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The Economist

I received a print subscription for Christmas and have been enjoying it. Beyond a little bit of the NYTimes , this represents my primary news source. I particularly appreciate the global focus as I am slowly working to cure my ignorance of everything that happens outside of North America. Somewhat counterintuitively, it also gives me more impetus to stay up-to-date with domestic political affairs. I am beginning to reach an understanding of America’s outsize role in the world and the ramifications of our actions on global welfare. If you care about the well-being of all people, you should care about the decisions of the American government.

Essays on Patriotism

I’m still working through these. Kateb’s piece is especially interesting as it tries to investigate the source of patriotism and duty. If the government exists to serve the people, why would we be obliged to die for it?

The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart

When I heard an ex-philosopher became a management consultant and then wrote a book about the experience, I had to buy it. The book is particularly valuable for its historical exploration of the origins of management theory. Apparently, the two most foundational figures in management thought, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Elton Mayo, were total frauds. Both fabricated stories and explanations to support their points and on the basis of this ended up immortalized in business schools across the nation. Business as an academic discipline, it seems, lays on shaky foundations.

I have yet to finish it, but the book has been enjoyable thus far.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Girls vs. Boys

Lisa Damour in the NYTimes

Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

Damour sees this fact and makes the argument that the same traits that propel females to academic success hold them back in the workforce. She emphasizes they tend to be more industrious, prudent, and better performers academically than their male counterparts, but lack the confidence that can propel them to leadership positions. Females are perfectionists. By contrast, males tend to put in minimal effort for the same academic marks. According to Damour, this means they can “see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits,” and build confidence in their abilities. Accordingly, the solution to this problem is to get females to focus on “economy of effort” in school rather than fall prey to the law of diminishing returns.

I have seen what Damour describes in my own academic experience. I know many perfectionists that don’t take anything less than 8 hours of studying a day for an answer but still seem terribly insecure about their own abilities. I agree with Damour on everything except the corrective action.

Females, ceteris paribus, are more diligent and insightful than their average male counterparts. Damour links to some studies illustrating this. I will not speculate on the origins of these difference, but my anecdotal evidence, along with the empirical supplements, highly suggests this is the case. In every step of my life, there has been a girl that has outworked me, is more articulate than me, and is generally better than I am. I expect this to be the case forever and I would be concerned if it wasn’t.

What I’m trying to say is that girls are smart and their work ethic is probably what gets them there. Currently, females have the right to increase their confidence generally because they are already winning in an academic sense. It doesn’t appear they need to change their attitudes or habits, and slack off like the boys, in order to build confidence. Rather, they should take stock of what they have and realize they should trust themselves. If anything, this is a problem with us. Why are we promoting all the indolent men running around with unearned confidence rather than the people that have consistently outperformed them? There’s something ideologically fishy about telling females they need to be like “the guys” in order to succeed.

Diminishing returns are real, and I don’t doubt Damour’s experience with young women who exert inefficient effort to curb their anxiety about school. That will always be unproductive. Yet, I don’t think females have a poor strategy, but rather that we have been rewarding the wrong one. This, I feel, is a small component of a larger question surrounding women’s equality. Does the problem lie with the world being a certain way, or women? Is the problem with women not being confident/assertive/skilled enough (all improvable traits), or us having a narrow view of excellence?

If you know me, you know I am not an expert on anything, let alone gender issues. If you think I have something wrong, please tell me. I stand by my views, but I can be convinced otherwise.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Visibility = Value

Theory: what’s valued is what’s visible.

I understand this is almost exactly what Girard’s mimetic theory of desire is, but I arrived at it recently thinking about what types of behaviors are valued at different institutions.

Eloquence and general knowledge aren’t as valued here as traits as they were at my high school. I understand there are innumerable factors that could be influencing what I observe (not the least of which my bias and ignorance), but I think salience of behavior has explanatory power.

Consider a high school classroom. It has (hopefully) fewer than 30 kids, and, unless you whisper, not much can be said without others hearing it. Pedagogically, it’s also an interactive environment. Exchanges between students, and between teachers and students, are common and often about the class subject-matter. This means academic engagement is much more salient. When someone has an insight or a perspicuous point, they raise their hand, share, and everyone knows about it. Because clear thinking is (again, hopefully) rewarded in the classroom, students see there’s social value to being intellectually present during class.

Contrast this with a large college lecture. The most salient behavior your peers exhibit in this setting is note taking and silence. If they have a point to make or are wrestling with a valuable question, you will most likely never know about it. Even though students might engage in academic behavior after class and during office hours, this is almost never visible to the majority of students. They are most likely already out the door or believe the opportunity cost of going to office hours too high. The behavior isn’t visible, so it isn’t valued.

There is much more to thinking than the social value you (may) get from exhibiting it, but I feel like this principle explains some aspects large university culture. I am definitely not the first to think of this, but I believe the slogan has a grain of truth. Our own wants and desire (ontological status pending) are often so foreign to us. It’s much easier to look to the world for cues as to what we should value.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Nozick's Experience Machine and Video Games

Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia asks us to imagine a machine that we can plug into and it will simulate anything we desire. While we’re inside, we can experience the joys associated having a fulfilling job, listening to good music, falling in love, or talking with friends. Think of it like a pleasant Matrix. All of these images and corresponding feelings are produced by some clever electrical stimulation of our neurons and as long as we are plugged in, our experience is indistinguishable from real life.

Nozick says we gain something by imagining such a machine and then “realizing we would not want to use it.” He believes our repulsion to plugging in is summarized in three points.

  1. We actually want to do things and not only have the experience that we’ve done them. Wanting the experience of doing something, as Nozick says, is often just an indicator that we want to do the thing. How else are you going to get the experience?

  2. We want to be the type of person that actually does things. To plug into the experience machine is to acquiesce to the triumphs and vicissitudes of real life and become a type of “indeterminate blob,” according to Nozick. With every experience preordained, there is no opportunity to indicate or build one’s general, or moral, character. If we’re plugged into the machine, it’s impossible for us to know whether we are “courageous , kind, intelligent, witty, or loving,” and depending on what you believe, if we don’t have the opportunity to exercise these traits outside of a determined environment, we can’t be any of the above.

  3. Plugging in limits us to an artificial reality. This cuts us off from any type of “deeper reality,” and the potential spiritual experience that can come with it.

I would not use the experience machine, and I think if you asked most people they would say they wouldn’t either. (If you believe that pleasure is the chief human good, then I can see how you could argue that plugging in is the rational thing to do, as pleasure itself is not concerned with whether it is caused by electrodes tickling your brain or some good pasta. If you have that position send me a message; I want to talk about it). Yet, I think there’s a paradox here: if what Nozick says is true, why do so many people play video games?

There is, I admit, nothing wrong with the act of playing video games. Yet, I’ve observed many people, mainly college-aged males, devote hours and hours of their days to staring at their computer screens, engaging in what is as close to artificial stimulation of the neurons as you can get without cracking your skull open and poking around. I know very little biology, but video games, I believe, stimulate the same areas of your brain (nucleus accumbens) as drugs and alcohol, and are certainly as addictive. They are approximate experience machines.

So, why do people game so much? I offer some potential explanations.

It could be the case people do not realize they are “plugging in.” When someone fires up their computer, they are probably not opening fortnite with the intention of getting spoon-fed pleasurable experiences, but rather think they are just killing time. Nozick doesn’t pop out and give us the run-down of what we are about to do and the ramifications of doing it. To gamers, playing is only a slight diversion and not an artificial all-encompassing world.

Video games and the experience machine may also be very different things. Inside the experience machine, you’re under a type of grand illusion, believing everything you do is real and has significant importance to your own life, but it isn’t really happening. By contrast, very few people are under the illusion that they are actually inside a video game when they’re playing, and even if they did believe that, it would be another leap to assume that what they experience in the game constitutes their entire life. Because people can recognize the division between video games and what is real, they can presumably get up and choose to participate in either one whenever they please.

The distance between video games and the physical world is also getting smaller. What I mean by this is that in-game events are beginning to have a significant and lasting impact on actual lives. Consider Ninja, the internet star whose video-game prowess nets him an estimated $500,000 a month, and has made him something of a celebrity. For Ninja, video game actions and decisions are real-life actions and decisions, as they determine his income and public reputation. Video games, if played with others, can also encourage pro-social behavior. Trying to win a round or match on a team in any game requires a fair bit of coordination, and video games might be one of the only places some can cooperate with others in a constructive manner.

I feel old and crotchety writing this, but it concerns me how much time we spend in these types of “constructed worlds.” Video games, I feel, are inherently different than the constructed worlds of fiction and movies as those are focused on communicating a specific narrative while video games are just mindless. I know there are narrative-focused games out there, but those aren’t the kinds people are addicted to.

This piece is highly speculative. If you disagree or have something to add, please leave a comment. I would love to listen.

Link to the text of Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Covers

I wish more artists covered others’ songs. I got introduced the world of covers in the musicology section of my 60’s history class last year and I can’t shake the feeling there need to be more versions of the same song in the world. It really gets you thinking about the interpretative aspects of a piece’s arrangement and delivery in addition to the lyrics, and makes you pay more attention to the changes in a base line or background sounds rather than what’s being said (which is still important and necessary if you want to get the most interpretative bang for your buck).

My old professor used to say something along the lines of “music is not just poetry performed to a beat.” Every aspect of a song is eligible for scrutiny and covers are one of the best ways to realize that.

The most famous cover and its original

An odd pair

Riley WilsonMusicComment
Fair division problems

NPR Planet Money Episode on fair division problems.

These problems have always interested me. Part of the reason I’m taking some economics classes to supplement my Philosophy is that I’m interested in how the systems we use to divide resources “fairly” work in the real world. When there are limited resources, who are the people that get them and do they deserve it?

I would have liked the episode to get a little into how the mathematicians that study fair division classify a particular solution as “fair,” especially since they hint that they intent to leave a rigorous explanation of the term to the Philosophers.

The main issue in the episode is how to divide the limited dock space in Santa Barbara between the wealthy and those who need it to earn a living, but I’m curious why they don’t just expand the dock. This is a bit of an econ 1 answer, but if the price of a space is $100,000 like the episode reports, shouldn’t this be a signal to the city that they can build more and people would be willing to pay? I understand municipalities aren’t in the dock construction business, and there may be environmental concerns (preserving the natural beauty of the coast, dock is already as large as it can get, etc…), but in theory we can use market forces to get the price lower rather than relying on what might seem like contrived schemes.

The episode is also worth checking out for the “rental harmony” problem. A guest speaker, Constantinos Daskalakis, gives a pretty concise summary of an ingenious potential solution.

MALONE: Costis says imagine that you've got an apartment with two bedrooms. One of those bedrooms is big, but it has no closet.

HERSHIPS: The other is small, but it does have that magical closet space.

DASKALAKIS: That's right. And how do you split the rent? Maybe you know, I value a small room that has a closet, but you value more a big room that - because you like space.

HERSHIPS: I'm taking the closet.

MALONE: Yeah, I don't need the closet. It's fine. I wear the same jeans every day for two weeks in a row. I don't need the closet.

DASKALAKIS: OK. Thanks for sharing (laughter).

MALONE: Yeah, you know.

DASKALAKIS: So like, yeah. So the question is, you know - who gets what? What's the allocation? But also, how is the rent split?

MALONE: So what is the protocol here? Costis says, well, let's say the rent is 2,000 bucks. First thing, everybody needs to figure out what percentage of the rent they think each room is worth.

DASKALAKIS: Maybe for you, two rooms are equal. But then for Kenny, big space is so much more valuable that he says, look; you know, I don't care about the closet at all. I don't even have clothes. OK? So what I care about is the space. So...

MALONE: I have some clothes. I just was saying that I wear the same pants. I have clothes. OK. Go ahead, though.

(LAUGHTER)

DASKALAKIS: So the protocol that we use with my roommate was - and it's a classical one. Each of the two roommates, in a sealed envelope, writes what they consider to be the right split - what do they consider to be the right values of the two rooms.

HERSHIPS: You guys actually did this?

DASKALAKIS: We did that, yeah.

HERSHIPS: Is he also a fair division guy, your roommate?

DASKALAKIS: So he's also a mathematician.

HERSHIPS: Just checking.

DASKALAKIS: Now, you know, we get together, and we open those envelopes.

MALONE: And when they opened those envelopes, they found out that Costis' roommate thought the person with the big room should pay $1,400 and the person with the smaller room with the closet should pay 600 bucks. But Costis, he valued both those rooms equally. He was willing to pay $1,000 for either room.

HERSHIPS: And in case you haven't been following along with a calculator, each roommate's total bid for both rooms has to add up to $2,000.

DASKALAKIS: So he valued the big room more than I valued the big room.

MALONE: Yeah.

DASKALAKIS: On the other hand, I value the small room more than he values the small room. So each of us gets the room where they're the highest bidder. However, how much do we pay? We pay the average of the two prices.

MALONE: Yeah.

DASKALAKIS: So for the big room, he said 1,400. I said a thousand. So he gets it, but he pays 1,200. So he's happy. Right?

HERSHIPS: And Costis pays 800 for the small room, and he's happy because he was willing to pay a thousand.

DASKALAKIS: So everybody's happy, no?

1/25/19

My brief, uninformed pre-match analysis for the Australian final tonight: Djokovic will win. It’s a quicker court, and I expect him to attempt to rush Nadal’s forehand to open up the court. We’ll see how it goes.

Riley WilsonTennisComment
Going Abroad

To anyone that reads this blog, where do you recommend I study abroad? I’m thinking Scandinavia, and my Norwegian friend told me not to go to Norway, so I can still choose between Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. Besides those, where else in the world should I consider?

Riley WilsonTravelComment
1/21/19

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

-Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
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.

1/19/19

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.”

and

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.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
1/18/19

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/arts/music/maggie-rogers-heard-it-in-a-past-life.html

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
1/15/19

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.

1/14/19

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.

1/13/19

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.”

1/12/19

The worst ambiguity that ever existed.

bi·week·ly

/bīˈwēklē/

adjective

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.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
1/11/19

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).

Riley WilsonAssortedComment