Blog

The posts here come from some random thoughts I have daily. The plan is to eventually write something more substantial, but for now don't expect more than a few paragraphs per post.

Pluralistic ignorance.

June 2, 2019

Pluralistic ignorance is a perverse phenomenon where most people are against a certain social norm, but support it anyway because it is the socially acceptable thing to do.

The paper ‘Everybody’s doing it’: on the persistence of bad social norms (via @DegenRolf) proposes an interesting little experiment where they can test the effect of group size, conformity and information has on the prevalence of bad norms. Not surprisingly, it’s easier to put away bad norms in smaller groups and it’s very hard to break away from a bad norm that’s widely accepted.

Interestingly, pluralistic ignorance seems to be very dependent on incomplete information; when subjects were allowed to communicate, the bad norm went away very quickly. This gives me hope that we can fix a lot just by letting people speak out more.

The Nordic paradox.

May 27, 2019

Nordic countries have relatively high rates of violence against women, which is puzzling because they also have very high gender equality. When I first heard of this, my first thought was that surely, there’s a lot more reporting in those countries, so of course you get more cases.

This article seems to address that:

89.1% of the Swedish sample had higher values in the physical IPVAW factor than the Spanish average, and this percentage was 99.4% for the sexual IPVAW factor as compared to the Spanish average. In terms of probability of superiority, there was an 80.7% and 96.1% probability that a Swedish woman would score higher than a Spanish woman in the physical and the sexual IPVAW factors, respectively. Our results showed that the higher prevalence of physical and sexual IPVAW in Sweden than in Spain reflects actual differences and are not the result of measurement bias, supporting the idea of the Nordic paradox.

I’ll have to dig in a bit deeper to understand the methods they used to exclude the possibility that the difference is just due to reporting (“measurement bias”), but if it really holds, then I have no idea how to explain the paradox.

Books do work, but they take a lot of work

May 14, 2019

Interesting food for thought from Andy Matuschak:

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly.

Matuschak goes on to argue that understanding1 somethings requires engaging with it in some substantial way. Indeed, I’ve read the three books mentioned, and the only one I can meaningfully talk about is Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m pretty sure that’s due some brief discussions I’ve had about the book’s ideas while reading it, many years ago.

While reading the post I was wondering what he thinks about Michael Nielsen’s ideas on using spaced repetition to explain concepts. Then at the end I found that they collaborated on a book that does exactly that.

I have to say, though, that I’m satisfied with the current situation. Maybe there is no way to significantly improve our learning from books without putting in the work, but if it’s worth it then I have no trouble putting in the work. A bigger issue to me is that there are so many sources of information today that putting in the work in any one of them doesn’t seem worth it (since I could spend my time superficially learning other things).

That touches on perhaps my main issue with popsci books: if the subject is interesting and the reading is said to be pleasing, then I’ll be tempted to read them, but I know that precisely because they’re easy to read, I never have to engage actively with them and so I largely forget them as soon as I’m done with them. Tougher books require you to put more work into them, but that’s what you need if you want to remember anyway. I find it hard to believe that spaced repetition can help here if it happens seamlessly as you read.


  1. I’d prefer to say “remembering”, if only because “understanding” has a nearly magical connotation to me. [return]

Wikipedia and rats.

April 7, 2019

Next time I see a banner on Wikipedia asks me to donate, I’ll be thinking of this:

"Is Alberta Rat-Free" - the greatest edit war in the history of Wikipedia, locked by an admin after 12,239 pages of heated debate, pic.twitter.com/N9LEbddc2m

— Kia‏☆ (@alt_kia) August 24, 2018

If everyone reading Wikipedia donated the cost of a cup of coffee, this debate could’ve gone forever!

Don’t get me wrong, I love Wikipedia and have donated to it. Where else could I get trivia as random as this:

On the Isle of Man, there is a taboo against the word “rat”.

Nabokov as a refugee.

April 4, 2019

Interesting article from the NYT about Nabokov. Not knowing much about his life other than he was Russian and lived in the US later in life, I was surprised by some of the information here; for example, after leaving Russia, he traveled with a Nansen passport (issued to stateless persons), he and his wife having been stripped of Russian citizenship. The article actually shows a US immigrant identification card with his nationality stated as without. And then this:

And then there was “Dr. Zhivago.” Published four weeks after “Lolita,” it joined Nabokov’s masterpiece at the top of the 1958 best-seller list. Nabokov wrote off Boris Pasternak’s novel as “wretched and mediocre,” or, on a better day, as “a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic.” He might shrug off his losses, but 1919 still burned bright: He could not forgive Pasternak for having raced past the liberal revolution on his way to writing about the Bolshevik coup. The Nabokovs knew a Soviet plot when they saw one: They were convinced the Communists had pretended to smuggle Pasternak’s novel out of the Soviet Union. Its American publication amounted to a cunning act of currency conversion. Nabokov forbade his publisher from mentioning him and Pasternak in the same breath. It was as if the Cold War played out weekly in America’s bookstores.

I knew he had strong opinions about other writers, but this degree of paranoia makes him sound a bit like some of his characters.