Nothing more than three days old

I was feeling a bit under the weather yesterday, and I ended up doing mostly nothing as a consequence. This, in a happy coincidence, was also a day on which there were two sports events of note, and I got to watch all of one and parts of the other.

The second one had a sense of inevitability to it, and Rafael Nadal won his 14th French Open title, and his 22nd Grand Slam overall, underlining his status as the best tennis player ever. The first one didn’t have a sense of inevitability to it, and was on that account more interesting to watch. This was the fourth day of the Test match between England and New Zealand, and given how calamitous England’s batting has been in recent times, there was no guarantee that they would be able to chase down the required number of runs.

I’m happy to report that they did chase it down, and Root, somewhat like Nadal, was able to underline his status as the best Test batsman going around at the moment. But the point of this little sports update was to highlight how the conclusion, in the case of the cricketing contest, took well over three days. This, of course, has also been a complaint in recent times about men’s tennis matches as well – that they tend to go on for too long in some cases.

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether the rules for both cricket and tennis need to change, at least for the moment. But I do wish to point out that every now and then, savoring something over a large period of time is a good thing, and that we, at the margin, are perhaps doing lesser of this than we should.

T20’s over test matches, YouTube clips over television series, and television series over movies. Blog posts over books, and tweets over blog posts. Myself included, to be clear! Our attention spans are dwindling, and we have to fight the urge to take short sips of content optimized for brevity, rather than make the time for extended periods of concentration.

And I’ll be the first to admit that Twitter is a great way to consume a large amount of content in a very short period of time. A T20 game is, among other things, easier to consume in terms of time spent, and given the lives that we lead, that isn’t an entirely bad thing. And similarly, it is a nice feeling to be able to learn something in a short ten minute video on YouTube. All happily conceded as being excellent points.

But the problem (at least for me, and maybe for you as well) is that we end up consuming far too much of relatively short and relatively new content, and that may not necessarily be An Entirely Good Thing.

I cannot remember where I read or heard this quote that I am about to share with you. I think it was by Jonathan Haidt, but I might be wrong about that too (and if I am, my apologies!). It goes something like this: “we are reading more than ever before, but none of what we’re reading is more than three days old”.

Again, this is entirely from memory, and I have been unable to find the original quote online, but it is a quote that makes a lot of sense.

Robert Pirsig said something very similar in a book that I really like reading (and rereading):

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 7). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

I’ve bene thinking deeply about how and what kind of content I consume, and am trying to change its composition. Watching (and rewatching) old movies, listening to old songs, reading older books and older papers is all part of the plan, and I hope to share some of this with you over time as well.

I hope this change lasts where I am concerned, and while I would be loathe to recommend, let alone insist, that you do the same, I would urge you to think about whether there is a recency bias in your content consumption.

But speaking for myself, I think I need to consume some of the more timeless works of art, and I hope to do just that in the months to come.

And two recommendations to end with:

An excellent series on art appreciation that I am watching with my daughter:

And a selection of songs that will help you get started on learning more about the advent of Texas blues.

Observe, and Ask

Most students who take introductory economics seem to leave the course without really having learned even the most important basic economic principles. For example, their ability to answer simple economic questions several months after leaving the course is not measurably different from that of people who never took a principles course (Hansen, Salemi and Siegfried 2002). The problem seems to be that instructors of principles courses almost always try to teach students far too much. In the process, really important ideas get no more coverage than minor ones. Everything ends up going by in a blur

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

So begins a paper called “The Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment”, a paper that everybody can (and dare I say should) read. Robert Frank has forgotten more about teaching principles of economics than most of us will ever learn. 48 years of teaching, so that last sentence isn’t rhetorical.

A successful economics learning experience should mirror these same steps. A short list of basic principles should be presented to students, one at a time in the context of simple examples drawn from familiar settings. Following each, students should be asked to practice the principle by using it to solve simple problems that are closely parallel to the ones used to illustrate the principle. The student should then be given the opportunity to pose original questions and use the same basic principles to answer them.

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

Readers who are familiar with the book The Economic Naturalist will have guessed where this is going. For years, Professor Frank asked his students to write essays about things they saw around them that they found puzzling, interesting, or counterintuitive. The point of the essays was to, well, observe and ask. And then, using the principles of economics that had just been taught to them, try and come up with answers.

A really successful paper is one that begins with a really interesting question (one that makes the listener instantly curious to learn the answer) and then uses an economic principle or principles to construct a plausible answer. You’ll know you have a good paper if the first thing your roommate wants to do upon reading it is to tell friends about it.

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

What kind of questions? Here are just two (the names in parentheses are of the students who asked the question, and went on to answer them in their essays):

  1. Why do brides spend so much money on wedding dresses, whereas grooms often rent cheap tuxedos, even though grooms could potentially wear their tuxedos on many other occasions and brides will never wear their dresses again?
    (Jennifer Dulski)
  2. Why are round-trip fares from Hawaii to the mainland higher than the corresponding fares from the mainland to Hawaii? (Karen Hittle)

Curious to hear the answers? Please, read the paper as an appetizer, and for the mains, buy the book.

In the paper I have been excerpting from, Professor Frank uses the analogy of how tennis is taught to beginners, beginning with basic drills (of which the forehand comes first).

Those who aspire to move their games to a higher level typically continue with formal instruction. However, for them, too, an important part of the learning process is continued play.

Same as earlier, which is what ibid means

Now, about that “continued play” being an important part of the learning process, Tyler Cowen has a post out today, titled “Why do they keep the books wrapped in Mexican bookstores?“:

Yes, wrapped in clear shrink wrap. So you can’t page through them and see what the book might be like. I can think of a few hypotheses:
They don’t want you standing in the bookstore reading the thing, rather than buying it. A bit like some U.S. comics news stands in days past. Yet this doesn’t seem so plausible for longer books or most novels.
They want the books to look nicer and less grimy.
How about price discrimination?

If Tyler Cowen can take the time out to practice his forehand, surely the rest of us can also train like athletes?

Principles of economics can be learnt for free online, using any resource of your choice. I’m not linking to any specific one because I want to make the point that you can very, very easily choose a resource, and it will likely be great.

But better still, principles of economics can be practiced very easily too! What are you waiting for? 🙂

Finally: Crosswords (at least the one closest to my home) wraps some books in clear shrink wrap, but not others. Does anybody know why?

The Ecstacy and the Agony

I watch three sports somewhat regularly, and I’ll answer the question for each of them:
  1. Cricket: Chennai 1999. I agree with Kartik, in other words.
  2. Football: The last minute or so of the 2012 EPL season.
  3. Tennis: The men’s final at Wimbledon, 2019. I still don’t understand how he lost.

The broader question, of course, is whether the increase in the supply of cricket matches has reduced their value, at least for me. And I think the answer is yes. This also helps us understand why the ESL would have been a really bad idea. I need to explore this idea more thoroughly in 2021.

And thank god for Roger Federer!

Etc: Links for 11th October, 2019

  1. Celebtrating Rafa Nadal. That this piece is written 14(!) years after Nadal won his first Grand Slam is beyond remarkable. I am, for the record (and will forever be) a Federer acolyte, but I gave up on the who-is-better battle long, long ago. I am just grateful to be a tennis fan alive in this era.
    “”Under different circumstances, his performance would have been more than good enough to win the tournament. He had the bad luck of facing Nadal, one of the sport’s greatest champions, on a night when Nadal simply refused to lose.”
  2. A useful list for lazy weekends: the signature film of every city. The excerpt below is about Washington D.C. Pair this recommendation with an app called JustWatch, which is worth it’s proverbial weight in gold.
    “If you want to get a sense of a city in a movie, following around a couple of reporters for a major paper is a damn good way to evoke the mood of the metropolis. Watching Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relentlessly prowl the streets and restaurants and parking garages of the nation’s capital in pursuit of a truth that will ultimately bring down the President of the United States is as D.C., and American, as it gets. Honorable mention: Ashby’s “Being There,” Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, Brooks’ “Broadcast News,” the Coens’ “Burn After Reading,” Schumacher’s “D.C. Cab” and countless others.”
  3. Humanity is a kind of ‘biological boot loader’ for AI, says Elon Musk.
    “People don’t realize we are already a cyborg. Because we are so well integrated with our phones and our computers. The phone is almost like an extension of yourself. If you forget your phone, it’s like a missing limb. But the bandwidth, the communication bandwidth to the phone is very low, especially input. So in fact, input bandwidth to computers has actually gone down, because typing with two thumbs, as opposed to 10 fingers, is a big reduction in bandwidth.”
  4. The 100 Best Albums of the 21st Century. I am not qualified to pass opinion, but my commute is, as they say, sorted.
  5. A book recommendation via MR. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin. I have purchased it, but haven’t read it yet. Probably (and hopefully) on the Thailand trip.