Monthly book roundup – 2020 December

Books finished in December:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

A Promised Land (2020) by Barack Obama. Vivid and interesting account of Obama’s presidency from the viewpoint of and read by the president himself.

A key topic is the trade-offs between what he believes is best and what is politically feasible, between the short and the long term. As a Senator, he was wary of losing what drove him to enter politics in the first place: “I questioned what might happen to me the longer I stayed in Washington, the more embedded and comfortable I became. I saw now how it could happen–how the incrementalism an decorum, the endless positioning for the next election, and the groupthink of cable news panels all conspired to chip away at your best instincts and wear down your independence, until whatever you once believed was utterly lost (p. 64).”

Interesting comment from his campaign chief David Axelrod that “you have to be a little pathological to do what it takes to win the [the primary and the presidency]” – probably not a good type of selection.

Funny on foreign leaders–the stoic Merkel and energetic, over-promising Sarkozy. The long historical lines maybe not entirely accurate in all details, but presumable it is his understanding.

Always generous towards Michelle and the sacrifices she had to make.

The Republican party, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in particular, do not come off well – always obstructionist and setting short-term political gain from posturing above the long term good of the country. Time will show if they thereby dug their own grave.


Ratings and previous books are in the library.

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Monthly book roundup – 2020 October

Books finished in October:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science (2020) by Stuart Ritchie. The title summarizes the book’s topic well.

Chapter 2 recounts some egregious cases of fraud, like Stapel and Macchiarini, who made up data and lied about patients dying and suffering, respectively. But perhaps more worrying is the likely more widespread low-level p-hacking, selective reporting of findings and various small adjustments of the analysis and data to obtain publishable results that he turns to next. I know from personal experience that these are big issues in social science, but learnt here that they exist also in the harder sciences. The unfortunate result is that we cannot trust the scientific literature.

I believe Ritchie is spot on when he identifies the perverse incentives faced by researchers as a major factor in these problems. Good publications are the key to tenure, promotions, salary increases, funding, prestige and the competition to obtain these publications have tempted many to tweak their analysis, underplay uncertainty and oversell their findings. What can be done? There is room for more honest behavior from individuals, but it is too much to hope for that that will be all that is needed.

In the final chapter, Fixing science, Ritchie highlights a 2016 meta-analysis on antidepressant drug trials that illustrates many of the preceding problems and details how publication bias, p-hacking/outcome switching, spin, and citation bias may distort the scientific literature [The cumulative effect of reporting and citation biases on the apparent efficacy of treatments: the case of depression by de Vries and others.]. Instead of focusing on a specific solution, Ritchie lists a number of possible improvements. Some of these are ok, though not attacking the more structural problems or seem to labor intensive to do so, like naming and shaming, independent investigation of misconduct, algorithms to detect fake data/images/etc., hiring on merit rather than bean counting and a review service for pre-prints. Suggestions that seem to me to have more potential are journals being more acceptive of replications and null results (but needs to be accompanied by credit given by others), more comprehensive analysis like multiverse approaches and pre-registration, ideally combined with reviews in a registered report format. However, the problems with the trustworthiness of the scientific literature are so large that we should try multiple approaches.

Highly recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2020 February

Books finished in February:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

North (2018) by Scott Jurek. Jurek’s story about his record-breaking (46 days, 8h, 7 min) run of the Appalachian trail in 2015. Struggles with motivation and form in the beginning, but manages to pull through. Far-out feat–running 76km/day for 46 days. Gets invaluable help on the way by many friends and strangers, but most importantly and consistently by his wife Jenny. Recommended.

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career (2019) by Scott Young. Inspiring and possibly useful book about learning.
Chapter I Can You Get an MIT Education Without Going to MIT?
Chapter II Why Ultralearning Matters
Chapter III How to Become an Ultralearner
Chapter IV Principle 1-Metalearning: First Draw a Map
Chapter V Principle 2-Focus: Sharpen Your Knife
-Starting. Recognize. Get over the limited time of maximal boringness, painfulness. Pomodoro technique. Carve out time in calendar, but must follow. Ok to go back one stage.
-Sustaining. 15-60 minutes. 1 Environment. Adjust. Test. Avoid multitasking. 2 the task itself. Hard, less opportunity to just go through the motions. 3 the Mind. Refocus. Guide back to task.
-Right kind of focus. Arousal and task complexity. Narrow focus and high arousal for low complexity. High comp may benefit from lower arousal. Self test, optimize.
Improving ability to focus.

Chapter VI Principle 3-Directness: Go Straight Ahead
Learn in a way as close as possible to how the skills will be employed. Ex: software for architecture work, having conversations instead of words and phrases for language. Learning by doing. The problem of transfer of learning. Overcome with directness, closer better. Communicate to others also helpful. More knowledge makes transfer easier.
How to learn directly. Effective but hard. Tactics: 1. Project based learning, make something, eg. a thing, paper. 2. Immersive learning. Language canonical ex. Joining communities, eg. software forums. 3. Flight simulator method. If cannot learn irl. 4. Overkill approach. Increase pressure and demands. Aim for the stars.

Chapter VII Principle 4-Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point
Practice weak points that slow you down. But also other points to free up cognitive resources. Tension with directness, but resolve with direct then drill approach. Initial feedback, then drill. Finally back to direct practice. Drill may not work, must evaluate. Often uncomfortable, overcome with: time slice, one skill like tones in Mandarin even if will be used with other skills, copycat eg copying other’s drawings, magnifying glass on one subskill, starting too hard then go back and learn prerequisite.

Chapter VIII Principle 5-Retrieval: Test to Learn
The difficulty itself is important. Retrieving info from memory more effective than passive review. Start to test before feel ready. Optimal delay of test. Take end test before start. But may learn wrong ways?
Useful retrieval methods:
Flashcards. Software. Well for pairing between specific cue and a particular response. Eg. Foreign language words, maps, anatomical diagrams, definitions or equations. But with variable contexts like programming less well.
Free recall. Eg. after reading an article.
Question book method. Rephrase notes as questions. Try to ask about main point/bug idea rather than unimportant fact.
Self generated challenges.
Closed book learning.
Produce the answer rather than simply reviewing it.

Chapter IX Principle 6-Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches
Essential, but must be of the right kind and not over or under react to it. Often uncomfortable, but very valuable if can be overcome.
Outcome, informational, corrective feedback. Outcome aggregated. Info tells what does not work, elemental. Corrective gives guidance, how to fix. Be critical to the feedback.
How quick? Quick, but need to perform the full retrieval task. And with review, See spacing.

Chapter X Principle 7-Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket
Nigel Richards scrabble. Active recall and rehearsal. Intense learner, practice.
Understand forgetting. Exponential decay, then taper off. Both during a project and later. Software and simpler systems used. Four mechanisms:
Spacing. Don’t cram, spread out. SRS, flashcards. Single facts, etc. Refresher projects a method.
Proceduralisation. Know how, part of a routine/procedure. Eg. typing, recall with pretend to use a keyboard.
Over-learning. A little extra.
Mnemonics. Pictures, visuals. But requires large upfront investments and use may be a little slow in use. Mostly for specifics.

Chapter XI Principle 8-Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up
Solve a lot of concrete problems to build intuition.
Want to give up? Struggle timer.
Prove things oneself.
Think we understand things, but draw bicycle or can opener…
“Feynman technique” write down problem, then as explanation to someone else, explain solution method and why good, if unclear or stuck go to textbook.
Visual version of problem.

Chapter XII Principle 9-Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone
With learning resources
Experiement with active exploration
Some strategies to try:
Copy, then create.
Compare side by side, varying just a single element, split tests.
New constraints, must explore.
Combine skills, eg. engineer and public speaking.
Explore extremes, search possibilities.
Experimentation also applies to the principles.

Chapter XIII Your First Ultralearning Project
Do research.
1. Topic, scope
2. Primary resources. Books, people, software, activities.
3. Benchmark. What have others done? And learnt. See eg. in Forums.
4. Direct practice activities.
5. Backup materials and drills.
Schedule your time. Decide how much to allocate in advance. And when. Consistent schedule good. Length of commitment. Divide if very long. End by schedule in your calendar. Pilot week may be good.
Execute your plan. Check if you are following principles well, what works or not.
Review after completion.
Maintain what is learnt, either through spaced repetition, or better, integrate into life. Relearning also possible. Mastery, by continued practice or new Ultralearning project, best.
Alternatives to Ultralearning: 1. low intensity habits, speaking a language more, program because necessary for work. Ultralearning nevertheless good because gets you to a level where learning more becomes easy and fun.
2. Formal, structured education. Credentials may be necessary. Edu may create good environment or community.

Chapter XIV An Unconventional Education
Polgar Sisters. Sees the principles, intensive learning.
Applicable at home, in schools, organizations, etc? Suggestions:
1. Create/let people create inspiring goals.
2. Be careful with competition. Should provide right kind of feedback and maintain motivation.
3. Make learning a priority.
Learning something opens up new possibilities and interests.

I do not doubt these strategies worked well for young, however, they may not work for others. Probably just have to try and experiment. My problem is that I often know what is needed, it is the commitment and just doing it that lacks. Most useful with the practical tips. Mentions people not undertaking learning projects for financial gain, then writes much about why do it for career reasons. The biggest issue that is not discussed in the book is selection – how many tried these things and failed? Some dropped out, those who stuck with the process may be different. One way to summarize the content: Concepts, facts, procedures. Some time, e.g. 10% for research. Starting, sustaining and optimizing quality of their focus. Anyway a highly inspiring book. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

New paper: “Distributional effects of welfare reform for young adults: An unconditional quantile regression approach”

In the spring of 2015, after having submitted my phd thesis, I attended an applied microeconometics course at the University of Oslo given by Monique de Haan, Tarjei Havnes and Edwin Leuven. I have previously blogged about a paper using the synthetic control method that grew directly out of that course. Now a second paper originating in a presentation in that course has been published:  “Distributional effects of welfare reform for young adults: An unconditional quantile regression approach,” Labour Economics, Volume 65, August 2020. The article is open access.

In the quantile regression class, I presented the paper “Is universal child care leveling the playing field?” by Havnes og Mogstad (Journal of Public Economics, Volume 127, July 2015). That paper uses several non-linear differences-in-differences methods to study the distributional effects of child care. One of their applied methods was the unconditional quantile regression approach of Firpo, Fortin and Lemieux (2009). At the time, I was working on the topic of welfare reform in Norway, and I realized that I could apply the same method to that question. That started a journey that now, 5 years later, has resulted in a published paper.

In the paper, I analyze what happened to earnings when Norwegian municipalities increased their use of conditions for (primarily young) welfare recipients. Of the age group I analyze in the paper (26–30 year olds), 8% received welfare at some time in 1993, the first year of the analysis. Welfare policy affects both those actually receiving welfare as well as a wider population with only a potential connection to the welfare system. I do not know exactly who is impacted, but the fact that changes in welfare policy mainly affect people with a low earning potential suggests going beyond the mean impact and analyzing the effects on the distribution. It is likely that the relatively small average effects mask an effect of higher earnings among low earners and no effects among high earners.

What do I find? Substantial positive effects of increased use of conditions in parts of the lower end of the earnings distribution for women and no or small negative effects for men. For women, earnings at the 20th percentile increase by around 25 percent, or € 2000 per year. As expected, there are no effects in the upper part of the distribution. Below is the key graph:

Fig. 3. Main quantile treatment effect estimates on earnings, 26–30 year olds.

Further, I find that although welfare payments decline, the effect on total income for women is also positive, indicating that they were able to find gainful employment that, overall, improved their financial circumstances.

I conclude that it is important to mention that the reform occurred in a beneficial environment, which may help to explain the good results. First, the reforming municipalities were responsible for undertaking and implementing the changes and therefore likely had a large degree of ownership of the reform and a strategy for implementing it. This may be hard to replicate in the case of changes mandated from a higher authority. Second, the social insurance offices had a large degree of discretion in deciding who should face conditions and what to demand of them. This may be beneficial compared to uniform requirements if caseworkers have relevant information about how to adapt the conditionality policy. Nevertheless, the policy represents a promising avenue to explore for other countries in need of social insurance system reform.

Monthly book roundup – 2020 January

Books finished in January:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

The Basque History of the World (1999) by Mark Kurlansky. Started the book because of a friend living temporarily in the Basque Country. Interesting how the Basque how preserved a distinct own culture for so long. I would guess at the cost of a lot of internal norms/pressure. A high degree of religiousness. Lost interest after a while. Did not finish.

Open: An Autobiography (2009) by Andre Agassi. Grew up with a tennis-obsessed father and a lot of pressure. Became a prodigy, but did not have it easy. Reacted by rebelling against some of the structures, understandably. From the book seems to have calmed down as time passed, but hard to judge only from his own words. Agassi is open about his life, as the title promises, and I enjoyed the book despite not following tennis. A little long for my taste. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 December

Books finished in December:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy (2017) by Tim Harford. Great pop history, as always from Harford.

1 The Plough – huge consequences, agriculture became more efficient, more people could be fed and cities could form.

I. Winners and Losers
2 Gramophone. Winners take all. Bowie’s prediction in XX that music would become like running water or electricity much correct.
3 Barbed Wire. Helped enable settling the West in the US, good for settlers, not for Indians. Locke’s argument that labor working land made the worked land property, (Indians had not “improved” the land) a factor, but I guess did not make a practical difference.
4 Seller Feedback
5 Google Search
6 Passports
7 Robots
8 The Welfare State. Liberated women and others.

II. Reinventing How We Live
9 Infant Formula
10 TV Dinners. Liberated women? From having to make the dinners.
11 The Pill. Liberated women more, though the effects maybe a little overstated in the book?
12 Video Games. Debatable whether labor supply actually impacted.
13 Market Research
14 Air Conditioning
15 Department Stores. Liberated women?

III. Inventing New Systems
16 The Dynamo
17 The Shipping Container. Made global trade much more efficient.
18 The Barcode
19 The Cold Chain. Fruits, vegetables, meat and other easily spoilable good could be traded and specialized in worldwide.
20 Tradable Debt and the Tally Stick
21 Billy Bookcase
22 Elevator

IV. Ideas About Ideas
23 Cuneiform
24 Public-Key Cryptography
25 Double-Entry Bookkeeping
26 Limited Liability Companies
27 Management Consulting
28 Intellectual Property
29 The Compiler

V. Where Do Inventions Come From
30 The iPhone
31 Diesel Engines
32 Clocks
33 The Haber-Bosch Process-high pressure combination of nitrogen and hydrogen -> ammonium. Haber contributed to feeding people through fertilizer and killing them through chemical weapons and did not support the career of his talented wife, who killed herself 14 years into their marriage.
34 Radar
35 Batteries
36 Plastic

VI. The Visible Hand
37 The Bank
38 Razors and Blades
39 Tax Havens
40 Leaded Petrol
41 Antibiotics in Farming
42 M-Pesa
43 Property Registers

VII. Inventing the Wheel
44 Paper
45 Index Funds
46 The S-bend
47 Paper Money
48 Concrete
49 Insurance
50 Lightbulb

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 August

Books finished in August:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life (2018) by Leigh Sales. Stories about how people deal with bad things happening in their lives, typically the disease/death/near death of someone close to them or themselves. Most people get over it some way or another. Read because of some related work I have done on post-traumatic growth (as opposed to stress). Ok.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Monthly book roundup – 2019 July

Books finished in July:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

A Boy in the Water: A Memoir (2018) by Tom Gregory. Tom Gregory in 1988 became the youngest person ever to swim the English channel, at 11 years and 330 days, swimming it in 11 hours and 54 minutes. The book documents his close relationship with his old-fashioned, demanding, warm-in-his-way coach John Bullet and the training leading up to the crossing. Recommended.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2019) by David Epstein. A super interesting book. In contrast to people who claim that early specialization is the key to success, Epstein argues for breadth, or range. Having previously written on sports, he starts off noting that even there, late specialization is more common than early and the best ones have often practiced many different sports when young. Though it is not clear to me that much of this is not just due to some people being talented at many sports or unusually engaged in sports. The evidence that late specialization is better also in other domains sounds more convincing, e.g. later specializers finding better fit for skills and personality and thereby catching up earningswise to early specializers (based on research by Ofer Malamud analyzing variation in the timing of specialization in college brought about by differences in the school systems in England and Wales and Scotland). People switch to better fit and bring experience. Also, a head start in closed skills does not matter in the long run gains of early childhood interventions tend to fade out (Duncan et al.). Early sampling is the key. In general, the fact that child prodigies and savants do not tend to dominate most arenas should also be taken as indications that early specialization and practicing the most are not necessarily the best path to success.

Contrasts the Roger (Federer-late specializer) vs. Tiger (Woods-early specializer) models to stardom. Both may work, but an important complimentary factor is the environment. Epstein follows the psychologist Robin Hogarth’s differentiation between “kind” and “wicked” learning environments. In kind environments, “patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid,” while “In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both (pp. 20-21).” Golf and chess provide quite kind environments, whereas dynamic ballgames, such as tennis and football, and indeed most sports, are much more wicked. (Side note, Tiger’s father claims that early specialization in their instance was also child driven.) E.g., repetitions allow chess players to learn to “chunk” groups of pieces on a chess board together, something that accounts for their seemingly superhuman ability to remember whole chess boards quickly and accurately. This is also related to the failure of IBM’s Watson to live up to the hype that it would solve cancer–oncology is a wicked domain full of open-ended questions, while kind Jeopardy has much more structure, data and rules and the answers are known. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman expressed it as domains in which one could find robust, statistical regularities vs. others.

Many high achievers also have other interests than their specialty. That is interesting, though quite anecdotal. Epstein thinks that the benefits of specialization are greatly exaggerated even in music. Many greats played many instruments and not only their first one.
Higher education is another arena of increasingly early specialization. James Flynn is one that has attacked this and who thinks critical thinking should be taught more. Fermi questions might be a good way to practice–somewhat far-fetched questions without a clear answer that one needs to make assumptions and try to attempt to answer.

There are also some tips for one’s own learning to be had in the book: Hing-giving when practicing is counterproductive, better to try oneself and maybe make a mistake. Though this is different with motor skills, where good form/technique can be important to learn well from the start. Spacing and distributed practice and interleaving good for retaining knowledge. Mixed practice better than block practice (same type of questions together).

The book becomes more and more anecdotal towards the end. Epstein praises the “outside” view as a way to obtain realism. E.g. with infrastructure projects. This seems a little romanticized–most problems are solved by insiders and most outsiders are not like Kepler inventing astrophysics. Breadth is supposed to be good in comics, surgery and flights are kind environments. Elsewhere, we must beware of becoming so attached to our tools that we do not abandon them even whey they hinder us, like firefighters dying running from fires while still holding on to heavy tools. Tetlock’s forecasting studies supports being a generalist is good. Dan Kahan thinks experts cherry pick details that fit their all-encompassing theories.


Ratings and previous books are in the library.

Weekly hours of television and internet consumption in Norway 1991-2018

A couple of days ago, I blogged about time spent watching television and video by different age groups in Norway. Of course the issue of internet immediately popped up, so I made this graph showing both time spent watching television and time spent on the internet:

With regards to total screen time, note that these graphs leave out time spent watching video tapes and dvds and time spent on computers, electronic games and mobile phones without using the internet.

Time spent watching TV and video media in Norway 1991-2018

Inspired by a tweet by Gray Kimbrough graphing changes in television and video watching in the US between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s for various age groups, I decided to follow up with a similar figure with Norwegian data. Gray showed that in the US, people aged 45 and older increased their watching substantially, while younger people decreased it at least to some extent. In Norway the picture was somewhat different – there was very little change for the oldest groups, but the youngest ones reduced their watching by much more than in the US.

Part of the reason for making the graph was to learn how to use the pcarrow option in Stata, which I accomplished, however, I found that in this case with only five groups, a simple line chart may actually provide more information and be preferable: