Are you a reader? A good reader? Do you want to be one? The last one is a rhetorical question, and I know you want to be a good reader. How to read a book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Doren, is a classic book that is likely to take one’s reading skills and philosophy to a highest level. Needless to say, understanding its illuminating insights requires applying reflexively the rules and guidance the book provides.

Four levels of reading

  • Elementary reading
  • Inspectional reading
  • Analytical reading
  • Syntopical reading

 

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How to Read a Book

Thinking is not an easy endeavor. It is demanding and as such needs skills. Thinking from first principles is one of the most fundamental concepts I have known recently.

Thinking from first principles involves asking a series of ‘whys’ to boil a given problem down to its irreducibly fundamental units.

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Thinking from First Principles

Economists often assume human beings are rational and they make choices and decisions that are in their best interest under a given set of constraints and information. Other breeds of economists, behavioral economists, have discovered that people are, in reality, far from being rational. They are subject to cognitive biases. Recognizing this has tremendous effect on how we design policies, interact with and among each other and generally how we get our acts together to lessen the detrimental effects of some of our irrationality as well as to tap into our potentials for cooperation through altruism and social preferences. I know I have thrown several jargon terms already but I will explain many of them to you.

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Cognitive Biases

Meskel, my best omen

It is Saturday morning, and I woke up earlier than I am used to. For my morning dopamine, I grabbed my phone and scrolled down my social media feeds a dozen times. Almost everything is exclusively about the colorful celebration of Meskel in Ethiopia. I am not sad but I am not happy either. I cannot hide the uneasiness and nostalgia though. I live 5700 kms away from where I grew up singing ‘hoya hoye’.

The arrow of time has brought me here. But my imagination is taking me back in time to exactly a quarter of a century ago, Tuesday morning 27 September 1994. It was a cold dusk with the morning dew barely giving way to the twilight. I can see a vivid image of a young boy in shorts (that was how young men were dressed until they get married when they can buy a pair of trousers for their wedding). The boy holds a big stick in his hand (his weapon, literally). He is half asleep. His shoulder feels loose from dancing and his palms hurt due to clapping ceaselessly for the whole night. After all, Meskel is eagerly awaited a day (and night for the boys) of joy and freedom, of self expression, of signaling one’s capabilities, of never giving up.

The boy was me, my 25 years younger version. And there is this image of another young man from another group. My and the young man’s groups met on a hilltop while heading to households which belong to our respective sides of the village. He spotted me, smiled and greeted me warmly. Then he asked me a quick but unexpected question. I am happy that there was Meskel celebration, that the celebration involved visiting each house in our neighborhoods, that it took us the whole night to visit all, that it took the other group the same time, that it became dusk (not too dark), that we (the young man and I) met, that he greeted me, that he asked me, that I said ‘yes’...

Meskel is one of the colorful religious (with a tinge of culture, in my opinion) holidays celebrated in many parts of Ethiopia. Where I am now in my imagination, the boys used to make torches with dry bush and sing ‘hoya hoye’ in each and every household in their village. Exactly a quarter of a century ago, I was among the boys who spent the whole night (Monday evening to Tuesday morning) singing and going round the village to make sure that we visited every household.

This story is not about Meskel per se. It is about the course of my entire life over the last 25 years. There are moments I tend to believe that life is choice. However, it also appears as though there was a grand scheme of things which determines what we get to choose from. I bear witness of this. Until a second before the young man I mentioned above came and asked me if I can go to school with him, my choice set was different and so were my choices.

My body quivers when I think of the counterfactual, i.e., the path my life would have followed and the arrow of time would have taken me in that direction. I am not ruling out, as a possibility, even a much more fulfilling destiny than I have today, but looking at what is of highest likelihood, I would have been a very poor farmer.

Meskel feels like a good omen that sent me the young man to tell me that there was such a thing called school and that even the least prepared can venture to a world unheard of (in his time and place). When he asked me if I can go to school with him, my heart said ‘yes’, but I remember first asking him where the school was, because I didn’t know any school nearby. Well, there was none. He mentioned one that was in another district (God knows how many miles away).

Right there and right then, I decided to go to school. Within two weeks, I was a student (and in second grade. I have an excitingly funny story here.) That is how it all began. I am grateful for this day and that young man ever since, in fact more so now than ever.

The rest of my story? Stay tuned and I will tell you:

  • About what I did on first day in school (an innocent mistake that saved me a year)
  • How we used to take care of plants in school compound (incentives worked, they still do)
  • My hypocrisy about girls’ capabilities (and how I kept taking second place, next to a brilliant girl)
  • The way to my second home: Kelamino
  • Life in Arba Minch University
  • and more...
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Meskel, my best omen

On New Year's Resolution

As Ethiopia sees off the ‘Old’ and welcomes the ‘New Year’, it may be common among many to plan to change their lives in one way or another. I sometimes wonder if there is such a thing as ‘old’ or ‘new’ a time slot, i.e. what is essentially ‘new’ in a New Year? What makes Pagume 5 (or 6) an old day and Meskerem 1 a new one, apart from how we experience both days? Please do not get me wrong. I recognize that there will be religious as well as traditional explanations as to why such a designation has been given and upheld.

My point is that one should look for what is new inside of them. It is only when I choose to change certain habits, thought patterns and attitudes that I can expect new outcomes, new ideas and new perceptions. That way, one may see the difference between the days, the weeks, months and years.

Having argued that new things come from within as a ‘New Year’ may not essentially and inherently be as new, it follows that individuals could actually begin their resolutions on any day of the year. There is no particular reason that justifies waiting for Meskerem 1 to start to change one’s behavior. For some reason, however, people find it easier to pledge and plan to change their lives every time they welcome a ‘New Year’.

Roughly speaking, the things one wants to change, as part of their New Year resolution, fall under one of two types. One, there are things one does but wants to stop doing. Many young men may want to take their last sip of alcohol at the last minute of the old year. Promises to quit smoking or any other bad habit that has grown into addiction are the most common in the list of New Year resolutions.

The second category has to do with things that one has not been able to do, due to sheer laziness and habitual procrastination, but they really want to. Starting a new business, getting a soul mate, pursuing the next degree, visiting one’s dream place, writing a book are but some of the things under this category. Obviously, the list of specific items differs among individuals.

Economics, as a science that tries to understand decision-making, has some important lessons to offer as to how one may stick to their New Year resolutions. Empirical studies on the issue show that most resolutions end in smoke, mainly because individuals lack self-control. Behavioral economics, along with and sometimes borrowing from psychology, recognizes that homo sapiens, unlike the homo economicus in mainstream economics textbooks, make decisions based not only on pecuniary consequences of their decisions but also on behavioral, social and moral considerations. As such, one may easily break one’s ‘no alcohol, no chat, no tobacco’ resolution when they reunite with a pushy-old-friend, or get a cue that they cannot resist.

The tricks one may use to stick to one’s dearest promises depend on which of the aforementioned categories one’s particular plan belongs to. For habits, the lessons from neurology and psychology suggest that one cannot do away with the strong cravings they have developed. Smokers cannot stop the temptation. One who used to chew khat may keep yawning when the clock hits 3 pm, or whatever time they used to regularly sit with that demon. The boredom, headache, unease, nausea, and confusion which precede an episode of chewing, drinking and smoking are drives hard to resist, and difficult to cure right away.

No matter how many times one might have sworn that they would stick to the resolution, there are strong physiological reasons that they will fall back to their old habit. There is one simple trick though. As the cravings and temptations cannot be avoided, scholars recommend that one uses those feelings to redirect their behavior to another habit, this time a good one. That is, the old habit can be effectively replaced with a new one. The sequence of craving, action and then good feeling (reward) form a chain in the old bad habit. The idea is that this same sequence should be maintained except for the middle, where one may, for example, go to the gym the moment one feels a rush of craving for something.

There are several potential tricks, which may help one stick to resolutions in the second category as well. A notable one from, once again, behavioral economics is to try to tie the pledges to monetary (dis)incentives. If writing a book is one of my New Year resolutions but I know that I am prone to notorious procrastination, I can use this trick. I tell one of my closest and most serious friends about my plan. I may, for the sake of tractability and regularity, breakdown the job into chunks such as a complete outline in the first month, an exhaustive list of readings in the second and so on.

On the incentive side, the challenge arises because the benefits of getting a book out is long-term while the toil, sleeplessness and back pain are immediate. If I do not write it this year, the cost is the forgone long-term benefit, which I do not feel directly. I should then change the stakes. I may give my friend a copy of my plan, a lump sum of money, usually and obviously an amount large enough to make me feel bad if I lose it, and a signed copy of an agreement. The agreement should state that my friend gives me back the money only if and when I deliver what I have put in my plan. If I fail, the money must be given to, for example, Macedonia or any other charity organization. Even stronger an incentive would be to give the money, in case of failure, to an organization that you do not like! It is also advised, however, one should not bite more than they can chew, which is to say plans should not tyrannize one.

An important remark worth noting is that the consequence of broken promises is not limited to the benefits that one would have enjoyed had the goals been achieved. Failure to ‘walk one’s talk’ may lead to a distrust in oneself and bad self-image. When someone lies to me, the worst penalty would be that I cannot believe them when they tell the truth. When one fails to deliver to one’s very self on important New Year resolutions, the same effect will creep in.
The solution is to, first of all, set realistic and attainable goals. Second, once promises are told to the innocent self, then using some of the tricks mentioned earlier may take one a long way in achieving them and feeling the positive feedback loop that augments the whole process of setting goals and putting them down to earth.

I believe that, every time a brand New Year comes, looking for ‘new’ things one can do inside oneself and one’s own life makes more sense than expecting something divine to happen while we sit on one’s age-old habits and obsolete thoughts.
Happy Ethiopian New Year and Happy New Journey!

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On New Year’s Resolution

The Open-air lab

One of the most exciting experiences I got during my PhD study is the field work I had in Ethiopia in 2016. I call it the 'open-air lab' as it was, functionally, a laboratory. I will write the full story of the field work.

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Open-air Econ Lab