Life in the Slums of Liberia

I try to use raw statistics to get a sense of what life is like in other places. This helps me avoid the selective nature of stories, though stories have their place after the numbers are in.

Here, a startling overview from Chris Blattman et al, in a survey of young Liberian men thought to be engaged in criminal behavior:

“On average the men were age 25, had nearly eight years of schooling, earned about $40 in the past month working 46 hours per week (mainly in low skill labor and illicit work), and had $34 saved. 38% were members of an armed group during the two civil wars that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003. 20% reported selling drugs, 44% reported daily marijuana use, 15% reported daily use of hard drugs, 53% reported stealing something in the past two weeks, and 24% reported they were homeless.”

Measuring the Measurement Error: A Method to Qualitatively Validate Sensitive Survey Data

The entire paper is worth reading, and quite readable. Turns out that people are very honest in answering survey questions about “sensitive” behaviors when those behaviors are the norm within their social groups.

(The paper also provides a good lens for looking at cash transfers. In the hands of a man with $34 in the bank, who earns $40 a month, $500 might be enough to prevent multiple acts of theft or purchase a stable home. On the other hand, I’d guess that these men are more likely to spend some of the money on hard drugs than are families in rural villages.)

Ten Big Questions

At a recent symposium, social scientists gathered to create a list of “big questions” that might serve as a driving focus for academics in the years to come—inspired in part by David Hilbert’s (largely successful) use of this technique to guide mathematicians.

More on the symposium here. The final list of questions is highly informal, but gives us a good idea of what problems are on the minds of very smart people:

1. How can we induce people to look after their health?

2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?

3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?

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Ten Hundred Words of CAN Lab

This is mostly a plug for the wonderful but seemingly abandoned blog Ten Hundred Words of Science, which features academics explaining everything from volcanoes to advanced mathematics using only the thousand most common words in the English language. (“Thousand” is not one of those words.) The whole thing is based on this webcomic.

I recently submitted a new entry, but I don’t think it will ever be published, so I’ve posted it here instead. These 191 words of science are brought to you by the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab.

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The Hapless Undergraduate’s Guide to Research

I’ve been part of the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Lab for the last 14 months.

In that time, I’ve made lots of mistakes—and most of them weren’t even unique, interesting mistakes like discovering penicillin or inventing the chocolate-chip cookie. Mostly they were “should’ve asked more questions”-type mistakes.

That’s kind of embarrassing, so I’ve embarked upon my typical response to mistakes: writing an 18-page guide (unnecessary warning: 18 pages long) to avoiding them, filled with footnotes and jokes and sub-par MS Word design choices.

I also wrote out a one-page version that gives you the most useful information much faster.

I’d like to update both of these documents at some point, because I think it’s likely that a great deal of time is wasted on science that doesn’t work because newbies have a tough time adjusting to the laboratory environment, and it would be nice if we had a collection of stories from young researchers explaining how to avoid the most avoidable mistakes.

But for now, the guide is extremely specific to my own limited lab experience, and is mostly about filtering through papers rather than conducting physical science. Read it if you’re curious, and stop reading if you stop being curious.


Meanwhile: If you’ve ever done research in any kind of lab, from computer science to chemistry to canine cognition, you should email me and tell me about all the mistakes you made, so I can add them to the next version! (Especially canine cognition. There are no puppies in the current version of the Guide, and there should be at least three.)

You can also tell me about someone else’s mistakes! I will attach no names to anything unless the person who made the mistake wants their name attached for some reason.

Sex and Relationships at Yale

Warning: The title of this piece is officially my first attempt at search-engine bait. I might actually catch one this time. But I’ll have to kill it quickly, before it chews off its own leg trying to escape. Anyway…


Now that I have your attention, I’m going to talk about sex. And relationships. Mostly relationships. You see, the New York Times decided to investigate, thoroughly and at great length, the sex lives of female students at the University of Pennsylvania.

They did their homework. 60 interviews, with as diverse a slice of the female student body as possible, is nothing to sneeze at. I believe that the quotes they used were more or less representative of the responses received. I believe that the sourcing of Susan Patton made sense and was helpful in putting that whole Princeton debacle in context.

Most of all, I believe that the shapely bare leg in the cover photo will certainly lead to more clicks. I’ll keep that strategy in my notes.

A shapely bear leg. I’m sorry.

I don’t have the time or inclination to comment on the entire piece. There are issues of sexual violence and the nature of college pre-professional life and whether it’s a good idea to marry in college at all that have been explored elsewhere to an extent well beyond what I could hope to achieve in this post.

But I did spend last night talking over the article with a good friend from Yale, and another good friend from the University of Delaware, and hearing their thoughts on hooking up — or not — in college got my gears turning, and a graduate from the time before Yale had women asked my opinion, so I wrote him a letter, which has been adapted below. Take it as one student’s opinion, based on two years of firsthand experience and a collection of secondhand and thirdhand stories.

Note: Strong opinions ahead. Please don’t get angry if you disagree, unless getting angry will make you feel better, in which case, go ahead. You can yell at me if you want, but I’d also love to hear the reasons you think I’m wrong. My mind is open.

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Trotting the Globe with Carl Sandberg of Sweden

These keep getting longer, but Carl was much too interesting for me to cut our conversation much. I’ve now covered Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Australia, South Asia, the Middle East (on hold), and Ghana (coming soon!). South America seems like the next step. Or maybe Texas.


There are meatballs on the menu the night I sit down with Carl, but they are more than one inch in diameter and not served with lingonberry jam, and thus do not count as Swedish meatballs.

But that’s okay. Carl is Swedish enough to satisfy the rigorous VG requirements even without brown sauce or pickled cucumbers. (I’ve been craving meatballs since I began writing this blog post.) As my classmate in a course that integrated politics, economics, and philosophy, he could be relied upon to bring the Swedish perspective into any debate.

Fun fact: Sweden’s most notable philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg, not only has Sweden in his name, but is known for claiming he’d entered the spirit world with God’s permission, starting a new branch of Christianity, and influencing such luminaries as Kant, Goethe, Borges, and Helen Keller. Johnny Appleseed—who was a real person, it turns out—was also a Swedenborgian missionary.

Winter Break Books: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

The book: Harvard professor, Pulitzer finalist and Time 100 badass Steven Pinker says a controversial thing: The world is a less violent, and overall nicer, place than it has ever been, in almost every way, for a set of reasons neither wholly liberal nor wholly conservative (at least as Americans conceive of those terms). Then, he goes ahead and proves it for 700 straight pages, quoting from hundreds of books, summarizing world history, and dropping science (mostly neuroscience) all the while.

The good: This is one of the ten or so best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Amazing. A primer of intellectual history, political history, modern psychology, and also a convincing blow struck against pessimists everywhere. You can flip to any random page and come away with a valuable insight into human nature. I’ll do that right now.

Page 182: humans used to play almost entirely zero-sum games with each other; we gained resources by taking them from other humans, and preferably killing them so they couldn’t get revenge. Now, thanks to agriculture, technology, and the concept of “trade”, we play mostly positive-sum games, where both sides of an interaction can benefit without anyone getting hurt. It’s easier today, in most places and for most people, to make new wealth than it is to steal old wealth.

See? In the hands of a lesser (or less ambitious) writer, that could have been a whole book. It probably is. Every point Pinker makes has that kind of conceptual weight, and also reinforces the points which came before. He is adept at tying science to history to philosophy to the human quirks we all see around us. He’s not a novelist, but that isn’t a problem; the writing in Better Angels is so much better than it had to be that I found myself grinning at a passage every few pages. When I grow up, I’d like to write like Steven Pinker.

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The Beginning

2012-02-14 19.02.03

Someone once told me that the best way for college students without appreciable skills to woo employers and attractive strangers was the creation of a special website to display their “interests” and “projects”.

Employers? Attractive strangers? This one’s for you!



Aaron Gertler, age 19, Yale sophomore, Psychology major, journalist, “funny kid” (source: friends, enemies, both of my kindergarten teachers), erstwhile consultant, mentor to the youth.

Also a Renaissance man who doesn’t paint, sculpt or play the lute and who would be a terrible Renaissance man.



Bridgewater? McKinsey? Kiera Knightley? My girlfriend?



Cognitive and behavioral science and how human beings really operate.

History people tend to forget and statistics they tend to ignore.

Metafiction and long-form journalism.

Electronic music of almost any form.

Happiness, with or without dark chocolate but preferably with.

Weightlifting, general fitness, and shoes with toes on them.

Self-improvement, problem-solving, and large-scale optimism.



Journalism, creative nonfiction, creative fiction, and derivative fiction, but not derivative journalism.

Design, coding, research academic and otherwise.

Whatever else keeps me adding notes to my iPhone when I should be sleeping.


Why “Learning All the Things?” (Note: Title later changed to “Alpha Gamma”)

Because what you don’t know can’t hurt you, and I’m a masochist.

Because the first step to wisdom, per Socrates, is knowing that we know nothing, but the second step is doing something about it.

Because I don’t like being tricked by people who know things I don’t, and I’d like to stop those people from tricking others.

Because the world becomes more interesting the more you know about it.

Because learning all the things is impossible and will only lead to more questions besides, and as we’ve already established, I’m a masochist.


Sounds marvelous! How can I contact you about any of the topics above, or anything else that’s been running through my head?

I can be reached via email!

I also have a Twitter!

Or you can post a comment to this very website! I love messages from strangers, especially when they are human beings and/or computers who can pass a Turing Test and are not trying to sell me things.