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What I’m Learning: Day 19/365

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” ― Socrates

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Rebecca Solnit on the relationship between reading and writing:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Rebecca Solnit on the power of books and the manner in which they transformed her life:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

Rebecca SolnitOn  on writing as a conversion with no one and everyone:

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

The Economics of Paternalism

Economist Ed Glaeser of Harvard University talks with host Russ Roberts about the dangers of soft paternalism–various forms of government regulation that fall short of outright bans or taxes but that are meant to correct alleged flaws in the choices we make. Glaeser argues that while individuals do inevitably make mistakes, so do politicians, and the concentration of power in the hands of the few makes government “benevolence” particularly dangerous.

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Ed Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, discusses the distinction between hard paternalism and soft paternalism. He defines hard paternalism as forms of legislation that explicitly outlaw or penalize our unhealthy or flawed choices. Soft paternalism, on the other hand, is understood as a way of discouraging certain kinds of choices (ie. warning labels on cigarettes) without directly infringing on people’s freedom to choose. Glaeser then argues against both forms paternalism. He then makes a case for why the motives and abilities of political actors should be treated with the same healthy skepticism that we’d apply towards anyone else. While it is true that people often make unhealthy and self-destructive choices, he argues that the consequences are even worse when we give the government a monopoly on violence for the sake of forcing us to make choices that a particular group of politicians deem healthy, right, or good.

Among the many interesting points made by Glaeser, I particularly enjoyed the excerpt where discussed how how understanding the belief formation process in terms of supply and demand can help make sense out of why certain regulations and policies are passed in spite of the harm it does to the people they’re designed to help:

I think that the central lesson of psychology is that our beliefs are enormously manipulable. We actually believe things most of the time because we’ve been told them, not because we’ve seen hard evidence for them…Once you recognize that beliefs are formed by our friends, our neighbors, what we hear, what we read, it suggests a huge role for the suppliers of belief — be they ministers, be they politicians, be they friends out there to convince other friends — who then are the actors who help change people’s beliefs. Historically, there has been this whole array of people who recognize that there are profit opportunities and political strength to be gained by convincing people of things…This is why I think economics has so much to add to psychology. The only way that you understand the market is by thinking about the interaction between supply and demand. Only by thinking about beliefs as being supplied by suppliers of beliefs interacting with consumers, we will we actually make sense of the things we believe. In any sensible model like this, you come up with the view that you expect to see more errors when you have highly incentivized suppliers interacting with unincentivized consumers. In the case of buying ice cream or razor blades, consumers have a fairly strong incentive to get it right. It’s not all that easy to convince guys that some crappy razor is incredibly good to use because you have to put up with that crappy razor and after you use it, you get some feedback on it. In the case of politics, you have strongly incentivized suppliers who really want to capture government, who really want to win elections so that they can impose their own policies. At the same time, they’re interacting citizens who really don’t have strong incentives to figure out if we send more medicaid or foreign aid. It’s not like that knowledge. It’s not like that knowledge is going to make some huge difference in terms of their everyday life. So why should they go out and undergo the pain and suffering of actually figuring out where those dollars are being spent. As a result, he policy world is one in which there’s tremendous scope for error because of these highly incentivized suppliers pushing around beliefs.

Using smoking and cigarettes as an example, Glaeser also makes the point that soft paternalism almost always leads to hard paternalism. He also discusses the gay rights issue and argues that most of the problems that surround this topic are result of governmental paternalism. He also talks about negative externalities and discusses how we can think about them within a framework that honors individual choice.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

MM McCabe on Socratic Method

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, MM McCabe discusses the life of Socrates and the style of questioning that defined his legacy. She describes Socrates as a physically ugly man who quickly came to irritate the politically and intellectually elite of Athens with his penetrating and incisive questions about knowledge and ethics. Socrates became such a source of annoyance to those who didn’t like his questions or to those who were threatened by his emphasis on critical, that he was eventually charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death by being forced to drink hemlock. McCabe goes into detail discussing what’s unique and important about the Socratic Method, a term philosophers use to refer to his particular style of questioning.

One significant aspect of the Socratic Method, according to MM McCabe, is that it isn’t merely a matter of pressing oneself or others to provide evidence for a particular point of view, but it’s also a systematic attempt to evaluate the coherence or internal consistency of one’s broader worldview. That is, the Socratic Method is aimed at developing a deeper understanding of how all our beliefs fit together. Additionally, she points out that the Socratic Method embodies the conviction that philosophy is a conversation and collaborative enterprise. Thinking about our beliefs is not just a matter of isolating ourselves and working out the problems of life in solitude, but of also engaging others and allowing them to engage us about the concepts we live by. For Socrates, philosophy is essentially a social activity. One of the most widely known sayings of Socrates is “The unexamined life is not worth living.” According to McMcabe, Socrates was just saying that we need to examine the lives we lead, but that we also need to lead lives of examining.

McCabe believes that this Socratic approach is essential to effective education:

If we’re involved in education at all, whether we’re being educated or doing the educating, it’s not only a good thing to do, but it’s a fundamental feature of how people need to be educated. To discuss with people in this open-minded, open-ended way that allows them to reflect on what they think and us to reflect on what we think without telling, without dogma, without insistence, and without imperative, to ask people to think about what they really think. And what that asks them to do is, if you like, to be true to themselves, asks them to be sincere about their beliefs, to be honest.

McCabe also claims that Socrates would not recognize the approach to education universities take today:

The standard ways that we have of teaching in universities are ways that Socrates wouldn’t recognize…It’s actually very hard to lecture Socratically. Socrates really wouldn’t approve, he certainly wouldn’t approve examinations in the contemporary sense…He wouldn’t like bite-sized, if you’ll forgive my putting it that way, courses. He wouldn’t think you could start here and finish there and get it right about metaphysics. I think perhaps the way to think about it is this: it’s a model that one needs to bear in mind all the time. It keeps you honest just a little bit. It stops you from thinking “Oh yeah, it’s easy. I’ll  go give a few lectures and then I’ve done my job.” Especially in philosophy, that’s not what doing your job looks like.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

The Foundational Difference Between Austrian Economics and the Mainstream | Interview with Paul Cwik

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Nate Silver Says: “Everyone Is Kind of Weird”: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Nate Silver is the editor is chief of and he’s on a mission to approach journalism with a rigorous emphasis on statistical reasoning, critical thinking, big data, and empirical research. In this episode of the Freakonomics podcast, he shares some of his thoughts how to think about big data, predicting long-term success, and some of his professional influences.

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On the importance of thinking critically about statistics and not being hsty with the conclusions we draw from big data:

there are a couple of things to unpack. You know, one is the term “big data” itself. And there are some people who would say, “Well, big data has to be really large, not the sort of stuff you could crunch on a regular computer.” You know, for example, we launched an interactive recently where it looks at- a different way of looking at which flights get you there the fastest, what’s the best airline for logistics, and that relies on data from about 6 million flights. That sounds impressive. But you can still run that program in about ten or twelve minutes on a laptop, right? People wouldn’t really say it’s big data when all those records are pretty carefully scrutinized. But that said, people I think when they say big data often mean analytics really, and statistical analysis, applied statistics. You know, it’s not all about the data necessarily. Oftentimes it’s not about the amount of data you have but how much you vetted that data. If a data set is virginal, as they call it, no one’s looked at it before really. You’re gonna have a lot of problems and one problem with a really large data set is that if you’re running some algorithms, some quick and dirty way to find the most influential data points, a lot of times those are bugs and outliers, right? And the reason why you have that anomaly is because someone coded it in wrong. Or you made some mistake in the analysis.

You know, I also think there aren’t necessarily the skills and the training, so one thing I talk about in my book is how when the personal computer became commonplace in the workforce in the 1970s and then in the home in the early 1980s, it took awhile before there were any tangible signs of productivity gains in the economy, meaning like ten or fifteen or twenty years, even. So I think people love new technology but they overestimate how much of the kind of human factor gets in the way. I’m not trying to be cute about that, I just mean that people need to learn how to use these tools, what they can do, what they can’t do, you know, no amount of data is a substitute for scientific inference and hypothesis testing, and kind of structured analysis of a system. I think one of the false promises that was made early on is that, well if you have a billion data points or a trillion data points, you’re going to find lots and lots of correlations through brute force. And you will, but the problem is that a high percentage of those, maybe the vast majority, are false correlations, are false positives. Where there could be significance, but you have so many lottery tickets when you can run an analysis on a trillion data points, that you’re going to have some one in million coincidences just by chance alone. If you bet all your money on them, you might wind up looking very foolish in the end.

On the trickiness of distinguishing between long-term and short-term indicators of value:

So, you know, I think sometimes people grasp onto outliers, especially when they talk about us and FiveThirtyEight. So ESPN when it signs a deal with a sports league, like the NBA, that’s a 10-year deal. And they literally will be contemplating technologies that don’t even exist yet. The thing about traffic now is that you can measure so much in real time, you know, so you might be able to say, “If we wanted to publish a story that would maximize pageviews right now, we would say, ‘There’s been an alien invasion, right? President Obama has been kidnapped and beamed up to Mars.’” And everyone on the internet would look at that story for about five minutes, and then no one, hopefully, would ever read our site again. There’s no metric, yet, for kind of what’s the long-term value that you’re generating from a stupid article that you post today to get a lot of page views or the loyalty you develop with your customers. So, we saw some baseball a little bit, where for a while people were able to measure offense really well, and not defense really well. And so the sloppy conclusion there is that, “Well we can’t measure defense,” therefore it doesn’t matter.” Well it turned out that when people actually found better ways to measure defensive ability, it turned out to matter at least as much, maybe more than the conventional wisdom had held. So we’re aware of that and that some things you can judge with metrics, some things you can’t and that’s a tricky part of the media business now.

On his biggest intellectual influence:

I mean, you know, I admire Bill James a lot for what he did with baseball statistics. In part because he was way, way ahead of his time. I mean, he kind of preceded Moneyball literally by 20 years or thereabouts, but also because he’s a good communicator and kind of a humanist at heart, right? He’s not just interested in statistics for statistics’ sake, but how they’re used to kind of vest life and our understanding of sports and other things with a lot of meaning instead.

On the one thing he’s spent way to much time or energy on that he doesn’t regret:

I mean, I invest a lot of time and a lot of money in eating well. It’s one of those things that I think in a market like New York, where I live, really rewards effort, where if you spend the time to try different places and sometimes spend the money, although there’s great cheap eats in New York, too, you know I just find that it’s a product where it’s a fun way to experiment and something where you have to eat every day, so you might as well put some thought into it.

On a book that’s influenced his thinking:

I kind of often talk about Daniel Kahneman and Thinking Fast and Slow is kind of, just I think, a really great overall kind of modern guide to thinking, if that isn’t a little too pretentious, or too precious, rather. But that’s one of my favorite books.

On one thing he’s changed his mind about:

I kind of thought, “Well, just be quantitative and that’s better categorically than being qualitative and that’ll solve all your problems.” I still believe to a very rough approximation, people need to be more quantitative, but I think it needs to be a much more kind of structured investigation of the data. And kind of realizing this is one of the challenges, one of the reasons I’m betting our markets are interesting. Whenever you have a belief that kind of differs a lot from the consensus, then that’s a very complicated place to be.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Two Gorgeous Ways of Saying NO in Business…Without Throwing Cheeseburgers at People’s Heads

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

“Boundaries in business are important. I’m obsessed with them. I talk about boundaries a lot. Probably because when I was young, I was very, very horrible at setting them.”

Ash Ambirge begins this blog post on boundaries with those words. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

On her struggle to set boundaries as a beginning entrepreneur:

When 2006 rolled around and I started my first copywriting business, boundaries took on a whole new meaning. As in, GET SOME OR DIE. It was hard saying “no” to people who were giving me money. It felt almost like a bait and switch. Until I realized that people weren’t paying me to say “yes.” They were paying me to write. That reminder helped me a lot in those early years. Anything that didn’t support my main job for them—writing—was rejected. This eliminated a lot of the, “Hey, you’re good with computers. You think you could help me format this 100 page case study?” Which, surprisingly, was a fairly typical kind of request for a little freelancer like me, at the time.

On how saying “no” is a matter of kindness, professionalism, and respect:

Then, of course, you’ve got present day me. The present day me says no more than I say, “wine, please.” I’m now a NO samurai. I love saying no. It feels so good. Protecting my head space is the most important thing I could ever do.

I love when other people tell me, “no,” too. It shows me they care about themselves. And if they’re working for me, it shows me that they care about their work. I can rest easy knowing I’m not giving someone panic attacks in the middle of the night. No is healthy. No is realistic. No is yes, in a way. It just might be in a different way than most people assume. It’s yes to a priority, yes to a reputation, yes to control, yes to professionalism.

On two examples of how to say “no” with firmness, precision, and dipomacy:

Just this week, I’ve had two people tell me “no” in a way that felt so respectful, so supportive of our work and relationship together.

The first was just a few minutes ago. I have a conference call at 11am today. We all know I’m a talker. This person made sure to make the disclaimer:

“I have a hard stop at 11:25, but we may only need 15-20 minutes.”

Beautifully done. Bravo! It sets expectations for everyone, and sets him up for a professional exit—not one that feels like he’s slighting me.

The other was earlier this week. It’s one of our developers. He said this:

“According to Home Base you’ll hear from us again on April 15 with some really sexy updates. Until then, have a splendid week.”

You know what that does? It lets me know they aren’t going to be in constant contact–which is a no in disguise. It’s a no to constant availability, the feeling of being put on-call by your clients. And it is GORGEOUS. (Furthermore, by using the phrase “According to Home Base,” they remove the pressure off themselves and show me that it’s our agreed upon timeline. Another really great tip.)

Ash ends her post with the following challenge,

Your homework today: Say no as many times as you can. (And maybe in as many foreign accents as you can.) You don’t need to rationalize yourself to everyone you meet. Sometimes, a two-letter word is all you need.

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