How To Make Your Scientific Paper Better In Five Minutes

I’ve been published!

This was mostly good luck. John Bullock had an interesting research idea, and he needed someone to help out. I was available, and sufficiently interested in recording information for posterity. (Hence this blog — shout-out to those of you reading this in the 22nd century!)


The Paper

Modern science has a big problem. Well, a lot of big problems, but this one has the distinction of being easy to fix.

The problem is reference rot, which is what happens when you cite in your political science paper and then Trump gets inaugurated.

That is to say: The link breaks, and no one will ever know what the heck you were citing. Which makes them less likely to cite you, and also just makes it really annoying to do science.

This happens to a startling number of links in scientific papers and other official documentation. And it happens fast. Our paper found that, in the most prestigious journal in political science, more than a quarter of links cited in 2013 were broken by the end of 2014!

If you publish research papers, or anything else with hyperlinks, you’re at risk.


Fix Your Work in Five Minutes

How to avoid reference rot:

  1. Before you submit your final manuscript for publication, ask yourself: “Self, have I cited any online materials in this paper?”
  2. If so, replace every link with a permanent, archived version of that link. You can make these with The Internet Archive or Perma.
  3. There is no step three.

If you’re a blogger, you can also do this, but it’s tedious. Instead, I use the WordPress extension “Broken Link Checker”, which alerts me to any links that go dead and lets me replace them with the Internet Archive version in one click.

When you start to use archived links, you’ll officially be storing information more securely than the Supreme Court.


John Bullock Bonus

Before this paper, Bullock published a more substantial paper with a more important researcher who shares my initials (Alan Gerber).

The authors find that, while Democrats and Republicans claim to believe very different things about history, those differences shrink when partisans are offered money for correct answers to historical questions. They’re cheering for their beliefs, not professing them seriously.

If only there were a way to combine money and politics in a way that would convince partisans to disclose their true beliefs…


Self-Congratulation and Self-Criticism

Sometimes, I do a good thing. Not a great act of heroism, but a simple, fundamentally decent thing that helps someone else.

When that happens, I congratulate myself for doing the right.

Then I criticize myself, since I don’t deserve congratulation for doing the “right thing”. After all, everyone should do the right thing.

Then I congratulate myself for being so humble and morally strict.

Then I criticize myself for bragging about my own humility.

My record for this is four cycles. I almost always stop on self-criticism.


Perhaps there are two kinds of people in the world: People who usually stop at self-congratulation, and people who usually stop at self-criticism.

Which kind of person are you?


First Lines

Adapted from something I wrote in Yale’s “Daily Themes” class. (Great class, by the way!)

The prompt:

Write twelve possible first lines to twelve different stories (fictional, non-fictional, or some combination of both). For a real challenge, let those lines start to feel like they hold together by juxtaposition. See the work of David Markson for a model.

These aren’t good sentences, but I wrote them hoping they could become first lines for first drafts of good stories.

I haven’t written those stories yet, but if you’d like me to write one, let me know and I will do that, just for you.*

  1. Our god is cruel and jealous, and we wish we had a better one.
  2. Today my Anti-Procrastination Friend saw me on Facebook and…
  3. We know that our island is an experiment, run by someone we don’t understand.
  4. The main character of this story was hit by a car just after you finished this sentence.
  5. “This has been my favorite funeral of the year.”
  6. Gambling is for suckers, he thought, and pushed the button again.
  7. There he was, waving his sign like a madman and shouting the true heights of various mountains.
  8. This is my history of the world, factual and proportionate, slave to neither narrative nor…
  9. We abandoned the Earth in our ships, but we left the Amish behind.
  10. You might think that even a very intelligent cloud could never kill a person, but…
  11. According to the actuary table, one of us was dead by now.
  12. They were looking for souls all along!
  13. “This week, life was just one long fire alarm.”
  14. She’d learned to run on water, but that wouldn’t save her when she came back to shore.
  15. You do not fuck with Liz when she’s delivering a pizza.

*With the exception of #9, because the Amish deserve an entire novel. And #8, because it’s the friggin’ history of the world.


(To see all 60+ prompts from Daily Themes, click here.)

The Good Judgment Project: My Experience

Are You Smarter Than a Coin-Flipping Monkey?

30 years ago, a man named Philip Tetlock decided to figure out whether the people we pay to make predictions about politics were actually good at predicting things.

He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf?

–Louis Menand, Everybody’s An Expert

Tetlock’s discovery: On average, the commentators were slightly less accurate than a monkey flipping a coin with “yes” printed on one face and “no” on the other. They’d have been better off if they’d made completely random predictions!

What’s more, being an expert on a topic didn’t help much. At some point, more expertise even led to more faulty predictions.


Can We Do Any Better?

There are lots of reasons we make bad guesses about the future. But Philip Tetlock’s particular interest was in figuring out how to do better. 

Prediction, after all, is one of the most important things a person can ever do: Will I divorce this person if I marry them? Will I be happy in a year if I accept this job offer? It’s also an important skill for governments: How much will the Iraq War cost? Will this gun-control bill really lower the crime rate?

But if political experts aren’t good at prediction, who is?

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Dogs and Existentialism

I have a Tumblr now! I’m still experimenting with using the platform for short essays and thought nuggets. Here’s an essay cross-posted from that Tumblr:


The Melancholy of Retrievers

(Wandering philosophy. Not attached to most of these opinions.)

I’m staying for a few weeks in the home of relatives who own a Labrador Retriever. I’ve spent a lot of time around this dog in the last few weeks, after many years of not living with a pet. As a result, everything about the notion of “owning a dog” – or the very existence of domesticated dogs – has become strange to me.

The dog, Jasper, lives to play fetch. When he isn’t sleeping or eating or drinking, he picks up anything he can find and brings it to you so that you can throw it. If you don’t throw it, he’ll try another person. If no one else is around, he’ll pant and whine at you and shove his head between your legs to stare sadly into your eyes until you give up and play fetch.

I’m sure this is normal dog behavior, and it’s the sort of silly thing that people love about dogs. But it makes me wonder how it feels to be Jasper.

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Privileging the Story // Do I Trust Journalism?

My friend Jack Newshama reporter on The Boston Globe, asked a good question on Facebook the other day:

Question for my non-journalist friends: why don’t you trust us? (“Us” being journalists in general. Because poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of you don’t.)

My answer turned out long enough for a blog post.

I trust journalists. That is, I trust most people, and I don’t see journalists as being very different from most people on average. I would trust a journalist to watch my laptop in a cafe while I used the bathroom or water my plants when I went on vacation.

Journalism isn’t a person. It is a product, produced by journalists. And as it is practiced, I only half-trust journalism.

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My Senior Thesis: How Can Great Charities Raise More Money?

I haven’t written a blog post for nearly a full season.

One-third of this phenomenon is the fault of my senior thesis:

Charitable Fundraising and Smart Giving: How can charities use behavioral science to drive donations?

It’s a very long thesis, and you probably shouldn’t read the whole thing. I conducted my final round of editing over the course of 38 hours in late April, during which I did not sleep. It’s kind of a slog.

Here’s a PDF of the five pages where I summarize everything I learned and make recommendations to charities:

The Part of the Thesis You Should Actually Read


In the rest of this post, I’ve explained my motivation for actually writing this thing, and squeezed my key findings into a pair of summaries: One that’s a hundred words long, one that’s quite a bit longer.

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Area Writer Applies To The Onion, Fails

I recently applied for a writing position at The OnionI went in expecting to be rejected, knowing that the website has some of the funniest living writers on staff. And I was, in fact, rejected!

I noticed while I was applying that I couldn’t easily find any other applications online. So I’m posting mine here, with minor edits for typos. If you’d like to work at The Onion, you’ll have to do better than this. (Also, you’ll have to spend more than four hours on your submission. When it comes to finding your dream job, don’t procrastinate.)

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The Hexagon Game // Surrounder

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in a bathroom with hexagonal floor tiles. As I stared at the floor, I began thinking about geometric patterns involving hexagons. (I’m going to assume everyone does this until I hear otherwise, and if you tell me otherwise, I might refuse to listen.)

The thoughts went something like this:

What if these hexagons were one color? And those were another color? What patterns could you build?

And then:

Wait. What if, when one hexagon was surrounded by hexagons of a different color, it got “killed” and taken away? Like the hexagons were soldiers in some kind of horrible hexagon civil war? And the battle continued until every scrap of territrory was owned by one of the two sides?

After washing my hands, I power-walked back to my desk in the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and began to prototype a board game. (This was long after the end of the workday, because the Institute is air-conditioned and contains fewer spiders than my house.)

After three games, I thought I really had something. After six games, I was convinced that the game was terrible. Then I expanded the board, and the cycle began anew. When things began to look really promising, I did some research on game design (which, in the tradition of Aaron research, included useful activities like reading the entirety of the manga Hikaru No Go and the biography of Christian Freeling).

Finally, I posted a picture of a finished game, and people were curious enough that I felt the game itself was worth blogging.

So, here it is. I call it “The Hexagon Game” inside my head, but a better, more Google-friendly name is “Surrounder”. I hope to hack together a playable app for it once my Javascript skills are up to snuff, but for now, I play in… Microsoft Paint. Such are the trials of game design.

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