A productive post on productivity

I decided to start jotting down thoughts this evening, sort of like a diary, and bullet points seemed like the way to do it. Honestly, figuring out how to carry a thought across multiple paragraphs seemed like a chore, since I’m tired and sick, and I was mostly trying to put off sleep. A weird thing happened.


I’ve been grappling with an issue at work– I think I care about the ability to communicate effectively more than other people, and yet I feel like I struggle more with it than they do. I think the obvious explanation is probably correct: that I suffer from a form of “performance anxiety”, i.e. I want to do it really well, which means that I want to put off starting, which means it ultimately gets done rushed. This is, of course, a typical pattern for procrastinators, who occupy themselves with minor distractions because the prospect of working on something important is stressful and aversive. This is also been the case for me when preparing job applications– I know that they are important, and I fear that an error will reveal that I don’t know what I’m doing. This is stressful, and it prevents me from getting useful experience putting out job applications.


The solution, of course, is well known: I ought to give yourself permission to make a shoddy initial attempt which I then can build upon. Some sources recommend, half-seriously, that you use self deception to accomplish this: invent a second, even more urgent, more high-stakes, more anxiety producing task, so working on the first task feels like a welcome distraction. With mental Aikido, the urge to procrastinate has been suplexed into productivity!


(As an aside the short essay, How to get Things Done, by Robert Benchley, treats this idea with the humor it deserves)


Rationally, this makes no sense. Rationally, when I approach something like job applications, I want to think critically about what I know and what I don’t know, identify the unanswered questions that are causing me anxiety, and then develop a strategy for answering them, which might include trial and error, but could also include other strategies. But I suspect, in actuality, it is a mistake to start a strategy with anything other than trial and error. If left to think abstractly, the mind has a way of conjuring paper tigers. They say that no plan survives contact with the enemy, so put yourself face-to-face with the enemy– or the work–, then start developing plans.


As an aside, writing these bullet points was exciting– I felt a rush of energy, enough to carry me through the last 45 minutes polishing and organizing the ideas. Perhaps they make for a good outline for a blog post. Does this style of bullet-point writing make it easier to start the sorts of writing projects that are easy to share?


Of course (not to get too meta) writing essays has the same problem as work projects and job applications. I write about ideas all the time, but the second I consider the possibility of posting about, it becomes IMPORTANT, and therefore stressful, and therefore I don’t want to work on it. Part of me wants to devote my considerable mental strength to thinking about the purpose of my writing (i.e. what sort of writing project is useful to share?) and figure out whether I’ve been able to successfully talk about worth sharing.  Is it sufficiently thoughtful, original, and well sourced? But I feel like this is my mind conjuring a paper tiger. Understanding the purpose of writing comes after I start sharing it, not before.


The way to understand the impact is to share and then to gauge reactions from the people with the patience to read it and talk about it with me, and iterate accordingly. The text above has undergone some amount of editing, mostly for flow and concision and transforming bullets into paragraphs, but it has been build upon the unstructured thoughts I had at 1:00AM. I decided to share it (which, I suppose from your perspective, is something of a foregone conclusion), but I nevertheless appreciate your having read it. Consider it an experiment.


For the next experiment, I hope to discover whether this approach to writing can produce something less meta. I do want this blog to occasionally be about something other than blogging.

But for now, I have put off sleep long enough.


On Game of Thrones, Season 8

As of tonight, the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones can be evaluated in its entirety, and I wanted to take the chance to get down a hot take. My focus is not on the final episode, but the one previous, since it contained the the last significant plot development. Tonight’s episode is spent managing the repressions of the previous episode and typing up the loose ends.

Of course, there will be spoilers, so be warned. For a spoiler-free discussion,  recommend this twitter thread, which I will elaborate on below.













First, a recap:

The major event in Season 8 Episode 5 was Dany’s “heel turn”. The action unfolds basically like this: Dany uses Drogon to destroy all of the city’s anti-dragon defenses and wipe out the Golden Company, the mercenary army that that Cersei had contracted for defense, all in a matter of minutes. At this point, the bells toll in the Red Keep, signaling the city’s surrender and giving Dany the opportunity to secure the city and the throne without any further bloodshed (and basically zero civilian casualties, which had been a major point of contention between her and her advisers up to this point). Dany rejects this opportunity, and commands Drogon to start indiscriminately torching the residents of King’s Landing.

Now, the writers did fairly clearly sketch out what motivated Dany’s decision. Earlier in the episode, Dany had come to the conclusion that she will not be loved in Westeros, so she must secure her rule by inspiring fear in her would-be adversaries. She decides that the best way to inspire fear is by demonstrating, in the most dramatic way possible, that she’s willing to be horrifically brutal to her enemies. To rationalize this, she argued that the commoners of King’s Landing, by failing to rise up in rebellion against Cersei, made themselves complicit with and ultimately accountable for her crimes. Emotionally, Dany was also stricken by grief and lacked anybody to check her worst impulses, since all of her trusted friends and advisors have either died (Missandie, Jorah, Rhegal), betrayed her (Varys), rejected her (Jon), or displayed staggering incompetence (Tyrion).

The Criticism:

My contention, which I share with most of the show’s other critics, is not that this development of Dany into the Mad Queen is bad, but that it’s execution was extremely rushed and clumsy.

Game of Thrones is defined by its willingness to play with and deviate from standard fantasy formulas in very interesting ways. Having the prophesized, underdog queen turn out to be a mass-murdering maniac is an excellent subversion of expectation, in the same pattern as the earlier deaths of multiple main characters.

However, Dany’s heel turn being thematically similar to Ned’s death and the Red Wedding does not mean that it should be executed in the same way.

Ned’s death and the Red Wedding stand out because they are sudden and shocking, but the reason these specific events work as shocking moments is because the relevant point-of-view characters shared some of the reader’s faulty assumptions about the trajectory of their story. Neither Ned nor Rob and Catelyn expected to die in the time or manner that they did. We can be blindsided because they are blindsided.

One of the core problems with the writing of the show once it outpaced its source material has been its apparent fetish for “sudden, shocking moments”, to the exclusion of other, more interesting ways to play with genre conventions.

Take, for example, the character arc of Jamie Lannister. That the treacherous child-murdering incestuous nihilistic jackass a redemption arc is a brilliant subversion of genre, and is arguably one of the most interesting facets of this story. But this subversion is explored over the course of multiple books/seasons, because it takes a lot of time to explore subversions that are rooted in character development.

I’m not saying that Dany’s character development should necessarily have been explored as exhaustively as Jamie’s. What I am saying is that her character development should not have been presented as a SUDDEN SHOCKING TWIST. Not everything can or should be shocking and sudden.

Of course, Dany’s descent into madness did not come completely out of left field. She had shown herself to be capable of extreme brutality towards her enemies on numerous earlier occasions, and she has always been somewhat impulsive and emotional, held in check by the efforts of advisers and mentors who are now no longer there.

But this account of her character is very incomplete. Yes, Dany has always had a brutal streak, but her moral universe had also always made the distinction between the powerless and downtrodden and the powerful, and she had repeated demonstrated concern for the former. She locks her dragons in a dungeon because they killed an innocent child. She repeatedly refuses to assault King’s Landing, (albeit grudgingly), out of concern for the welfare of the commoners.

There are many ways this change in Dany could have been explored and justified. We could discover that Dany’s concern for the commoners was ultimately shallow and perilously contingent on her feeling that the commoners love her, but this idea deserves more than a single episode.

What does this mean?

After watching the show, a lot of the fans have been trying to pin down what feels missing. This is difficult, with the finale so fresh, and the fact that fandoms are notorious for complaining. Also not helping us achieve clarity are the elements of that show that have remained consistently great or even surpassed the very high bar set by previous seasons.

But at the end of the day, I think the failures of the recent show are substantial and can be traced, more or less directly, to the limitations of its writers. The Game of Thrones was at its best when it was able to distill the sprawling plotlines of its source material down to its essentials (with pragmatic edits) and bring them to life with stratospheric talent and production values.

However once the show’s writers no longer had the source material from which they could graft and distill multi-episode arcs, and their bag of tricks was just too limited for the story that they were trying to tell. They maintained viewer interest with a combination of production values, fan service, and SHOCKING TWISTS, but the result was a season that managed to feel both bloated and rushed, with a bunch of scenes that didn’t feel like they mattered AND twists that didn’t feel organic or properly set up.

Of course, it’s hard to say at such an early date how the show will be remembered. History might be forgiving. This story may not have been possible to finish in a satisfying way, even by George R.R. Martin himself.

But I also suspect that this is the first of many great TV adaptations of fantasy novels. We’ve gotten to the point where technology is good enough and cheap enough to bring fantasy stories to life with enough time to explore them in the way they deserve. We have seen American Gods and Good Omens receive the prestige TV treatment. HBO is creating an adaptation of His Dark Materials, which I am giddy about. I suspect all of these owe their existence to success of Game of Thrones, and for that, at least, I can be grateful.

Asking the Right Questions about the US in the Middle East.

I’ve noticed that this blog devotes an disproportionate amount of time to political issues. Of my posts so far, about 60% are about political topics. Although this is honestly less than I thought it would be, it is still more than all of my other blogging topics combined (namely “movie reviews”, “religion and philosophy” and “other random stuff”).

This wasn’t exactly my intention when I started the blog and, in fairness, is partially due to a dramatic increase in political writing in the last year. But at the same time, I’m not not, in the meat world, a terribly politically engaged person.

The reason I think my blog turns political is because I’m most often motivated to write by frustration, specifically with arguments that I take to be overly simplistic or could use reframing. In politics, this frustration is very common. The stakes of feel very high, but the quality of the actual arguments is really, really low. In this respect, political topics feel like low hanging fruit.

I’m reacting here to a marginal revolution post, discussing current events unfolding in the middle east.

Turkey prepares to send troops to Qatar

Hmm…Meanwhile Qatar is engaging in talks with Turkey and Iran for emergency food and water supplies.

I don’t know what to expect from the Qatar situation, but I will say this.  If America really is withdrawing from its global role, “crude economism” predicts that small, hard to defend, oil-rich states are the first places where you would expect fighting to break out.  So Qatar is a bellwether for how global world order is likely to evolve.

I found this pretty insightful, although he is simply basing his prediction on “crude economism”

I might quibble a bit with Cohen’s language, which makes it seems like the Turkish troop deployment is a startling new development, when, in actuality, the agreement allowing Turkey to establish a military base in Qatar is over a year old.

(The noteworthy development is that Turkey is accelerating the timeline for troop deployment, with a not-so-subtle insinuation that their goal is to send a message to Saudi Arabia. The history of the tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a little complicated)

But broadly, I think Cohen is right to connect this to the American changing foreign policy stance. If you take a step back, the moral and strategic justification for having the US be the single most powerful military force on the planet is that we prevent open conflict between regional powers in various parts of the world. Our reward for doing this is getting to make sure that large reserves of natural resources are controlled by people who meet at least a base level of friendliness. They get to do their own thing, so long as they don’t do anything blatantly opposed to US interests or commit human rights abuses too grisly for us to ignore.

It’s not exactly a utopian status quo, but compared to a costly war between some combination of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, we’ll take it.

But let’s follow this thread. There are hints that America’s place in maintaining this status quo could change. Whether or not you think this is a good thing ought to depend on the answer to two questions: 1) what are the costs (in lives and dollars) associated with maintaining this status quo and 2) are there any less costly alternatives?

Cohen here is outlining the costs of the alternative, which is the potential for a regional power struggle in the middle east, which yes, could be devastating (recall that Turkey has nukes).

Of course, I don’t really have the expertise to critically evaluate Cohen’s argument. There might be ways to build a lasting peace that don’t use the threat of US or UN military intervention a keystone, which would certainly be worth pursuing, if possible.

But what’s really striking to me how rarely you see these questions even articulated clearly. As I said, it’s low hanging fruit.

Russia Hacked the Election!

Well, no, not really.

The story, as far as I can tell, is that unnamed sources in the CIA believe that Russian agents hacked the emails of prominent Democrats and made their contents public in order to influence the election.

Even if 100% true, to call this “hacking the election” is profoundly misleading, and would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that basically every major news outlet has picked up on that phrasing.

It’s not that I think it’s good that private communications are being hacked and publicized by foreign nations in order to influence our political process. I’m just saying that when somebody does actually hack the election (i.e. actually interfere with the actual casting or counting of actual ballots), I don’t want to have to say “they nuked Washington DC” to communicate the gravity of what actually happened.

Plus, remember how we were worried about how, when Trump inevitably lost the election, he would undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process by saying that it was all rigged?

Yeah… Is it too much to ask for a credible opposition party right now?

I don’t want to downplay the significance of cyber espionage and is ramifications for politics. We live in a world where communications stored on hackable devices have a not-insignificant chance of being made public and used against political candidates. But that’s the reality we live in, regardless of whether the hackers in this particular instance were ex-KGB, Iranian secret service, or random guys in their basement.

More to the point, this isn’t really about Trump either. If email hacks are having an undue impact on political process, the solution is better cyber security protocols and more robust political strategies that won’t be upset by a few leaked emails. It’s a problem to be worked around in the next national election, but not a cause to panic.

Of course, there is a larger argument, which goes that Russia wanted Trump to be elected because they believed that Trump’s administration would weaken the United States and diminish our prestige and influence on the world stage. This might well be true. But the relevant story is that Trump’s administration would weaken the United States and diminish our prestige and influence on the world stage, not that Putin thinks this.

Of course, the real reason this is getting so much play is because the Clinton campaign had already been pushing a narrative about Trump’s connections with Vladimir Putin. I have never thought there was much to this. At one point on the campaign, Trump said something off the cuff about Putin being a stronger leader than Obama (which, while bad, is hardly the worst thing Trump has said off the cuff), and then someone on the Clinton campaign decided that the specter of our cold war adversary loomed large enough in the American psyche that alleging connections with Putin was the most damaging thing you could say about Trump (maybe it did well in focus groups).

And now we see this message has evolved into a full-blown conspiracy theory.

I think Freddie DeBoer’s take on this is pretty spot on. Even if the CIA has it right, there are plenty of more prescient reasons to oppose a Trump administration. I don’t want to see the opposition party spin itself into irrelevance by focusing on conspiracy theories.

One hopes that this is just an excuse to produce content about Trump, despite the fact that he’s not yet in the position to do anything newsworthy. Hopefully once he takes office and starts actually doing things, our news media will have enough interesting things to write about that conspiracies and rumors will drop off the map.

Hopefully we can get to work…

Ambiguity and Politics: Part 1

Although it is often called an optical illusion, this well-known image of a rabbit/duck technically isn’t. Optical illusions are images designed to trick your visual systems into perceiving something that isn’t there, such as motion in a static image. By contrast, the rabbit-duck is an ambiguous image. It plays with your head because it can be interpreted in multiple different and contradictory ways.



Why do I bring this up? Because I think the rabbit-duck, along with other ambiguous images, illustrate one of the reasons why people disagree about politics, due to the fact that multiple high- level narratives can be used to make sense of the same collection of experiences.

Take another ambiguous image:


This image can be interpreted either as the silhouette of a vase, or the silhouette of two faces, depending on which features of image are interpreted as the foreground and which are in the background. The idea of the foreground/background concerns is extremely helpful for understanding political disagreements. Take this excerpt form Scott Alexander:

Some people think of government as another name for the things we do together, like providing food to the hungry, or ensuring that old people have the health care they need. These people know that some politicians are corrupt, and sometimes the money actually goes to whoever’s best at demanding pork, and the regulations sometimes favor whichever giant corporation has the best lobbyists. But this is viewed as a weird disease of the body politic, something that can be abstracted away as noise in the system.

And then there are other people who think of government as a giant pork-distribution system, where obviously representatives and bureaucrats, incentivized in every way to support the forces that provide them with campaign funding and personal prestige, will take those incentives. Obviously they’ll use the government to crush their enemies. Sometimes this system also involves the hungry getting food and the elderly getting medical care, as an epiphenomenon of its pork-distribution role, but this isn’t particularly important and can be abstracted away as noise.

I think I can go back and forth between these two models when I need to, but it’s a weird switch of perspective, where the parts you view as noise in one model resolve into the essence of the other and vice versa.

The key insight here is that the reason for the disagreement is not really about matters of fact. In this example, anti-government partisans are perfectly able to acknowledge that government does provide some valuable social services, just as the pro-government partisans able to acknowledge that governments are sometimes corrupt. Their disagreement is more about which concerns are central and which are peripheral.

Or you can take another issue, like whether or not we provide asylum to Syrian refuges, and notice that there are very strong opinions on both sides of this debate, despite the fact that everybody involved mostly agrees that 1) a large majority of refugees won’t pose any security risk whatsoever, and 2) Muslims are over represented among perpetrators of mass shootings and other acts of domestic terrorism (jihadists were responsible for about 1/3 of the mass shooting deaths in the past 10 years in the united states, despite the fact that Muslims make up about 1/100th of the US population).

This is certainly not a new observation about political debates, but its illuminates a reason that they can be very frustrating. If you assume that both you and your debate opponent are intelligent enough to avoid buying into any outright falsehoods (a la the fake news), it’s actually quite difficult to articulate a reasons why one set of concerns should be viewed as central, while other concerns should be viewed as peripheral.

It’s so difficult, in fact, that most of the time, partisans don’t even try to acknowledge the ambiguity at all. Instead, they will try to talk loudly about the issues that are broadly consistent with their preferred narrative, and change the subject when issues come up that contradict it. The result is that most political debates feel a lot like acrimonious disagreement over whether it’s a picture of a duck or a rabbit.

This isn’t necessarily to say that political issues are ambiguous, and that all positions are equally valid. For example, on the issue of Syrian refugees, I do actually think that the risk of terrorism is negligible compared to humanitarian benefits. But making a principled argument as to why is very tricky without, misspeaking, being misunderstood, or exposing myself to dirty debating tactics.

There’s a saying that an accusation against a political opponent need not be true in order to be damaging. It simply needs to be harder to refute than it is to sate. If you hear that and think “wow, that’s a really low bar”, you’re absolutely right. This is a large part of the reason why negative rhetoric is so common in politics. It’s easier to say “that policy is a disaster” than it is to explain why a policy X was a good idea.

The affordable care act has problems. It also has benefits. However, if your goal is to defend the affordable care act, it’s a lot easier to talk only about the benefits (and pivot whenever someone brings up problems) than it is to actually assess the problems and make the case that the benefits outweigh them.

This is true about politics in general. Even if your argument is sound, if it’s not simple, it’s not worth making. Negotiating ambiguity isn’t simple, and as a result practically nobody does it.


Looking back on the election

On election day, I flipped to facebook, and saw an event: “Laugh at Trump tower on November 9th”. A couple thousand people were going. I smiled to myself and tabbed over to 538. Nate Silver’s model gave Trump somewhere between 25% and 30% chance of victory.

Roughly the odds of two coin flips coming up heads, I thought. Not great, but not unthinkable either.  I knew that this was tempting fate– in fact, I said as much in a comment– but part of me didn’t want to feel left out.

I feel like I had been more prepared than most for Donald Trump winning. The day before the election, I read this piece by Scott Alexander, which I think brought home how small the margins of error were for both candidates. Just 1-2% would swing the election one way or another;. The day after the election, Nate Silver himself made basically he same point about how silly it is to radically change one’s thinking about the United States based on how 1-2% of the electorate cast their ballots. Basically, whatever could be said about a country where Trump won by a 1-2 point margin could also be said about a country where Clinton won by a 1-2 point margin. Either way, we would be a 45% pro-Trump country, give or take.

Of course, no matter how slight the victory, the spoils go to the victor, although the impact of the democratic loss was more resounding than any of us anticipated. Not only was the presidency lost; so were most of the tools the democrats could have used to restrain him.

The following morning, “Laugh at Trump Tower” had become “Protest at the Trump tower”. My thought at the time was something along the lines of well, it’ not like we have many other options. At 5:00 in the afternoon, it became clear that these protests weren’t only happening in Chicago; it was happening in most large cities.

I didn’t actually get to the protest until 9:00 in the evening, as things were winding down. At this point, people had been gathered since 5:00 in the afternoon, although still, several hundred remained assembled around the tower, milling about, waving signs. Some had climbed onto the cement platforms of the street lights. I heard that there had been counter-protesters there earlier in the day, but they had given up and gone home before I got there.

I was disappointed by that. I wanted a chance to see Trump’s more enthusiastic supporters first hand, get a sense of who they were, how they talked to each other…

I knew the Trump/Pence message was appealing in ways that most of my peers didn’t appreciate. I even said so on this blog after watching the vice-presidential debate, where I thought Mike Pence put on a much better show than Kaine, largely because he managed to look calm and sensible, while Kaine, “harped relentlessly on Trump’s gaffes (with a giant smirk on his face and obviously pre-prepared zingers), making himself look like the archetypal sanctimonious progressive.” All talk, no substance.

But of course, I had still concluded that the man’s campaign was doomed when, a few days later, the recording of Trump talking about grabbing women by the pussy came out and a quarter of his own party was calling for him leave the race.

I was also far from the only person to point out that many of the messages that liberals were selling absolutely stank of elitism. I read the Smug Style in american politics. I read Fredric DeBoer. I read Nixonland, which extensively catalogs the liberal consensus simply not getting it (Trump has even invoked Nixon’s “silent majority” in speeches). I grocked the backlash against the left’s overriding focus on the rhetoric of identity politics. I was surprised that the Trump campaign managed to pull it together, but I wasn’t shocked.

Of course, this isn’t saying much- it simply means that I have a slightly better intuition about the worldview of 47% of the electorate than some of my liberal peers. Sometime soon, I’ll write up a more detailed picture of what I think Trump represents…

In the past week, an enormous amount of virtual ink has been spilled talking about not only why the Democrats lost, but how they could have been so thoroughly blindsided by the loss, so thoroughly unable to stand upright as the ground moved beneath their feet.

At the protest, I was struck by how things seemed to happen on their own accord. Periodically, chants would emerge, fill the air for a few minutes, and re-emerge in a different form after they died down. At one point, a wave of sitting swept across the crowd. I sat with them, not sure exactly why. We may have been resisting an order to disperse from the police, which we were resisting, but it was hard to tell. After a few minutes of this, the crowd decided that it was going to disperse after all and began to walk en-masse down State Street.

The slogans kept coming.

“Fuck Trump! (What?) Fuck Trump! (What?)”

“We! Re-ject! The president elect!”

“No Trump! No KKK! No Racist USA!”

Sometimes I chanted along, but it was half-hearted. It seemed like more of the same. The same tired talking points, the same rage, the same push to frame everything in the terms of a narrative that had just been rejected, that had just failed in a spectacular way to unite the country.

But there was one chant that I found myself repeating with conviction. It went:

“No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”

It was something that we could fight for, not against, captured in a couple of rhyming couplets.

There’s a vision of America, where the human spirit can flourish without the threat of persecution or violence, supported by the wise allocation of public resources. I do think a Donald Trump administration stands in the way of this vision, and could do more than any administration in recent history to prevent it from happening. And it’s in the service of the vision that he should be opposed.

The Heroes we Need

You know the scene in the Dark Knight, where the Joker has rigged up two boats with explosives and gave the people on each the detonator for the other boat? One boat was filled with convicts, the other with civilians. They are given an ultimatum: blow up the other boat, or in 30 minutes the Joker will blow up both.

In the movie, the people on the boats manage to resist blowing each other up  while Batman and  the Gotham PD take out the Joker, and prove that there is still good in the people of Gotham, or something like that.

But what if things had gone the other way? What if, 30 seconds after they were offered this ultimatum, one of the boats had blown the other sky high? So much for goodness at the heart of Gotham.

This is probably the more realistic scenario. As people, we often have opportunities to rise to the occasion and do the good thing, but we have a less-than-sterling track record of doing so.

The question is, if this happens, does the Batman hang up his cloak? Does he decide that Gotham isn’t worth saving?

I’d like to imagine that he doesn’t.

There’s something powerful about a love that can see a person, a city, or a country, with all of its faults laid bare, and still love it and fight for it. This love seems to me to be more admirable than love that idealizes or glosses over flaws. It’s easy to fight for something when you’ve convinced yourself it’s perfect. It’s harder, and therefore much more remarkable, when you haven’t.

So here we are, with the election of Donald Trump as the leader of the United States. I suppose you could say our faults have been laid bare. And yet, I still love my country. Let’s hunker down and get to work; America will need champions in the coming years.