The Drunkard’s Walk: How randomness rules our lives by Leonard Mlodinow

Posted in Behavior, Book at 11:08 am by justakim

A fun read.

This is a popular science presentation of statistics and statistical history focusing on the effects of randomness and our reactions to it. It is relevant in that many of these statistical and misinterpretive situations appear in economics and environmental science and is a very unintimidating introduction to the subject.

While the ideas in this book are not that extraordinary or revealing to anyone who’s taken a statistics class, this book shines in giving real-world examples of applications and misinterpretations. It was interesting enough to read even if there was nothing particularly new.

It is true that there have been many books on the subject, and the author goes into exceedingly thorough detail, but it’s well presented for what it is, and is far more engaging than many of its peers.

I actually hadn’t run into the Monty Hall problem until a couple weeks ago. Poor Marilyn,


Interpretation in Education

Posted in Book, School at 8:47 am by justakim

for my advisor,

The Wizard of Numbers

the spell is provocation
that lights the mind ablaze,
curiosity takes expression
and clears that foggy haze.

there is no greater motivation
than your internal need,
to find yourself the answer;
to want is to succeed.

the magic revelation
is what you learn is real
and all those sterile concepts
might have their own appeal.

so cast the spell of provocation;
evoke and you might find
one of those precious moments
where mind and soul align.

I dedicate this to my advisor, who turned one of those unpleasant subjects into something I pursue with great interest. Merely with unspoken faith in my abilities and supporting the opportunity to see something for myself, a difficult and painful activity was transformed into a surmountable, and dare I say enjoyable, challenge.

With this reminder of how interpretation impacts my life, I would like to present the principles of interpretation.

In the book Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden laid out the original principles of interpretation; the art of presentation. His intent was to write a guide for the park service to improve how they portray natural and historic resources to visitors both in displays and in presentations. His principles have long been the building blocks from which the park service designs visitor centers, interpretive talks, displays, and various other forms of communication.

I consider these principles in many contexts; books, presentations, poetry–just about any situation where I am attempting to present something or it is being presented to me. It hadn’t occurred to me to view teaching in the interpretive framework until just recently despite the fact that I learned of this in an environmental education class. So here they are, the groundbreaking framework for understanding how we convey what we know to an audience.

I Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

If the material does not have relevance to the student, it will be difficult to explain. How do you convey something if you do not appeal to common ground between the teacher and the student? An extreme case of this is when you’re trying to teach material and the students don’t have the math prerequisites. Once in undergrad, I was using a book with differential equations and I thought they were doing some sort of derivatives… not very useful.

A less extreme example would be working in econometrics without examples to give solid meaning to the motions being made. The stronger the connection to the material being used, the less sterile the experience will be.

II Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

A list of facts has little value on their own. Anyone can memorize numbers, quotes, equations, and get nothing out of it. A list of facts may test your memorization skills, but is not conducive to learning and developing new understandings. Interpretation gives these items context and meaning.

III Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

Teaching skills are teachable to an extent, and each teacher has a unique style. I’m sure that most people are not naturally good teachers from day one, nor does your first day destine the rest of your teaching career. It is, however, not a clear-cut skill where precise execution is possible.

IV The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

This is the magic: you may be able to teach a student a subject they have no interest in, but they can go much further if by provocation, they do so of their own. I cannot stress the difference it makes between trying to learn something and wanting to know something.

V Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A given piece has little relevance on its own without a role in a greater whole. Even if a focus is a small piece, context should be provided to give it relevance.

People are also not so divisible and learning does not happen in a vacuum.

VI Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

You can teach kids about economics so long as you understand what experiences they do and do not have.

These principles may seem simple and straightforward, but it is that same simplicity that makes the Art of War profound. There is far more to art than a few guidelines. This is just the first, the original framework from which more complex understandings can be built.

Consider the power of these thoughts though. Teaching is an art form where you take knowledge and show what it means. The material has to be made accessible by connecting to what the student already knows. Getting your students excited about a topic can do so much more than a technically excellent presentation.

This is perhaps a different wording from the evaluations filled out at the end of every class, and the way we describe ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teachers, but does it not convey why a teacher is successful or not? The ability to interpret is what it comes down to. This describes the general strengths and weaknesses of a teacher and suggests that there is always a way to improve one’s teaching ability.


Fooled by Randomness

Posted in Behavior, Book at 6:44 am by justakim

It took me a while, but I finally finished this book by Nassim Taleb.

It’s a decent book about how randomness is misinterpreted and how that leads to false assumptions in the market that can ruin you. Just because the market’s been going up for the last 20 years doesn’t mean it’ll always go up.

He gets into a few non-market examples as well, like the OJ Simpson trial, and some history about behavioral economics.

However, the main reason why it took me so long to finish the book is that he is extremely arrogant and spends an incredible amount of time insulting everyone including the reader. Yes yes we bought your book sir. Hope you didn’t intend on a second round of this game.


It’s All in the Words

Posted in Behavior, Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Resources at 11:03 pm by justakim

Killing critters vs culling herbivores
Researchers looked back upon a controversial hedgehog culling
and used “content analysis”, a framework used by social scientists that basically looks at diction (vocabulary, wording). They found that different stakeholders discussed the same situation with completely different language.

“The pro-hedgehog lobby wrote about killing and animal welfare issues and used emotive or informal vocabulary, whereas the pro-bird lobby used more scientific language and vocabulary concerning wildlife and the Hebrides. Interestingly, media coverage of this controversy tended to use language similar to that of the pro-hedgehog groups. Our results show how content analysis allows differences in focus between stakeholder groups to be highlighted in a quantitatively rigorous way, and that this can encourage a dialogue to develop in which all stakeholders are at least addressing the same issues.”

…quantitatively rigorous? Yeah well, I don’t think you have to run statistical tests on word counts to know they’re approaching the situation differently and using their written skills to best frame their position. it does however make it easier to identify and address differences.

Miles Per Word
Changing how fuel efficiency is described can make a difference in what cars people buy. Rather than describing efficiency in miles traveled per gallon, if one were to describe it in gallons per 100 miles traveled, it would be easier to see how much of a difference it would make to take a very low efficiency car and improve it.

At 10 mpg, it takes 10 gallons to travel 100 miles. If that were doubled to 20 mpg, it would take 5 gallons. You save 5 gallons.

A car with 25 mpg takes 4 gallons to travel the same distance. Double that to 50 mpg would take 2. You save only 2 gallons.

We’re better off by having people ditch SUV’s for average cars than replacing average cars with better ones. This may seem pretty obvious for after all the SUV is the symbol of everything anti-environmental, but perhaps moreso when presented slightly differently.


justastory: An epic path-dependent graduation

Posted in School at 7:34 am by justakim

I almost missed my graduation Saturday. Our car was stuck in the snow on a forest road off the side of Mt. Hood overnight somewhere around here. Check out street view!

Throughout a long night of straight digging, we had economics to entertain us.

While carbon-fiber kayak oars are completely inferior to snow shovels for shoveling snow, they’ll do in a pinch. They’re ridiculously tough. The thin blade edge is great for cutting into the snow, it’s just not so good at scooping water in a solid state. We did a lot of atrocious makeshift substitutions, but hey, it worked!

Supply and demand
Referencing Princess Bride, I said “If only we had a holocaust cloak” which led me to think about the contents of the car. We’d just gone to Costco and had a dozen rolls of paper towels… and no gloves. We started wrapping half a dozen sheets per hand, replacing them when they got too wet. Yes, I’m a terrible, terrible environmentalist, but I still have all my fingers.

After 12 hours of digging, we finally got free. I was late for the opening but had maybe 30 minutes of breathing room before they called the hood parade. I can tell you that I was much happier to be there than if nothing happened.

Don’t wander around the uninhabited bits of Oregon in “March” conditions the night before graduation.


Serotonin in the News

Posted in Behavior at 9:14 am by justakim

This serotonin story has been in the news last week.

Serotonin functions as a neurotransmitter associated with anger, aggression, mood, and appetite. In this study, the appetites of half the participants were modified to have lower levels of serotonin. Then both groups were presented offers in an ultimatum game. One person suggests how to split a sum of money and the other can either accept their share and end up with something, but less than the other person. Or they can refuse, so that neither party receives anything.

In Crockett’s study, detailed this week in Science, 20 participants were given a number of attempts at the game, with fair offers, defined as 45% of the stake, unfair offers, defined as 30% of the stake, and very unfair offers, defined as 20%. Participants were randomized to get the serotonin-lowering treatment or a placebo.

While placebo participants rejected about 65% of very unfair offers, those with low serotonin rejected more than 80%.

Researchers also measured the mood, fairness judgement and reward processing of participants. They found these to be unaffected by lower serotonin, clearly implicating the neurotransmitter in the more aggressive response to injustice.

Or in other words, from TierneyLab:

But in this experiment the players rejected that deal 80 percent of the time when their serotonin levels were low, and it wasn’t because they were cranky or depressed, the researchers report. They conclude that lower levels of serotonin “can selectively alter reactions to unfairness,” and note that in the experiment this condition “increased retaliation to perceived unfairness without affecting mood, fairness judgments, basic reward processing or response inhibition.”

Now… I don’t have access to the article itself, and I know that they say that they controlled for all of these factors, but only using only 20 participants seems weak to me. 10 people got the placebo. 10 people got the serotonin-reducing drink. I’m sure the difference is significant but the sample size is so small, I’m skeptical.

The other thing that I’m leery of is the whole slew of conclusions across the swath of stories reporting these results. They would have you believe that this is proof that low serotonin causes aggression, impulsivity, poor social decision-making, irrational behavior. Are these really the reasons for intolerance of unfairness?

I don’t have much tolerance for it myself. My integrity and pride has a certain value, and I would rather maintain a reputation of fairness than accept some spare change. Yes, I can be induced to accept an unfair deal, but it’d either entail a significant sum of money, or a benefit down the line. Perhaps I am aggressive. Perhaps I am angry. But I’m not cheap.


Economics Programs

Posted in School at 9:15 am by justakim

I get my master’s one week from today. And while I want to go out and make non-negative revenue for a while, something had been on my mind lately.

Who practices economics as a science?

What seems more often the case is that economists acquire data and ask questions about that data. It seems less common that an economist will have a question, design an experiment, gather the data, and test their hypothesis. I understand the inherent difficulties in economics, that in many cases, all you have is the one record of what had happened in the past. But I think there’s a big difference in a scientific approach and more of an engineering approach to the field.

I believe that different professors, and probably different programs, have different approaches. Which schools are more scientifically oriented? How can you tell?

And geez, why didn’t anyone tell me I should have learned C? No one warned me there was programming in economics!

Heck, I should find out who’s read Kuhn.


Unintended Consequences 2: Creative thinking

Posted in Climate Change, Politics at 7:35 am by justakim

As the EU combats climate change, Eastern European countries want previous economic setbacks to count.

The EU plans on cutting emissions by 1/5 of 1990 levels by 2020. Targets were distributed to each country based on their 2005 emissions.

Seven of the Eastern European countries want their economic downturn in the 1990’s to count as ‘reductions’ in emissions. They want what they did not emit in the past to count towards their goal.

“By 2005 a significant part of the 20 percent target — namely 7.9 percent — has already been realized,” said a proposal drafted by Hungary ahead of next week’s meeting of environment ministers in Luxembourg.

“In the opinion of Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia these early reduction efforts should be duly recognized and rewarded in the effort sharing and/or ETS proposal,” added the proposal, obtained by Reuters.

Being rewarded for having had economic trouble? Wow. As a friend noted, maybe we can still get something out of the Great Depression.


Tangled Bank

Posted in And Now for Something Completely Different at 11:58 am by justakim

Looks like I got linked in an Ars Nobelintent’s collection of blogs. Have a look at the variety of blogs out there.

For those new visitors, please consider taking a few minutes to take my survey on time valuation.

Now, is it worth the trouble of pointing out the typo in Ecocene…


Local Amenities

Posted in Conservation, Economic Development at 3:38 pm by justakim

In Regional Economic Development I was told that some areas have an advantage over others because of the local amenities. There are some places that are just never going to have the draw of others. Who doesn’t like a view of the ocean? Who doesn’t appreciate trees? A temperate climate. Sunshine.

But I don’t buy this. I don’t believe that some places are completely out of luck. Plenty of people–plenty of growing cities!–are located in places I wouldn’t dream of living. Not everyone has the same priority order of amenities that I do. Certainly, too many people like what I like (Mediterranean climate with ocean, mountain, and desert within an hour), but not everyone.

And there are plenty of places in the US where no one lives, which could appeal to me, except for the fact that no one else lives there. There are parts of Wyoming and Montana where I bet you could own your own mesa. I could live with that, if there happened to be a big city nearby. When I crossed the country, I saw many empty places that I’d love to explore, had I the resources nearby to make it worth living there, not the other way around.

Think of all the desert cities in Arizona and New Mexico. The sun is a draw, and only so if there’s air conditioning, but does every resident look out upon the deserts and see a harsh and uninviting place, or do they perhaps see something to be proud of, or to admire? Surely, there are few places in the lower 48 that are less welcoming to human life.

Appeal changes. Amenities can be enhanced or destroyed. LA might have nice weather, but I don’t imagine many people considered it a beautiful place to live in the beginning. Did you think the San Francisco Peninsula had trees? Some places develop from historical accident, from the needs of transportation or technology, but the nature outdoors does not seem to me such a limiting factor.

Still, I understand that people are willing to pay more for certain natural amenities than others. I live in a beautiful place. And all those amenities are fully enhanced, supported, and advertised. I am paying for the view, the forests, and the trails. The farms, the local markets, the nearness of the sea, and all that the city provides. I intend to get more than my money’s worth.

In the past, I have not utilized the local amenities. I used to live with Mt. Rainier in my backyard. I would observe it. I would admire it. I would occasionally visit and I would never stay. It was distant, aloof, indifferent.

I flew past it on my way home one day, and wrote this:

Mountain King

arising from mysteries, robed in fog
an island of certainty in a sea of clouds
commanding the landscape like no other
the mountain king presides over his dominion
while change lurks beneath the foamy surface
the high kingdom of snow and cloud remains serene

The thought of hiking up to a glacier, sleeping on it, and climbing to the top never appealed to me.

And then I moved, and then there was another mountain in my backyard.

At first I thought Mt. Hood was nice, but it was just another mountain. Anything that required equipment was scenery and not something to stand on. Every so often, we’d go up to Timberline Lodge, sip a drink, and observe the peak from a comfortable distance. On one of our first trips, there was a search and rescue going on, in a window of clear weather. I watched the clouds rolling in. It was like a shroud of death.

People die up there. There’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to Mt. Hood accidents.

About 10,000 climbers attempt Mount Hood every year, the mountain claiming one to three lives annually.

And yet, as time went on, the mountain beckoned. There was something so enticing about it, luminous and pristine on every clear day. “You’ll take the challenge.” it said. “Yes, people die on my slopes… that’s not going to stop you.”

Next year, I’m taking classes and I’m going with a group. All the resources are there to make it possible. The summit will be mine.

There are few creatures more ill-suited to climbing than I, but I won’t ignore an opportunity so tidiliy laid out before me.

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