October 30, 2019 3:30 PM

A Few Ideas from Economist Peter Bernstein

I found all kinds of wisdom in this interview with economist Peter Bernstein. It was originally published in 2004 and the updated online a couple of years ago. A lot of the wisdom sounds familiar, as most general wisdom does, but occasionally Bernstein offers a twist. For instance, I like this passage:

I make no excuses or apologies for changing my mind. The world around me changes, for one thing, but also I am continuously learning. I have never finished my education and probably never will.... I'm always telling myself, "I must sit down and explain why I said this, and why I was wrong."

People often speak the virtue of changing our minds, but Bernstein goes further: he feels a need to explain both the reason he thought what he did and the reason he was wrong. That sort of post-mortem can be immensely helpful to the rest of us as we try to learn, and the humility of explaining the error keeps us all better grounded.

I found quotable passages on almost every page. One quoted Leibniz, which I paraphrased as:

von Leibniz told Bernoulli that nature works in patterns, but "only for the most part". The other part -- the unpredictable part -- tends to be where the action is.

Poking around the fringes of a model that is pretty good or a pattern of thought that only occasionally fails us often brings surprising opportunities for advancement.

Many of Bernstein's ideas were framed specifically as about investing, of course, such as:

The riskiest moment is when you're right. That's when you're in the most trouble, because you tend to overstay the good decisions.


Diversification is not only a survival strategy but also an aggressive strategy, because the next windfall might come from a surprising place.

These ideas are powerful outside the financial world, too, though. Investing too much importance in a productive research area can be risky because it becomes easy to stay there too long after the world starts to move away. Diversifying our programming language skills and toolsets might look like a conservative strategy that limits rapid advance in a research niche right now, but it also equips us to adapt more quickly when the next big idea happens somewhere we don't expect.

Anyway, the interview is a good long-but-quick read. There's plenty more to consider, in particular his application of Pascal's wager to general decision making. Give it a read if it sounds interesting.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General

October 27, 2019 10:23 AM

Making Something That Is Part Of Who You Are

The narrator in Rachel Cusk's "Transit" relates a story told to her by Pavel, the Polish builder who is helping to renovate her flat. Pavel left Poland for London to make money after falling out with his father, a builder for whom he worked. The event that prompted his departure was a reaction to a reaction. Pavel had designed and built a home for his family. After finishing, he showed it to his father. His father didn't like it, and said so. Pavel chose to leave at that moment.

'All my life,' he said, 'he criticise. He criticise my work, my idea, he say he don't like the way I talk -- even he criticise my wife and my children. But when he criticise my house' -- Pavel pursed his lips in a smile -- 'then I think, okay, is enough.'

I generally try to separate myself from the code and prose I write. Such distance is good for the soul, which does not need to be buffeted by criticism, whether external or internal, of the things I've created. It is also good for the work itself, which is free to be changed without being anchored to my identity.

Fortunately, I came out of home and school with a decent sense that I could be proud of the things I create without conflating the work with who I am. Participating in writers' workshops at PLoP conferences early in my career taught me some new tools for hearing feedback objectively and focusing on the work. Those same tools help me to give feedback better. I use them in an effort to help my students develop as people, writers and programmers independent of the code and prose they write.

Sometimes, though, we make things that are expressions of ourselves. They carry part of us in their words, in what they say to the world and how they say it. Pavel's house is such a creation. He made everything: the floors, the doors, and the roof; even the beds his children slept in. His father had criticized his work, his ideas, his family before. But criticizing the house he had dreamed and built -- that was enough. Cusk doesn't give the reader a sense that this criticism was a last straw; it was, in a very real way, the only straw that mattered.

I think there are people in this world who would like just once in their lives to make something that is so much a part of who they are that they feel about it as Pavel does his house. They wish to do so despite, or perhaps because of, the sharp line it would draw through the center of life.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal, Teaching and Learning

October 25, 2019 3:55 PM

Enjoyment Bias in Programming

Earlier this week, I read this snippet about the benefits of "enjoyment bias" in Morgan Housel's latest blog post:

2. Enjoyment bias: An inefficient investing strategy that you enjoy will outperform an efficient one that feels like work because anything that feels like work will eventually be abandoned.
Getting anything to work requires giving it an appropriate amount of time. Giving it time requires not getting bored or burning out. Not getting bored or burning out requires that you love what you're doing, because that's when the hard parts become acceptable.

The programmer in me immediately thought, "I have this pattern." My guess is that this bias applies to a lot of things outside of investing. In software development, the choices of development methodology and programming language often benefit from enjoyment bias.

In programming as in investing, we can take this too far and hurt ourselves, our teams, and our users. Anything can be overdone. But, in general, we are more likely to stick with the hard work of building software when we enjoy the way we are building it and the tools we are using. Don't let others shame you away from what works for you.

This bias actually reminded me of a short bit from one of Paul Graham's essays on, of all things, procrastination:

I think the way to "solve" the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you. Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you'll leave the right things undone.

Delight can keep you happily working when the going gets rough, and it can pull you toward work when a lack of delight would leave you killing time on stuff that doesn't matter.

(By the way, I think that several other biases described by Housel are also useful in programming. Consider the value of reasonable ignorance, number three on his list....)

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Patterns, Software Development