on Facebook and Twitter because thats where everyone else is, so I’ll stay there even if some other site has some better features. If everyone else thinks the same way, Facebook and Twitter will maintain durable monopolies.

Network externalities are very important in social media, in that other consumers have a huge influence on how much I enjoy a site. But the externality isn’t always positive; often other users make the experience much worse by saying things that are mean, stupid, or boring, not to mention deliberately trolling.

In a way I’m just saying what’s blindingly obvious to everyone on social media: hell is other people. But I haven’t heard anyone put it this way before, in particular during the recent flurry of conversations about breaking up or regulating “tech monopolies“.

To me this actually seems like a great time to be starting a new, more selective/restrictive/smaller social network (think “the Facebook” starting out only available at Harvard- great filter). In the sea of information that is the modern internet, so much value comes from filtering and curation, and the biggest networks aren’t doing a great job here. Reddit is a great example of both the pitfalls of scale and virtues of being small and well curated- the default front page is a classic reference for what “lowest common denominator” looks like, but the site makes it easy to form small, strongly curated sub-Reddits and many of them are wonderful. It seems like someone figuring out how to implement a new, small Facebook or Twitter competitor would at least have a fighting chance if they can attract the right people and not simply try to grow as quickly as possible.

The Long Tail of Criticism

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One of the many bizarre features of our current political and cultural moment is that every side feels like they’re losing.

One of the generally wonderful features of the internet is the Long Tail– lower costs of search distribution have made it easier to find things that were previously obscure, or didn’t exist at all in mediums like TV, radio, and print publishing that had relatively high fixed costs and strict gatekeepers.

But I’m realizing there is a dark side to this Long Tail feature of the internet- the Long Tail of Criticism. No matter how small or obscure a group is, they have been criticized somewhere on the internet. A group like economists, psychologists, or English professors, who number at most in the low hundreds of thousands, have now been the subject of literally hundreds of critical articles. In politics, people can branch out beyond criticizing Democrats and Republicans to complain about ever-smaller groups like libertarians, Bernie Sanders supporters, “the alt-right”, or fans of whatever public intellectual you don’t like.

Unlike with the classic Long Tail phenomenon where the growth in niche products comes at the expense of mainstream ones, the growth in niche criticism seems to coincide with a near-constant barrage of criticism at large/mainstream groups (genders, races, religions, nationalities, major political parties). Social media seems to ensure that critical pieces reach those they target, if nothing else because members of targeted groups fell the need to denounce them; Twitter is a spectacular engine for making sure people let you know the dumbest or most offensive thing anyone said today so that they can tell you how dumb or offensive it was.

Because people tend to identify more strongly with the smaller groups they are a part of, this Long Tail criticism may be felt more strongly. Sometimes it starts to seem like the internet is bent on attacking the specific groups I identify with, but probably people in every group feel the same way.

I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks “actually, my group is winning and people on the internet love us”. You must be a cat.

Cats heart

Written by James Bailey

May 21, 2018 at 10:05 am

Why I Don’t Post About The Latest Outrage

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Most of all, because when a dozen of my Facebook friends are already posting about the same thing, it would be boring to repeat them.

But I also seriously wonder if making that 13th post might do more harm than good. Not just because it might lead people to hasty over-reactions that do obvious harm. But because talking about problems doesn’t always have therapeutic effects; sometimes it can very directly make things worse.

First, because it can be bad as therapy. Second, because making it seem as if the outrageous behavior in question is common makes people more likely to do it– even for the worst crimes. Finally, because making it seem as though more people are victims facing an unjust world they can’t do anything about removes their internal locus of control, leading to all manner of worse outcomes.

Near my house, there is a billboard that keeps a running count of how many transgender people have been murdered this year. I assume it was put there by some well-meaning group that sees raising awareness as a necessary first step to reducing the number of murders. But suppose there was a group whose goal was to make transgender people live in fear, scare others away from transitioning, and encourage more copycat murders- wouldn’t they want to put up the exact same billboard?

Next time you see some story that makes you angry, think before sharing it with everyone else. If it makes you feel better to post it, then I suppose you might as well, but please don’t post merely out of a misguided sense that you are necessarily making the world a better place by doing so.

Written by James Bailey

October 2, 2016 at 11:59 am

Stop Feeding the Trolls

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So many of the problems of this decade could be fixed by people learning not to feed the trolls.
Most obviously, internet comment sections would only be half as terrible as they are now.
Donald Trump wouldn’t have got the nomination without the huge amount of free airtime from news channels covering his latest outrageous statement.

Growing political polarization is partly due to how the straw man / weak man fallacy is amplified by trolls. Many actual news stories are about the outrageous thing some random Twitter egg on the other side said.
Terrorism would be cut in half if shooting a bunch of innocent people weren’t the quickest way to get famous.
….
I just wish there were an easy way to fix this without censorship. The necessary culture change sounds incredibly difficult, but I hope that with time we will learn how to adapt to social media and 24 hour news.

For a start, I plan to never do terrorists’ jobs for them by sharing stories of their terror. I encourage my friends to do likewise.

Written by James Bailey

July 22, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Thoughts on Crime and Punishment

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  • Is Raskolnikov the least likeable protagonist of all time?
  • Great illustrations of what real poverty is like
    • Regular hunger, only one set of clothes (rags), turning to theft and prostitution
    • But not all sympathetic portrayal; one man drinks himself into poverty. Raskolnikov simply does nothing all day rather than work. Disdains going into business but then turns to murder.
    • Murder is hard to cover up when you are that poor! Have roommates, can’t afford a weapon and so must steal it, can’t throw away bloody clothes because they are your only set
  • Interesting half-parallel between Marmaladov and Raskolnikov. They both spend a lot of time wallowing in self-pity over their own weakness. M’s weakness is drinking away all his money while his kids go hungry. R’s “weakness” is having a conscience that tells him murder is wrong.
  • I’m not above being continually amused by funny Russian names
  • TVtropes seems surprisingly good at identifying the themes of this great work. (Attention conservation warning: TVtropes link)
  • Dostoevsky understood tobacco way earlier than medicine did!
    • “AH THESE cigarettes!” Porfiry Petrovitch ejaculated at last, having lighted one. “They are pernicious, positively pernicious, and yet I can’t give them up! I cough, I begin to have tickling in my throat and a difficulty in breathing. You know I am a coward, I went lately to Dr. B__n; he always gives at least half an hour to each patient. He positively laughed looking at me; he sounded me: ‘Tobacco’s bad for you,’ he said, ‘your lungs are affected.’ But how am I to give it up? What is there to take its place? I don’t drink, that’s the mischief, he-he-he, that I don’t. Everything is relative, Rodion Romanovitch, everything is relative!”
  • The book is interesting and readable, lots of subtlety but while reading it wasn’t clear to me why this is considered one of the all-time greats
    • This may be because it is hard to appreciate how original things were in their own time when they have since been heavily imitated. A bit of research seems to back this up
    • Many characters seem overly dramatic/histrionic
      • This may have been because Dostoevsky had a pretty dramatic personal life- spared execution at the last second thanks to a letter from the tsar; has his first seizure upon learning of the death of his father
    • I assumed throughout the whole book that Raskolnikov was a satire of Nietzsche’s ideas about ubermensch; then afterward I realize the book was published in 1866 and Nietzsche’s first publication was in 1870.

Written by James Bailey

January 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool…

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“The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” ― Frédéric Bastiat

Though Bastiat wrote in the 1800’s, this point (like his other main points) still seems woefully under-appreciated today. So often I hear people defending one sort of idea by pointing out the weak character or arguments of the idea’s opponents.

While this itself borders on fallacious reasoning, it seems to be simply how people work. Because of this, we should all consider from time to time whether to best thing we can do to advance our own ideas is to simply stay quiet, at least until we have thought more.

Dostoevsky has a great illustration of this idea through the character of Semyonovitch in Crime and Punishment:

Andrey Semyonovitch was an anæmic, scrofulous little man, with strangely flaxen mutton-chop whiskers of which he was very proud. He was a clerk and had almost always something wrong with his eyes. He was rather soft-hearted, but self-confident and sometimes extremely conceited in speech, which had an absurd effect, incongruous with his little figure. He was one of the lodgers most respected by Amalia Ivanovna, for he did not get drunk and paid regularly for his lodgings. Andrey Semyonovitch really was rather stupid; he attached himself to the cause of progress and “our younger generation” from enthusiasm. He was one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animate abortions, conceited, half-educated coxcombs, who attach themselves to the idea most in fashion only to vulgarise it and who caricature every cause they serve, however sincerely.

Though Lebeziatnikov was so good-natured, he, too, was beginning to dislike Pyotr Petrovitch. This happened on both sides unconsciously. However simple Andrey Semyonovitch might be, he began to see that Pyotr Petrovitch was duping him and secretly despising him, and that “he was not the right sort of man.” He had tried expounding to him the system of Fourier and the Darwinian theory, but of late Pyotr Petrovitch began to listen too sarcastically and even to be rude. The fact was he had begun instinctively to guess that Lebeziatnikov was not merely a commonplace simpleton, but, perhaps, a liar, too, and that he had no connections of any consequence even in his own circle, but had simply picked things up third-hand; and that very likely he did not even know much about his own work of propaganda, for he was in too great a muddle….

Written by James Bailey

January 11, 2016 at 6:30 pm