A very happy new year to all of you, and all the very best with all of your plans for what lies ahead!
What are the pros and cons of moving this blog to Substack?
This blog will forever be free, so I’m not looking to shift in order to monetize anything. But for those of you who have used Substack (and especially for those of you who have used both WordPress and Substack), what can you tell me that the Internet cannot?
- In what ways is Substack better, and in what ways is it worse in your experience?
- What are the limitations of Substack?
- Particularly for those of you who did migrate over to Substack, how complicated was your experience?
Thank you very much in advance!
Five things I hope to do more of in 2023
- Walking. And on a related note, more listening to podcasts and audiobooks.
- Reading books.
- Watching movies.
- Cooking. Especially with my daughter.
- Longform writing
These things are easy to say, and hard to do. Fingers crossed.
Here is a list of things I hope to do less of in 2023:
- Exams (setting papers, correcting papers). Exams, given the way they are conducted almost everywhere I teach in India, are stupid. They fill hours of my time, but neither I, nor the students, benefit from them in any way. I am more than willing to die on this hill. Exams are stupid.
- Eat lesser. But conversely and not at all paradoxiacally, make every meal count. If the option is between eating a badly made meal and not eating, I hope I have the wisdom to pick the latter every time. It will have at least two advantages – I get to fast more than I did this year, and when I do eat, it is likely to be a much more pleasant experience.
- Spend less time reading stuff on the phone. My attention span suffers for it, and I need to get better at not taking my phone out of my pocket every chance I get.
- Reading while I am eating. Related to the second point, of course – I aim to make every meal I eat a celebration of food – but this is also related to the third point. But in general, try to get out of the habit of using the phone as a way to escape the world around me.
- Mindless YouTubing. That’s not the same as spending less time on YouTube – I’m convinced that I need to spend more time on the platform. But YouTube Shorts is the enemy, and so is YouTube’s recommendation engine. It doesn’t optimize for what is best for me in the long run, and I think Odysseus may well have been on to something.
I don’t have a career plan, and the paths my career has taken would drive a career counsellor mad.
But then again, I’m the kind of idiot who thinks this to be a good thing.
But there are two things I have done in my career that fill me with genuine pride. One is this blog. The second is the undergraduate program at the Gokhale Institute. The first is a solo endeavor, the second was very much a team game – and both are creations, not certifications/titles. Both are my attempts at making the world a better place, and on reflection, that is my career plan. To chip away at making the world a slightly better place.
And for that second reason, leaving Gokhale Institute this year was a bittersweet emotion. But not just because of that secon reason. Gokhale Institute is, to me, a very sacred place.
Gokhale Institute was, is, and always will be home for me. I have played in the campus as a kid, I have walked hesitantly into the library as an undergrad student at Ferguson, and I have done my Masters and my PhD from there. I have taught at least one course over there every year from 2010 onwards, and I hope that record lasts for as long as possible. Some of my closest friends today were batchmates with me at GIPE, and my wife is a subset of this group too.
I am not a professor of economics in the conventional sense of the term. I am not looking to have a great publication record when it comes to academic journals, nor am I looking to attend conferences to present papers. Not, to be clear, because I think those things aren’t good things. But because that is neither my calling, nor my comparative advantage.
My calling, as best as I can tell, is teaching. I revel in the “ohhhhhhhhhhhhh!” sound that students make when they realize the relevance and the importance of a concept. I love taking what seems like a difficult, irrelevant and abstruse idea, and slowly breaking it down so that students understand both what it means and why it matters. I love recommending books, blogs, videos, podcasts and tweets to students – and often at a scale that they simply cannot think of finshing in a semester. My job, as I see it, is to help people learn better.
Because one sure-shot way of making the world better is by helping more people learn better. And the younger your audience, the better. Ergo the undergrad program at the Gokhale Institute.
And for all these reasons, having to leave the program, and the Institute, was (and is) so bittersweet.
I’m still teaching, of course I am. That is, after all, my calling in life. I’m teaching even younger folks than undergraduate students, so at least along one dimension, I’m doing even better at my personal goals. And in some ways, I hope to double down on this blog (and related efforts) in 2023. So teaching continues, thank god.
But knowing when to walk away is an important skill in life, no matter how bitterwseet your emotions. Being clear about your reasons in your own head helps, and writing that post helped me achieve just that.
And so that post was about the following:
- An important call regarding my career (if one can call it that)
- Helping me make clear to myself what my reasons were for leaving
- An au revoir to all the students at GIPE (not just the batch it was ostensibly addressed to)
- An au revoir to my favorite college in the whole wide world.
And for all these reasons, So Long, Farewell was my personal favorite of 2022.
4. On Sri Lanka
I will have published 254 posts by the time 2022 ends, which is meh, at best. I don’t track anything on my blog, and don’t really pay attention to the analytics. But I do wish I had done a better job of posting every single day.
My hit rate was 70% this year, the same as last year. The good news is that this was better than what I managed in 2020 (52%). The bad news is that I was at a 103% in 2019, so as with many economies, so with EFE – I’m still catching up to the pre-pandemic level. I have simply not written when I didn’t feel like writing these past three years, and haven’t worried about it. And for many days, weeks and sometimes months at a stretch therefore, I have not written anything.
But I think it’s time to hold myselt to a higher standard in 2023, and let’s hope I can post without fail every single day.
To everybody who is reading this, thank you very much for reading!
I’ve been talking about bloggers I admire this past week, in one way or the other. But when it comes to consuming audio and video content, I’m at a comparative disadvantage. I much prefer reading to listening or viewing – partly because I read much faster. The other reason, of course, is that my preference for reading very quickly becomes a vicious cycle. Because I’m better at reading than at listening or viewing, I read more, and as a consequence, I get even better at reading. And so on.
But that’s just me, of course. Other folks might have (and do have) different preferences. In fact, I’ve often been told that I really should be creating videos in addition to writing this blog. And I don’t disagree, not even one little bit, and for the following reasons:
- If my purpose behind writing on this blog is to help people learn better (and that very much is the case), I’m not doing a very good job if I’m not optimizing for the medium that people prefer
- Creating YouTube videos really forces you to hone in on the exact message. Writing blogs allows me to be lazy while writing, and I needn’t worry about length and conciseness. I know this is a bad habit, and one of my to-do’s is to get better at writing bogposts.
- Creating videos allows you to be much, much more creative.
But that last point is precisely why I haven’t gotten around to creating videos just yet. Well, that last reason combined with my talent for procrastination, but let’s not go down that road. Let us, instead, go down that first road, the non-procrastination one.
It comes down to (surprise, surprise) an economic concept. Specifically, complements and substitutes. It would be the easiest thing in the world to set up a camera in a class in which I am already teaching something, and put up that video on YouTube. And folks who might watch this recording are simply substituting physically attending my class for virtually attending it. Which is great, of course, and I’ve have enjoyed watching videos that use this technique created by other folks.
But there are other videos on YouTube that don’t just substitute for the real world. The creator treats the format (video) as a complement to his content. The video is not a substitute for the physical classroom, it is a complement to what the creator is saying. And if you want to understand what that really means, try the following. Pick a math textbook of your choice, and try to understand linear algebra. Then watch Grant Sanderson weave his magic on the same subject.
And sure, maybe I was taught the subject badly in college. But even with a really good teacher and/or a really good math textbook in college, I cannot imagine not falling in love with the way Grant teaches us linear algebra. If you’ve watched even one of the videos in that series (and I really do hope you will watch all of them), I think you’ll agree that he comfortably ticks all of the boxes in my little list above.
And there’s so much to admire with all of his videos. The little “pi’s”, the music, his voice (an underrated part of what makes him such a good teacher. His pauses, his inflections and modulations, the pace at which he talks, all are always perfect), and the animations all end up making his videos so much better. And the content itself, and the insane amount of both coding and thinking that must go into each of them, is a whole other story.
My personal favorites from the channel are the Linear Algebra series, and the series on calculus. And as someone who teaches statistics, his video on Bayes Theorem is also fantastic. But let me be clear, these are simply the ones that resonated the most strongly with me. All of 3Blue1Brown’s videos that I have seen are fantastic. All. Every single one of them.
And if you left school/college with a slight dislike for mathematics (as I did), you couldn’t do yourself a better favor then spending a little bit of time everyday watching 3Blue1Brown’s videos. And if you are in love with mathematics (as I now am), you don’t need me to tell you to go watch his videos, now do you?
Grant, thank you very much for your work!
There’s a very small list of people I know of who use Twitter well.
There are probably millions of people who use Twitter well, of course. It is just that I haven’t found them yet.
But when you do use Twitter well, it is a magical thing. It entertains you, educates you and on rare but delightful occasions, even enlightens you.
Learning how to use Twitter well is a skill. I am still learning it, but I get a little better everyday. And isn’t that the point?
And if you’re looking for advice on how to use Twitter well, follow Navin Kabra on Twitter. Learn from what he says, but much more importantly, learn from what he does on Twitter.
For example, consider his pinned tweet:
Navin, thank you for being awesome at Twitter!
It doesn’t matter what you do, or are going to do in your career. Excel is an inevitability.
The degree to which you use Excel, the degree of expertise required where Excel is concerned, and the number of hours you spend staring at Excel might vary, both across careers and within the span of each individual careers. But for most of you – and I’m very tempted to say for all of you – Excel is very much an inevitability.
And the single best resource for learning Excel that I am aware of is Chandoo.org. It’s a wonderfully curated blog, this one, with links for basic, intermediate and advanced users, and the associated YouTube channel is also a great way to learn.
If you know your way around Excel in terms of being acquainted with the basics, I’d heavily recommend going through the top 10 formulas for MS-Excel. You probably will not use all of these formulas all the time, but being familiar with them as a student is certainly recommended.
And from there on in, feel free to jump into whatever specific area catches your fancy. Dashboards, charts, advanced formulas would be my recommendations for intermediate users (and I don’t know enough about Excel to call myself an advanced user!).
Here’s the dirty little secret about Excel: you really learn Excel when you meet a problem you need to solve in the real world. Excel, when taught well, is a lot of fun to learn in the classroom. But the real learning takes place, as I said, in the real world.
And the best compliment I can pay Chandoo is that his posts have often helped me out there in the wild, and not just in the cosy confines of academia. And I am sure his awesome blogs will continue to help me in the future as well!
Chandoo, thank you for your generosity with your mastery in MS-Excel!
When he was five years old, a little boy asked his mother if there were more hard things in the world, or soft things. His mother – entirely understandably – was a little non-plussed. The rest of the story is to be found in in the introduction to one of my all time favorite books, but for those of you who don’t yet have a copy of the book, his own answer to the question was that there were 3 billion soft things in the world, and 5 billion hard things.
That book that I spoke about – it’s called What If? – has this lovely little coda to that story:
They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.Munroe, Randall. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions . Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.
The book in question, by the way, invites you to ask some truly stupid questions, and then answers them entirely seriously. It is a rare ol’ treat, that book. To give you a sense of the kind of questions that the book tries to answer, consider my favorite example from the book:
Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?Munroe, Randall. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (p. 68). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.
How do you not fall in love with a book that asks questions such as these, and answers them entirely seriously? How do you not admire a person who left his job with NASA (yup, seriously) to build a career based on answering questions such as these, and draw comics for a living? And how do you not admire the resulting blog?
The blog (and if you are learning about him and his blog for the first time while reading this blogpost, I truly envy you for the experience you are about to have) in question is, of course, xkcd. Click here for the answer to the inevitable question.
And what a blog it is. What. A. Blog.
Consider one that I love to use in some of my classes:
At first glance, you might think this to be a rather bland cartoon, and not funny at all. But don’t give up just yet, think about it for a minute. Take a look at the caption. That is your first clue.
This is an exam for a subject called cybersecurity. Which presumably means you have been taught how to hack into a server. So, if you want to pass this examination, your examination starts after you have been given a failing grade. To change the grade, you have to hack into those department servers, change your grade – and you have one day to do this.
Ah ok, you might say. Rather contrived, and still not really funny, but ok, I get it. But now for the coup de grace: most of the xkcd cartoons come with a caption. And the caption in this case is pure, unadulterated evil genius.
For those of you also taking Game Theory, your grade in that class will be based on how close your grade on this exam is to 80% of the average.https://xkcd.com/2385/
Let’s say you’ve learnt cybersecurity well enough to be able to hack into the server. Well done, you think to yourself. All I need to do now is give myself 100/100, and I’m done. But wait! What will your score be on the game theory exam? For you to know your grade on the game theory class, you have to know the average score on this exam.
That will be a function of three things:
- How many people have taken both classes?
- Of these, how many people have been able to hack into the server?
- Of these, how many people have learnt game theory well enough to figure it that it is not just about changing your own grade, but everybody else’s grade?
And it gets worse (better, really)! What grade are they likely to give everybody else and themselves? Folks who are familiar with game theory will recognize this to be a variant of the guess 2/3rd of the average problem. But with the additional tweaks mentioned above, and that’s what makes this problem such a fascinating one.
And this isn’t even my favorite xkcd cartoon! In fact, I wouldn’t even want to show you “my” favorites – please go ahead and spend time going through the blog yourself.
But if you want to learn something that is smart, funny, and thought-provoking all at once, you couldn’t do better than xkcd. Have fun!
Randall Munroe, thank you!