Get Broader

Convene five of your friends who collectively have some expertise in each of the following:

  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine
  • International Politics*
  • Literature
  • Economics

Every two months, read one book / paper by each of that year’s Nobelists.  Meet and discuss. Make the economist wear a special badge.

*For the peace prize, of course. I couldn’t figure out what it means to be an expert in peace.

I wish I had read this at last night’s open mic

This is a poem I wrote months ago on a scrap of brown paper grocery bag, on the hood of a stranger’s car parked on Paris Street in San Francisco:

Any poem can sit unfinished in a typewriter for hours,
Sometimes you wait for the next word to strike.
Sometimes you sit down and think,
about what to do next.

The back of this scrap of paper has the name Michel Bouquet, who I saw in the film Manon. I don’t remember why I wrote down his name.

P.S. a good find from the forementioned open mic is filmmaker Arthur Valverde. I especially liked this film.

Uber Gets Insightful

Uber is sharing anonymized data with Boston policymakers.

The data will provide new insights to help manage urban growth, relieve traffic congestion, expand public transportation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This is an interesting dataset for an urban planner. And Uber did well to anonymize to ZCTA instead of giving individual addresses.1 NYC made a mess of things in June 2014 when trying to do something similar.

But using Uber’s data to actually make decisions is ludicrous. Urban planning, like most policymaking, is about how to best distribute scarce resources. It is political. Look at Uber’s example uses:

Uber’s transportation policy

If Boston actually uses Uber’s data to decide which potholes to fill first, they are not going to fill many potholes in poor neighborhoods. If Boston uses Uber’s data to add additional metro stops, they will not add metro stops in poor neighborhoods.

The first questions any data analyst should ask with a new dataset are:

  1. How was this data collected?
  2. What are its blind spots?

And the blind spots here are both large and systematic. Note, however, Uber’s vacuous language above: this data will provide “insights”. They are too smart to say explicitly “this is the only data source you should use for your city planning.” But without a similarly rich dataset on the whole city, the data will only provide “insights” about how to help rich folks.

And, by the way, be wary of people peddling insights. If an insight held up to rigorous analysis, we would just call it a conclusion.

What do you think about Uber’s influence on urban policy?

  1. Though some interesting data is lost here. For example, is the rider’s destination on a busy avenue (to a store/restaurant) or a residential street (personal visit)? []

Social Justice Mural

San Francisco is full of amazing murals! Here are some details from one I particularly like, on 25th and Mission.

The Genius of Peanuts

In the NYRB of 1985, Umberto Eco explores Peanuts (and Krazy Kat, which I’ve never read).

I find that literary criticism is at its worst when it makes an argument from authority and deep knowledge: “I am right because I am important and by the way look at this list of books I’ve read!”


On the other hand I love literary criticism which argues out of a sense of intimacy. Umberto Eco wrote this essay because he really loves Peanuts and it’s important to him that you come to love Peanuts, and for the right reasons. This kind of enthusiasm is infectious, which is why Harold Bloom’s Anatomy of Influence inspired my new Shakespeare book club. All of which is to say I want to go read some Charlie Brown adventures.

You should read the whole review but here are some fun parts:


The poetry of these children arises from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings of the adults, who remain offstage. These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of industrial civilization…

Charlie Brown has been called the most sensitive child ever to appear in a comic strip, a figure capable of Shakespearean shifts of mood; and Schulz’s pencil succeeds in rendering these variations with an economy of means that has something miraculous about it…

Aware of his vocation for the abyss, Pig Pen turns his plight into a boast; he speaks of the dust of centuries, an irreversible process: the course of history…

Snoopy knows he is a dog: he was a dog yesterday, he is a dog today, tomorrow he will perhaps be a dog still. For him, in the optimism of the opulent society in which one moves upward from status to status, there is no hope of promotion…

In this encyclopedia of contemporary weakness, there are, as we have said, sudden luminous patches of light, free variations, allegros, and rondos, where all is resolved in a few bars. The monsters turn into children again, Schulz becomes only a poet of childhood. We know it isn’t true, and we pretend to believe him. In the next strip he will continue to show us, in the face of Charlie Brown, with two strokes of his pencil, his version of the human condition.

All you need to know about the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy

“Discipline may be imposed in any of the following circumstances:

  • [Various criminal offenses]
  • [Some other stuff]
  • Conduct that imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person”

Tell. Me. More.

Seriously, everything that’s wrong with the NFL can be found in its Personal Conduct policy. The league sees itself as the national religion, transcending common concerns of law and operating according to its own moral standards. In truth it is distinguished from a neighborhood cockfight only by its scale and hypocrisy.

Did you know? The league office is a non-profit association which in 2013 paid $0 in income tax but $45 million dollars in salary and bonus to its moronic commissioner. Individual teams also benefit enormously from publicly-funded stadiums and tax breaks. Maybe this why the conduct policy is frantically trying to preserve “public confidence in the National Football League.”

Fundamental Attribution Error and the Master Race

I just re-watched Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and it provides a really nice demonstration of the Fundamental Attribution Error. (The film has other virtues too.)

Lifeboat is the story of an American merchant marine ship sunk by a German U-Boat during WWII. A few Americans find a lifeboat and pick up a German sailor amid the wreckage. They are short on food and water and are forced to row towards safety. For days, while the Americans bicker in thirst and hunger under a hot sun, German “Willy” steadfastly pulls oar.

The Nazi in Question. (Image found on

The Americans come to see him as a superman. One character points out the contrast: “He’s made of iron, while we’re made of flesh and blood. Hungry flesh and blood!” Willy instead credits his endurance to “clean living”.

The Fundamental Attribution Error (and more generally, The Person and the Situation) say that when we see a person acting a certain way we think it’s because of who they are or how they were born. But instead it’s usually because of what they’ve done, how they’ve trained, or the context they face (that is invisible to us). So while the Americans think Willy’s physical endurance is genetic (“they truly are the master race”) he sees the years of physical training he endured, and perhaps even the additional pressure he faces, as the one German on the boat, to prove himself.

At least this is the story for about 15 minutes of the movie. In fact Willy is cheating. He has food and water squirreled away, which is the hidden context that really accounts for the observed behavior.


I wrote this in an email to myself on December 28, 2013. Why?

Every time someone comes to my apartment, they make fun of this one enormous painting on my wall. It’s two snails climbing a hill, done pretty clearly by a child. I found it next to a pile of trash on a beach in Tel Aviv and sat there for maybe 30 minutes using a butter knife to pry out all the staples connecting it to the wooden frame. Then I rolled it up and brought it home, all so my friends could make fun of it constantly. But something about it really speaks to me.

Edit: Josh Katz points out that I later abandoned this painting back to the trash, on Bergen Street.

But It’s Also a Sex Manual

I was flipping through the Kama Sutra yesterday and turns out to be much more than a sex manual! It’s a guide to etiquette and custom in many areas of life and offers really interesting glimpses into a culture very different from ours. Though some of it is practically timeless, for example:

The following are the kinds of friends:

  • One who has played with you in the dust, i.e. in the childhood
  • One who is bound by an obligation
  • One who is of the same disposition and fond of the same things
  • One who is a fellow student
  • One who is acquainted with your secrets and faults and who’s faults and secrets are also known to you
  • One who is a child of your nurse
  • One who’s brought up with you
  • One who is a hereditary friend

I hadn’t realized, but it’s also very Talmudic in its approach.

  • Here is the rule or custom.
  • The followers of X add an interpretation.
  • The followers of Y disagree.
  • [a digression about the theory and history of the legal principle used by the followers of Y.]

Highly recommended. The edition linked above is especially nice and uses the Richard Burton translation — I’ve also enjoyed Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights which is a book you can dip into again and again as you please, all through your life. John Barth is a big fan of the Arabian Nights as well.