Poet Mary Oliver on scheduled writing sessions

If Romeo and Juliet had made appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none f the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different — it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Of they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

I have no aspiration to write poetry, but I daresay a morsel of this applies to my own writing. This is from the late, great Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry.

a romantic view of causal inference

In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The modern Prometheus, the title character, scientist Victor Frankenstein, is trying to solve a mystery when an idea occurs to him, and we come across this fabulous line.

“I could not doubt it. The mere presence of the idea was an irresistible proof of the fact.”

My papers would be a lot shorter (and a lot of them are already short) if I could rely on “proof by idea.” In an authorial twist, Leslie Klinger’s annotated edition claims that these sentences were added by Percy Shelley to Mary Shelley’s draft, lest you feel tempted to hold Ms. Shelley responsible for these unidentified claims.

I’ve seen 160 movies this year. Here are the best (and the rest).

People have been dealing with the pandemic in lots of different ways. I deal with it by watching movies. Here are the best and the rest. To be clear up front, I like lots of movies and lots of different kinds of movies. Some I’ve watched on my own, some with my spouse, some with my kids. Some of these I’d never seen before (City of Joy); others I’ve seen twice (Parasite) or many times (Groundhog Day).

I’ve grouped the movies into batches, from those I adored to those (few) that were definitely not for me. Within batches, I haven’t ordered by preference but perhaps to highlight movies that you may not have encountered.

These are the movies I just adored…

City of Joy, to be clear, is the 2016 documentary that takes place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not an earlier film of the same name.

Here are movies that I loved!

Here are the movies I really liked!

Here are the movies I also liked, just not quite as much.

I enjoyed these ones too!

Okay, these are movies I enjoyed some aspects of even if, on net, I didn’t think they were GREAT.

Okay, this next batch was a bit meh, but hey, they still distracted me from the pandemic! And they all had at least some entertaining element.

Okay, these last ones were really not for me.

On audiobooks

Robert Kwasny shares some reflections on audiobooks on the Marginal Revolution blog. Here a few reflections of my own:

  1. Full cast audiobook narrations can be delightful. Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, with 166 voice actors, is the superlative example, but there are many others.
  2. Comedy books narrated by comedians are great, because you get the delivery as well as the content. Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please, and Bob Newhart’s I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! are all good examples.
  3. Books where the accent or voice of the book’s narration would ideally be in a very different accent or voice from my own (e.g., from other countries or other regions) can be great if the audiobook narrator gets it right (which they often do in modern audiobooks).
  4. Kwasny mentions that self-help books are poor audiobooks because you can’t skip the boring parts. My solution to this is to listen at higher speeds for books with a lower good content-to-size ratio. I find it a great way to speed through self-help books with some good content but also filler.

A few years ago I wrote a primer for getting started on audiobooks. Most library systems in the U.S. seem to have free audiobooks you can download to your smartphone.

Here are the audiobooks I’ve listened to and enjoyed so far in 2020:

Stories of Your Life and Others audiobook cover art
She Said audiobook cover artThe Smartest Kids in the World audiobook cover artMy Sister, the Serial Killer audiobook cover artDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line audiobook cover artThe Plague audiobook cover artThe Deerslayer audiobook cover artI'm Still Here audiobook cover artThe Emissary audiobook cover artKingdom of Nauvoo audiobook cover artLe Petit Prince audiobook cover art

An ode to Congolese music

In writer Troy Onyango’s short story “A Song from a Forgotten Place,” a character reflects on Congolese music:

She has always preferred Congolese music; the way it springs from a place is warmth and tenderness like a beanstalk breaking through the soft earth. Then it rises and rises, growing and filling the whole room with the sweet melody that makes the body jelly and the bones rubbery and one finds oneself loving his waist, legs, and arms as if possessed by a gentle, cultured demon (but still a demon all the same), and one can dance and dance and not feel the sweat trickling down the ridge of his back or feel his legs stiffen at the knees because he’s tired. One ignores all that. Lingala flows and erupts within the body.

Put on some Congolese music, quick!

You can read Onyango’s story in the collection Nairobi Noir. You can find out more about him and his writing at his website.

“Who are we, if we do not put our feet into the waters?”

In Winfred Kiunga‘s beautifully observed, well-paced story “She Dug Two Graves,” Somali refugee Fawzia seeks revenge for the death of her brother at the hands of corrupt Kenyan police officials. At one point, she receives an email from her friend, Marian, also a refugee but now resettled in Toronto, encouraging her to leave her place:

“Who are we, if we do not put our feet into the waters? How will we discover new lands, new frontiers, if we grow afraid of the waves? I dare you to find joy in the unknown.”

Kiunga’s story — which Publishers Weekly calls “memorably grim” (which I’d say is reductive but also not false) — features in the collection Nairobi Noir, edited by Peter Kimani.

On working with noise

Many people are working from home these days, often with more (or different) distractions than usual, not least the other people in the house. About two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca faced related problems. He discussed them in his essay “On quiet and study.” He sets the scene:

I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummeling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice, – for purposes of advertisement, – continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake-seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.

But wait, he says, maybe the noise is actually on the inside.

By this time I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing, so that I can endure even a boatswain marking the time in high-pitched tones for his crew. For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. For of what benefit is a quiet neighbourhood, if our emotions are in an uproar? … You may therefore be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or of threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning din.

Then again, maybe it’s easier just to find a quieter room.

“What then?” you say, “is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?” I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice. Why need I be tormented any longer, when Ulysses found so simple a cure for his comrades even against the songs of the Sirens? Farewell.

I recommend the whole short essay, which you can read here.

Research and answers

Peter Dizikes has a nice profile of economist Amy Finkelstein and her work in health economics in the MIT Technology Review. If you’re not familiar with her work, Finkelstein won the John Bates Clark Medal in 2012 and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2018. (You can find her research here.) Dizikes includes a quote from Finkelstein that really captures the motivation for research that I feel.

“If you made me king or queen of the world, it’s not obvious how we should be designing our health-care system,” she says. “Which makes me a very bad cocktail party conversationalist, because when people say ‘What do you think of Medicare for All?’ or ‘How should we design health insurance?’ my usual reaction is ‘Well, I don’t know the answer, and that’s why I work on it.’ There are a lot of things I know or think I know the answer to, but those are not the things I do research on.” (emphasis added)

I’ve worked in development economics for some years now, and I’ve carried out repeated research on a few topics: education (especially teachers); social safety nets (especially cash transfers); and health. This research has certainly given me views on topics, but there are so many things to know and there are so many different contexts with different variables that I usually go into new research projects with little idea of what I’ll find, even in areas where I’ve worked before.

Here’s to finding new answers through good research.

Introducing Development Economics as Choose-Your-Own Adventure

I sometimes get the opportunity to give a brief introduction to development economics to students of various types. In the past, I’ve written about introducing development economics to middle schoolers in 20 minutes, introducing high school students to development economics with chocolate, and a practical activity for teaching regression discontinuity design that I’ve used with government workers in various countries.

Last week, I spoke to a group of undergraduate economics majors in a development economics class about development economics in practice. Like those popular Choose Your Own Adventure books from my childhood, I turned control of the lecture over to the students. In case it’s useful, here’s a recap of what I did.


Since these students are already studying development economics, I didn’t explain what it is, but I did explain how I practice it, in two parts. First, I research solutions to alleviate poverty; and second, I work with governments and others to incorporate that evidence into policy. I provided a little bit of photographic evidence.


I talked briefly about the two places where I’ve spent most of my career – the World Bank and the Center for Global Development.

Then, I put up my own low-stakes Jeopardy board with 30 of my finished or ongoing research projects and randomly selected students to pick a project to hear a little bit about. Each square linked to a slide with a little bit of information about the study. For each one, I discussed the research question, the finding, and a little bit about the interaction with policymakers.


I only got through a handful of topics in each class (I taught two classes). Over the course of just 25 minutes, the students got a practical sense of the array of work a development economist gets to work on along with some of the ups and downs of trying to influence policy. You can scroll through the individual study slides below.

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It was fun to deliver and to seemed like it was fun for the students. They got to decide what they thought was interesting. What are your favorite tips for introducing development economics research to students?

The top 10 graphic works of 2019

I compiled 11 “best of 2019” lists for graphic novels, graphic memoirs, comics, and the like, and one graphic novel was on seven of the lists: Clyde Fansby Seth.

Another was on six of the lists: Rusty Brown, by Chris Ware.

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware

Eight more graphic novels or memoirs were on three “best of” lists each.

You can see the full list of 89 graphic works that appear on any of the 11 “best of” lists, as well as my compilations from previous years, here.