Showing Up For Work

I ended up not posting on these pages this past Wednesday.

I’m not proud of it, and I wished I had posted on that day, but let’s talk about showing up for work. The phrase isn’t mine, in the sense that I associate it with Seth Godin. And this practice, of trying to write here every weekday, and post links to interesting Twitter threads and videos over the weekend, is partly because of Seth’s practice of writing daily without fail. And also, of course, due to that other blog that has daily updates, come rain or shine.

And trust me, it is hard to do! I don’t feel quite so bad about not posting for long stretches over the past two years, because there were days where I simply didn’t feel like writing. And I was completely fine with that. But this past Wednesday, it was part laziness, part lots of other things to do, and part logistical issues.

But I should stop wussing around and ‘fess up. These are all excuses, and if I aim to post daily, then failure to post is I not prioritizing this task above all else. Generally speaking, I try to schedule posts a week ahead, and a good Friday is when I have posts lined up all through next Sunday.

But alas, this doesn’t always happen. And so you might see me hunched up over my laptop, a gently sympathetic cup of coffee next to me in a café, typing away furiously to meet my self-imposed deadline of posting by ten am. A bad day is one on which I miss the deadline, and a horrible day is one on which I don’t post at all.


The reason I’m writing this post today, and the reason I’ve spoken at length about my failure this past Wednesday, is because I want to leave you with two messages:

  1. If you write (and preferably post publicly) regularly for long enough, you will reach a stage where it becomes an almost compulsive habit, and that is A Very Good Thing. As Seth himself says, there is no such thing as writer’s block. Just sit and write. Some days will be diamonds and some will be stones, but the point is to first write. Worry about quality later.
  2. If you feel as bad as I do about missing a day, that is An Even Better Thing! But keep at it, and show up for work the next day, and then the day after, and then the day after that. Each day is, as it were, a marginal revolution.

And while you are at it, wish me luck. For today is Friday, and I don’t yet have any posts scheduled for next week.

Ah well, onwards!

Learning by Writing (But There’s More!)

As you might imagine, I’m a big fan of the idea of learning by writing, and preferably, writing for public consumption.

Writing is its own discipline, and it is a wonderful way to make thoughts and concepts clear in your own head. And writing for public consumption forces you to be clearer in terms of how you frame your thoughts, and the internet acts as an extremely alert editor for free. Trust me, writing your thoughts down is great. Try it!

But there’s ways and means to make this process even better, and I chanced upon a nice little essay that gives advice on just this very point:

I usually start by trying to read the most prominent 1-3 pieces that (a) defend the claim or (b) attack the claim or (c) set out to comprehensively review the evidence on both sides. I try to understand the major reasons they’re giving for the side they come down on. I also chat about the topic with people who know more about it than I do, and who aren’t too high-stakes to chat with.

https://www.cold-takes.com/learning-by-writing/

The essay is titled “Learning by Writing“, but I interpret it more as an essay about how to get better at learning by writing. That is, I think the essay is about how to get better at the process of writing – the fact that you will learn by doing so is all but guaranteed.

And to me, the most important part of the process of writing is the quote above, and in particular, the following: “I also chat about the topic with people who know more about it than I do, and who aren’t too high-stakes to chat with”.

Blogging, and writing more generally, is a very solitary endeavour. Reading 1-3 pieces is the easy bit, and is a lot of fun to do. I tend to be a very opinionated reader, so forming an opinion or a hypothesis one way or the other isn’t difficult to do. Taking a contrarian position – a position that is at odds with your take on the issue – is rather more difficult, but I have found it entirely worth my while.

But that last bit – chatting with people who more about it than I do, and who aren’t too high-stakes to chat with, that bit is difficult. Lots of people know much more than I do about lots of things, so there’s no shortage of supply in that regard, but the “aren’t too high stakes to chat with” isn’t easy.

Also, given the fact that I try to post everyday, and my, shall we say, above average procrastination skills make it difficult to meet the deadline of posting on time and having conversations about what I am going to write about.

But in the cases where I manage to do so (chat about what I am going to write about with friends/mentors/experts), I find my own writing to be noticeable better. So not for all posts that will follow, but at least for some of them, I shall try and do exactly this: chat with folks who know a bit about the topic, before writing about it.

The rest of the essay isn’t actually about the point that I have raised over here, but it is still worth a read. Shown below is a table of the author’s outline for writing a piece:

https://www.cold-takes.com/learning-by-writing/

Again, I don’t think something like this can/will work on a daily posting schedule, but at least one post a week?

Onwards!

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.

Onwards!

Make Examinations Relevant Again

Alice Evans (and if you are unfamiliar with her work, here’s a great way to begin learning more about it) recently tweeted about a topic that is close to my heart:

And one of the replies was fascinating:


I’ve asked students to create podcasts in the past for assignments, but not yet for final or semester end examinations, because I am constrained by the rules of whichever university I’m teaching in. There are some that allow for experimentation and off-the-beaten-path formats, but the vast majority are still in “Answer the following” mode.

But ever since I came across that tweet, I’ve been thinking about how we could make examinations in this country better, more relevant, and design them in such a way that we test skills that are applicable to the world we live in today, rather than the world of a 100 years ago.

To me, the ideal examination would include the following:

  • The ability to do fast-paced research on a collaborative basis
  • The ability to work as a team to be able to come up with output on the basis of this research
  • The ability to write (cogently and concisely) about how you as an individual think about the work that your team came up with

What might such an examination look like? Well, it could take many forms, but here’s one particular form that I have been thinking about.

Imagine an examination for a subject like, say, macroeconomics. Here’s a question I would love to ask students to think about for such an examination today. “Do you and your team find yourself on Team Transitory or Team Persistent when it comes to inflation today? The answer, in whatever format, should make sense to a person almost entirely unacquainted with economics.”

This would be a three hour long examination. Say the exam is for a cohort of 120 students. I’d split the class up into 10 groups of 12 each, and ask each group to spend one hour thinking about this question, and doing the research necessary to come up with an answer. They can discuss the question, split the work up (refer to textbooks, refer to material online, watch YouTube videos, discuss with each other, appoint a leader – whatever it is that they need to do) and come up with an outline of what their answer is.

The next hour would be coming up with the answer itself: write a blogpost about it, or record audio, or record video. The format is up to them, as is the length. The only requirement is that the output must answer the question, and must include reasons for their choice. Whether the background information that is required to make sense is to be given (or referenced, or skipped altogether) is entirely up to the students.

And the final hour must be spent on a short write-up where each individual student submits their view about their team’s submission. Given that the second hour’s output was collaborative, does the student as an individual agree with the work done? Why? Or why not? What would the student have liked to have done differently? This part must be written, for the ability to write well is (to me) non-negotiable.

To me, this examination will encompass research (which can only be done in an hour if the students are familiar enough with the subject at hand, so they need to have done their homework), collaboration and the ability to think critically about the work that they were a part of. Grading could be split equally on a fifty-fifty basis: half for the work done collaboratively, and half for the individual essay submission.


Sure, there would be some problems. Students might object to the groups that have been formed or students might end up quarreling so much in the first two hours that they’re not left with much time. Or something else altogether, which is impossible to foresee right now.

But I would argue that such examinations are more reflective of the work that the students will actually do in the world outside. More reflective than “Answer the following” type questions, that is.

The point isn’t to defend this particular format. The point is to ask if the current format needs to change (yes!) and if so how (this being only one suggestion).

Right now, examinations provide a 19th century solution to very real 21st century problems, and their irrelevance becomes ever more glaring by the day.


We need to talk about examinations, and we aren’t.

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?

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/07/why-do-they-keep-the-books-wrapped-in-mexican-bookstores.html

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?

Hajjar Awesome!

The phrasing of the title is because of English August, a book I read long ago, and still remember very fondly. And it’s sort of a pat on the back for myself because I completed a thousand posts on EFE. Well, strictly speaking this is post number 1003, but let’s round it off to an even thousand today.

My friends and colleagues, past and present, will be happy to confirm that there are few folks lazier than me, and I’ll happily admit to it myself. Which is all the more reason to celebrate this, because to keep this going for a thousand posts over five years is an achievement of sorts for me.

We started this blog on a whim sometime in June 2016, my wife and I, without having a very clear idea about what was to come of it. I started off, as I almost always do, with a large amount of enthusiasm, and as with everything else I do, said enthusiasm petered out soon enough. But since June 2018, I’ve been fairly regular, averaging about a post a day.

There have been periods of radio silence last year, and the reason is that I went through extended bouts of “but what is the point?”. Not jus the point of writing on the blog, but doing anything at all. It was that kind of a year, and I will not beat myself up over feeling that way, and about breaking my streak. Excreta, as the poet says, happens.

And there have been periods of radio silence this year too, but the second wave was devastating for all of us. We have all suffered losses, immediate family or extended. But for all of our sakes, let’s not dwell on that anymore. We’ve all had enough of it.


What have I learnt from writing these thousand posts?

  1. As David Perell pointed out on Twitter recently (as have others), if you take care of the quantity, the quality will take care of itself. Some of my posts have been atrociously bad, some have been about me trying to find my voice, and a lot have been of fairly middling quality, at best. But there are some that I am genuinely proud of, and remember very fondly indeed.
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    My learning has been to show up (almost) everyday, without fail. It doesn’t matter if people read what I have written or not, comment or not, share or not. The writing is its own reward. I may have said this before on these pages, but if you’re a student reading this, please: write. Or make videos, or Instagram posts (or stories, or whatever one calls it), or tweet, or make a podcast. But put your work out there, and that regularly. Trust me, it does wonders for you.
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  2. I haven’t bothered with measuring anything. I don’t add identifiers to outbound links, I haven’t installed Google Analytics, I don’t do affiliate links, and I don’t advertise anywhere. I try to respond to whatever comments folks put up, whether here on the blog, or on LinkedIn and Twitter. If you have written a comment and I have not responded, my apologies! I have also automated the sharing of these posts on Facebook, but I (quite literally) haven’t logged in to Facebook in years.
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    My learning has been that quantifying stuff is strictly optional. I write everyday (well, almost), and even that is not a measure or a requirement. It’s a choice. Who is reading this, is the readership going up over time, which social media site drives the most traffic to my website – I don’t know any of this. And it doesn’t really matter. I just write.
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  3. Writing these thousand posts has made me painfully aware of how little I know. Nassim Taleb has made famous the concept of the anti-library, and in that sense, writing on this blog is a daily reminder of how much remains to be read, learnt and written about.
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    My learning is that writing is a humbling experience, and that becomes truer the more you do it. And that’s a good thing! Think of it this way, you don’t write to show how much you know. You write to understand how much there remains to be learnt.
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  4. I don’t schedule my posts too much in advance. The most I’ve ever managed is a couple of weeks or so, and that because I was due to go on vacation. Otherwise (and this includes today) it is a case of get up, arm yourself with coffee, and think about what to write. That has its disadvantages, because an unmarinated blogpost doesn’t acquire the depth of flavour it could have otherwise. But it also has its advantages, because I am the kind of person who works best when panicking a little bit about upcoming deadlines.
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    My learning is that habit formation is a real thing, not just management speak. If you do something for long enough, it becomes a habit, but better – it becomes a habit you’re unwilling to break. And you end up finding the time one way or the other to keep at it. And that, in and of itself, is worth it.
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  5. The more I write, the more I remember stuff I’ve written. This is not a statistically valid observation, and I haven’t analyzed it, but I do think that I increasingly link to posts I’ve written earlier. I don’t say this to show how much I’ve written in the past, but to explain that I’m able to “connect the dots” better. I now understand better how what I’m writing about today can be thought of as an aspect of something I’ve written about earlier (or vice versa). My understanding of the world, such as it is, is definitely better than it was earlier. That’s a healthy profit right there!
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    My learning has been that writing is a way of teaching myself to think, to see the larger picture, and to make connections between topics that I would not have otherwise. And for that reason, I highly recommend it. It is not for me to say if I have become a better writer. That is for others to judge. But I can think better for having written these posts, that I feel (mostly) certain about.
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  6. I wanted to celebrate the thousand posts by coming up with a book based on on what I would have called some of my best work here. I even spoke about this with some of my friends and students, all of whom were very kind with their encouragement. But on reflection, the “could’ve been a blogpost instead” argument was much too strong to go up against. A book ought to be a book, not a vanity project.
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    But spinoffs is a good idea, I think. And for that I would like your help. What can I do more of? Less of? Add a weekly podcast that reflects in greater detail on what I’ve written that week? I’ll happily admit to not having the faintest idea about where I’ll find the time, but that’s one possibility. A day of the week dedicated to book reviews? God knows it’ll force me to read more books, and get better at writing about them. What else? Please send in your suggestions, and I really do mean that.
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  7. I don’t have any desire to turn this into a newsletter (Substack, or Revue, or anything else). One, because I’m lazy. I can’t bear to think about the nightmare of moving over into another system and all of what that entails. Plus, WordPress, which is where this is hosted, is just fine by me. Except for the new block editor style they have. I loathe it, and it is far too buggy for my liking. But I’ve gotten used to it now, and I’ve quite literally adopted the way I write to its idiosyncrasies, so why invest in changing now? (You want examples? Those little “..” signs that you see throughout this post are there because I don’t know how to introduce spacing between points otherwise. Pah.)
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  8. I cannot tell you about the number of people I have gotten a chance to meet and work with as a direct consequence of this blog. Students, professors, folks from the corporate world, people who work in think tanks, research organizations, and more besides. I often tell students that putting your work out there is a great way to build out your network, and I don’t say that without basis. It quite really is true. That ought not to be the reason to write, but it is a positive externality spillover, and a very welcome one. I’ve built my community as a consequence of writing this blog, and I am very thankful for it.
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  9. There are opportunity costs, of course. Those never go away.
    1. Maybe I could have written more academic papers? I don’t necessarily want to, and I’ll explain why in a blogpost one day, but I certainly could have.
    2. Maybe I could have read more books? This one hurts, because I really could have, and I really would have wanted to. But I think the takeaway is becoming better at time management. In other words, do both, but sacrifice something else in my day. Meetings. I would love to “sacrifice” meetings.
    3. Made more podcasts? Learnt a new skill? Made more videos? Traveled more? Again, I think the answer lies in learning how to get better at becoming more productive.
    4. So a promise to myself (and I’m old enough, and perhaps cynical enough, to already come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably end up breaking it): read more books, create more podcasts, make more videos, and attend less meetings.
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  10. Thank you for reading! I hope to do this for years to come, and I’m grateful that you have chosen to read whatever it is that I put out on these pages. If you have any feedback or suggestions for me, I would love to hear it. Again, thank you very, very, much 🙂

Arbitrage and Writing

Here are excerpts from two newsletters that you should consider signing up for if you are a student of economics:

In late June, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), India’s central bank and the banker to the banks, released the household financial debt figures based on select financial indicators. Household financial debt is basically loans that you and I have taken from the formal financial system of the banks (both commercial and cooperative) and the non-banking finance companies (NBFCs).
Of course, there are other ways to borrow as well. One can borrow against gold as a collateral from a local jeweller or simply borrow from a local money lender or borrow money from friends and family, which is why, the RBI calls it household financial debt based on select indicators.
It needs to be kept in mind here that borrowing from the informal sources is perhaps easier but at the same time more expensive, given that the risk for those lending money is higher.
So, what does the RBI data tell us? In absolute terms, the total household financial debt based on select indicators has gone up from Rs 55.38 lakh crore to Rs 73.13 lakh crore, between June 2018 and December 2020.

https://www.livemint.com/mint-top-newsletter/easynomics09072021.html

That is from Vivek Kaul’s (relatively) new newsletter, Easynomics. It is written in Vivek’s trademark style: easy to read, gloriously simple sentences (which is hard to do!), and sprinkled with just enough additional information to keep you engaged as you read through his main points. In short, really, really well done.

Here’s an excerpt from the second newsletter:

Despite this, it is unreasonable to expect that the government will reduce tax on these two fuels. Why? Sample this: excise duties on petrol and diesel accounted for a whopping 28 per cent of the central government’s tax revenue last year. Which government would let such a bounty slip by, especially when the country’s economic recovery is fragile? Think about it.
And, unlike income tax and goods and services tax, which entail a collection cost, oil marketing companies just have to do a simple RTGS transaction to pay the fuel tax they collect from us to the government! The government then uses the money for a range of welfare schemes.

https://businessstandard.substack.com/p/a-litre-of-petrol-takes-up-30-of

This, to my mind, is equally easy to read! The point of this blogpost is to point out that both writers have created simple, easy to understand posts about aspects of the Indian economy that matter to the common Indian citizen.

And they have done this by taking data from government websites. This data, as I have discussed here before, is not always easy to acquire. But those of us who have done the hard work of understanding how it is captured, where it is stored, when it is released, and how to go about making it analyzable1, have an advantage over those of us who remain blissfully unaware of all this.

But those of us who are blissfully unaware wouldn’t mind reading about the implications of this data, only if somebody were to take the time and effort to acquire that data and write simple, useful takeaways about it.

In finance, this is called arbitrage:

In economics and finance, arbitrage is the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices at which the unit is traded. When used by academics, an arbitrage is a transaction that involves no negative cash flow at any probabilistic or temporal state and a positive cash flow in at least one state; in simple terms, it is the possibility of a risk-free profit after transaction costs. For example, an arbitrage opportunity is present when there is the possibility to instantaneously buy something for a low price and sell it for a higher price. (Emphasis added)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbitrage

If you are an economics student, and you know where all this data hides, and you know enough about how this data impacts the daily lives of citizens, and you want to get better at communication, there is riskless profit to be made. Get the data, analyze it, write about it, and give it away for free.

You learn the art and skill of of acquiring this data, you learn the art and skill of analyzing it, you learn the art and skill of writing about it (and you only get better over time, so don’t worry if the first few pieces aren’t “great”). You get to publish stuff that you can put on your CV – in fact, as I am fond of saying, it has the power to quite literally become your CV. Folks get to read what you’ve written, and they therefore understand our field and its implications in their lives a little bit better.

Nobody loses out, and we all win!

And when that great and glorious day arrives, and governments in India acknowledge that the way they make data available to its citizens is crappy, you have the ability to write a series of posts about exactly how the government could do a better job in this regard.

Learn how to work with data if you are a student of economics in India, and then write about it.

It’s a great form of arbitrage.

  1. what an utterly horrible word![]

What Makes For a Good Communicator?

Sushmitha Kanukurthi, a good friend (and asker of difficult questions!) left this comment on last Friday’s post:

I wish you would elaborate on what it means to be a good communicator … how do you articulate effectively for e.g.?

Nice, easy, no-pressure question to tackle on a Friday morning! 🙂

But let’s go ahead and try and break it down:

  1. One way to think about communication – you have a structure of interlinked thoughts in your head, and you want to transfer it into someone else’s head.
  2. Before you begin this transfer, which is bloody hard, it would help to have your own structure as clearly constructed, and as simply constructed as possible.
  3. At the risk of being a little meta: I have thoughts about what makes a good communicator in my head, and I would like to transfer these thoughts into your head, via this post. This post thus becomes the transference mechanism.
  4. Writing this post is difficult enough. But boss, it would be a lot easier if I was clear in my own head about the topic! Also: being clear about it is different from being “right” about it. That’s a whole other topic, and we’re not getting into it today.
  5. So that’s the first requirement of being a good communicator: being clear in your own head about the topic at hand.
  6. Now, this is where the whole thing becomes tricky, and you’d do well to pay attention: over time, you realize that the best way to be clear in your own head about a topic is by writing it down.
    1. This is not me dispensing gyaan. This is me quoting other folks. I just happen to be in complete agreement.
    2. This is the quote: “The Arabs have an expression for trenchant prose: no skill to understand it, mastery to write it.”
    3. So if you’re asking how to be a better writer, it is about thinking clearly. If you’re asking how to think clearly, write. The bottomline: start writing.
  7. Don’t worry about whether it is badly written or not. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense or not. In fact, you’re guaranteed less than desirable quality the first few times.
  8. No, I’m not going to quantify the word “few”. It would be a very boring world if the answer were to be the same for all of us. But forget about quality, just write.
    It is like learning how to ride a bicycle. We all struggle the first (ahem) few times, and then it comes naturally. But we all have to stumble the first few times, now what to do.
  9. After the first few times, start to worry about “better”. And better is often about removing the bad parts from your essay, rather than trying to add the good stuff in. A sparse, elegant essay isn’t written at the first go. It is what is left at the end of ruthless editing. Write a first draft out, and force yourself to cut it down to 2/3 of the original length. What you’ll be left with will be good communication.
    And if you are the kind of person who is hard on yourself, find solace in this: it may not be good by your standards, but it will be better than the first draft.
  10. Writing is a form of teaching, and teaching forces you to be clear about stuff you are thinking about. Write, therefore with an audience in mind, and that audience is your student. Will your student have learnt for reading what you have written? If not, re-write. If yes, stop rewriting.
  11. Practice. Practice everyday. Everyday you get a little bit better. Have you ever experienced that feeling of surprise at the end of a long walk on the beach, when you glance back and see how far you’ve come? Your writing today won’t be much better than your writing yesterday, but your writing today will be much better than your writing was on the 11th of June, 2020.
    So long as you wrote everyday between that day and today, of course 🙂

That would be my answer to Sushmitha’s question. I wish (for my own sake) that I had an easier answer!

Forecasting The Future

All forecasting models are fun to learn about, and to tinker with in your software of choice. But it is equally true that all forecasting models are problematic.

First, they’re based on the assumption that the future will look like the past. Eventually, that will not be the case – this is a guarantee.

Second, even if they are based on the past, there is the problem of survivorship bias to consider in your sample of choice (my thanks to Aadisht for helping me realize this better).

And third, your predictions cannot – I repeat, cannot – account for all the underlying complexities. Forecasting is a ridiculously risky thing to do, and kudos to those who try, for this very reason.

I’d done a round-up of posts I had read in January 2020 (remember January 2020? Those were the days) that tried to predict what the world would look like when it came to India, technology and the world. I bring this up to re-emphasize the point I was trying to make in the previous paragraph: no matter how sophisticated your model, no matter how careful your sampling, and no matter however many dots you connect: reality will always have you beat.

That’s just how it is. Forecasting models work well until they don’t, and that one time they don’t can often be more costly than all the times they did.


And that brings me to this tweet:


What should you take away from this tweet (and the rest of the thread)?

My primary audience when I write here is, in a sense, myself back when I was an undergrad/post-grad student. So what advice would I want to give to myself after having read that Twitter thread?

  1. As Nitin Pai himself goes on to say in a subsequent tweet, this is a useful principle to have: Don’t try to predict the future.
  2. Respect skin in the game. Did he get it wrong? Sure he did. But hey, it takes courage to put your reasoning, your thoughts and your conclusions in the public domain. Feel free to disagree with the conclusions, but accord people who write in public the respect they deserve for having done so.
  3. Have the courage to admit you were wrong. We have two examples in front of us. One is the usual “I was misquoted/misunderstood” weasel talk. The other is an admission of error, straight up, and without qualifiers. Like the tweet above.
  4. Work at getting better. A publicly available record of your thoughts is invaluable, because it forces you to write after thinking carefully. It is also invaluable because you can outsource the “where can I get better” to the internet. And there are enough (trust me) people on the internet who will enthusiastically point out where you’re wrong. Use that advice constructively. By that I mean this, specifically: continue to write in the public domain, and that will mean making mistakes. Try not to make the same ones twice.

Like Nitin, I have written about what we’ve been going through, and how we might get out of it. All of it is available here on this blog. Some of it might turn out to be wrong – in fact, there’s a guarantee that if I write enough, some of it will be wrong. And given the pandemic that we’re going through, the stakes are impossibly high.

But it is the process of writing in public, and giving feedback on what other people write in public that drives our thinking forward.

So again, if you’re a student reading this: write. Write in the public domain. Make mistakes. Develop a thick enough skin to take on the criticism. Learn the (almost impossible to acquire) skill of figuring out when you’re wrong, and develop and hone the courage it takes to admit it.

And then, write again.


(Quick note: posting will be sporadic for some time.)

Write!

In my Utopian world, there would be a mandatory qualification to appear for job interviews in college.

You should have been writing at least thrice a week since you got into college. Minimum. This writing should be freely accessible online. Without this writing, you don’t get to sit for job interviews.

What, you might ask, should you be writing about?

Here’s one way to think about it: what are you most curious about? What broad subject, topic or concept do you wish to learn about the most? Write about that. Then write about the an aspect, a nuance, an offshoot that you thought about while writing that first post. Trust me, there is no way for you to write about something – anything – without having thought about something else to write about. I guarantee it.

And continue writing. As I said, at least thrice a week.

Writing often happens in bunches. By that I mean that it is possible that you will write three posts all in one day, and then not write for a week. That’s fine – in fact, that’s great. At the end of the month, you should have 12 posts up, at a minimum.

If you have questions about the length of the post, which blogging service to use, which template to use for your blog – and other questions of this nature, you are procrastinating. And that’s fine too. Nobody procrastinates better than me. But at some point of time you’ll have to acknowledge to yourself that you are procrastinating – and as Seth Godin puts it, you’ll have to start shipping.

Does it have to be in English, you ask? Dear god, no. Any language will do. It just has to be thrice a week.

Your first few posts will be horrible. They will be long drawn, rambling posts that show confused thinking, an unclear grasp of concepts and a hesitancy to call a spade a spade. That’s fine. It’s like the first few weeks at the gym. You can’t help but stare in wonder at the regulars and the effortless ease with which they get through their gym routine.

But just like in the case of going to the gym, stick at it long enough, and things will start to get better.

Your sentences will get shorter. Your grasp of concepts will become clearer. How could it not? Once you realize, through your writing, what you do not know, you can’t help but want to change the status quo.

And once you are sure footed in terms of a grasp on the concepts, you will begin to call a spade a spade too.

The bad news? All this doesn’t happen without showing up regularly.

The good news? Stick to it, and you have a body of work that allow you to sail through your interview.

Write.

Please, write.