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  • Reading List, August 2021

    What I’ve been reading and watching lately. A pretty good haul these last few months.

  • Compounding Problems

    You can get by without cash, until the taxman comes calling. And a network of relationships can provide stability within its domain, but leave you fragile elsewhere.

  • Introductions Matter

    An overly-analytical approach to some common business wisdom.

  • Setting Up Matomo

    Nitty-gritty instructions for setting up self-hosted website analytics with Matomo.

  • Vengeance Is Mine

    Violence and masculine trauma and impotence in rural Indonesia.

  • Ashenden

    Gallivanting around Europe during WWI conducting light espionage.

  • Brighton Rock

    Live for simple pleasures and take no shame in lust.

  • This Earth Of Mankind

    The greatest Indonesian novel ever written.

  • Luck And Necessity

    Retrospectively evaluate luck against a full counterfactual.

  • Making Movies

    Being a film director is hard, and has a lot in common with business management.

  • Jigsaw Science

    Jigsaw solving as a microcosm for science.

  • Fixing Brakes

    When I came back to SF I got my bike out of storage. Bicycling is one of my great joys in life, as I describe here.

  • Green Cooling Data

    Just released a new dataset.

  • Clarity Of Vision

    Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it’s hard to attain in any other state.

    Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

  • Bigger Capacities

    This irritates PT Sir. He lies with his head on his thin pillow and wonders why his wife cannot tolerate something exciting that is happening in his life. She is annoyed, he feels, because he didn’t have much of an appetite for the yogurt fish she cooked. She is annoyed because he filled his belly with store-bought biryani. But he is a man! He is a man with bigger capacities than eating the dinner she cooks.

    A Burning, Megha Majumdar

  • Wrong Moves

    I loved Sasha Chapin’s All the Wrong Moves. It’s one of the best novels of incompetence I’ve read. This is the truth about chess: you’re bad at it. Almost everyone is. Even the best player you know is bad at it. Even if you played seriously for a year or two, you’d still be bad at it.

  • Physical Reality

    I’ve written before about abstractions on top of physical reality, and just came across another angle on it: abstractions are a luxury! Necessity forces you to see closer to the underlying reality, or at least to invent new and different abstractions. From Akhil Sharma’s Family Life:

  • Tightening

    When you’re screwing two things together, you could tighten one to the limit, and then start the others, but that’s not the best way to do it. Instead you should screw one in most of the way, then “catch up” all the others, then keep going around making small adjustments until they’re all tight.

  • Waste Heat

    This is a follow up to Propane vs Electric Heaters.

  • Propane vs Electric Heaters

    I’ve become the token environmentalist in my family, and I was recently asked about the impact of buying an outdoor heater.

  • Revision History

    New feature on the blog: every post shows its revision history.

  • Just Work (a sketch)

    Sometimes the name of something comes to you before the thing itself. I’ve had an idea floating around in my head for a few years, an essay titled “Just Work” based on a triple pun. I’ll sketch it out here, hopefully unlocking some energy to actually write it one of these days. Much of this needs more detail but I think it captures the main idea.

  • Caffeine

    Following Gavin’s investigation I decided to run a self-experiment. The goal is to understand caffeine’s effect on my cognition.

  • The Parable of the Gatekeepers

    You grew up in a small town surrounded by a high wall. It’s a peaceful place, full of cooperation and goodwill. The small domestic scuffles get settled quickly.

  • Digital Exhaust Trail

    I’ve previously discussed the practice of “writing long”: producing works of enduring value, in contrast to the temporary and worthless chaff that we default to on the internet.

  • More Than Programming

    Yesterday I talked about how much I like programming, and how tempting it is as a job.

  • Programming

    I struggle with the identity of “programmer”.

  • Recently

    This was a scattered month. All my months since March have been a bit scattered, the world changing quickly around me. Been trying to find the right balance between flexibility and stability, but this month was maybe especially unstable.

  • Two Effects

    Let’s say your favorite coworker quits. This makes you sad, of course. But I think your reaction has two components.

  • Cashing In Favors

    The last few weeks I’ve been back in the Bay Area after ~9 months away. In this time I’ve done a lot of crashing on my friends’ couches or spare rooms. Partly this was about saving money, but I could have found a reasonably-priced sublet much sooner. Why didn’t I?

  • The Unbanking of America

    I saw on Twitter that Ohad recommends Lisa Servon’s The Unbanking of America to new employees at TrueAccord, so I thought I’d check it out.

  • Multivitamins

    Should you take multivitamins daily?

  • Good Websites

    A few months ago I wrote about my desire to write long. I’m going to start putting more “evergreen” content on this site, not date-tagged, but I’ll write a post introducing them.

  • Cultural Capital

    Venture-backed startups are waiting longer and longer to go public. This means that much of their growth is inaccessible to retail investors (regular people buying stocks), and it’s been a common refrain that this dynamic is a major issue of economic equality. Periodically I come across an interesting startup that I believe in, and want to bet on, but I have no way to do it. Actually, there’s one way I can do it: by working there. But this is not an ideal way to invest. It’s hard to diversify, and not everyone has the skills that these companies need.

  • Zuniswap Part 2

    See also: Part 1.

  • Zuniswap Part 1

    Notes as I attempt to understand Zuniswap. It is/will be a “defi” (decentralized finance) protocol built on Ethereum, forked from UniswapV2. I am completely new to this world and am trying to understand what it does.

  • Placebo Effect

  • Testing

    A topic to explore in more depth.

  • Bad Tech

    Our society rests on a layer of computing infrastructure which is increasingly broken, in a variety of ways.

  • Walk Through Walls

    These are all the performance pieces Marina Abramovic mentions in the first 103 pages of her memoir Walk Through Walls.

  • Recently

    Going to try a monthly summary post, in the vein of Tom MacWright’s excellent blog.

  • Generate Predictions

    I have been using predictionbook.com to make and track predictions over the last few weeks. I’m enjoying it! Allegedly, the long-term benefits should be not only better predictions but also better-calibrated predictions. I haven’t seen those benefits yet, but I believe they’re there. For now, I have a daily to-do for creating at least one prediction.

  • Business Glossary Part 1

    As a young man I felt an intense scorn and pity for “business terminology.” Indeed it’s easy to laugh at attempts to “synergize”, to “circle back”, and so on. The english language is full and rich and deep – how could you restrict most of your waking life to only using such an ugly and shallow subset?

  • Conversation Mapping

    For years I have had a yearning to take a high-res video recording of a real, in-person long conversation with some friends, and then analyze it deeply.

  • The Monkey-Wrench Gang

    Probably the second-best book I’ve ever read about ecoterrorism.1 Four people unite out of love for the American Southwest and its rivers, canyons, mesas, and most of all its solitude; they strike back at the American machine. Billboards are burnt, bridges blown up, long hikes through the desert to avoid the cops are taken. They do it out of love, yes, but also out of boredom, general cantankerousness, and a sense of sheer fun.

    1. The other is Richard Powers’ Overstory. 

  • Repetitive Advice

    Sometimes when you ask for help, people keep giving you the same advice.

  • Time Addeth And Perfecteth

    And as for the overmuch credit that hath been given unto authors in sciences, in making them dictators, that their words should stand, and not consuls, to give advice; the damage is infinite that sciences have received thereby, as the principal cause that hath kept them low at a stay without growth or advancement. For hence it hath come, that in arts mechanical the first deviser comes shortest, and time addeth and perfecteth; but in sciences the first author goeth furthest, and time leeseth and corrupteth.

    So we see artillery, sailing, printing, and the like, were grossly managed at the first, and by time accommodated and refined; but contrariwise, the philosophies and sciences of Aristotle, Plato, Democritus, Hippocrates, Euclides, Archimedes, of most vigour at the first, and by time degenerate and imbased: whereof the reason is no other, but that in the former many wits and industries have contributed in one; and in the latter many wits and industries have been spent about the wit of some one, whom many times they have rather depraved than illustrated; for, as water will not ascend higher than the level of the first spring-head from whence it descendeth, so knowledge derived from Aristotle, and exempted from liberty of examination, will not rise again higher than the knowledge of Aristotle. 

    – Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

  • Failure Mode: Serendipity

    The hard way

  • Annotations

    How does knowledge progress? What is our model for how different thinkers relate to each others work?

  • Misplaced Love

    My kids have paws

    – A bumper sticker I saw yesterday.

  • Flossing

    Science corrects itself slowly.

  • Emotional Flooding

    A friend recently introduced me to the idea of “emotional flooding”, which I have found useful. As I currently understand it, it’s the state when you are overwhelmed by some input, eg someone has given you negative feedback or whatever. You can no longer process any new information, you’re just still reacting to that first trigger. It’s related to fight or flight, probably – though maybe not adrenaline. I don’t know how strong is the scientific evidence but it’s useful both to recognize in yourself and in other people – you may need to wait until someone finishes their flooding before you finish a conversation, or just give them space.

  • Durations

    Newton made time absolute, and for centuries afterwards clocks chimed through Europe with precise regularity, one second1 after another, as the clockmakers labored to make time more and more precise, as the historians and geologists and physicists worked to send the evenly spaced timegrid backwards to the dawn of the universe.

    1. 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom, if you must know. 

  • Car Buying

    I recently bought a car. I’ll record my experience here in case I have friends who might find it helpful later.

  • Moral Foresight

    I admire people who were morally “ahead of their time.” For example, being a white American morally against slavery in 1800 was an uncommon and virtuous position.

  • Minesweeper

    I really like puzzles. One great source of puzzles is interview questions for knowledge work. The first kind I was exposed to was consulting-style Fermi questions: how many M&Ms fit on a jumbo jet? But when I got deeper into math and computer science, I discovered that software engineering interview questions were also enjoyable.

  • The System

    When I worked at TrueAccord, we would want to know “what is our system going to do,” or “why did the system do this.” Often the person we asked was our cofounder Nadav1 who had written large parts of the codebase.

    1. Actually we had two cofounders named Nadav Samet, but they weren’t related to each other. 

  • Simulation

    One of the superpowers that you can develop, if you work with data in your life, is to get comfortable with simulation. It’s a major member of my toolbox and I encourage everyone to give it a try.

  • Pop Science, or What's Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell?

    I react with scorn when I see Malcolm Gladwell on someone’s bookshelf, or when his work is recommended to me.

  • Reading Is Eating

    If you read a book, and you don’t remember much, is that time wasted?

  • Medium Iteration

    A theory: if you take the same idea, and keep trying to present it in different media, you’ll end up understanding it better.

  • Replication Manifesto

    Respected academics, practitioners, and a whole ecosystem of grifters have spent the last decade-plus popularizing behavioral science findings and insisting they become part of our personal cognitive toolkit and collective design/policy arsenal.

  • Felt Time

    In English and most Western languages, the future lies ahead. In front of us. Forward. The past is behind us, and when we are running late, we say we have fallen behind. Yet this forward-backward orientation is neither obvious nor universal. Even in English, it seems we can’t agree on what it means to move a meeting back one day. Some people are certain that back means earlier. Others are equally certain that it means later. On Tuesday, Wednesday lies before us, though Tuesday is before Wednesday. Other cultures have different geometries. Aymara speakers, in the Andes, point forward (where they can see) when talking about the past and gesture behind their backs when talking about the future. In other languages, too, yesterday is the day ahead and tomorrow is the day behind.

    Boroditsky and others speak in terms of “ego-moving” versus “time-moving” metaphors. One person may feel the deadline approaching. Another may feel herself approaching the deadline. These may be the same person. You may swim onward, or the river may bear you.

    – James Gleick, Time Travel: A History

  • Causal Absence

    “Mildred, why did your cat die?”

    “Because John didn’t feed it when I was out of town.”

  • Lost Connections

    I just finished Johann Hari’s Lost Connections.

  • Improvement

    I play a lot of online chess, mostly quick games on my phone. Here’s my rating in blitz games1 on lichess over the last year.

    1. Defined here as a game with estimated duration 180s-480s. In blitz, I play almost exclusively 5+0, meaning 5 minutes per side with no additional increment. I also play a fair amount of 2+1

  • Leaky Kitchen Abstractions

    Consider your kitchen knife.

  • Pinkeye

    Quick summary of some googling about pinkeye. (I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice.)

  • How close is too close?

    We have a few cultural ideas that need to be reconciled:

  • Work Playdates

    I love talking to my friends about their jobs. Many of my friends have good jobs, ones that they like and are meaningful parts of their lives. To use Daniel Pink’s triad, they have some measure of autonomy, purpose, and mastery. They solve difficult problems in a variety of domains. I get so much out of talking to them about their work. I can see how thoughtful they are, the interesting problems they’re working on, the creative solutions in situations of constraint. I catch a glimpse of who they are for this large part of their life, see them more fully as themselves.

  • Guess Culture and Ask Culture

    If there is ever an internet writing hall of fame, it must include this classic Metafilter post:

  • See The Rivers

    This is a rant about bridges.

  • Ends In Themselves

    Some things are ends in themselves. There had better be some such things.

    – Agnes Callard, interview with Russ Roberts

  • Write Long?

    Last night I was reading Gavin Leech’s site. In particular I was struck by his page Blogging is dead, long live sites.

  • Loving Humanity

    “Mikhail, humankind isn’t just some abstraction. To love humanity, you must start by loving individual persons, by fulfilling your responsibility to those you love.

    – Cixin Liu, Death’s End

  • Property Testing With Hypothesis

    One of my favorite tools for python development is the Hypothesis package/testing framework. It brings “property testing” to python.

  • A Sense Of Home

    We are four-dimensional beings. We live in the three spatial dimensions, and move through time. This is a basic fact about our existence, on the level of fundamental physics.

  • Cryogenic Prenups

    Parable

  • Accidental Superpower

    I just read Peter Zeihan’s The Accidental Superpower on a friend’s recommendation. It’s a topic I don’t usually think much about, but it has proven an extremely compelling angle from which to think about the world.

  • Produce Opposites

    Many things helplessly produce their own opposites.

    – Perkus Tooth, in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City

  • Daily Spiritual

    A friend recently asked me if I was “spiritual.” I recoiled from that word and had to figure out why. Here’s a rough sketch.

  • Conversation Goals

    All conversations have one or more goals, for both sides. Sometimes that goal is simple enjoyment, or passing the time, or developing neighborly good feeling. But sometimes the purpose is more tangible, which usually involves persuasion.

  • Bad Friends

    Think about a close friend. Maybe not your best friend, but someone pretty high up the list. If you ever needed a place to crash for a night or two, you’d happily call them up and they’d definitely say yes. If they were in trouble you’d go help them. Maybe you’ve been to their wedding, or they came to yours.

  • Infrastructure Tourist

    On his previous, precrash voyages Simon had ferried dozens of architects, designers, journalists, and futurists on the Dymaxion—all the hip infrastructure tourists, ready to pay him thousands so they could see it all firsthand, so they could ooh and aah at the Apollo-project levels of human engineering, so they could be wooed by this moonshot built to fill shopping malls.

    Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan

  • Allow Strangeness

    “Well, I suppose one ought not to employ a magician and then complain that he does not behave like other people,” said Wellington.

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

  • The Story

    For bigger, more consequential decisions, we will adopt a framework based on synthesis, design, metaphor and storytelling, rather than selection among predefined options. So rather than treating college as a “which college should I attend, and what major should I pick?” decision, we will treat it as the creative process of continuously retelling and enacting the most compelling College story you can.

    Venkatesh Rao, Tempo

  • Possessions

    I have spent the last 7 months living out of a 35L backpack. Not literally: I’ve had access to dressers and closets in that time. The places I’ve been staying have been well stocked: beds, sheets, kitchenware, etc. But my possessions, the things I own, either fit in this backpack or have been in a storage unit.

  • Tyranny Of Opinions

    A cynic:

    Human cognition exists, from an evolutionary perspective, to perpetuate our genes. In human societies this is mostly a question of zero-sum status, settled through mainly verbal means. We should model opinions as social acts which exist to raise our status. Usually this will be about allying with the in-group; in some situations having a controversial opinion and sticking to it can itself signal high status. Not having an opinion is just as bad as having the wrong opinion, because if you’re not in the in-group, you’re in the out-group.

  • Scale Vertigo

    A short post today. I spent a while writing a post on the recent SSC controversy but it’s getting long, and I don’t want to spend any more time on it today, so getting this one out quickly.

  • Fundamental Concerns

    In 1806 there are still pockets of magicians all over Britain. They don’t practice magic, but they read books about magic. They study the history of magic. A stranger walks into York’s Society of Magic and poses the question: Why is there no more magic done in England?

  • On Journaling

    It is common advice to keep a journal1. There are a number of benefits:

    1. What I’m doing here is public-facing writing, which is different. So this post is a little navel-gazing but not completely. 

  • Make Lists

    Earlier this year, during lockdown, I watched Halt and Catch Fire, which had been recommended by Jason Kottke and Robin Sloan. It’s a bit uneven, but it captures the excitement of making something new and the frenzy and FOMO of trying to always catch the next thing over the horizon before it gets here.

  • Employer Loyalty

    Anyone can be faithful to an employer; millions are, daily, constantly; it is one of the dullest and most vulgar of loyalties.

    – Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men.

  • Rewarding Pain

    When a child gets hurt, we try to soothe them. We coddle them, give them their favorite treats, and attempt to make them feel better.

  • Trying on new values

    Agnes Callard, Aspiration:

  • Infinite Detail

    Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail feels familiar. (Spoilers ahead.) The storytelling flips back and forth between Before and After, and we close in from both directions on the cataclysm which separates the two periods. Before: corporate and governance surveillance rules the world; privacy activists face harassment at airports; people fall in love online; Black Lives Matter chants are heard on the street; hedge fund traders go to parties; google-glass-like devices are ubiquitous; artists and activists carve out a small urban island to try and build a better world. After: the shops are empty, the goods stop flowing, the supply chain freezes, production is limited to agriculture. The event, we learn, is the mysterious release of a computer virus which knocks out every Internet-connected device on the planet within a week or so. It is not used as a threat, simply released, along with an explanation put on Pastebin.

  • First

    Inspired by David I am attempting to start a daily writing practice.

  • Cognition Is Social

    Oddly enough, this stylized fact bears fruit on several different levels.

  • Stability and Play

    I often think about how heavy my head is. When I let it rest on my hand, or lie down, I feel its weight and think about how much work my neck is doing to keep it upright throughout the day. The neck is, generally, an incredible system which keeps the head stable and allows for fully three-dimensional movement (pitch, roll, yaw) through a fairly wide range.

  • Fear of Criticism

    When I was younger I hated to read any comments that teachers made on my work. It was manageable for math and science, where there was usually a right answer, but for any kind of free-form writing it was absolutely terrifying. When I got an essay back I would quickly look at the grade. If it was good enough, I would skim the written notes, scanning for praise, and trying to ignore as much as possible any ideas for improvements or notes on weaknesses. If it was bad, I would shove it into my backpack and never look at it again.

  • A Taxonomy of Slowness

    You’re on a car camping trip with some friends. After a long night of sitting around the fire and looking at the beautiful stars, the morning light filters into your tent and wakes you up slowly. You’re well-rested and your hair smells like a campfire, and it’s time to make breakfast. You and your friends eat and clean up together. Now it’s time for everyone to break camp and head home. You shove your sleeping bag back into its sack, pack up your tent, and look around in the grass to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

  • Two theories of driving

    Two thoughts from wandering around Phnom Penh by foot, moto and tuktuk.

  • Civilizational Memory and Resilient Knowledge

    [Update: this is a subconscious paraphrase, or at least extension, of Jonathan Blow’s excellent talk Preventing the Collapse of Civilization which I watched a few months ago. Thanks JP for the reminder.]

  • Two Theories of Japanese Culture

    Two favorite theories from Japan and the Shackles of the Past:

  • Where are you from?

    This used to bug me, but the question has some depth.

  • Oh, is that all?

    How did the ancient Egyptians build those giant pyramids? Did they have access to some secret technique that we don’t know about? Well, yes and no.

  • Decentralization

    A very thoughtful recent blog post makes the point that institutions that seem “decentralized” or claim that as a value often exhibit centralizing tendencies over time. Some recommendations:

  • Pluribus Skepticism

    Is Facebook’s new poker AI really the best in the world?

  • Defensive Randomization

    Machine learning is common and its use is growing. As time goes on, most of the options that you face in your life will be chosen by opaque algorithms that are optimizing for corporate profits. For example, the prices you see will be the highest price under which you’ll buy, as based on an enormous amount of data about you and your past decisions.

  • Surveillance Valley

    Just read Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley. There was a lot more new information than I was expecting but also a lot of “guilt by association” arguments and some interpretations I found a bit sketchy. Curious if anyone else has read it and what they thought. The book has two main sections.

  • A Pattern Language

    I’ve been seeing people recommend A Pattern Language (amazon, very large pdf) here and there for a few years now and finally picked it up. I’ve only begun to read it, but it is a truly remarkable work. In particular it draws a thick and complex connection between design and ethics.

  • Police Science

    Very much enjoying Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism.

  • Complex actions need specialized interfaces

    Yesterday I was in a room with a Bloomberg terminal. Bloomberg is specialized software used by financial professionals to navigate data and take actions. Users interact with the system through a specialized keyboard that looks like this:

  • Contributing to pandas

    Very proud to announce today that I had a pull request merged into the pandas library. In version 0.21, pandas will have a new feature: a way to read in line-delimited JSON in small pieces, which can be useful when working with large files or streams.

  • What I've been reading lately

    Rebecca Solnit, River of ShadowsSolnit is a marvelous thinker and historian who moves smoothly between well-researched historical fact and philosophical reverie. Here she traces the life of Edward Muybridge whose motion studies of animals are still familiar today. Muybridge was a first-class photographer, a true artist who also made many technical innovations. Solnit takes his collaboration with Leland Stanford as the jumping-off point for an exploration of the way technology has annihilated time and space, and develops a genealogy from those two to the California of today, dominated by Hollywood and Silicon Valley. In her telling, these two industries named for physical places are at the center of a world that, in large part because of their doing, is increasingly disconnected from the world itself.

  • Nitt Witt Ridge

    Art Beal spent 61 years building a house out of found materials at Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria, CA. He served for a time  as the town garbageman, dumping his truck directly into his own backyard and rummaging for salvageable building supplies with which he slowly built a house in the shape of his own mind. There is now little trace of the 20 feet of landfill underneath the hill. where his house rests.

  • USAFacts, Corporate Hagiography and Historical Ignorance

    This morning my circles are talking about Steve Ballmer’s new government data initiative USAFacts as reported in this NYT article.

  • Python tip: Inspect function signature at runtime

    Problem:

  • Book Review | Earthseed Series | Octavia Butler

    Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

  • Book Review | The Whale | Philip Hoare

    _The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea _by Philip Hoare

  • You Must Be Present To Win

    “Radical politics is bodies in places.”

  • What Exactly Are You Protesting

    Every day for the last five days, Americans in every major city have organized and sustained protest marches against Donald Trump’s fascism and bigotry. I have spent most of that time trying to muster the courage and energy to join these marches, trying to overcome the gloom and devastation and hopelessness that I felt.

  • Whiteness

    (Yes indeed, today we’re talking race.)

  • Seven Year Exercise Windows

    Most startup option grants come with a 90-day exercise window when an employee leaves the company (voluntarily or not). This is standard practice. Essentially the problem is that this can force employees to take a major personal financial hit to exercise their options when they leave or are fired, and perversely this is worse the more the company has grown during their time there. (Exercising options comes with a tax hit proportional to the amount the stock has increased in value since the option was granted.)

  • CFPB's New Report on Debt Collection

    I wrote a twitter thread about the CFPB’s 2016 Annual Report on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Click through to see the whole thread.

  • AI Clears New Hurdle; beats European Go champion 5-0

    Today Google’s DeepMind team announced that they built a Go-playing AI which beat the European Go champion 5 games to 0. This has been a long time coming! Look at timeline of games conquered by computers:

  • Political Sunday Morning

    Some links that will fill you with outrage:

  • Police Carelessness Wakes Local Citizen

    Tuesday morning I was woken up at 5AM by a police siren. As I lay awake, I started thinking. I couldn’t be the only one woken up. Should police cars use their sirens at night? It seems like a classic example of diffuse costs and easy-to-see benefits. But is it worth it? Let’s make a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.

  • What should I read next year?

    The list is growing, but I haven’t heard from you yet… recommending a book to a friend is an act of love so please do.

  • What is an order of magnitude?

    I’ve always wondered exactly how to define an order of magnitude. At ideas42 I had a particular colleague with a PhD in Econ; one time I mentioned that I think use it in a “fuzzy” way, and he responded that he always uses it in an exact way.

  • Architect Donald MacDonald

  • Get Broader

    Convene five of your friends who collectively have some expertise in each of the following:

  • Want to be more productive? Here's 5 easy tips

    Here are my five tips to be more productive. They are backed by years of economic research:

  • I wish I had read this at last night's open mic

    This is a poem I wrote months ago on a scrap of brown paper grocery bag, on the hood of a stranger’s car parked on Paris Street in San Francisco:

  • Uber Gets Insightful

    Uber is sharing anonymized data with Boston policymakers.

  • Social Justice Mural

    San Francisco is full of amazing murals! Here are some details from one I particularly like, on 25th and Mission.

  • The Genius of Peanuts

    In the NYRB of 1985, Umberto Eco explores Peanuts (and Krazy Kat, which I’ve never read).

  • All you need to know about the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy

    “Discipline may be imposed in any of the following circumstances:

    • [Various criminal offenses]
    • [Some other stuff]
    • Conduct that imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person”

  • Fundamental Attribution Error and the Master Race

    I just re-watched Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and it provides a really nice demonstration of the Fundamental Attribution Error. (The film has other virtues too.)

  • Snails

    I wrote this in an email to myself on December 28, 2013. Why?

  • But It's Also a Sex Manual

    I was flipping through the Kama Sutra yesterday and turns out to be much more than a sex manual! It’s a guide to etiquette and custom in many areas of life and offers really interesting glimpses into a culture very different from ours. Though some of it is practically timeless, for example:

  • Serendipity

    Edit: I no longer think this is cool (2021).

  • Become Interesting

    Do you know someone who always has interesting things to talk about? They have a secret, but it’s probably more mundane than you think. I’d bet they just subscribe to a cool email newsletter. (Classic fundamental attribution error alert!) Here are my current favorites:

  • SF's Finest

    Last night I was looking through a list of SFPD radio codes. Here are the best ones:

  • Don't Hold Your Breath

    Our ape-brains boggle at the vastness of time.

  • Streets Are Too Wide…Really

    Have you ever heard of a sneckdown? Or even a neckdown? I just got a fascinating email with a great diagram pointing out that snow reveals patterns of street use:

  • Don't Be Bill Murray

    There’s a great line in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou  where Zissou [Bill Murray], an ocean explorer and documentary film-maker, is describing advances in deep-sea diving suits:

  • Make Small Mistakes: A Mood Is Not A Personality

    Alex Tabarrok has a new paper out showing that easy availability of guns increases the number of suicides. (Read the comments section on that post, it’s full of good tidbits like the fact that there are more suicides farther from the equator.) This is an econometric study, but there is a psychological angle:

  • A Little Navel-Gazing

    Just a brief trip five years down memory lane to revisit one of the better sentences written about me to date:

  • My Dictum and Your Blind Spots

    In Thinking Fast and Slow (one of my 5 behavioral economics must-reads), Kahneman lays out the memorable idea that “What You See Is All There Is.” He explains it nicely in a brief interview:

  • Mathematical Decision-Making

    Whenever you make a decision you have to consider a universe of facts. Suppose you’re trying to decide where to go on vacation.

  • 5 Easy Steps To Becoming Louis Potok

    Boy, behavioral economics is everywhere these days! As a self-proclaimed “behavioral expert” I often get people asking me for a reading list. I’m sick and tired of rewriting this five times a day, so here goes: the definitive, well-ordered, short (looking at you, Shane Parrish) behavioral economics reading list.

  • The Three Levels Of Frustration

    There are three ways to react to frustration and there’s a strict hierarchy of these responses. As you move from Level 1 to Level 3, you have to put in more effort but you get more re__turn. The exact tradeoff between effort and return depends a lot on the exact situation, but overall Level 3 is always harder and more rewarding than Level 2, and so on. You’ve probably had each of these responses at different times, and I think some people are more prone to one than the next.

  • I Might Have Been Wrong: On Experimentation

    In my previous post I railed against a political fundraising technique I saw in the wild (on Twitter). I was upset because the experimental literature suggested that the technique they used was a waste of money, and I went on to lament the campaign’s lack of interest in science.

  • Why (Behavioral) Science Matters

    Almost a month ago Bill de Blasio, Democratic nominee for NYC mayor, tweeted something that made me angry. If I were to donate to his primary campaign, he (or a 19 year old unpaid intern) proclaimed, my contribution would be matched 6 to 1. So now we know that de Blasio — unlike Barack Obama — is not running his campaign according to the latest research findings.

  • Poorly Thought Out, Inconvenient Security Theater

    At my hotel in Kuala Lumpur you can’t just take the elevator to your floor. I checked in and then stood in the elevator jamming on my button, surprised that it wasn’t lighting up. Ah–I noticed–I had to insert my key card into a little slot and only then press the button — it lit up, I felt a little frisson of reward and was on my way. Presumably the apparatus is necessary for “security reasons”. A little inconvenient — no big deal.

  • Shitty Journalism and Shittier Warmongering

    It’s rare that I find a news article equal parts infuriating and confusing. I want to deeply examine this article from today’s New York Times. Ideally, I wish I could sit down with the author of the piece, the key players quoted, the key players not quoted, eminent historians, etc, and really dig into it. But you, loyal readers, will have to suffice.

  • I Regret X Again and Again

    “I never want to do X again. I’ve decided it before, but this time is different. This time I really mean it, I feel it so strongly, I’m definitely never doing X again.”

  • Should You Interrupt?

    Some processes can be interrupted and restarted at little-to-no cost, while others suffer greatly from interruption.

  • How Large Institutions Screw You Over

    Have you ever caught your bank making a mistake? Maybe they levied a fee in error, or maybe they penalized you twice for the same overdraft, or so on. I had this happen once–my account was “automatically” switched from a student no-fee no-minimum account, and so I immediately started racking up penalties for failing to meet the minimum account requirements. When I complained, I was treated nicely, the mistake was fixed, and I got various perks.

  • Why Does Anyone Live in NYC?

    What is it about snakes that makes people so jumpy and uncomfortable? There seem to be certain long-held and deeply human instincts, and Donald Norman’s Emotional Design (pp. 29-30) discusses how we can use these immediate affective responses–good and bad–in design. (A previous post about Emotional Design.)

  • Two More Tidbits About African History

    From my notes about John Reader’s Africa, two fascinating and poetic tidbits to go along with my two previous posts Annals of Comparative Advantage and Africa: Reproductive Strategies and the Value of Gold.

  • Annals of Comparative Advantage

    To a first approximation it's okay and good for a large percent of your population to be working in a single economicaly-productive activity, even if it is overseas.

  • Africa: Reproductive Strategies and the Value of Gold

    Two tidbits from John Reader's Africa.

  • Rethink the Driving Experience

    Accelerating on a bicycle is effortful. If driving were like this, fuel efficiency would be higher.

  • Economic Indifference and True Grit

    A price is "correct" if you are indifferent between taking it or leaving it, but it's hard to know when that's true.

  • The Political Situation in the Mario Universe (Quora)

    Everyone loves Quora and here is one reason why:

  • Foxes, Hedgehogs, TED Talks, and Meta-Rules

    How do you decide what to learn? An argument for strategic breadth.

  • How a Differential Gear Works

    A cool video about differential gears.

  • The Open Office and How to Work Better

    The open office plan is older than you think:

  • Lamb's Blood and Regression to the Mean

    Q: Is smearing lamb’s blood over my doorway unnecessary?

  • Bad Girl (Part I and Part II)

    Did you know there is a genre of music called “deep soul”? The Wikipedia page explains “The focus of the music was not on its lyrics, but on the “feel” or the groove.”

  • Portfolio Theory and the Laboratories of Democracy

    The common thinking is that the USA benefits by having many states because they will have different policies and we can thereby learn which policies are most effective.1 This idea is intuitive but actually I think the opposite is the case: as government gets larger it becomes more (theoretically) capable of doing the kind of experimentation that leads to better policy.

    1. This idea is known as “laboratories of democracy” and was brought to my attention by the Charles Pierce series of the same name. 

  • Words, Feelings, Memory, The Thing Itself

    A whole canefield of words has grown up between La Maga and me, we have only been separated by a few hours and my sorrow is already called sorrow, and my love is called love. . . I shall keep on feeling less and less and remembering more and more, but what is memory if not the language of feeling, a dictionary of faces and days and smells which repeat themselves like the verbs and adjectives in a speech, sneaking in behind the thing itself, into the pure present. . .

  • What Are Other People Like?

    How do we know about the internal lives of other people?

  • Should Robots Have Emotions?

    Yes.

  • Data-Driven Decision Making

    I spent the weekend at a conference about the use of statistical analysis in sports decision-making. Among other things, we talked about player evaluation, the role of randomness, in-game coaching decisions, and optimal risk taking based on game situation. All of these through the lens of using data to improve how we act.

  • Pay Attention to Paying Attention

    The primary commodity in the world is attention. This is the resource whose scarcity matters most–every day, and as it adds up, in your life, in the lives of everyone you know, in the history of the world, in the world itself. The question then becomes: what should you focus your attention on? What issues or problems or features of the world are most worth your attention? You should train yourself to only pay attention to things that matter and things where your attention will pay off and things where your attention will luxuriate and amplify and be drawn to other things that you now realize matter.

  • A Wrongness You Can Never Fix

    He began to forgive the chill of this Northern city. He thought about the…blood running in his own veins. He watched himself being consoled by literature and history, and, observing how much he’d changed in one year, he wondered what kind of person he was ultimately meant to be. But there was still that hopelessness or sorrow right beneath the skin of his afternoons.