Monday, June 24, 2013

The Perfect Body

I thought I was clicking on a video to see Chef Micheal Symon make the perfect summer s'more, but instead I got a chat with The Chew crew about hot topics of the day (I'll transcribe the relevant pieces below, because who knows what video that link will take you to: the video is Chat N' Crew EVF Summer Kickoff). I was pleasantly surprised. Clinton asked the following, leading, question:
Clinton: One third of young women would trade a year of their lives to have a "perfect" body. Now, this was a survey of girls under the age of 25. What do we think about that? Is that completely insane, or would you give up a year of your life for a "perfect" body? 
I am pretty sure he is leading them to talk about self confidence and media stereotypes and how it's great to love yourself just the way you are (that tends to be his thing -- yes, I have seen the show a few times before), but instead he got out of Chef Symon pretty much the exact answer I would have given:
Symon: If you look at it like this, if you're giving up a year, you're probably spending over a year in the gym to acquire the perfect body, so you're probably saving time.
Even better, Chef Batali follows up with this beauty:
Batali: If you're giving up the year, which year are you giving up? Is it the last year? 
Clinton: Yeah, the last year.
Batali: So you're giving up one year of dribbling in the hospital waiting for your family to take care.... I think that's a year I might trade away!
[Audience claps]
Who knew Chefs were so Chicago school in their economic thinking? Although, they already know about the trade off between taste and health and have talked about that before, too, so maybe they are in tune with these kinds of trade offs.

Just another reason to like Chef Symon -- a Cleveland native and winner of the first ever Iron Chef Tournament of Champions!*

Saturday, June 22, 2013

On Writing, by Stephen King

Last week I finished reading Stephen King's autobiography, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. There are a lot of good anecdotes and pieces of advice here, and not just for aspiring writers.

Stephen King makes it clear that he is not a genius, nor did he just get lucky. He got where he is through relentless practice of his craft. I would add, even though he doesn't address this directly, one more reason: He had a pretty good idea from when he was young that he was going to be a writer; a pop fiction writer at that. By "going to be" I mean more than "wanted to be." Not only is writing what he loved to do, but it's what he was comparatively best at, as well. Sure, he worked in mill and was an English teacher for a while, but it was all to support his writing habit. Writing was always his goal. Even the anecdotes that are meant to display adversity in youth, like a disapproving teacher, went like this: Teacher acknowledges Stephen's writing talent, but teacher wants Stephen to stop writing trash.

This autobiography highlights one of the aspects of the modern economy that works so well for some: extreme specialization is rewarded. Stephen's older brother, David was very smart, good at most things, and interested in many things. We haven't heard of David King, but Stephen King hit it big.

On the one hand, it's so much easier when it's clear what you should do with your life; it's almost like there's a defined path that's laid out before you.  All you have to do is follow it. Seeing the path to success is easy: Do only that one thing, and do it well. Practice, practice, and practice harder. Always be driving to that goal. Always be improving. The "other hand" is pretty obvious, too: following that path is hard. You have to know what that path is and follow it at the expense of everything else.

Stephen King practiced, practiced, practiced from age 13 onward:
When I got the rejection slip from AHMM, I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor, wrote "Happy Stamps" on the rejection slip, and poked it onto the nail.... By the time I was fourteen... the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen, I'd begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging than the advice to stop using staples and start using paperclips. 
His first real monetary success was Carrie at age 26. Up until then, he could not support himself or his family by writing.

Anyone would be glad to meet success at age 26, and that shows the benefit of specializing early: age 26 was after 13 years of relentless, deliberate practice! He didn't just sit down at 26 after partying his way through college and luck into a best seller having not written anything in his life.

He didn't get a break after he got his first novel deal, either. In fact, Stephen's main advice to aspiring writer is to read and write a lot. All the time, actually (extreme specialization is serious business). Here's an excerpt:
I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie.... The truth is that when I'm writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday.
Sometimes its hard to believe it when people say they work all the time. All the time? You mean 40 hours a week with only two weeks vacation? No. All the time means all the time. I can back King up on this one.

One other piece of advice that stands out goes hand in hand with read and write all the time: Don't watch TV.
[I]f you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far" (pages 34-35).
The worst thing about TV is that it is so time consuming. It takes away time from doing productive things, which in Stephen's case is more reading and writing. But for anyone looking to be an extreme specialist, TV time is time wasted. All the time means all the time.

In this respect, Stephen King is no different from many other superstars. From Tiger Woods to the top publishers in academia, it's not the raw talent that puts them at the top (but talent helps), it's the work ethic and extreme specialization.

There's a lot of work and sacrifice that goes into success.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

College and Cakes

It was graduation day at UChicago yesterday. Congratulations to everyone who graduated.

Should College Be Subsidized? 

On a related note, Tony (now officially Dr. J. Anthony Cookson) and Xan and Tony again have been getting in on the discussion about Is College Worth It? I want to say a quick about a related issue: Should college be subsidized? There are a lot of theories about college, and in my recent post Cakes, A Parable, I was hoping to illustrate three simplified ideas about college and subsidies.
  1. If benefits of education are private (that is, accrue entirely to the individual getting the education, say through vocational training or consumption), then education should not be subsidized.
  2. If college is just a costly signal, then education should not be subsidized.
  3. If education provides positive externalities (benefits to people other than the individual getting the education not reflected in market prices), then it should be subsidized. 
The Point

There are other theories of college, too, but the point I want to emphasize is this: college can be a very, very good thing, but being a very, very good thing is not enough to warrant a government subsidy. For that, it has to be a good thing for other people in a way that will not be captured by pricing in the market.

So if you think there are large public benefits from college that are not internalized by the student, such as lower crime levels, improved and informed participation in democracy, or just overall better values, then maybe* it should be subsidized. If you think the benefits are mostly private, even if they are large, it should not be subsidized.

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* I say "maybe" because if better values are the main positive externality of college, then isn't college kind of like church in the respect that matters for subsidization? Kind of makes you think twice, doesn't it?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Civility: Scoffed at, by Paul Krugman

Tony initiated a good discussion with me, Xan, and Kevin via e-mail on civility in response to this column by Paul Krugman, and I thought I'd post my thoughts that I shared with them, and expand a bit on them.
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I am saddened by where Krugman decided to end the column:
But bad-faith arguments don’t deserve a civil response, and if the attempt to be civil gets in the way of exposing the bad faith, civility itself becomes part of the problem.
I do agree with Krugman's initial claim that one can deduce someone isn't likely honestly discussing something (though his blue sky, green sky example is a little bizarre).

The question then becomes what you do about it. There are two options: disengage discussion or continue civilly. Disengaging may in fact be (morally) wrong if the issue is important enough, so sometimes one must civilly continue. I disagree entirely with Krugman's conclusion that civility itself can be part of the problem. It can never get in the way of exposing the "bad faith" -- almost by definition.

Referring to some of the points I summarized about Civility, Paul could benefit from reflecting on points 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, and especially 10).

In contrast to Paul's claim that civility is part of the problem in politics, I would argue that civility is most important in politics where arguments are had between people with fundamentally different core beliefs and values -- even if one of those people doesn't even value civility. By not even acknowledging the possibility that we may be wrong, smearing them because we don't like or agree with them, and attacking rather than civilly criticizing them, we close our minds and open ourselves to the possibility of making major blunders.

In fact, it looks like Paul committed a pretty major blunder supporting some uncivil behavior by a Senator the day before the column cited above. (Though I link to Landsburg, he is not the epitome of civility by a long-shot, either. It's almost ironic, actually.)

This is a downside of the internet. For some reason, it is much easier to become uncivil when interacting with people or writing on the internet than in other forms of communication. I have not quite figured out why, but I find myself falling prey to the lure of incivility much more often than any other form of communication. Is it anonymity? Lack of nuance through limited characters in text communication? Cross-cultural clashes happen more often? I don't really know.

But it's a problem that shouldn't be contributed to by Nobel Prize-winning economists in such a public forum as the New York Times.

UPDATE: Related Dilbert cartoon. 

Civility, by Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, wrote two great books that I very much enjoyed reading as an undergraduate and still refer to today: Integrity and Civility. I still own Integrity, but I only kept my notes on Civility (being a follow-up, content could more easily be summarized in bullets). Carter comes from a general Christian perspective, but as one Amazon reviewer said, "Where he doesn't seem to understand more secular thinking, he certainly acknowledges it and deals with it very . . . well . . . civilly."

Here are the main points of Civility, which are worthy of reflection. While I won't do a point by point commentary in this case, like what Xan has excellently done with Influence, I'll post some things related to some of these ideas in the future.

  1. Our duty to be civil towards others does not depend on whether we like them or not.
  2. Civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.
  3. Civility has 2 parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk. 
  4. Civility requires a commitment to live a common moral life, so we should try to follow the norms of the community if the norms are not actually immoral. 
  5. We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.
  6. Civility assumes that we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.
  7. Civility requires that we listen to others with the knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong. 
  8. Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate respect for others.
  9. Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace. Thus, the basic principles of civility should apply as fully in the market and politics as in every other activity.
  10. Civility allows criticism of others, and sometimes requires it, but the criticism should always be civil. 
  11. Civility discourages the use of legislation rather than conversation to settle disputes, except as a last, carefully considered resort. 
  12. Teaching civility, by word and example, is an obligation of the family. The state must not interfere with the family's effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children.
  13. Civility values diversity, disagreement, and the possibility of resistance, and therefore the state must not use education to try to standardize our children. Religions do their greatest service to civility when they preach not only love of neighbor, but resistance to wrong.