Assignment complete, twenty years later

In one section of his book The Great Good Thing, novelist Andrew Klavan describes how he bluffed his way through high school and college, not reading anything he was assigned. He doesn’t say what he majored in, but apparently he got an English degree without reading a book. He only tells of one occasion where a professor called his bluff.

Even though he saw no value in the books he was assigned, he bought and saved every one of them. Then sometime near the end of college he began to read and enjoy the books he hadn’t touched.

I wanted to read their works now, all of them, and so I began. After I graduated, after Ellen and I moved together to New York, I piled the books I had bought in college in a little forest of stacks around my tattered wing chair. And I read them. Slowly, because I read slowly, but every day, for hours, in great chunks. I pledged to myself I would never again pretend to have read a book I hadn’t or fake my way through a literary conversation or make learned reference on the page to something I didn’t really know. I made reading part of my daily discipline, part of my workday, no matter what. Sometimes, when I had to put in long hours to make a living, it was a real slog. …

It took me twenty years. In twenty years, I cleared those stacks of books away. I read every book I had bought in college, cover to cover. I read many of the other books by the authors of those books and many of the books those authors read and many of the books by the authors of those books too.

There came a day when I was in my early forties … when it occurred to me that I had done what I set out to do. …

Against all odds, I had managed to get an education.



I posted a couple things on Twitter today about micro-resumés. First, here’s how I’d summarize my work in a tweet.

(The formatting is a little off above. It’s leaving out a couple line breaks at the end that were in the original tweet.)

That’s not a bad summary. I’ve worked in applied math, software development, and statistics. Now I consult in those areas.

Next, I did the same for Frank Sinatra.

This one’s kinda obscure. It’s a reference to the title cut from his album That’s Life.

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing.
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race.

How efficient is Morse code?


Morse code was designed so that the most frequently used letters have the shortest codes. In general, code length increases as frequency decreases.

How efficient is Morse code? We’ll compare letter frequencies based on Google’s research with the length of each code, and make the standard assumption that a dash is three times as long as a dot.

| Letter | Code | Length | Frequency |
| E      | .    |      1 |    12.49% |
| T      | -    |      3 |     9.28% |
| A      | .-   |      4 |     8.04% |
| O      | ---  |      9 |     7.64% |
| I      | ..   |      2 |     7.57% |
| N      | -.   |      4 |     7.23% |
| S      | ...  |      3 |     6.51% |
| R      | .-.  |      5 |     6.28% |
| H      | .... |      4 |     5.05% |
| L      | .-.. |      6 |     4.07% |
| D      | -..  |      5 |     3.82% |
| C      | -.-. |      8 |     3.34% |
| U      | ..-  |      5 |     2.73% |
| M      | --   |      6 |     2.51% |
| F      | ..-. |      6 |     2.40% |
| P      | .--. |      8 |     2.14% |
| G      | --.  |      7 |     1.87% |
| W      | .--  |      7 |     1.68% |
| Y      | -.-- |     10 |     1.66% |
| B      | -... |      6 |     1.48% |
| V      | ...- |      6 |     1.05% |
| K      | -.-  |      7 |     0.54% |
| X      | -..- |      8 |     0.23% |
| J      | .--- |     10 |     0.16% |
| Q      | --.- |     10 |     0.12% |
| Z      | --.. |      8 |     0.09% |

There’s room for improvement. Assigning the letter O such a long code, for example, was clearly not optimal.

But how much difference does it make? If we were to rearrange the codes so that they corresponded to letter frequency, how much shorter would a typical text transmission be?

Multiplying the code lengths by their frequency, we find that an average letter, weighted by frequency, has code length 4.5268.

What if we rearranged the codes? Then we would get 4.1257 which would be about 9% more efficient. To put it another way, Morse code achieved 91% of the efficiency that it could have achieved with the same codes. This is relative to Google’s English corpus. A different corpus would give slightly different results.

Toward the bottom of the table above, letter frequencies correspond poorly to code lengths, though this hardly matters for efficiency. But some of the choices near the top of the table are puzzling. The relative frequency of the first few letters has remained stable over time and was well known long before Google. (See ETAOIN SHRDLU.) Maybe there were factors other than efficiency that influenced how the most frequently used characters were encoded.

Update: Some sources I looked at said that a dash is three times as long as a dot, including the space between dots or dashes. Others said there is a pause as long as a dot between elements. If you use the latter timing, it takes an average time equal to 6.0054 dots to transmit an English letter, and this could be improved to 5.6616. By that measure Morse code is about 93.5% efficient. (I only added time for space inside the code for a letter because the space between letters is the same no matter how they are coded.)

Data-driven charity

In this post I interview GiveDirectly co-founder Paul Niehaus about charitable direct cash transfers and their empirical approach to charity.

Paul Niehaus of GiveDirectly

JC: Can you start off by telling us a little bit about Give Directly, and what you do?

PN: GiveDirectly is the first nonprofit that lets individual donors like you and me send money directly to the extreme poor. And that’s it—we don’t buy them things we think they need, or tell them what they should be doing, or how they should be doing it. Michael Faye and I co-founded GD, along with Jeremy Shapiro and Rohit Wanchoo, because on net we felt (and still feel) the poor have a stronger track record putting money to use than most of the intermediaries and experts who want to spend it for them.

JC: What are common objections you brush up against, and how do you respond?

PN: We’ve all heard and to some extent internalized a lot of negative stereotypes about the extreme poor—you can’t just give them money, they’ll blow it on alcohol, they won’t work as hard, etc. And it’s only in the last decade or so with the advent of experimental testing that we’ve build a broad evidence base showing that in fact quite the opposite is the case—in study after study the poor have used money sensibly, and if anything drank less and worked more. So to us it’s simply a question of catching folks up on the data.

JC: Why do you think randomized controlled trials are emerging in development economics just in the past decade or so when it has been a standard tool gold standard in other areas for much longer?

PN: I agree that experimental testing in development is long overdue. And to be blunt, I think it came late because we worry more about getting real results when we’re helping ourselves than we do when we’re helping others. When it comes to helping others, we get our serotonin from believing we’re making a difference, not the actual difference we make (which we may never find out, for example when we give to charities overseas). And so it’s tempting to succumb to wishful thinking rather than rigorous testing.

JC: What considerations went into the design of your pending basic income trial? What would you have loved to do differently methodologically if you had 10X the budget? 100X?

PN: This experiment is all about scale, in a couple of ways. First, there have been some great basic income pilots in the past, but they haven’t committed to supporting people for more than a few years. That’s important because a big argument the “pro” camp makes is that guaranteeing long-term economic security will free people up to take risks, be more creative, etc.—and a big worry the “con” camp raises is that it will cause people to stop trying. So it was important to commit to support over a long period. We’re doing over a decade—12 years—and with more funding we’d go even longer.

Second, it’s important to test this by randomizing at the community level, not just the individual level. That’s because a lot of the debate over basic income is about how community interactions will change (vs purely individual behavior). So we’re enrolling entire villages—and with more funding, we could make that entire counties, etc. That lets you start to understanding impacts on community cohesion, social capital, the macroeconomy, etc.

JC: In what ways do you think math has served as a good or poor guide for development economics over the years?

PN: I think the far more important question is why has math—and in particular statistics—played such a small role in development decision-making, while “success stories” and “theories of change” have played such large ones.

JC: Can you say something about the efficiency of GiveDirectly?

PN: What we’ve tried to do at GD is, first, be very clear about our marginal cost structure—typically around 90% in the hands of the poor, 10% on costs of enrolling them and delivering funds; and second, provide evidence on how these transfers affect a wide range of outcomes and let donors judge for themselves how valuable those outcomes are.

JC: What is your vision for a methodologically sound poverty reduction research program? What are the main pitfalls and challenges you see?

PN: First, we need to run experiments at larger scales. Testing new ideas in a few villages, run by an NGO, is a great start, but it’s not always an accurate to guide to how an intervention will perform when a government tries to deliver it nation-wide, or how doing something at that scale will affect the broader economy (what we call “general equilibrium effects”). I’ve written about this recently with Karthik Muralidharan based on some of our recent experiences running large-scale evaluations in India.

Second, we need to measure value created for the poor. RCTs tell us how an intervention changes “outcomes,” but not how valuable those outcomes are. That’s fine if you want to assign your own values to outcomes—I could be an education guy, say, and care only about years of formal schooling. But if we care at all about the values and priorities of the poor themselves, we need a different approach. One simple step is to ask people how much money an intervention is worth to them—what economists call their “willingness to pay.” If we’re spending $100 on a program, we’d hope it’s worth at least that much to the beneficiary. If not, begs the question why we don’t just give them the money.

JC: What can people do to help?

PN: Lots of things. Here are a few:

  1. Set up a recurring donation, preferably to the basic income project. Worst case scenario your money will make life much better for someone in extreme poverty; best case, it will also generate evidence that redefines anti-poverty policy.
  2. Follow ten recipients on GDLive. Share things they say that you find interesting. Give us feedback on the experience (which is very beta).
  3. Ask five friends whether they give money to poor people. Find out what they think and why. Share the evidence and information we’ve published and then give us feedback—what was helpful? What was missing?
  4. Ask other charities to publish the experimental evidence on their interventions prominently on their websites, and to explain why they are confident that they can add more value for the poor by spending money on their behalf than the poor could create for themselves if they had the money. Some do! But we need to create a world where simply publishing a few “success stories” doesn’t cut it any more.

Related post: Interview with Food for the Hungry CIO

Monthly highlights

If you enjoy reading the articles here, you might like a monthly review of the most popular posts.

I send out a newsletter at the end of each month. I’ve sent out around 20 so far. They all have two parts:

  1. a review of the most popular posts of the month, and
  2. a few words about what I’ve been up to.

That’s it. Short and sweet. I might send out more mail than this someday, but I’ve been doing this for nearly two years I’ve never sent more than one email a month.

If you’d like to subscribe, just enter your email address in the box on the side of the page labeled “Subscribe to my newsletter.” If you’re not reading this directly on the site, say you’re reading it in an RSS reader, then you can follow this link.

Changing names

I’ve just started reading Laurus, an English translation of a contemporary Russian novel. The book opens with this paragraph.

He had four names at various times. A person’s life is heterogeneous, so this could be seen as an advantage. Life’s parts sometimes have little in common, so little that it might appear that various people lived them. When this happens, it is difficult not to feel surprised that all these people carry the same name.

This reminded me of the section of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State that explains how names used to be more variable.

Among some peoples, it is not uncommon for individuals to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to these are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. Each name is specific to a certain phase of life, social setting, or interlocutor.

If someone’s name had more than one component, the final component might come from their profession (which could change) rather than their ancestry. Scott goes on to say

The invention of permanent, inherited patronyms was … the last step in establishing the necessary preconditions of modern statecraft. In almost every case it was a state project, designed to allow officials to identify, unambiguously, the majority of its citizens.

In short, governments insisted people adopt fixed names to make them easier to tax and to conscript. Before fixed names, governments would ask towns to provide so much tax money or so many soldiers because it could not tax or conscript citizens directly. For a famous example, see Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus: all went to be registered, each to his own town.

It’s hard to imagine people not needing fixed names. But when people lived on a smaller scale, interacting with a number of people closer to Dunbar’s number, there was no danger of ambiguity because there was more context.



Some frequently asked questions

I don’t have an FAQ page per se, but I’ve written a few blog posts where I answer some questions, and here I’ll answer a few more.

Should I get a PhD?

See my answer here and take a look at some of the other answers on the same site.

Do you have any advice for people going out on their own?

Yes. See my post Advice for going solo.

Shortly after I went out on my own, I wrote this post responding to questions people had about my particular situation. My answers there remain valid, except one. I said that planned to do anything I can do well that also pays well. That was true at the time, but I’ve gotten a little more selective since then.

Can you say more about the work you’ve been doing?

Only in general terms. For example, I did some work with psychoacoustics earlier this year, and lately I’ve been working with medical device startups and giving expert testimony.

Nearly all the work I do is covered under NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Occasionally a project will be public, such as the white paper I wrote for Hitachi Data Systems comparing replication and erasure coding. But usually a project is confidential, though I hope to be able to say more about some projects after they come to market.

Miscellaneous other questions

I wrote an FAQ post of sorts a few years ago. Here are the questions from that post that people still ask fairly often.

Any more questions?

You can use this page to send me a question and see my various contact information. The page also has a link to a vCard you could import into your contact manager.

A different kind of network book

Yesterday I got a review copy of The Power of Networks. There’s some math inside, but not much, and what’s there is elementary.

I’d say it’s not a book about networks per se but a collection of topics associated with networks: cell phone protocols, search engines, auctions, recommendation engines, etc. It would be a good introduction for non-technical people who are curious about how these things work. More technically inclined folks probably already know much of what’s here.

Speeding up R code

People often come to me with R code that’s running slower than they’d like. It’s not unusual to make the code 10 or even 100 times faster by rewriting it in C++.

Not all that speed improvement comes from changing languages. Some of it comes from better algorithms, eliminating redundancy, etc.

Why bother optimizing?

If code is running 100 times slower than you’d like, why not just run it on 100 processors? Sometimes that’s the way to go. But maybe the code doesn’t split up easily into pieces that can run in parallel. Or maybe you’d rather run the code on your laptop than send it off to the cloud. Or maybe you’d like to give your code to someone else and you want them to be able to run the code conveniently.

Optimizing vs rewriting R

It’s sometimes possible to tweak R code to make it faster without rewriting it, especially if it is naively using loops for things that could easily be vectorized. And it’s possible to use better algorithms without changing languages.

Beyond these high-level changes, there are a number of low-level changes that may give you a small speed-up. This way madness lies. I’ve seen blog posts to the effect “I rewrote this part of my code in the following non-obvious way, and for reasons I don’t understand, it ran 30% faster.” Rather than spending hours or days experimenting with such changes and hoping for a small speed up, I use a technique fairly sure to give a 10x speed up, and that is rewriting (part of) the code in C++.

If the R script is fairly small, and if I have C++ libraries to replace all the necessary R libraries, I’ll rewrite the whole thing in C++. But if the script is long, or has dependencies I can’t replace, or only has a small section where nearly all the time is spent, I may just rewrite that portion in C++ and call it from R using Rcpp.

Simulation vs analysis

The R programs I’ve worked on often compute something approximately by simulation that could be calculated exactly much faster. This isn’t because the R language encourages simulation, but because the language is used by statisticians who are more inclined to use simulation than analysis.

Sometimes a simulation amounts to computing an integral. It might be possible to compute the integral in closed form with some pencil-and-paper work. Or it might be possible to recognize the integral as a special function for which you have efficient evaluation code. Or maybe you have to approximate the integral, but you can do it more efficiently by numerical analysis than by simulation.

Redundancy vs memoization

Sometimes it’s possible to speed up code, written in any language, simply by not calculating the same thing unnecessarily. This could be something simple like moving code out of inner loops that doesn’t need to be there, or it could be something more sophisticated like memoization.

The first time it sees a function called with a new set of arguments, memoization saves the result and creates a way to associate the arguments with the result in some sort of look-up table, such as a hash. The next time the function is called with the same argument, the result is retrieved from memory rather than recomputed.

Memoization works well when the set of unique arguments is fairly small and the calculation is expensive relative to the cost of looking up results. Sometimes the set of potential arguments is very large, and it looks like memoization won’t be worthwhile, but the set of actual arguments is small because some arguments are used over and over.

 Related post:

Turning math inside-out

Here’s one of the things about category theory that takes a while to get used to.

Mathematical objects are usually defined internally. For example, the Cartesian product P of two sets A and B is defined to be the set of all ordered pairs (ab) where a comes from A and b comes from B. The definition of P depends on the elements of A and B but it does not depend on any other sets.

Category theory turns this inside-out. Operations such as taking products are not defined in terms of elements of objects. Category theory makes no use of elements or subobjects [1]. It defines things by how they act, not their inner workings. People often stress what category theory does not depend on, but they less often stress what it does depend on. The definition of the product of two objects in any category depends on all objects in that category: The definition of the product of objects A and B contains the phrase “such that for any other object X …” [More on categorical products].

The payoff for this inside-out approach to products is that you can say something simultaneously about everything that acts like a product, whether it’s products of sets, products of fields (i.e. that they don’t exist), products of groups, etc. You can’t say something valid across multiple categories if you depend on details unique to one categories.

This isn’t unique to products. Universal properties are everywhere. That is, you see definitions containing “such that for any other object X …” all the time. In this sense, category theory is extremely non-local. The definition of a widget often depends on all widgets.

There’s a symmetry here. Traditional definitions depend on the internal workings of objects, but only on the objects themselves. There are no third parties involved in the definition. Categorical definitions have zero dependence on internal workings, but depend on the behavior of everything in the category. There are an infinite number of third parties involved! [2] You can have a definition that requires complete internal knowledge but zero external knowledge, or a definition that requires zero internal knowledge and an infinite amount of external knowledge.

Related: Applied category theory

* * *

[1] Category theory does have notions analogous to elements and subsets, but they are defined the same way everything else is in category theory, in terms of objects and morphisms, not by appealing to the inner structure of objects.

[2] You can have a category with a finite number of objects, but usually categories are infinite. In fact, they are usually so large that they are “classes” of objects rather than sets.

Mathematical modeling for medical devices

We’re about to see a lot of new, powerful, inexpensive medical devices come out. And to my surprise, I’ve contributed to a few of them.

Growing compute power and shrinking sensors open up possibilities we’re only beginning to explore. Even when the things we want to observe elude direct measurement, we may be able to infer them from other things that we can now measure accurately, inexpensively, and in high volume.

In order to infer what you’d like to measure from what you can measure, you need a mathematical model. Or if you’d like to make predictions about the future from data collected in the past, you need a model. And that’s where I come in. Several companies have hired me to help them create medical devices by working on mathematical models. These might be statistical models, differential equations, or a combination of the two. I can’t say much about the projects I’ve worked on, at least not yet. I hope that I’ll be able to say more once the products come to market.

I started my career doing mathematical modeling (partial differential equations) but wasn’t that interested in statistics or medical applications. Then through an unexpected turn of events, I ended up spending a dozen years working in the biostatistics department of the world’s largest cancer center.

After leaving MD Anderson and starting my consultancy, several companies have approached me for help with mathematical problems associated with their idea for a medical device. These are ideal projects because they combine my earlier experience in mathematical modeling with my more recent experience with medical applications.

If you have an idea for a medical device, or know someone who does, let’s talk. I’d like to help.


Solar power and applied math

The applied math featured here tends to be fairly sophisticated, but there’s a lot you can do with the basics as we’ll see in the following interview with Trevor Dawson of Borrego Solar, a company specializing in grid-connected solar PV systems.

Trevor Dawson

JC: Can you say a little about yourself?

TD: I’m Trevor Dawson, I’m 25, born in the California Bay Area. I enjoy wood working, ceramics, soccer and travelling. I consider myself an environmentalist.

JC: What is your role at Borrego Solar?

TD: I am a Cost Reduction Analyst and I focus on applying Lean principles to identify and remove waste from both our internal processes and construction in the field. I use data to identify problems, prioritize them, and to verify the effectiveness of our solutions. I work with a variety of teams to reduce the cost or time of our projects.

Solar is a very fast-paced industry. Policy changes and technological improvements are being developed quickly and we have to respond quickly. A key function of my job is to assign measurable cost benefits to new practices and help ensure Borrego Solar continues to be an industry leader.

JC: What is your technical background and education?

TD: I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Industrial & Systems Engineering (IE) from the University of Washington. I spent 3.5 years as an IE implementing process improvements on Boeing’s 777 Manufacturing Wing Line in Seattle, WA. I gained valuable experience in Lean, schedule optimization, design of experiments, and big data efforts. At Borrego, I get to apply those skills to help accelerate the adoption of the most time-tested, renewable energy source of all: the sun.

JC: What math, physics, or technical skills do you use every day?

TD: Addition, algebra, and simple statistics. I like to think I’ve mastered the basics. I also use a lot of my industrial engineering training to help gather and analyze data like design of experiments, time studies, and lean problem solving methodology.

I mostly work in Excel and use Power Pivot to drive large, cumbersome data into neat summary tables. Although the analysis can be a challenge, the hard work is rolling it up and presenting it in a way that is meaningful and convincing. When you’re suggesting a business decision, especially when it challenges the norm, your internal customers want to know the answer but they are equally interested in your process. For example, how does the business case change if a defined constraint or coefficient changes? The solar industry is dynamic and still maturing, so we have to be especially poised in our decision-making.

JC: What do you use much less than you expected?

TD: Calculus. I spent so much time learning calculus and even other things like differential equations but haven’t had much opportunity to apply them. However, I do think calculus taught me important practical problem solving skills and I put that to use now tackling large problems that span multiple pages.

JC: What math or technical skill do you wish you had more of or understood better?

TD: Excel programming and design. Excel rules the world, and although I was introduced to it at school, I think more intense courses should be commonplace. Regarding design, execution is the hardest part of any business decision, and design would help communicate results and suggestions much more effectively. A business needs verifiable proof that the suggested change is real and if executed will perform as predicted. This stage of verifying the effectiveness of a project could be improved with better design skills and may even reduce the amount of touch time and communications all the way through from inception to completion of a project.

JC: Anything else you’d like us to know?

TD: Go solar!