Etc: Links for 16th August, 2019

I have linked to brainpickings before, but this week, I have been reading it almost incessantly. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I have economics textbooks coming out of my ears.

In particular, I have been reading about what Maria Popova has to say about Kurt Vonnegut – and that is a heady combination indeed. And so today’s links are five posts about Vonnegut by Popova (and a bonus sixth one at the end!)

  1. “I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.”
    An excerpt from a letter to his daughter.
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  2. “When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.”
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    A part of his daily routine, as outlined to his wife.
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  3. “I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.”
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    Hamlet from his viewpoint.
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  4. “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
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    This was the second piece that I read this week about Vonnegut, and the advice about how to write better is masterful.
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  5. “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
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    And this was the first.

And because it is Friday, and because why not, a short poem by Vonnegut.

Tech: Links for 13th July, 2019

Five articles by Michael Nielsen. If you aren’t familiar with Michael Nielsen, this is a great place to start!

  1. His version of how to write better.
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  2. A scientist’s explanation of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.
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  3. May this come true, and right soon.
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  4. “In the US House of Representatives, 61 percent of Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, while a much higher percentage, 80 percent, of Republicans voted for the Act. You might think that we could conclude from this that being Republican, rather than Democrat, was an important factor in causing someone to vote for the Civil Rights Act. However, the picture changes if we include an additional factor in the analysis, namely, whether a legislator came from a Northern or Southern state. If we include that extra factor, the situation completely reverses, in both the North and the South. Here’s how it breaks down:North: Democrat (94 percent), Republican (85 percent)

    South: Democrat (7 percent), Republican (0 percent)

    Yes, you read that right: in both the North and the South, a larger fraction of Democrats than Republicans voted for the Act, despite the fact that overall a larger fraction of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Act.”
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    One of my favorite problems from statistics: Simpson’s Paradox. And an old frenemy: correlation is not causation.
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  5. Memory, and how to get better at it.

Links for 31st May, 2019

  1. “For economists, the idea of “spending” time isn’t a metaphor. You can spend any resource, not just money. Among all the inequalities in our world, it remains true that every person is allocated precisely the same 24 hours in each day. In “Escaping the Rat Race: Why We Are Always Running Out of Time,” the Knowledge@Wharton website interviews Daniel Hamermesh, focusing on themes from his just-published book Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource.”
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    Almost a cliche, but oh-so-true. The one non-renewable resource is time. A nice read, the entire set of excerpts within this link.
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  2. ““Bad writing makes slow reading,” McCloskey writes. Your reader has to stop and puzzle over what on earth you mean. She quotes Quintilian: “One ought to take care to write not merely so that the reader can understand, but so that he canot possibly misunderstand.” This is harder than it sounds. As the author of several books, I’ve learned that many readers take out of a book whatever thoughts they took into it. Still, what else is worth aiming for if you want to communicate your ideas?”
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    As the first comment below the fold says, she herself doesn’t follow her own advice all the time (and yes, that is putting it mildly), but the book that Diane Coyle reviews in this article is always worth your time. Multiple re-readings, in fact. Also, I am pretty good at writing bad prose myself, which is why I like reading this book so much.
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  3. “Popper acknowledged that one can never know if a prediction fails because the underlying theory is false or because one of the auxiliary assumptions required to make the prediction is false, or even because of an error in measurement. But that acknowledgment, Popper insisted, does not refute falsificationism, because falsificationism is not a scientific theory about how scientists do science; it is a normative theory about how scientists ought to do science. The normative implication of falsificationism is that scientists should not try to shield their theories by making just-so adjustments in their theories through ad hoc auxiliary assumptions, e.g., ceteris paribus assumptions, to shield their theories from empirical disproof. Rather they should accept the falsification of their theories when confronted by observations that conflict with the implications of their theories and then formulate new and better theories to replace the old ones.”
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    I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that the author of this essay should read the book reviewed above first – but if you aren’t familiar with falsification, you might want to begin by reading this essay.
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  4. “Upheaval, by Jared Diamond. I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.”
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    Bill Gates has this annual tradition of  recommending five books for the summer – and I haven’t read a single one of the five he has recommended this year. All of them seem interesting – Diamond’s book perhaps more so than others.
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  5. “Books don’t work for the same reason that lectures don’t work: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things, and as a result, both mediums accidentally (and mostly invisibly) evolved around a theory that’s plainly false.”
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    To say that I am fascinated by this topic is an understatement – and I have a very real, very powerful personal incentive to read this especially attentively. That being said, I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to learn about how we learn, and why we learn so poorly.

Links for 8th April, 2019

  1. “The message of the chart, after all, is the same in both versions. But the takeaway is important: if two series follow each other too closely, it is probably a good idea to have a closer look at the scales.”
    A lovely, lovely read on how even The Economist (gasp!) sometimes gets visualizations wrong. But jokes aside, it is a lovely read on how difficult data visualization is.
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  2. “What I am angry about is our underinvestment in figuring out how to better treat mental health problems. Even with all of the other suffering there is in the world, I believe that suffering from mental health problems is a large part of human suffering. Without referencing his own suffering, Alan did a lot to advance the recognition of the importance of mental health problems—and more broadly, the importance of everything that contributes to a good life—with his research on subjective well-being.”
    Miles Kimball, who was a peer of Alan Krueger’s at Harvard, writes a lovely essay about him, and more besides. Entirely worth a read.
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  3. “Grief is a gift, wrapped in the worst possible package. It shows you who you are, and teaches you lessons you would never have learned otherwise. Your compassion for others is magnified. Your understanding of what motivates people sharpens. You are grateful for small wonders and embrace happy moments as never before, because you know—you are absolutely clear about this—that you must celebrate when you can and while you can. Grief has taught you not to take these moments for granted. You become an open invitation for wonder.”
    I rarely do this, but on this one occasion, it makes sense. From within the essay in 2. above, this essay by Miles Kimball’s wife, Gail. Please make the time to to read it.
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  4. “While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.”
    Suggestive or not, accurate or not – it certainly makes for fascinating reading. The chart alone is worth the click. An article about whether there may be a common ancestry to symbols found the world over.
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  5. “Indian fiscal federalism is at a crossroads. The question of how money is to be shared between New Delhi and the states on one hand, and among different states on the other, will continue to resonate. There is a lot of talk about the importance of federalism as well as calls for greater centralization. Decentralization is needed because India is too complex a country to have a uniform approach to development. Centralization is necessary because of the risk that important national public goods, including regional equality, could be underfunded. These tricky questions of federal balance need an institutional mechanism that entails either a more effective NITI Aayog or a permanent Finance Commission.”
    Niranjan Rajadhakshya weighs in on what should replace the NITI Aayog and the Planning Commission,