Efficient information processing can be easier than what economists usually think

Austin Frakt for The Upshot (my own highlights):

A great deal of the decrease in deaths from heart attacks over the past two decades can be attributed to specific medical technologies like stents and drugs that break open arterial blood clots. But a study by health economists at Harvard, M.I.T., Columbia and the University of Chicago showed that heart attack survival gains from patients selecting better hospitals were significant, about half as large as those from breakthrough technologies. […]

Rather than clinical quality, which is hard to perceive, patients may be more directly attuned to how satisfied they, or their friends and family, are with care. That’s something they can more immediately experience and is more readily shared.

Fortunately, most studies show that patient satisfaction and clinical measures of quality are aligned. For example, patient satisfaction is associated with lower rates of hospital readmissions, heart attack mortality and other heart attack outcomes, as well as better surgical quality.

This story is a striking illustration that simple heuristics as “following the satisfaction of other people” can be surprisingly good (and cheap) at processing information. In other words, relevantly processing information does not necessarily require sophisticated individuals with alleged high cognitive skills – like homo economicus.

It’s also (and to me, very) important to note that these heuristics are collective heuristics: it’s not a single individual who processes information for the whole group. Rather, it’s virtually all the members of the group who do a little bit of information processing, and what’s actually relevant is the aggregated result. A patient with a bad experience in a given hospital is statistical noise: mistakes can happen ; a lot of patients telling bad things about a given hospital probably means that this hospital is actually not that good: a lot of mistakes means something’s not going well.

Source: The Life-Changing Magic of Choosing the Right Hospital – The New York Times

★ Do you want to face a traffic explosion on your WordPress blog without any worry? Host it on Media Temple!

I’m a PhD student in economics. As an economist, I do believe it’s important to spread scientific knowledge as large as possible. Knowledge is empowerment, and its spreading is fundamental to make any democracy healthy. For that reason, I run a French speaking website called Passeur d’Éco since September 2015 (the name could be improperly translated as “The Econ Giver”).

Finding the right tone and the right audience is very hard – and it took me a long time to (partially) figure these things out. And it’s probably not over. But as, let’s say, an “entrepreneur” (I run Passeur d’Éco as a business, or at least this is my goal), I’m aware of the importance of scalability. That is, the ability to properly respond to a sudden stream of business opportunities.

For Passeur d’Éco, this scalability is pretty straightforward: if one day one of my story is a hit, the website needs to stay accessible. I see my activity at Passeur d’Éco as a content publishing activity, so making my content accessible no matter what is really strategic.

Last Thursday, I published a story explaining very simply what a PhD is. For any scholar, what’s a PhD is pretty clear, but for “the rest of us” it’s not always easy to understand it. It’s especially true in France, where pursuing a PhD is too often seen as a way for students who don’t know what to do in life to just “follow the track” and do something (the difficulty of the PhD is by itself a refutation of this idea – anyway).

This story was – is a huge hit.

To give you an idea, on a regular day I have something like 10 or 15 views. On a good day, I have 50 views.

My best score was during a live about the Brexit. I hit a bit more than 250 views.

But that was before that “what’s a PhD” story.

Remember, the story was published on last Thursday. Last Friday, first hit: I got almost 500 views. But that was just a beginning.

After a “calm” week-end, today, Monday. How many views? 2600. Two thousands and six hundreds. And in one day. That’s a regular day. I spent quite a lot of time today stupidly staring at my WordPress.com Stats dashboard to see the numbers increasing in real time.

To give you an idea, if I had the same number of views per day during one mouth, I would have the audience of a blog like Shawn Blanc’s blog – a guy who runs a 330,000 $ business.

This is even crazier considering I recently dropped an important partnership for Passeur d’Éco. The fact I made this story a hit without the help of this former partner is incredibly rewarding – and empowering too. Maybe this partner wasn’t that important, after all…

But the most important aspect of this story is how Passeur d’Éco actually scaled. A few months ago, I decided to switch from a cheap (but top notch) 5€ hosting to a 20$ WordPress dedicated hosting. After some tests I went for Media Temple. Because of their very strong reputation, because of their coolness, and because of their amazing staging feature – no kidding, it’s literally a wonder.

Before today, I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision: steeper price, a migration that took me time, and buying the SSL certificate was pretty expansive too. But I knew my former hosting provider wouldn’t have scaled well if one of my story made a hit. So did Media Temple scaled and matched their reputation?

Let’s have a look at the loading time of Passeur d’Éco (in seconds), collected through the also great Vigil app (yeah, I love to work with great products).

To give you an idea, if the webpage loads in more than 2 seconds, half the readers are already gone. So it’s critical to have the lowest possible loading time. I wanted to be quite agressive on the loading time for Passeur d’Éco (as I like fast websites myself), and I fixed the target at 0,5 seconds. Usually, Media Temple delivers pretty well. What about today?

Here’s the Passeur d’Éco loading time for today:

Passeur d'Éco response time on Media Temple hosting (Vigil data)

I guess, this graph speaks for itself. Passeur d’Éco staid remarkably fast and stable during the whole day. As if this  thing never actually happened.

So was it a good decision to switch for Media Temple? No surprise, the answer is yes. A thousand times yes.

Besides the amazement of my story’s hit, I’m also incredibly satisfied to know I can rely on such reliable partner to run Passeur d’Éco. Yes, Media Temple is not the cheapest, but boy there’s a good reason for that!

Oh, and in case you wonder, this blog also runs on Media Temple infrastructure. So now, it’s up to me to see if Media Temple will also delivers for another hit – but this time, here!

★ The Sunday Picture #2 – Gazon du Faing

The Sunday Picture #2 – Gazon du Faing © Olivier Simard-Casanova

As you may know, last weekend I went with my friend Florence in the Vosges mountains, 100 kilometers south from where I live. During Saturday’s evening we spent more than a hour lying in the grass, looking at the Perseids. We saw more than fifteen of them! Some very impressive. It was magical.

And the morning after we came back at the very same place where we saw the meteors. This is where and when I took this picture. There’s a lot of my pictures I like, but this one is somehow special. I can’t say why though.

Gazon du Faing in Vosges, Lorraine (North East of France) – GPS

Are economists actually “boring”?

Saw this on Twitter today:

Before retweeting it, I decided to check the source. Mainly to be sure it isn’t an hoax. Well, it is not an hoax but the author himself wrote “This no peer review, and I wouldn’t describe this as a “study” in anything other than the most colloquial sense of the word“.

On the source website, the RateMyProfessor.com reviews can be sorted by positive and negative ones. It made me wondered about the context in which the word has been written: “boring” in “this class was boring” doesn’t mean the same thing than “boring” in “this class was everything but boring” or “I expected a boring class but it was finally not“. Can we control for that? Short answer: we can’t. At least, not easily in this graph. Again, author’s words.

Reasonably, what this graph shows is that students use “boring” more when they wrote reviews of economic classes in RateMyProfessor.com. To say what? Hard to tell. And is RateMyProfessor.com data generalisable? Naturally, I wouldn’t trust this kind of website – where control is very limited, leading to very noisy data. For instance, are students leaving reviews here representative of all the students? We don’t know.

At the end, the most striking thing about this tweet is the kind of debate it ignited – especially on Facebook. I have to admit this is a bit disturbing to see many researchers (i.e. guys with a PhD and stuff) not checking at all the source but still trying to figure out why economics would be boring with arguments like “economics uses math for ideological reason, this graph is another proof of that“. I mean, aren’t researchers among the best in the world to check anything before trusting it? For someone claiming that economics is an ideology, that’s not a very scientific way to assess something!

Anyway, this is still a funny tweet, and I guess I’ll eventually retweet it. As an economist I may be “boring“, but I also display some basic form of self-mockery. Better than nothing I guess…

What if Donald Trump doesn’t really want to be President?

If Trump is trying to win the election, what he’s doing the last few weeks doesn’t make any sense. But if his goal is not to win, then maybe he’s crazy like a fox.

A worth read analysis of the Trump “campaign” by John Gruber. Many of the numerous links provided in the piece are also worth read.

Source: Daring Fireball: Is Donald Trump Actually Trying to Win?

★ Hiking when it’s not sunny can bring beauty too

The last week-end I went in the Vosges mountains with my friend Florence. We went at the Hohneck, which is the highest summit of my region Lorraine (East of France).

As you can see by yourself, the weather was just perfect – so was the view.

At some point, Florence told me such weather is perfect for hiking. I disagreed a bit with her: last fall, I was at the very same place with another friend of mine. The weather was not cold, but cloudy, with a very dense mist. We hiked something like 10 kilometers in such conditions, and oh boy that was insane.

When we reached the top of the mountain (which is not that high, only 1,363 meters – or 4,472 ft), we were inside the clouds. Literally. We were able to see them moving, to feel them almost. It was beautiful, impressive and a bit scary – even if we were perfectly safe.

So yes, you don’t have all the sunshine and the trendy Instagram pictures. And you need to be well equipped to enjoy hiking in these conditions. But the reason you hike is another one. The experience I had with the environment/the nature during this hike was very uncommon (at least for me, who don’t live in the mountains), and somehow it reminded me how little one single individual actually knows about something as big as the world. How could I imagined I could almost touch the clouds? That was a lesson of humility.

If one day you have the opportunity to try this kind of hike, please, consider giving it a try. Maybe you won’t like it, but at least you should try. With the proper state of mind and the right amount of curiosity, it may be one of your best hiking experience. For me, it was.

Is most published research wrong? Or why incentives actually matter in science

Doing science is hard. Like, really hard. Because even if you do your best and follow all the best practices, there is still plenty of chance you results will be “wrong” – because of type I errors.

But “worst” than that, incentives to get published can deter researchers from following these best practices. If like me you’re an economist, you won’t be surprised by that – because humans respond to incentives. Social psychologist Brian Nosek summarised things well:

There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published.

This 12 minutes video by Veritasium is one of the clearest explanation I know about type I errors and how incentives actually shape scientific discoveries. A must watch!

An interesting Tim Cook interview in The Washington Post

A lengthy interview of Tim Cook, openly gay Apple’s CEO in The Washington Post. Almost everything is interesting.

Some key points Tim made I would like to highlight:

  • How lonely the job of CEO can be – so the importance to have the ability to seek for advices (personal adding: this is true not only if you’re a CEO…)
  • The social and collective responsibility of Apple, and how to make it real
  • Even if the story is already known, I always appreciate to get a reminder on the process that led Tim to come out
  • How the media didn’t calm down after Steve Jobs died

Again, the interview is a bit lengthy but it’s worth reading.

Source: Tim Cook, the interview: Running Apple ‘is sort of a lonely job’ – The Washington Post

★ Introducing the Sunday Picture – and an update about the Instagram mess

You’ve probably spotted that this morning I released the first Sunday Picture on the blog.

As you may guess, this Sunday Picture won’t be the last of its kind. Step by step, I’m building the blog I really want.

The idea behind The Sunday Picture is pretty simple: Instagram messed up with its non-chronological feed, destroying months of curation work. Even worst, with the new algorithm the very idea of narration isn’t relevant anymore – something even Instagram acknowledges (see the last question in the link). The problem is I consider myself first and foremost as a… storyteller. Too bad for Instagram.

More generally, I’m sick to be dependant of platforms I don’t control enough. Facebook, Google, now Instagram, so much effort ruined because some stranger I’ll never met made some decision I don’t even know was made. I understand these companies have their own agenda, but I also have mine. I don’t see why I should spend time and effort to produce good quality content for companies that don’t give a shit about it. At the end, I’m just a number, one user in the hundred of millions they have…

As a result, I decided to avoid invest too much effort in places I don’t control anymore – at least where my control falls short. This is why I’ll publish some of my pictures here. Sorry Instagram, you won’t have these anymore.

I’m aware I won’t have all the likes and the “popularity” I may get on Instagram. But I don’t care. I don’t run after some sort of “celebrity” or whatever.

About Instagram itself, I don’t think I’ll finally shut down my account. But I’ll definitively use it in a very different way. Probably more like Snapchat or something like this, as a more visual “chat”. I don’t know yet.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this first Sunday Picture, and I hope you’ll enjoy all the other ones!

To keep updated for the new Sunday Picture, please check out the dedicated RSS feed.