On Doing Different Things

One of the more interesting random questions that I was asked in class recently was about whether it makes sense to “do different things”.

By this, the student who asked the question meant the following: should one focus on doing one thing, and one thing only in terms of studies, in terms of a career and in terms of hobbies, or does it make sense to do a lot of different things in each case.

The obvious answer to give these days is that one should read Range, by David Epstein – and it certainly is a good way to start thinking about the subject. And I agree with the central idea in David’s book – variety is good! You can take a similar lesson from statistics, if you like, or you can focus on the English phrase “variety is the spice of life“… or you can read and reflect on a wonderful profile of one of the winners of the Fields medal this year.

One might say the same of his path into mathematics itself: that it was characterized by much wandering and a series of small miracles. When he was younger, Huh had no desire to be a mathematician. He was indifferent to the subject, and he dropped out of high school to become a poet. It would take a chance encounter during his university years — and many moments of feeling lost — for him to find that mathematics held what he’d been looking for all along.


The entire essay is, of course, well worth your time, and I would strongly recommend that you read it. Your eyes might glaze over some of the mathematics in the profile (mine certainly did), but there is a lot to be learnt by reading the essay carefully, especially if you want to think about whether “doing different things” is a good idea or not.

The profile is much about June Huh as it is about ruminations on productivity, daily routines, the connection between beauty and mathematics and the role that luck plays in our lives. Consider for example, the fact that Huh never works for more than three hours in a day. Folks who work in the corporate world, especially in India, take an almost perverse pride in the number of hours that they spend in office, but I would argue (from personal experience, more than anything else) that the actual work done doesn’t take more than four to five hours at best.

It gets even better, because there is mention later on in the article about an inversion of the Pomodoro technique:

Huh can still muster only enough energy to work for a few hours each day. “Other people work one hour and just take a five-minute rest,” Kim said. “He is like, one hour do something else, and just focus for five minutes, 10 minutes.”


Me, I’m very good at the doing-something-else-for-one-hour bit. It’s the five minutes of deep and focused work that I struggle with!

But the bit that I enjoyed the most was the part about somehow, just knowing:

For Huh, when he is working, there’s something almost subconscious going on. In fact, he usually can’t trace how or when his ideas come to him. He doesn’t have sudden flashes of insight. Instead, “at some point, you just realize, oh, I know this,” he said. Maybe last week, he didn’t understand something, but now, without any additional input, the pieces have clicked into place without his realizing it. He likens it to the way your mind can surprise you and create unexpected connections when you’re dreaming. “It’s just amazing what human minds are capable of,” he said. “And it’s nice to admit that we don’t know what’s going on.”


Two references that this reminded me of:

Poincaré then hypothesized that this selection is made by what he called the “subliminal self,” an entity that corresponds exactly with what Phaedrus called preintellectual awareness. The subliminal self, Poincaré said, looks at a large number of solutions to a problem, but only the interesting ones break into the domain of consciousness. Mathematical solutions are selected by the subliminal self on the basis of “mathematical beauty,” of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. “This is a true esthetic feeling which all mathematicians know,” Poincaré said, “but of which the profane are so ignorant as often to be tempted to smile.” But it is this harmony, this beauty, that is at the center of it all.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 240). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

From further on in the same book:

Then Poincaré illustrated how a fact is discovered. He had described generally how scientists arrive at facts and theories but now he penetrated narrowly into his own personal experience with the mathematical functions that established his early fame. For fifteen days, he said, he strove to prove that there couldn’t be any such functions. Every day he seated himself at his work-table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. Then one evening, contrary to his custom, he drank black coffee and couldn’t sleep. Ideas arose in crowds. He felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. The next morning he had only to write out the results. A wave of crystallization had taken place. He described how a second wave of crystallization, guided by analogies to established mathematics, produced what he later named the “Theta-Fuchsian Series.” He left Caen, where he was living, to go on a geologic excursion. The changes of travel made him forget mathematics. He was about to enter a bus, and at the moment when he put his foot on the step, the idea came to him, without anything in his former thoughts having paved the way for it, that the transformations he had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. He didn’t verify the idea, he said, he just went on with a conversation on the bus; but he felt a perfect certainty. Later he verified the result at his leisure.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (pp. 239-240). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

And finally, a fascinating paper, of which I learnt via a blogpost on MR, by Alex Tabbarok:

Many people have claimed that sleep has helped them solve a difficult problem, but empirical support for this assertion remains tentative. The current experiment tested whether manipulating information processing during sleep impacts problem incubation and solving. In memory studies, delivering learning-associated sound cues during sleep can reactivate memories. We therefore predicted that reactivating previously unsolved problems could help people solve them. In the evening, we presented 57 participants with puzzles, each arbitrarily associated with a different sound. While participants slept overnight, half of the sounds associated with the puzzles they had not solved were surreptitiously presented. The next morning, participants solved 31.7% of cued puzzles, compared with 20.5% of uncued puzzles (a 55% improvement). Moreover, cued-puzzle solving correlated with cued-puzzle memory. Overall, these results demonstrate that cuing puzzle information during sleep can facilitate solving, thus supporting sleep’s role in problem incubation and establishing a new technique to advance understanding of problem solving and sleep cognition.


And what better way to end then, than with this perfectly appropriate final extract:

The office is spare, practically empty. There’s a large desk, a couch for sleeping — Huh typically takes a nap later in the morning — and a yoga mat rolled out on the floor (just for lying down, he said; he doesn’t actually know how to do yoga).


Explain Stuff To People

I played a kiviq.us game in one of the classes I taught the other day, which happens pretty much every semester. By the way, if you haven’t used the website yet, please do give it a whirl. And the more the merrier – the last class, there were more than a hundred participants, and I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was.

My assignment was based on the game too: the students had to go back home and play the game with friends and/or family, and then write up what they learned by helping other people play the game.

And the reason I bring this up is that I think learning happens best when you help other people learn. It’s one of the most famous quotes ever, and I’m certainly not claiming originality, but I am definitely re-emphasizing its importance and relevance: you learn best when you teach.

So if you really want to get a handle on a topic or a concept, get somebody to listen/read/see your explanation of a particular topic.

And speaking of which, learn a bit about Jack Corbett:

Mr. Corbett is an assistant producer of the NPR show “Planet Money,” who creates chaotic, studiously unpolished videos about economics for TikTok. Using pixelated graphics and low-fi editing, he produces skit-like primers on such arcane economic topics as Korean jeonse loans, how the NFT bubble can be explained by the greater fool theory, and time theft for low-wage workers.
“I try not to learn how to do things right,” said Mr. Corbett, who records his videos on a refurbished iPhone X. “For a while I used green screens as my drapes.”


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: so long as you have an internet enabled smartphone (no matter how basic), you can help others learn, and I would argue that you should. For your own sake as much as that of others.

It’s almost like life is a non-zero sum game or something.

Microeconomics for all, by Paul Seabright

For the last half-century, the world’s leading universities have taught microeconomics through the lens of the Arrow-Debreu model of general competitive equilibrium. The model, formalizing a central insight of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, embodies the beauty, simplicity, and lack of realism of the two fundamental theorems of competitive equilibrium, in contrast to the messiness and complexity of modifications made by economists in an effort to capture better the way the world actually functions. In other words, while researchers attempt to grasp complex, real-world situations, students are pondering unrealistic hypotheticals.


Thus begins a short but hard hitting essay by Paul Seabright. Regular readers will know of him as the author of the magnificent “In The Company of Strangers“, but in today’s blogpost, we’re going to be speaking about the essay I just excerpted from. This essay was written back in 2013, but if anything, it rings even more true today.

Because what we teach in microeconomics has very little to do with reality, and that’s just the truth.

A typical course in micro will work its way through consumer theory, producer theory, markets, and then throw in a sprinkling of topics to round off an introductory course: a bit about externalities, a bit about asymmetry of information (and related topics) and maybe touch upon risk and intertemporal substitution.

But as Paul Seabright says, most of what goes on in research based in microeconomic theory is so much more than that. For example (and this is my point, not his), if you are a microeconomics faculty, will you be able to explain to your students during an introductory course what, exactly, was the seminal contribution of Hart and Holmstrom?

Here’s what I mean by that question: can you explain where, exactly, this fits in to what they’ve learnt thus far? Is this consumer theory? Producer theory? Information asymmetry? All of the above? And more? Motivating students to learn about their (Hart and Holmstrom’s) work ought to be the easiest thing in the world, given that most of them will be on the labor market soon, but I very much doubt if this comes up as a point of even cursory discussion in an intro micro course. (And this goes without saying, if I’m wrong about this, yay!)

Paul Seabright brings up a list of other topics besides the example I just mentioned: two-sided markets, risk analysis, inter-temporal choice, market signaling, financial-market microstructure, optimal taxation, and mechanism design.

In addition, he also brings up applications of microeconomic theory: antitrust analysis, auction design, taxation, environmental policy, and industrial and financial regulation, and speaks about how in terms of both the topics and their applications, econ students are being under-served.

The whole point of learning economics (micro or macro, or anything else, for that matter) is to be able to apply what you’ve learnt to the real world. An education in economics should, in other words, help you see the world like an economist does. And that would mean that one should be able to appreciate the world for what what works within it, and one should be able to identify problems with the world that economic theory might help you solve.

Unfortunately, the point of a micro course, more often than not, is simply to be able to solve enough problems so that one can score well in the semester end examination.

Which reminds me: I don’t think they learn about Michael Spence’s work either!

This really deserves a separate post, what I’m about to say next. But if I had to distill my post down to its essence: there are two ways to teach economics.

  1. Now that we’ve finished going through the textbook, let’s try and figure out if certain things about the world become more understandable.
  2. Here’s what the world looks like, and here is how economic theory helps.

The latter approach, in my experience, is so much better.


Via the excellent The Browser:

We’ve come a long, long way! Here’s the website if (like me), you’d like to learn more.

On Making New Proteins

I know nothing about this topic, but that was my understanding after having read this thread. What’s yours?

Simplify. Then Simplify More. And Then Some More.

I try and post daily here on EFE, and as regular readers may have noticed, don’t always succeed.

I would like to try and write daily, which is a whole other challenge. But I cannot always manage to do so, alas. And let me be clear, the reason I can’t manage either is not because of my other commitments, or my regular job, or anything like that. It is simply because I am not good enough at managing my time well.

It is, for example, 10.03 am as I’m typing this out, and today’s blog should have gone out at 10.00 am. Better late than never, I am consoling myself as I type this out.

So it goes.

One major downside of trying to write/post daily – beyond the fact that I find it difficult to build this habit – is that I am certainly unable to read through my posts once before posting. In an ideal world, I would like to sit down with each post a day after I have written it, and go over it in detail. I would like to scrub out the unnecessary adverbs, rewrite passive sentences into active ones, adjust the length of the sentences so that they sound better, and so much more from a grammatical and aesthetic perspective.

But above all, I would like to be able to take out the time to make sure that what I’ve written is clear, concise and comprehensible.

I’ve christened this blog EconforEverybody. And at least some of my posts, I am sure, aren’t for everybody. Folks without a background in econ theory might not get them, or might be turned away by the opening paragraph, or hell, even the title. And even if they do make it past these hurdles, the topic may still prove too complicated for them.

So two things for me to note, then. One, try and write as simply as possible. An admonishment that I have regularly handed out to one of my favorite students is one that I should follow myself: shorter sentences always. Simpler words, too.

Two, before clicking on the “Publish” button, try and read the whole thing once. Try and eliminate the obvious errors, at the very least. And if you can find the time to make it even simpler, please, go ahead and do so.

If I can make this a habit, my writing elsewhere will benefit too. And that can only be a good thing.

So when I write, I must simplify. Then simplify more. And then some more.


TN Ninan on The Misery Index

More often than not, inflation and unemployment move in opposite directions. Why this should be so, and whether this actually is so, are questions that can get a lot of economists very hot under the collar very quickly! 

But every now and then, this relationship breaks down very quickly, and we’re then staring at a problem that economists refer to as stagflation. That, in effect, is when inflation is stubbornly high, but unemployment is also stubbornly high. TN Ninan, a columnist for the Business Standard, riffs on this and related concepts in an excellent recent column

In particular, he drags up an idea that most of us haven’t heard about lately, the misery index. Given what’s around us these days, though, you might want to construct such an index for the months to come! What is the misery index, you ask? Well, simply add up the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation for any given economy! It’s a simple enough index to create, and you can learn a fair bit by taking a look at which countries are doing well (low on the misery index), and which countries are the unfortunate table-toppers. 

As the column points out, Turkey, Argentina and South Africa top these charts, and Brazil and Russia round off the current top five. But most major economies are inching up this particular chart, and this is something you want to keep an eye on in the days to come. Here is more information, if you’re interested in learning more about the misery index.

Now, as with ice-cream flavors, so also with indices such as these. You can add in different flavors and come up with many different variations. So it was only a matter of time before somebody thought of adding in interest rates to create a new version of the misery index. Imagine living in an economy with high inflation, high unemployment and high interest rates! And if you want a little-bit-of-everything-when-it-comes-to-macro index, well, throw in per capita growth rates too. Note that this last addition actually makes it rather less of a misery index, since high per capita growth is a good thing.

And finally, TN Ninan’s column also mentions another interesting, relatively recent idea that you might want to explore yourself: The Great Gatsby curve. Take a look at what it means, and reflect on how appropriate the name is.

Literature and economic theory – who’d have thunk it, eh?

On Hierarchy and Sociology

The Browser (which, if you can, you should seriously consider subscribing to) recently linked to an excellent article by Malcolm Gladwell.

It’s a very short read, but one paragraph stood out for me.

But before we get to that, here is what I wrote a couple of months ago:

The worst kind of zero sum games are those involving status and hierarchy as end goals. Unfortunately, these also are the most prevalent, no matter where you go and what you do.


And now here’s the paragraph from Malcolm’s article:

The first is a sociological observation. One of the core concepts in cross-cultural studies is “power distance,” which refers to the degree to which a culture values hierarchy. Places such as France and Saudi Arabia and Colombia have high power-distance cultures: authority, in all its manifestations, matters a lot there. Places such as Australia and Israel are low power-distance cultures. A friend of mine, who was the Middle East correspondent for a major newspaper, once told me that he would sometimes call the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence, and the Prime Minister would pick up. That’s low power distance. I guarantee you that the President of France does not answer his own phone.


What is “power distance’? As Malcolm himself points out, it is the degree to which a culture values hierarchy. This can be the number of “layers” you must get through before you are able to reach somebody with the ability and willingness to make a decision in an organization, it can the insistence on the use of honorifics, or something much more subtle (but all too noticeable if only your antennae are attuned enough to be able to see).

Consider this explanation:

Power distance refers to the extent to which less powerful members of organizations and institutions (including the family) accept and expect unequal power distributions. This dimension is measured not only from the perspective of the leaders, who hold power, but from the followers. In regard to power distribution, Hofstede notes, “all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others.”
In a large power distance society, parents teach children obedience, while in a small power distance society parents treat children as equals. Subordinates expect to be consulted in small power distance societies, versus being told what to do in large power distance societies.


I debated about whether or not to include that second paragraph in the excerpt, because you might be tempted to go down a whole new discussion about parenting (god knows I’m tempted!). But I’ll park that second paragraph here, and maybe return to it in another blogpost.

But a later excerpt from the same article is even more telling: “Individuals with a low power distance cultural background may more openly express agreement and disagreement”

Particularly from the viewpoint of organizations, this ought to set off alarm bells. Any organization that is “high power distance” is likely to be an organization that doesn’t allow bad news to filter up to the highest level, and in my opinion, this is therefore an organization doomed to eventually flounder.

But this is also true in classroom settings! “Ashish, I think you’re talking crap” is far easier to say, and far more honest a comment than “Professor Kulkarni, I’m not sure I understand”. Because let’s be honest, you really want to say the former, but a high-power distance setting like a classroom will almost force you to say the latter. This is why I ask all my students to call me Ashish!

The point for me – and a point I hope you agree with – is that I like to set up for myself low-power distance environments. At home, among my friends, with my colleagues and among my students – it makes sense (to me) to have low power distance settings. Life just seems better that way.

Although I’m not sure I would have been allowed to wear an apron over my kurta pyjama on my wedding day:

The people serving the meal were the wedding party. The bride’s father gave us our picnic basket. The bride’s sister made the pulled pork sandwiches. The groom did the cole slaw. And at the end of the line, the bride—who had put an apron on over her wedding dress—served the mac and cheese. The receiving line was turned into a service line.


Basketball’s 3 Point Line

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rewatched parts of The Last Dance, the documentary on Michael Jordan, and now, in the 40th year of my life, I’ve slowly started to develop more than a passing interest in basketball.

This video, about the 3 point line in basketball, might not resonate much if you haven’t seen a single game of basketball, but I would argue it is worth thinking about how your sport has changed over time, and how players are responding to these changed (non-monetary) incentives.

On Cows, Coagulants and an American president who was Given Rat Poison

And that’s not clickbait, which is the best part. The utterly awesome @bhalomanush on Twitter with a magnificent thread for your perusal.