Insight from Paul Graham

This is a short essay on his website. Because it’s so brief, I figured I would reproduce it here in its entirety.

People who are powerful but uncharismatic will tend to be disliked. Their power makes them a target for criticism that they don’t have the charisma to disarm. That was Hillary Clinton’s problem. It also tends to be a problem for any CEO who is more of a builder than a schmoozer. And yet the builder-type CEO is (like Hillary) probably the best person for the job.

I don’t think there is any solution to this problem. It’s human nature. The best we can do is to recognize that it’s happening, and to understand that being a magnet for criticism is sometimes a sign not that someone is the wrong person for a job, but that they’re the right one.

He couldn’t have said it better.

Links

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/i-support-strong-women-of-color-unless-they-are-politically-to-my-left

https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/i-dont-actually-have-to-sell-this-war-with-iran-do-i

Old article on how people are defacing birds. I used to be squarely pro-bird, but after being nearly hit a couple times, my opinions are changing.

USC’s school of social work is in free fall after partnering with an edtech startup and offering online degrees. – This looks like the worst case scenario for universities trying to increase revenue by offering online programs. This was a surprise to me as I believed USC had no problem with finances and would be unswayed by the large enrollment numbers in digital graduate programs. I was wrong. The article implies the budget crunch in the department is the result of a poor deal signed with 2U (the edtech company), but it hints at characteristic misbehavior (the former dean of the social work school is under a criminal investigation regarding a donation from a politician) from Trojans.

Identity Elements

In math, there’s the concept of an identity element. Basically, it’s an object that, when used in an operation on another object, leaves the latter object unchanged. In subtraction and addition, for example, the identity element is 0, as adding 0 to anything leaves does not alter the original number. In multiplication it’s 1, as  x*1=x for all x, and with matrices it would be the identity matrix. In logic (and I hadn’t thought about this before doing a little research) an identity element is “truth” with the “and” operation, and “falsity” with the “or” operation, which is really interesting.

Identity elements can even be nontrivial. For example, a matrix that rotates a vector 360 degrees about the origin in R^2 is an identity element even though the general transformation that it performs (a rotation) can substantially change a vector. To be clear, a rotation of 360 degrees would just turn out to be the identity matrix:

but I think being an identity element is a property an object has, rather than the object somehow being identical to the identity element. Both the rotation matrix and the “standard” identity matrix have a similar form that contains certain properties, but they are distinct. The rotation matrix describes a rotation of x degrees about the origin, while the identity matrix as it stands has no geometric interpretation.

There are tons of identity elements spanning all of mathematics and I don’t know much about them. Yet, the idea is interesting to me. Intuitively, most operations have some type of effect on an object. It seems like applying an operation in a substantive sense to any thing is guaranteed to engender some type of change, or else you haven’t really applied an operation. Yet, if we generalize the idea of identity elements beyond math and into day-to-day living, they’re much more common than you’d think.

Let’s think of a non-mathematical identity element in a personal context as an object that invokes no change in an individual (person) when used with an operation. For example, a bowl of cereal when paired with the operation “eating” can be an identity element, as eating a bowl of cereal may satiate hunger, but doesn’t alter the individual in a substantial way. However, the object “God” when paired with the operation “contemplating” in most cases does not qualify as an identity element. Seriously reflecting on the divine is likely to change a person.

I’ll be the first to say generalizing from numbers to people is a terrible move. People are messy and complicated and don’t have any of the nice clean properties that numbers have. Is the element “work” when coupled with the operation “going to” count as an identity element? Heading to the office on the average day doesn’t change you, but the accumulation of each day over many years will certainly make you different. It’s a classic example of the sorites problem, but I’m going to table the issue for now. Even if we don’t have a clear idea of when a person is different in an important way from who they were a little bit ago, we can still draw parallels between identity elements in math and elements that might have a similar property when applied to people. Broadly speaking, some element operation combos leave people the same more often than not and others don’t.

Acknowledging the existence of identity-type elements that affect you (the person) is interesting. It means you’re aware that some actions elements and operations have the potential to change you in a certain way, and it’s incumbent on you to identify which changes are desirable and seek out the corresponding action. I’d hope most people like themselves and are comfortable with who they are, but I think an essential part of something important and true about living well is deliberately trying to be a better person. I also believe that “being a better person” doesn’t mean cultivating a specific set of skills like kindness or empathy that are exercised when needed, but is a result of fundamental changes that happen to you and not necessarily what you can and can’t do. If you believe this, then non-identity element-operation pairs are essential. They’re how you realize change.

I see this idea (if correct) as a tool of aspiration. If we’re seriously committed to “being a better person,” then we better take stock of all of the operations and elements around us and see whether they are nudging us in a direction we want to go. It forces us to consider what things will change us, and choose things that will. How will majoring in statistics vs engineering change you? Anthropology vs English? Living in one area vs another? How would you feel if some of these are identity elements after all, and leave you the same?

Links

Circle Games

Interesting take on recent behavior by the women’s national team

The making of a youtube radical – A great piece. Living with a couple of college-aged boys that consume a lot of youtube, it’s easy to see how they can get sucked in to radical content.

Opportunity Atlas – This came out a bit ago, but I think it’s worth linking to for people who haven’t seen it. Raj Chetty and his team linked census and tax data over thirty years to identify how well people growing up in certain neighborhoods did later in life. Give it a look. Check out your neighborhood.

Weekly links

Instead of posting groups of links as I see fit, I’m going to experiment with compiling everything and making one post during the weekend.

https://nadiaeghbal.com/ideas — highly recommended. I love finding blogs written by thoughtful people working in private industry.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/dept-of-uh-oh-college-and-mobility-edition.html

https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/an-interview-with-a-man-who-eats-leftover-food-from-str-1834424806 —This is just silly.

https://medium.com/@russroberts/do-the-rich-capture-all-the-gains-from-economic-growth-c96d93101f9c?sk=0e4f1f8aba0dcb0674bdf34af8b3ec08 — not entirely convincing due to limited scope of data and lack of control for “regional inflation” (scare quotes because I am making up the term. It may or may not be a legitimate economic concept).

http://freakonomics.com/podcast/student-debt/ — The episode gets away from student debt towards the end when Dubner is just questioning Daniels on his political career, but it is still a good episode. Income share agreements look promising as a way to improve how people pay for college. Yet, they are not without detractors. No matter your stance on the degree to which private industry should get involved, it’s hard to argue against ISAs being a better form of financing college rather than debt.

Reader Response

A friend of mine penned a response to my post calling for a dramatic expansion of universities to put a dent in inequality. It’s reproduced below with his permission.

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While expanding access to large public institutions (such as UCLA) is certainly one method of improving social mobility in a society, the sheer size of such institutions unfortunately inhibits many of the extremely positive attributes that smaller, typically private institutions have. There are two primary reasons for this.

First, social capital – in the form of close bonds to alumni, professors, and peers – is much harder to achieve at large public institutions, partly because the number of alumni, professors, and students leads to a diminished sense of individual ownership and investment in the institution; large public universities don’t need your involvement to succeed since there are so many other successful alumni, whereas a small college can only succeed if every alumni is engaged and giving back, forcing greater effort on both the institution’s part and on the part of its constituents. This fosters a greater number of connections in general and, more importantly, a greater number of close connections, which have a strong tendency of leading to explicit financial benefits – internships, jobs, and investments – as well as benefits that simply improve quality of life, such as meaningful friendships and relationships. Individualized attention in the form of mentorship, guidance, and connection is incredibly difficult to achieve on a large institutional scale (i.e. auditorium-size classes) but much more doable on a small scale – this is also the reason why large conferences tend to be less impactful than intimate retreats.

Second, homogeneous cultures and rigid operating procedures typical of larger institutions limit innovation. Large public institutions have many more moving parts and immense oversight given the brand names they carry (and the huge amount of public funding they receive), meaning that they are unable to move quickly when student needs rapidly change.

Instead of expanding our large public institutions, states might find it more advantageous to fund small, highly-specialized public institutions with independent cultures and operating procedures. These small institutions could operate in a consortium model with other small public institutions nearby (i.e. the Claremont model or the Babson/Olin/Wellesley model), sharing resources while maintaining institutional independence and nimbleness. Public university systems could thus reap the benefits typically found at exclusive liberal arts institutions while maintaining a high level of scale and accessibility.

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I have to admit, the consortium model did not cross my mind when I wrote my piece. The five C’s and Babson/Olin/Wellesley are all thriving institutions, so it’s worth examining whether their construction allows us to get the best of both educational access and quality.

Thoughts on Slowness

There’s plenty of material out there that tells us to take our foot off the gas and apply the breaks, or at least coast. In fact, so much has been written about “taking a breath” or “reflecting” that the terms are in danger of losing their potency. We all know how mentally and physically damaging it is to be busy all of the time, but my own anecdotal evidence doesn’t support anyone taking this advice to heart among the surfeit of articles/podcasts/talks telling us chill for a second.

This is a shame because while busyness may make us better at something in some narrow sense, I think it makes us less interesting on the whole. When I am my busiest, I understand I am not a person capable of having a good conversation with anyone, not necessarily for lack of time, but mental resources. My mind is always elsewhere, and this makes me about as engaging conversationally as a distracted cat or someone desperately trying resist the effects of anesthesia.

Yet, this post is about slowness, not busyness. The two are related, for sure, but I’d like to talk about the two types of slowness I have observed.

First is a kind of phenomenal slowness. [1] This is the sort you may experience lounging by the pool on a vacation, or just after you’ve woken up to a damp foggy morning while camping. It is characterized by feeling as if the world has actually slowed down, or you are in such a state that your corner of it is moving at a suitable pace regardless of what’s happening elsewhere. You can also describe this as the feeling that accompanies relaxation, content boredom, or general downtime. Crucially, it is not the same as grogginess or exhaustion, two other states in which we may feel “slow.” Phenomenal slowness is always a welcome feeling. I imagine it’s the state monks and people that have flip phones live in.

The second type is historical slowness. Historical slowness is the fact that most important things happen very slowly relative to our own lives. These things can have global significance, such as shifting demographics, the formation of national policy, or wars. We’re still attempting to desegregate schools more than sixty years after Brown v Board of Education, and religious influences from as far back as the 19th century are able to influence current levels of literacy [2]. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even on a personal level, neither are relationships, bodies of knowledge, or skills. Friendships are created with consistent interaction over sustained periods of time. Trust is built much the same way. Likewise, we don’t skim a Wikipedia page and have any deep knowledge on a particular subject. That takes lots of reading, practice, reflection, and time.

Phenomenal slowness is a mental state and historical slowness is a concept, but I think there’s a relationship between them. Being familiar with historical slowness can make you more likely to experience its phenomenal cousin. Recognizing everything important moves slowly, even things in your own life, releases pressure on your time. If the maximum rate important things can move during a given stretch of time is low, then there is no reason to use a lot of that time for the important thing. It is futile, even irrational to expend more time. Historical slowness dictates that things only move so fast, so you’re better off doing other activities, like those that lead to phenomenal slowness. Taking a walk or a break can be the direct the result of the knowledge that the opportunity cost of your time isn’t all that high.

It’s possible you can have historical slowness without phenomenal slowness, or vice-versa, but I do think one begets the other. Overall, I think slowness in all its forms is an underrated concept, no matter how many NYTimes smarter living stories are written on how we need to chill the hell out.

[1] Phenomenal in the sense it is perceived through experience.

[2] There’s another paper I remember that studied the placement of churches in (I think) 17th century Brazil or another Latin American country and established a causal relationship between those institutions and contemporary earnings/literacy. I can’t find it at the moment, but I think it’s another good example.

More admissions foolery

UCLA conducted an internal report on quid-pro-quo athletic admissions way back in 2014.

It looks a lot like what happened last March. Underqualified athletes, large sums of money, a lack of transparency in the athletic admissions department. Hell, even Rick Singer was implicated. He was quoted in the report trying to claim money does not influence the application process.

The only difference this time is that the donations found their way into university accounts as opposed to sham charities or the pockets of coaches. This is why nobody received more than a slap on the wrist and no laws were broken.