“And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and strongest that are crowned but those who compete”

-Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

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Decisions and Values

The Art of Decision-Making

Title is a bit misleading. I expected this to be a piece about making complex decisions with imperfect information, and it is in a sense, but the actual content of the article gets closer to a discussion of values and identity — which are of no doubt instrumental in making large decisions.

It’s just that I would have liked more elaboration on quotes like these:

A scenario-planning starter kit, Johnson writes, contains three possible futures: “You build one model where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.

Nonetheless, I liked it. One thing that I’ve always wondered about is how our own desires and preferences (or even values) can be so foreign to us even though they are supposed to function as the guiding principles of our lives. And, even if we can articulate our most valued positions, it’s difficult what it actually looks like to “be altruistic” or “live authentically.”

Perhaps this is explained by one of the theories in the article that our largest decisions aren’t “decisions” per se in that we take stock of our principles and then decide to act on them, but a result of “opting.” In short, opting is when we decide to “shift our values instead of optimizing them.” For example, if one were to “opt” to go to a certain college, it means they went not because they currently valued the the defining characteristics of the institution, but grew to value what the school had to give them. Think someone who was afraid of going to a party school and not focusing enough on coursework, but then going to the party school, throwing down, and deriving a lot of value from it. The “old person’s” values are not optimized, but the “new person’s” values are, in part because they were created partially in response to the situation.

As Maggie Rogers would say in “Give a Little” (Emphasis added).

But if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could get to know each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little
And if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could learn to love each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little

I do disagree with Callard’s account of aspiration as it is presented in the article, though. Callard claims that we “aspire to self-transformation by trying on the values we hope one day to posses.” The author, Rothman, gives an example of a student taking a music appreciation class to illustrate the point.

Suppose that you sign up for a classical-music-appreciation class, in which your first assignment is to listen to a symphony. You put on headphones, press Play—and fall asleep. The problem is that you don’t actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to.

This, Rothman/Callard claims, is the first step in transformation. Perhaps I’m being nit picky, but I think characterizing this scenario as “you just want to want to” is misleading. Clearly, you want to listen to the symphony, but the reason why it’s difficult is not because you, on some level, don’t want to, but because you haven’t built up the correct “appreciative framework” for deep engagement to happen.

I can want to watch a movie, but if I don’t have practice looking for the interesting things in a film, or the correct cinematic vocabulary to identify them, I might become bored and restless even though I actually want to watch it. You can probably experience this phenomena yourself if you sit down to watch a sport you don’t know the rules of, or read a novel set in a time period that you know nothing about.

The article is also good for the “vegemite principle.”

if you’ve never tasted Vegemite, a mysterious and beloved Australian “food spread” made from brewer’s yeast, then neither a description of what it’s like (black, gooey, vegetal) nor experience with other spreads (peanut butter, marmalade, Nutella) will suffice to tell you whether you’d like it.

If you notice any errors or believe I have given uncharitable/inaccurate accounts of the ideas in the article, please let me know. General comments are also greatly appreciated.


I shamelessly copy this style from Tyler’s own Marginal Revolution, but I think excerpts from his conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar are worth seeing.

MACFARQUHAR: I was writing about people who donated one of their kidneys to a stranger, and I discovered . . . I was talking to people about the people I was meeting, and they would say, “Well, those people surely are all mentally ill, right? Or they have some problem, or they are probably very, very censorious or judgmental.”


COWEN: You’ve argued that there are quite few ambitiously good characters in fiction. Is that also true for genre fiction?

MACFARQUHAR: No. I’m so glad you asked that. I think that science fiction is full of heroic characters. So are romances. This is one of the things I concluded — that the absence of unambiguously altruistic heroic characters is almost one of the things that marks highbrow fiction as such.

Of course, there are many, many exceptions, and there are heroes in higher-brow fiction. Over the past 100 years, it has become noticeable that genre fiction is filled with far more heroism than higher culture. And it’s such a noticeable pattern that it’s almost as though there is something pushing against that kind of character.

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Maggie is taking off! So excited to see where this takes her, and you should give her new album a listen. At the concert she gave last night, I remember her saying half the songs were written in her bedroom in Maryland, and the other half were written in the home studios of her friends here in LA. I believe it’s easy to tell which ones are which based on how “poppy” you take each song to be.

A project I want to undertake this weekend is to get together her entire discography and include live/acoustic renditions of songs so people can see the differences between each performance. The thing I find interesting about Maggie is how her progression from folk to pop mirrors how folk also gave birth to rock. The stories aren’t exactly the same, but to see this much musical development in an artist in such a short time is exciting.

This will also give me some time to spend with the lyrics of the new songs. While it’s clear Rogers is transitioning into a bona fide pop artist, she’s a songwriter first and foremost and it’s rewarding to do the work to listen and interpret her lyrics. Consider Dog Years. There’s a tension in the lyrics I never realized until recently, and it really makes the song in my opinion.

Riley WilsonMusicComment

Arist Launches!

This is huge news! Because of the hard work and vision of my good friend Michael Ioffe and his colleagues at Babson College, anyone in the world can now get high quality educational content delivered straight to their phone.

Full disclosure, I’m technically a cofounder of Arist, but I left day-to-day duties at the beginning of fall quarter. Everything that’s happened since then (and a great bit of what happened before) is the result of Michael, Ryan, and Joe making the Arist vision a reality. It’s been incredible to see what they’ve done, and I only expect good things in their futures.

Frances Tiafoe gets the biggest win of his career. Plays Seppi next round, which is a winnable match.

I see Frances playing on the UCLA courts every once in a while. He’s a funny guy, and it’s nice to see him pick up some steam in his career. I hope he can capitalize on this momentum, as it’s clear at this point he like he has the wherewithal to hang with the top guys.

Presentation I gave at Bruin Entrepreneurs

I think it’s important to have a role model in life, and equally important to have a startup role model if you want to become an entrepreneur.


Often and often, a marriage hardly differs from prostitution except by being harder to escape from

-Bertrand Russel, Proposed Roads to Freedom

What’s at stake in LA

Apparently, public schools in LA used to be good. I’ve heard anecdotally from adults that LAUSD schools are notoriously shitty, and that’s why there are so many private schools in LA proper and the valley. All of the good public schools are now south in the Irvine area.

The article also posits a charter school conspiracy headed by Eli Broad.

In Los Angeles, they have had more success. After his plan to move half of the Los Angeles district students into charter schools failed to get traction, the billionaire and charter school supporter Eli Broad and a group of allies spent almost $10 million in 2017 to win a majority on the school board. The board rammed through the appointment of a superintendent, Austin Beutner, with no educational background. Mr. Beutner, a former investment banker, is the seventh in 10 years and has proposed dividing the district into 32 “networks,” a so-called portfolio plan designed in part by the consultant who engineered the radical restructuring of Newark schools.

Their alleged goal is to get the LAUSD to implode from within so charter schools seem more attractive by comparison.

Personally, I think Southern California embodies the worst of modern education systems in different ways. You can take your pick between underfunded public schools, private/charter schools oozing with privilege (Harvard-Westlake, Marymount, Pacific Palisades), or the hyper-competitive public schools where the average GPA is 4.8 and if you’re not taking 6 AP classes your sophomore year, you may as well not apply to college.

Depending on how long this strike lasts, I really want to head downtown and lend some support to the teachers.


My friend and I disagreed about morals today. She took the position that good, bad, everything is relative (which I concede a lot of it is), while I claimed there existed some type of universal morality. Admittedly, my point was hard to defend, but I still maintain the belief (faith?) that there do exist “morals” somewhere out in the world and it is our job to think/search hard and find them, whether these morals are rooted in biology or the nature of social arrangements. This is a tough belief to have, as many brilliant people have spent their lives trying to find these morals that I have postulated, yet, I just can’t give in to relativism.

On another note, I am very excited to see Maggie Rogers this Thursday. She is dropping her debut album on Friday, so I expect her to approach the night with a specific type of emotional energy/gravity and the crowd to match it. In case you’ve never heard the fantastic Maggie Rogers, search her up on Spotify, or listen to this record she made in a broom closet while she was a teenager. I recommend “Kids Like Us,” “Embers,” and “A Love Letter.”


The worst ambiguity that ever existed.




adjective: biweekly; adjective: bi-weekly

done, produced, or occurring every two weeks or twice a week.

"a biweekly bulletin"

2. 50 year trends in the values / behaviours of American college freshmen. A study conducted through the UCLA department of education.

Worth poking around in. It covers everything from fluctuations in preferred majors to degree of religiosity. Beer drinking is also on the decline. I want to do a brief write-up on some of the more interesting findings soon.

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Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Apparently, it’s uncool in certain countries to be especially ambitious or distinguish yourself academically/professionally. I can see how this may be good in cases where you want to prevent excess competition or ensure the success of the group as opposed to the individual, but the drawbacks are obvious. If you will be “cut down” for doing things well or setting yourself apart, you will have no reason to. See also the “law of Jante” and “crab mentality

“A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations”

Functional stupidity is organizationally-supported lack of reflexivity, substantive rea-

soning, and justification. It entails a refusal to use intellectual resources outside a narrow

and ‘safe’ terrain. It can provide a sense of certainty that allows organizations to function

smoothly. This can save the organization and its members from the frictions provoked by

doubt and reflection. Functional stupidity contributes to maintaining and strengthening

organizational order. It can also motivate people, help them to cultivate their careers,

and subordinate them to socially acceptable forms of management and leadership.

Thought it would be tongue-in-cheek, but it really isn’t. I haven’t finished it yet, but it seems to reinforce the notion that sometimes, irrationality is good (at least in the business world).

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  1. Makes me want to visit Australia

  2. Ever wonder which animals have minds?

the second paper gets very technical very quickly, but the brief upshot (from what I understand) is that there are two sufficient conditions for having a mind: you can either be conscious (feel pain, experience what it is like to be awake, etc…) or be able to represent things. From what certain experiments have told us, some insects are able to represent things, and therefore they have minds.

This is an extremely short account of what is clearly a very interesting and complex idea, and I want to share more about it later when I’m confident I fully understand the entire argument. I’m taking Tyler Burge’s class right now (Burge is the author of the article and a leader in the field of philosophy of mind) so I should be learning about this topic at a steady pace.


COWEN: There’s a good deal of evidence that people in businesses are overconfident, but do you think they’re more overconfident than they should be?

KAHNEMAN: Overconfidence has many virtues. In the first place, it’s nice, it’s pleasant to be overconfident, especially if you’re an optimist. Optimism is valuable, much more than overconfidence. Overconfidence is sort of a side effect.

But to exaggerate the odds of success is a very useful thing for people. It will make them more appealing to others, they will get more resources, and they will take risks. It’s not necessarily good for them. The expected utility of taking risks in the economy is probably moderately negative. But for society as a whole to have a lot of optimists taking risks — that’s what makes for economic progress, so I call that the engine of capitalism, really, that sort of optimism.


KAHNEMAN: Yeah, happiness feels good in the moment. But it’s in the moment. What you’re left with are your memories. And that’s a very striking thing — that memories stay with you, and the reality of life is gone in an instant. So memory has a disproportionate weight because it’s with us. It stays with us. It’s the only thing we get to keep.

From an episode of Conversations with Tyler with the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

The first statement seems intuitively true. I do think it’s interesting that Kahneman says the expected value of taking risks in the economy is probably moderately negative. This leads to the weird conclusion that what is best for the economy isn’t necessarily best for the individual.

The second is also interesting. When you think about it, you have a memory of an event much longer than you actually experience the event, so why not spend your time trying to maximize the quality of your memories as opposed to the actual events? Take advantage of our bias towards how intense the peak of an experience is and how it ended.

"original sin" vs. "inherently flawed"

Anecdotally, people my age seem to be opposed to the idea of original sin. This is interesting because it has more or less been widely accepted since Christianity showed up and has probably only recently suffered a decline in supporters. However, I bet these same people would agree with the statement that humans are inherently flawed, and we need to work to overcome those flaws. Young adults may only be rejecting the idea that some omnipotent being has created them as imperfect, and are willing to accept that their imperfections are a result of natural selection or some other process. Or, they are rejecting the idea that just by existing they are sinning and doing something wrong.

What this secularization of imperfection loses, in my opinion, is the complementary idea that we should strive to become less sinful, or more perfect. If we believe that we are born with original sin, then we believe someone/thing has already made a normative judgement about our character, and expects us to improve (leaving alone whether absolute perfection/sinlessness is possible). However, if we believe our imperfections or more akratic tendencies are only biological baggage from a bygone era, then we are more likely to accept ourselves just as we are. If talking about imperfection as “original sin” gives us a spectrum from sinful to sinless to work with, then talking about undesirable tendencies simply as personality traits gives us no spectrum. Without certain types of language, we have nowhere to orient ourselves towards improvement.

“The Road to Character” has got me thinking about individual moral progress.

Edit as of 1/7/19

What I am trying to get at here is the difference between normative and positive statements. Just didn’t have the vocabulary at the time of writing.


1. A Danish travel agency created an advertising campaign called “Do it for Denmark” in an effort to increase the national birth rate and ensure they have enough future customers (mildly NSFW).

Apparently, it’s working.

now - about nine months after the last ad campaign - Denmark is boasting 14% more children due during the summer months than during the corresponding period a year ago, according to Cphpost. That's about 16,000 babies.

2. Parenting is getting more intensive.

“As the gap between rich and poor increases, the cost of screwing up increases,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and inequality. “The fear is they’ll end up on the other side of the divide.”

Another good one from the article:

Ms. Sentilles’s mother, Claire Tassin, described a very different way of parenting when her two children were young, in the 1970s. “My job was not to entertain them,” said Ms. Tassin, who lives in Vacherie, La. “My job was to love them and discipline them.”


Girard is looking pretty good right now.

researchers set up a series of experiments in which one “observer” female fruit fly watched a “demonstrator” fly pick between two males that differed only in their artificial color—pink or green. When it was their turn to mate, observers chose the same color of mate more than 70% of the time,

Scientific corroboration that what we want is a function of what we see others desire.

Also, I was getting my cousins presents at Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy of David Brooks’ “The Road to Character.” I started reading it, and from what I understand so far, it’s meant to be a sort of modern-day edition of Plutarch’s Lives. Each chapter covers someone from history (often unexpected or otherwise obscure) who has lived a life, that in Brooks’ eye, embodies character.

I was compelled to buy the book in part because I’ve listened to Brooks speak a couple of times and he’s always been articulate and surprisingly funny. His writing (so far) is more of the same, and I’m impressed with how he argues for what many will call a “conservative” message of character and self-control as opposed to achievement and technical proficiency.

How can Netflix spend so much for original content and still make money?

In the short term, they can’t.

In 2017 Netflix reported a profit of $500 million. But they had to take on $2 billion in debt to make it happen.

This is due in part to the fact Netflix is spending $5-$10 million per episode for some of their more popular series.

While this clearly does not yield the greatest short-term fruit (creating your own content is a long-game activity) I’m more excited about how the new economics of television can lead to more creative freedom.

Beyond the ability to play with many millions of dollars for each episode to hire the best actors, build fantastic sets, etc… creating TV for streaming platforms like Netflix/Amazon where the entire season is released at once rather than shown every week over the course of months means you can revise.

because we don’t launch week-to-week, there is the built-in benefit that halfway through the season or towards the end of production, especially in a new series, once they’ve found their sea legs and know their characters’ voices and the actors, there’s the ability to go back and reshape some of the earlier episodes if it’s something the creator wants to do.

Additionally, I hope when producers/writers write for streaming series, they cut out more of the rushed character development at the beginning of series and much of the summarizing that happens at the start of episodes. Because viewers tend to treat an entire season like a single movie (by bingeing it), creators shouldn’t have to worry about making sure we’re all caught up with the plot, or hastily establishing a character’s persona right away.

Apparently there’s also a “leap of faith” that happens when you produce an entire season of a show for the streaming platform. When a show is airing every week, producers have the opportunity to listen to viewer feedback and record future episodes with that in mind. Yet, Netflix and Amazon producers have no such luxury, and thus have to fully commit to whatever they put into a show. This may be riskier for the them, but in theory I think this should make for bolder TV and better programs for all.