On “Where do you get your ideas from?”

If you would ever like to divest yourself of hero worship for creative types, look at their responses to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” This cure is a little stale now as somewhere along the way somebody must have realized how insufferable they sounded and there are now thoughtful answers to this question, but I’m sure you can still find some sneering ones without too much trouble. The problem is that this question seems to sit at the intersection of a few forces that steer otherwise well-meaning people away from honest or helpful answers. First, the question implies that you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ and that your opinion is sought after, so there’s a bit of ego at play. Second, if you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is sought after, you likely hear this question a lot, so exasperation is likely to set in even for the most stoic or well-meaning of talents. Finally, as someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is currently being sought after, the expectation is that you would at least have the basics of your craft in hand, and what could be more fundamental than ideas, and what do you mean you don’t know where the ideas come from I hate you and hope you die! That is, the person being asked may not know, or may have an answer so idiosyncratic as to be less helpful than “I don’t know.” Even before we acknowledge that this isn’t an especially well formed question, all the incentives are aligned against an honest, straightforward answer. I’d like to share some thoughts on the question, its answer, and how people generally think about creativity.

What are you talking about?

What do we mean when we ask the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’re looking for the prime mover, the answer to a bank page, a pitch that will seduce a publisher/distributor/producer, a hook that a listener can’t get out of their heads, the inspiration that gives you all the right words and reduces the job to putting them down one after the other, you know, ideas. The problem is that these are very different things. The ability to confront a blank page is as much a matter of work ethic and an understanding of grammar or the ability to draw fundamental shapes as it is creativity. A pitch is a marketing device if anything and implies some underlying object (even if you haven’t figured that part out yet) of which just an enticing glance is given. The hook, like the amorphous inspiration, assumes that there is no creativity beyond the high concept and that you basically slap a drum track or some prepositions on and get ready for release. These are all different problems at different stages, and doesn’t even cover the people who just want to see the making of documentary.

There’s no ironclad rule that says there are general elegant solutions that encompass all variations of this question. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ is equipped or inclined to generalize their instances of creative thought into principles that encapsulate the other cases. At its core, the question deals with a problem at some point in a creative endeavor and has created two categories ‘not creative’ (things I have done) and ‘creative’ (things I haven’t done/feel I can’t do). The creative category becomes overvalued because of its scarcity and the not creative category is undervalued because of its abundance. Anyone who has been consulted as a subject matter expert (even if it’s just making a cup of tea), presented the most trivial of solutions, and then been heralded as a saviour will have encountered this. As outside observers we know that what this aspiring creator is really looking for is something they already have inside themselves, but we lose this perspective when it applies to our own case.

Who are you to say all this?

I am not, in fact,  A Creative Person™. I know this because I found it out in a bar during a conversation with a stranger. She was an artist (primarily sketches), and her process involved something like banging two live chickens together to the rhythm of Slavic folk tunes played by a mad piper while dressed in yeti hair followed by an invocation to the muses in a tongue that only they can understand. I offered that I find the ability to draw very admirable since I used to do it quite a bit when I was in school but I have always been frustrated by the fact I could never make the shapes and forms I wanted to. I added that it was this frustration that tended to drive me to my own creative outlets such as photography since I felt that I had to take the world as given and found satisfaction in using the technology to shape it the way I saw it. “Well that’s not real creativity!” And so the matter was settled. Now it is likely that someone who knows a little of my biography might protest and say “For heaven’s sake you worked in film! On stuff that was actually popular and lots of people have seen!” Yes that, and any other number of examples, but I happen to think all of them boil down to a similar problem solving process to the photography example, and we already know that’s simply not real creativity.

The silliness of the conversation aside, there seems to be a certain presumptuousness in writing an article like this. I have been asked where I get my ideas from, but generally the assumption is that some kind of essay on the topic should only come from someone with some credentials. I have none, but then, I was under the impression the question was about ideas instead of fame. One advantage to being nobody of consequence is that there is the least possible risk of having superhuman abilities attributed to me. Despite myself, I think some talents just have the magical ability to make work easy, or have internalized enough of their process to make it automatic, or otherwise have some black box that produces stupendous results. This thinking brings us back into territory better suited to the ritual with the chickens above. More importantly, if we’re concerned about becoming famous the advice is totally different than if we’re concerned about achieving particular creative outcomes. Some mute inglorious Milton has less to offer us on the subject now than he might have, so now seems as good of time as any to tackle the subject and I can do so without any fear of notoriety getting in the way. And what if my ideas suck? Then you’re even further behind than you thought and should attend to the next passages closely.

Initial ideas and settings

Is there an idea from which all other inspiration can flow? If the creative challenge is getting started, then yes, an exciting idea can have value over and above its merits as a starting point. In my own case, this is because it creates boundaries and restrictions I can kick against to get some momentum (again, creativity as problem solving), but for others it may simply be the catalyst that gets them into a state of playfulness where their imagination can take them where they go. Of course, for this subset of people we have an answer to the question “I get my ideas from the setting.” Unless you happen to fall into the subset of people for whom the only block is an initial idea, it is fairly easy to establish how an initial idea or high concept won’t get you very far. Here is an  initial idea that is behind some of the most well known and best selling stories you can think of: The dead come back. Return when you have your blockbuster and feel free to cut me in on a percentage.

Chances are this idea offered relatively little inspiration, and what inspiration it did provide was probably cliché. And yet this idea has animated everything from Dawn of the Dead, Frankenstein, Osiris, Dracula, the gospels, The Crow, The Walking Dead, A Christmas Carol, Orpheus, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, and thousands more. It is impossible to say that this idea hasn’t resulted in good creative works (and I’ve limited myself to stories), but this is hardly the breakthrough anyone is looking for. One might object “But these stories aren’t just about the dead coming back” and I would agree, but I don’t think adjusting the example is going to yield some fountain of inspiration. Embedded in the objection is thought that there is another idea that makes these stories ‘work.’ This is likely true and should reinforce how unimportant ‘one perfect idea’ really is. Let’s say we want to steer our story towards a genre, what can we add to our initial idea of the dead coming back (you might want to try some of your own):

  • Family is mourning their recently departed grandfather, unaware of the medical staff running to an emergency elsewhere in the hospital. Young child, coming back from getting a candy bar down the hall passes by the room with the death bed, looks overjoyed at something off camera, offering it his candy and says “Grandpa! Would you like a piece?” (Domestic drama. Apparently this is very similar to something that happens in The Walking Dead: The New Frontier so… take 2)
    • Child on a farm has lost his beloved pet dog and is in the process of tearfully burying it. The child takes a moment for one last look at the dog in the grave before continuing, but his expression turns to surprise when he sees the dog’s tail start wagging, and then joy to see his dog is alive and barking, and jumping up to see him. He reaches down and then… (Domestic drama.)
  • The President/Prime Minister is visiting wounded soldiers in a remote location. A dead soldier comes bursting in from the other room lunging after the leader, impervious to the efforts of the guards. (Action)
  • The reanimated body of a woman hires a detective to investigate her own murder. (Detective. If she lights up the room, Noire)
  • A man is using a public restroom during (unknown to him) the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. He feels a shudder from the next stall then suddenly moaning, groaning and erratic movement. It seems to pass until his neighbour’s disruptions come back with even more violence. (Comedy)

These don’t just limit themselves to the dead coming back but are variations specifically on zombies (except, perhaps, the detective story depending on whether or not you think zombies should be mindless). I’m not especially attached to any of these ideas except maybe the last one, and it is a little uncomfortable to share raw material like this in a public post, but since I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™, I don’t have the luxury of chopping the heads off ideas that displease me at first sight. Reservations aside, even the worst of these is more exciting to me than the generic ‘the dead come back to life.’ What this should illustrate is that we at least need idea plus another idea, and in all likelihood it’s a big series of ideas that we need, none of which have any special significance.

A stream of ideas

It is not reassuring to go searching for one idea to solve a creative block and find out you actually need a series, but this should be a liberating realization. Any single idea is no longer burdened with the success of the entire work and so the stakes are much lower. If the entire project hinges on the idea ‘the dead come back’ then the overall enthusiasm for the project is going to be low. This may be where the disconnect between authors’ answers of “ideas are everywhere” and the audience’s perception that they’re hard to come by occurs. If you are accustomed to culling ideas that don’t immediately implement themselves, then the daily censorship of ideas is likely going to pass by unnoticed. If we don’t internalize the suppression of ideas against an impossible standard, we will be more likely to notice them when they come.

The problem with the examples above is that while they may tickle a certain interest, they mostly are scenes rather than full works. Simply generating a lot of scenes in hopes that some subset can be strung together is inefficient and is going to be suited only to ‘one scene after another’ stories. While it’s probably not advisable that someone starting from “Where do you get your ideas from?” to tackle something like their own Finnegan’s Wake, it’s not especially helpful to work on things that don’t interest you either. What these are best seen as are exercises to get us out of the habit of dismissing things out of hand and more into a state of playfulness where making things up is an end in itself. Even then, we still need to contend with the fact that little vignettes into these imaginary worlds do not resemble the kind of finished product we were hoping for from the initial question, and so we might want to learn how to manipulate or structure our nascent stream of ideas.

I suspect the idea of ‘not real creativity’ probably starts at the idea of putting structure around ideas, so if you are doubtful about this step, it might be a good idea to look at some after action reports (AAR) on strategy wargame forums, or RP content for certain RPGs. Games are structured, and wargames especially so, but this has not stopped people from writing stories of Douglas McArthur, the American Caesar, or the licentious, violent, Machiavellian saga of the House of Rose. The aim here is to direct your energies towards a particular train of thought rather than just collect random pieces. Again, I view a lot of these things as problem solving, so I already have a very structured way of thinking about it, but we’ll see how this can be adapted to other ways of thinking. Usually I like to ask questions like “Why?” “Then what?” “Who?” or if I’m in a rather nasty mood “So what?” “Who is this jerk?” “Why should I care?” Let’s go back to ‘the dead come back.’

  • Why are the dead coming back?
    • They like it here more than the afterlife
    • Angels and demons went on strike
    • They feel the mortal world needs their help

These invite their own questions. How are the dead coming back to life? Zombies, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, plain old ordinary people? Were the angels and demons always uinionized? Why hasn’t this happened before? Maybe it did and all those stories of resurrection we’ve heard were cases where that happened and it has caused so much trouble on Earth with new religions being formed that they do everything they can to avoid it. I personally am partial to the idea of using ghosts for the 3rd idea because it inverts the old trope of ghosts having ‘unfinished business’ and instead are so dismayed by what they’ve heard going on here they need to sort things out. You may notice some themes coming up or ‘real world things the story might be about’ hiding underneath. These aren’t deliberate, but it’s hard to deny they’re there once you see them. Hang on to those, they’ll come up later.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t an exercise in worldbuilding. Personally, I only think you should come up with enough background or motivation for what you are portraying in so far as you find it useful. You may want to have a bit of a story for that person in the painting, and maybe it’s useful for you to know that your main character is a single mom even if it never comes up in the short story. But as in life character is demonstrated in unusual and unexpected ways. I have a very senior coworker who is genuinely feared by people outside my department and who is a beloved mentor to three other people I know and has been very congenial and invested in my development. At another job there was a gentle, positive, vegan, sweetheart who had been working there for a while but became violently angry when she saw a knife had been put away in such a way someone could get hurt. You may never have to portray how a character behaves when their order gets messed up at a coffee shop, but it will likely get you thinking about how they behave in other situations.

Since I have a more systematic way of approaching these kinds of questions, it makes sense that the examples above tend to follow a thread one after the other. If you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ this may not be the way your mind works. Let’s go back to the scenes above and see how the approach can work in a slightly less linear approach. For the boy and his dog, why are domesticated animals coming back from the dead? Because it is frightening to have loved ones turn on you. If the source of the zombie outbreak isn’t explained, you don’t really need to concoct some reason yourself, but the idea that ‘things that were once friendly to us are now hostile’ can inform quite a bit of the story. Wild animals don’t come back because we’re already afraid of wild animals and they can already cause us harm. Friends, relatives and pets do come back. Living friends and relatives may also turn on us only through the pressure of the situation. All more or less standard tropes of the genre, but a pretty clear decision rule that results in consistency (pets do not rise from the dead at only dramatically appropriate moments for example). The detective doesn’t have a sex listed. Are they a man or a woman? Does the society even conceive of categories beyond the two? Is the detective less respected because she’s a woman? Is this why client chose her? Do the dead normally ask for independent investigation into their own murders or is this a special case? There are obvious questions for a more linear approach like “What happens next?”, “Whodunit?” or what have you, but there really isn’t that much to this story yet beyond a high concept and so you can pull them from anywhere (are necromancers mob bosses? Seems an obvious choice, but if you were dead wouldn’t you like to come back? What if necromancers are doing works of charity?). However you choose to work, a lot of this simply boils down to saying to yourself “tell me more…”

Choosing the right ideas

We might have taken some of the pressure off for individual ideas, and we may have a few different prompts to direct the flow of ideas, but there is no assurance that any of this is easy to do. Like anything, practice will make it easier to get into a playful state that lets you start to roll off ideas one after another. Sometimes it’s also just an acceptance that some of it is going to be bad, getting it out and moving on. Even asking why something is a bad idea might invite an answer that is itself a good idea (“And then the main character wakes up and it was all a dream.” Lame. “And he’s arrested because of the contents of the dream.” Maybe there’s something we can work with there). A collection of ideas is not the finished work that is implied in the correct answer to “Where do you get your ideas from?” and at some point we need to decide what ideas are worth following and fit in.

Creative works are about something. It may not be consciously felt, or it may be a remarkably trivial subject, but there is something that motivated that particular work. I tend to find that the ideas that excite me or interest me can ultimately be traced back to some kind of subject or concern that have caught my attention, even if I discover it long after the fact. For example, I rather like the idea that the dead are coming back because they prefer existence on Earth to whatever lies beyond. Why does this interest me? I suppose because it seems the most extreme possible extension of the concern that the previous generation is continuing to burden the next one through deficits, Brexit, underinvesting in education and infrastructure, etc. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse *bam* “Nah, we prefer it here. Think we’ll stay. Forever.” I’m also attracted to this idea because I love the idea that all previous generations had a choice and for some reason this is the one that decided to go back because of boredom. It taps into another  concern that we’re amusing ourselves to death and are losing the ability and inclination to engage with long term projects that are to our benefit. Plus, there’s something great about seeing someone arrive at heaven, see that there’s only 2 bars of mobile reception and peace out.

The important thing here is that the ‘what is this about’ element should never appear as a sledgehammer to beat you over the head with. If you absolutely must get it out of your system, give a character a monologue about everything that is wrong in society, then cut it out and put it a blog. This isn’t limited to narrative either. I’m sure you can imagine a modern reimagining of Sisyphus for amusement with two further prompts ‘first year art project’ and ‘sly ribbing of guilty pleasures’ to get the idea. This is a two way street. Once I started thinking about why the idea attracted me my mind wandered to the thickening of borders (I told you, I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™). What if the afterlife was no longer taking immigrants because we’re not sending them our best? The dilemma I face with this one is that now that I know it’s about immigration I need to work at throwing away the cheap ‘messages’ and instead focus on interesting implications (Bad: “God is just like Trump. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.” Cute, will get an applause from people who want to focus on the Old Testament, clever in a way but feels like pandering. Better: “There has been a slow and steady thickening of the border between the mundane and the supernatural which is why we don’t have miracles any more.” I like this because it makes things more complicated and there are more things to explore and do in this setting, while making the God emperor the, well, God Emperor doesn’t get me as much).

This is ultimately what people are talking about when they say that ideas are everywhere. They come from you and your interests. You simply have to take an interest in the world around you. This means reading, looking at art, looking at comics, watching movies, playing games, and actively doing it. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of fun bits. Why did I find them fun? Why do I find them fun in a way I don’t find Grand Theft Auto III as fun? When people say they’ve become more politically active, does this mean they just talk about the federal level more often or do they know who the mayor is and the composition of the city council? To be perfectly honest, a lot of the time when I write something I am just trying to figure it out. I may never post it or even look at it again, but there was something bugging me, I got it out of my system, and I could move on to something else that I found interesting.

One last thing that drives me, and I think this is a useful guide in general, is that I do genuinely enjoy entertaining people. If I can spin a good yarn, tell a good joke, or otherwise delight someone I get tremendous pleasure from that. As a result whenever I have a game idea I tend to go out and ‘pitch’ it to some strangers. I know I’ve done well if the person I am talking to has a smile on their face that they can’t help and I live to see that reaction. This is almost a non-starter for some people because social interaction isn’t high on the list of skills or priorities, but presumably you’re writing for someone and it’s helpful to have friends along the way for mutual support. Since you’re already taking an interest in things, why not take an interest in the most interesting thing: people. It’s not like you’re trying to sell them something, you are trying to amuse them.

“But what if they steal my ideas?” This is the kind of thinking that has hopefully left us since we realize that an individual idea doesn’t matter very much. Furthermore, what matters to you won’t matter in the same way to the audience. The same way that your own work won’t be a copy of all the material you read before, anyone who hears your pitch and is inspired by it is going to bring their own experience and talent to bear. Maybe it will be better than yours (assuming against the far more likely case that they are working on their own ideas), but then, you would never have made what they did anyway.

If it helps to imagine idea generation as a process think of it this way: We have a series of interests and concerns that are usually the raw material for our creative work. These can be grand themes like concerns about spiritual fulfillment, or immediate needs like needing a glass of water. Usually these concerns show up in disguise as “What if X happened?” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if X?” The first step is to learn to recognize them and get in the habit of acknowledging that we are throwing away potentially useful material every time we dismiss them as distraction or ‘not good enough.’ Having recognized our ability to generate ideas, we can direct our imagining by probing areas we find most promising. Maybe none of the background noise in your head was that interesting. What’s your favourite genre? What haven’t you seen in it yet? What’s your least favourite genre? How would you improve it? The aim here is to focus our attention to turn it into a creative work. We may not need to formally select ideas that we’re most happy with, but recognizing what’s behind them will allow us to shape the finished product around them, and let the most interesting parts of what we’re doing shine.

It’d be nice if this was all constant and automatic, but it usually isn’t. Sitting down and doing the work (again, acknowledging that when we aren’t feeling in the mood we’ll probably need to go through some bad ideas) is a hard but important way to start things off. Sometimes when the work has already been underway, an interruption in routine is needed. This is where going for a walk or taking a bath or any of the other ‘side projects’ come in. It’s really important to be clear what is being done here (you are not slacking off, and be honest with yourself when doing this), but sometimes if you have committed yourself to an unproductive train of thought, you need to disrupt the routine and let your mind wander. Your concerns will come back to you and you will return to that more playful state as you do something else until a new path presents itself. It may not even be the magic solution you were looking for, just another perspective that leads you down a path that leads you down another path that brushes alongside something that might be a solution. It’d be great if ideas came when we needed them, but often we need to clarify things for ourselves, and the false positives are just chances for us to work things out. This is a way of working that allows us to make the most of what we have at a given time, rather than just for a miracle to occur.

Building the work

The business of making a work out of the raw material of ideas is much more than idea generation itself. If it’s a written work then you need to understand grammar, pacing, characterization, and all the other elements that go into a good novel or a short story. Visual works will need to work with form, colour, composition, and the like to convey the idea. A game needs systems built and ways to convey an idea without reducing the player to a passive observer. Mastery of your craft will allow you to present your idea in the best possible way and create something special.

That’s the big mistake behind “Where do your ideas come from?” Getting a good idea does not bring you any closer to the implementation of an idea, and people only ever get to see the implementation. But style and even the basics are only ever going to be internalized through practice, and you need something to practice on. If you want to see style without a worthwhile idea behind it, feel free to watch as many commercials as you’d like. Excellent craftsmanship, but commercials that attempt to present any serious message tend to be the rightful objects of derision (Pepsi is not the official pop of #TheResistance). We really are hungry for good ideas and worthwhile topics, and so we’re willing to put up with imperfect presentation. Shakespeare at high school is still pretty good theatre.

Getting ideas may not be the hard part, but they do hopefully make the hard part easier to work with. I am always delighted to see something with interesting ideas behind it, as much as I am interested in exploring those ideas myself. The best ones seem to demand expression and provide enough motivation to keep going through. I can’t offer anything on the particulars on implementation, but if you ever happen to find me in a bar and you’ve got a good idea, I’d really love to hear it. I like smiling despite myself.

Charity Streams

Part two of the loot box article is still forthcoming, but life happens and so I have a reason to write a different post in the meantime. Starting today (December 11th), I will be doing a series of casts every weekday for the next two weeks, each with a new (surprise and generally crowd pleasing) game. Some of you may remember the format from my 1k follower celebration. Why the surprise and all the effort? A friend of the cast (TheEyesOfSyn92) had some misfortune befall her as mentioned in these tweets. In brief, while doing laundry someone took what they wanted of her clothes and threw the rest into the garbage. Syn herself has not directly made any appeals to repair this loss beyond reporting it to the police, but I have decided to do these special casts in order to do a small fundraiser to help lessen the impact of the theft.

In some ways I think this is a fitting response as I originally met Syn through helping JessyQuil on a charity cast after which she started regularly stopping by the cast and has been quite dogged in getting more people to watch my stuff. However, I am also aware that I rarely do streams like this directly (more on this below), and we are in a holiday season that makes many demands on your wallet for charitable causes as well as gifts and sales. With that in mind I thought I would explain why I am doing this series of streams specifically and a few thoughts on how I navigate the giving space in general. I hope this appeal will at least inspire you to make a token donation towards this specific goal, but if nothing else it should suffice as a few thoughts on charity streams and giving once the two weeks are up.

There are a lot of charities out there right now, to a point that it sometimes feels like they’re the new scam. The cause can seem dubious, more than expected goes to administration fees, and there’s a certain level of fatigue given how often people on the street or on a cast seem to be out their rattling the cup to get you to sub, donate, sign up for a mailing list, or buy some ornament. This effect is compounded by the fact that there is an unspoken tip on Twitch that charity is generally a good way to raise one’s profile, and so perceived insincerity is added to even more asks in an already crowded space. The biggest problem here is that none of these are really good reasons not to give, but they do serve as excuses to avoid it. Should the caster’s motivations really factor in to whether or not I feel good about money being given to a worthy cause? If I have doubts as to how much of my pledge goes to the cause, can I offer some alternative that will put the money to better use? If not, is no money really a better outcome than some positive value?

These concerns are partly why I have been more inclined to support others in their charity casts than undertake them on my own, although I did start casting off the back of an Extra Life marathon I did to support a children’s hospital I had to go to when I was little. In this case it had a clear benefit to my community, I had a personal connection to it, and I was relying on my personal network of friends as I had no broadcast to speak of at that time. What I didn’t communicate about that cast was that I had a secret goal in mind. If I did not earn what I was making per hour as a research assistant x 24, I would make up the rest out of pocket. Since I cared about the charity it seemed to me that 24 hours of working and giving the money should be the baseline I compare 24 hours of playing video games against, and that if the latter had a shortfall I had not spent the time well. This ensured my incentives were aligned with taking the fundraiser seriously, and I am happy to report that people were remarkably generous in their giving, leading to an outcome in which the time was valued well beyond what I could have earned through my labour. To put it another way, my cast normally has a donation button and now is equipped with a subscription button and the option to cheer with bits. There are already 3 asks on my channel, and so if I am going to ask you to do something with your money, the least I can do is respect it and put some time and thought into doing it right.

Let’s assume for a moment that giving is affordable and the right thing to do. Why this particular cause? I should be clear, Syn has not asked this and I am a little nervous that this may be crossing a boundary into something unwanted. Nobody particularly wants to be seen as a ‘charity case’ and I’m not inclined to label her as such. Instead I see this as more akin to insurance. I have been mugged twice, and the first time involved a very substantial amount of money I happened to be carrying in cash that day. I was fine,  but word got around and people were good enough to check in. While I did not bring up the matter of the money (with the exception of the intended recipient), more than a few cheques or small amounts started working their way toward me. Not enough to make me whole, but enough to lighten the blow. I would like to think that this is not unique to me. In some ways a social network can act like insurance: instead of an individual bearing the full brunt of misfortune, the network absorbs a small inconvenience, and the burden on the individual is less. The fact that Syn may be a stranger to you (and for what it’s worth, I’ve never met her in person) is less relevant than my hope to encourage a culture in which we care for one another, and let the sum of relatively minor expenses/inconveniences cushion the blow. The benefit to the recipient is not just monetary, but also stems from the knowledge that people care and are invested in their wellbeing (even if it is a small amount). Like insurance, nobody can predict when something will happen, and many people go through life without needing it, but it remains a prudent choice given the potential outcomes. I can no longer say I have not drawn from the support of my social network, but I can say how much it meant to me to experience that kind of care. I would like to appeal to the belief that had the fates decided differently, someone would undertake a similar initiative for you.

There is no case to be made that this is the most important donation you can make. Everyone needs to evaluate what they can give and where they would like to allocate it. I heard on a podcast once that “If you weren’t in a financial position to go in and buy a coffee whenever you’d like, then don’t buy me one either.” I have no interest in spreading hardship, and so if any value would constitute hardship, then there are other ways you can help (spreading the word is a great start). I am only interested in spreading inconvenience as thin as possible. For those of you who are in a state to contribute $15/$10/$5/$2/$1 or anything in between it would be wonderful if you did. Did you get a game that you loved and would have paid $25 on for $5 on a sale? Maybe pass a little of that surplus on and make someone feel better. Did you find some money in the past? If you’ve got a better job now, maybe pass on some fraction of it. If you see the loss of clothes as trivial compared to other things you could use the money for that is completely fine, I only ask that you contribute a trivial amount. The sum of trivialities over a population could almost erase what happened to someone who was wronged at random. In exchange, I am doing my best to put on a good show for two weeks with a new game every day. If you like my cast, my writing, for some reason find my tweets interesting, and especially if you haven’t donated in the past, I’d ask you to consider even making a token donation towards the cause.

If you would like to help out, the most direct way would be to give to Syn directly at her donation link. This may be inconvenient when you are in the stream and so I will honour any donations made through my channel and cover the PayPal fees (though I discourage this as a practice as general since there are no mechanisms for accountability beyond Syn reporting I have not honoured my claim). If it truly is beyond your means, I would encourage you to share this post or the casts with people who might like to contribute or participate in the two weeks of broadcasts.

Finally, there is a segment I know I will not be able to reach. They may be concerned about dishonesty or simply not see the value in an act that does not have some kind of world shaping significance. I can understand this perspective, and while I would argue that micro matters like how we treat and support each other matter more than we give credit for, I must acknowledge we live in an affluent society (it is, indeed, the premise under which I am appealing for donations in the first place) and that what we consider hardship is much lighter than what others face. If your reason for not participating in this particular cause is because of the perception of greater need, then I invite you to follow one of the links below. There is nothing to prove to me, but if you were unmoved by the appeal above solely due to greater needs elsewhere I would call on you to prove it for yourself and do a little bit to alleviate the suffering you feel is greater:

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)

Give Directly

I hope to get a chance to see you all and thank you personally in one of the broadcasts.

Advice

Given that this blog is still connected to my Twitch channel which seems to anchor all my other online encounters, I wanted to talk a little bit about advice. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the kind of advice you get on the internet, and how generally careless we seem to be about who we ask for this. It seems to me a lot of the time what we are asking for are opinions, but because a lot of the people we are interacting with are ‘known for doing some thing’ (make a game, write a book, have a YouTube channel) we lose sight of what their area of expertise might be and ask inappropriate questions. This is compounded by the fact that it seems that we are also just generally expected to have opinions about things, that nobody really likes to say “I’m sorry, I really don’t know” in public, and the fact that it’s easier to become ‘known for doing some thing’ as the barriers to entry become lower.

I don’t think I can be really comprehensive on this topic, and it might just boil down to some good old fashioned griping, but I thought I’d start with the most recent example I saw online.

A catalyst

I thought about how I would introduce this quote. It’s from a well known broadcaster, and I generally feel that there needs to be credit where credit is due. On the other hand, I also know there is a tendency online for things to get blown out of proportion and what  becomes an engagement with an idea suddenly becomes a referendum on one’s taste and character. I also think my preference is to treat everyone as if they were reasonable and then just deal with the people who behave disrespectfully , and so I was originally just going to post a direct link to it. I decided against this. One big reason is because the ‘who’ does not matter as much once some limited biographical details are revealed. Also, it is not especially difficult to find out who it is, so if you really want to find out I can’t really stop you. I only ask that you consider your motives in doing so, as so far as the content of this post is concerned, I will post what I think is relevant. That throat clearing out of the way, here’s the quote:

The worse advice given to aspiring streamers is ‘focus on your chat’ instead of ‘focus on being entertaining and learn how to present’

Obviously, this is not the worst advice an aspiring streamer can get, but my intention here isn’t really to nitpick. With regards to the claim, my biggest issue is that focusing on chat and focusing on being entertaining and learning how to present are not substitutes. It is not a natural opposition to say ‘focus on your chat’ or ‘focus on entertaining/presenting’ and I think many people who give the ‘focus on chat’ style advice do so because it is a useful heuristic to make people a better entertainer. That is, if I consider my audience (even if there is nobody there, so potential audience) I am likely to be conscious of how I’m coming across and take active steps towards improving my presentation style while openly saying ‘focus on being entertaining and presenting’ just leads us to “well how am I supposed to do that?” Notice that it’s kind of hard to distinguish between the two once you talk about them. This is the kind of statement that works well on the internet because there’s just enough fuzziness to give you a bit of wriggle room if it does turn into an argument, but diminishes its value as advice. The same could be said of ‘focus on your chat’ to be fair (How should I focus on chat? Should I not ban people to expand my audience? Should I not care when people start backseating me? Do I need to say hello to everyone who comes in?) but at least it has the benefit of being actionable in the heat of the moment on cast.

Moving on, I can see that there’s some room for disagreement here. Some people will likely say that a focus on chat is overrated (I may even agree. eSports professionals are great examples of people who tend not to have a lot of interaction and yet are successful), or that focus on chat is important but not to the exclusion of others (again I would not disagree with this, but not everyone is as inclined to give mega essays when asked a question). One of the biggest problems I have with this advice is a very large disconnect between the perceived authority of this individual (they’re a big broadcaster) and the areas on which they can provide good advice. Here are some biographical details that I consider pertinent:

  • They got their start and are primarily active on YouTube
  • They started making the content they are best known for in 2010, though had been producing gaming related broadcast content since 2005 (I can’t say for sure. I consider the 2010 start most relevant)

So let’s consider the advice again. Is this advice consistent with their experience? Almost certainly yes. Their primary format involves producing content not known for its interactivity, and so it is sensible that they would value chat interaction less. YouTube, however, is not streaming, and while there are similarities, the differences are substantial. More importantly, this broadcaster got their ‘start’ (caveats in the bullet points aside) seven years ago. While it is true this individual is a successful broadcaster, not only is their start further back in the past for a more static style of broadcast, but the entire landscape was different from what it is today. The fact of the matter is that for all this individual’s accomplishments, and whatever merits they may have in other spheres, they are inappropriately leveraging their success in one aspect of broadcast to issue proclamations with authority in another area where they should not hold as much weight. There is something of a personality factor here. For instance, this person generally is fairly forceful in their opinions and so is less likely to offer the ever-admirable “I don’t really know, it’s not my area of expertise.” And, of course, there is something to be said for a person judging their sources of advice carefully. However, so long as we are operating in a world where people feel the need to offer opinions on just about everything, and have a level of fame that in the past might have counted as quite something, let’s think a bit about the advice we seek and particularly the bad advice we get.

Inappropriate questions

I would like to make a game. This may not be the same as wanting to get into the games industry any more than someone at a craft fare wants to get into the garment manufacture industry, but suppose I caught the bug enough that I said “okay, I want to break into the games industry and make this my life’s work.” Where should I look for advice? How about some designers I really like: Alexis Kennedy? Soren Johnson? Julian Gollop? Paul Kilduff-Taylor? Sid Meier? All remarkably talented individuals who have delivered on multiple projects and I’d more or less give a blank cheque to so far as their next game goes. Assuming I could reach out (and at least one on that list does answer questions for sure), would they be the most appropriate choice for advice? And the answer is… it depends. What is the question I’m going to ask? If the question is “how do I break into the games industry” then I’m probably asking the wrong question because I think the youngest first project in that list is about 7 years old, possibly 10. I have no doubt that they would try their best, and would try to offer advice consistent with their experience in maybe bringing new people on to a team or just generally what they’d know from working in that field, but these are all people who simply will not be able to experience ‘breaking in’ to an industry that they have all shaped in their own way. Simply put, if the advice didn’t turn out I’d not really be in a position to complain.

I watched a lecture given by Robert Merton where he explained that once he got the Nobel Prize (Economics) people would be asking him questions about everything, including medical problems. This case is easy to tease, but is it really all that different from the case of game designers? Do we really expect designers with a decade or more of experience to be reading ‘101 Ways to Break in to Game Development’ or to be enrolling in a game design college to keep up to date on ‘breaking in’? Do we expect the world to remain static so that those designers will be in a position to give relevant advice?

It may be that all of the people listed above are really great at answering this question anyway, but my experience has been that when this happens it’s because the person giving advice possesses the rare talent of identifying the question that should have been asked. That is, like a good teacher, they are able to discern the motivation behind the question and tailor it to the student’s circumstances. “I don’t understand this” has a range of causes from misunderstanding the sentence just uttered to lacking the prerequisites for the topic and just as many remedies. A good teacher can tease this out, but we can help a lot by asking the right questions in the first place.

Aggrandizing advice

These seem to come up most frequently as unsolicited statements like there quote above (performative advice that marks one’s status a thought leader), and on panels at convention. The personification of this kind of advice is in response to the inevitable “How do I become a successful streamer?” with the equally inevitable “Well you just need to work hard and keep a positive attitude…” to which I have been dying to hear the more instructive followup “How did you get your head so far up your ass? Was it nudged incrementally over the years or did you just slam it in all in one go?” In the best case this is simply repeating platitudes and acts as a stand in for ‘I don’t know’. Even then, I’m still not inclined to let someone off the hook since this still is prioritizing the desire to seem knowledgable over the wellbeing of the person asking the question. In truth, I think the reasons for giving this kind of advice are less benign, but this may simply say something about me. Either way, are we to infer that the people who are not successful are lazy and have bad attitudes?

Sometimes this really just boils down to asking the wrong person for advice. Presumably you would like anyone who are asking for advice from to have some stake in your outcome, even if that stake is simply being a nice person and wanting to see more people in the world happy. Of course, it’s difficult to know whether the people you look up to are particularly good at giving advice or at least won’t be indifferent to their advice going badly. Clearly unsolicited advice (usually in the form of proclamations) are easier to identify here. When encountering people individually it’s harder because you already have the investment of meeting someone you look up to. As before, excellence in one field does not mean someone will be nice, good at giving advice, or even very good at anything else. Nike even made a commercial about it.

Being asked

Up to this point I’ve been fairly confrontational with the person giving advice, but the truth is that more of us are finding ourselves in a position to give advice. New platforms open up for opportunities to give advice from ask.fm to stackexchange and your influence extends further than you think. I am a very small Twitch streamer, and yet once I passed 1,000 followers I found I would be getting more questions about ‘being successful on Twitch.’ I don’t feel particularly successful in so far as reaching a broad audience is concerned, and yet clearly I mattered enough to some people to merit the question. This is encouraging, but also somewhat daunting. If I were to have more substantial accomplishments I suspect I would still find it a bit disconcerting. A post from Neil Gaiman suggests that fame does not make this any easier.

The best I can say is to be honest. In one sense it’s very flattering to be asked and in a perfect world the compliment of being asked really should be enough. There is a very strong tendency to want to push the advantage and start running down a path of giving bad advice that you will ultimately not face the consequences for. Obviously paralysis about ‘what if I mislead someone’ isn’t particularly helpful either because presumably the person would like an answer. I worked in camera for movies for a while, and so it was not uncommon to have people ask ‘how to break into the industry’ (even total strangers on the street while I was coming out of the truck). Time permitting I would try to talk about my particular circumstances and then move to a more general point. I don’t think this is especially effective advice, but I suppose in the interest of disclosure I should say what I said and we can critique it after.

How I got into camera

From school up to the moment I worked on my first union project I looked for every opportunity I could to work on a film set. Student projects, indies, everything, and often without pay. I worked as a Production Assistant for a while and found myself tending the craft service table on a TV show. A nice thing about this placement is that craft service gets to meet just about everyone because they have all the snacks. I had always tried to be personable, but especially in this case I made sure she knew about my interest in camera and, since I was a nice young man and helped her when she needed, she mentioned to the camera crew about my interest and, as it happened, there was a shortage of trainees on another big show that they had some friends on. I got a call later inviting me to help out on a couple of big days.

But that wasn’t the end. The union eventually caught wind that someone out of the program was being used as a trainee and they put a stop to that, so I was back more or less where I started. I continued as I had before, with perhaps a few more camera gigs due to having some experience, until I worked on a short film for a 48 hour film competition which happened to have a secretary at the union as one of the actresses (I didn’t know this at the time). They showed the film at the office, the head of the trainee program commented on the lighting and the actress noted that I had applied for the trainee program. By their telling they got a call from a TV show looking for a new trainee and I got the invitation to got in.

I haven’t really gotten to the advice part, but obviously if someone is in a rush I’d just tell them the application process for the trainee program. I’d tell the story above to make the point that any ‘how did you break in’ story is usually very unique to the individual and, while maybe not as baroque as mine, doesn’t really have any repeatable path to entry. That is, most ‘rules’ likely would likely be short lived as there are more applicants than positions and the channels would get clogged (for instance, once upon a time in a book somewhere apparently an independent filmmaker said that dentists had a lot of money and had boring jobs which made them inclined to financing independent films. I am told this lead to a point where there were places where dentists had to screen calls from aspiring filmmakers, though I never looked to verify if this was actually the case). The point of telling my own story was one, to establish my lack of credentials (I don’t have one weird trick to get you into camera), and point out that everyone kind of has their own unique path to getting into that business.

What are the actionable behaviours I would draw from that story? I would usually suggest that being open to opportunities when they emerge helps, because hanging around professional productions as a PA let me see how the big guys did it and I learned a bit about how scenes were lit and generally people went about making movies (this helped me when it came time to that 48 hour film as I wound up taking on a lot more responsibilities than just camera). Also, any one of those productions I could have worked on might have been the ‘break’. Maybe I wouldn’t have been ‘found out’ on that first show I was a trainee on and in another world I just got into the program there rather than waiting another year. Each opportunity was a roll of the dice, so while each chance was slim, the aggregation would eventually tilt in my favour. Being able to talk to people doesn’t hurt, because in the end you are looking for a position that involves working with people, and in the case of film it’s long hours for extended periods of time. If you are difficult to get along with, the show is going to be miserable, while if you’re easy to get along with you will eventually have your choice of show because you are in demand. Being personable allows you to work with difficult people which opens you to experience that others might miss due to personality conflicts. Basically, stay open to as many opportunities as you can (get as many rolls of the dice as you can), and if it doesn’t come naturally for you, cultivate an ability to talk to talk to people (including difficult people), let them know you’re interested, and generally find mentors who will help you build your skills and cultivate your passion for the job.

Was that good advice?

The advice part was a little muddled simply because I usually wouldn’t go over that material unless it was over coffee with someone or in some other context where I could do some kind of Q&A, but generally the ‘open to opportunity’ and ‘be personable’ themes would come across. How does that rank against what I’ve written before?

The ‘man with a plan who uses his raw charisma to seduce craft service into getting him a job’ might be aggrandizing advice, but anyone who has met me knows that a) I’m not that charismatic, b) that wasn’t my opening into the industry, and c) craft service volunteered to let the camera department know. The better takeaway is that if you treat people as means to an end of ‘getting that job’ people will detect it and you’re likely not smart enough to see where the opportunity comes (most people would not see craft service as a means to get into camera. While the departments may be regimented, people share a workspace and they talk to each other. It’s easier to actually be nice to people and take an interest in them than to pretend all the time in hopes that they can advance your career).

One big problem with this story is that it potentially makes people waste a lot of time and do something that I don’t think is very good: work for free. At the time I was trying to get in, there was no shortage of productions who were perfectly happy to snap up free labour even though they had the budget to pay them. I stupidly worked for one production company on several commercials without pay until I had other opportunities at which point they offered to pay me (i.e. I wasn’t going to get what I didn’t ask for, and I obviously had value to them). Someone’s circumstances may not allow them to dedicate that time to work for free, or at low pay, and ultimately I did do a lot of work that wasn’t relevant to my job. While my temperament is such that I could pick up some details by simply being present, I can’t really argue this was a very efficient use of the time. In the end it was ultimately going out and working on an independent short in a senior position that was the  ‘break’ and this is what a lot of people suggest outright (i.e. Between spending money on film school or an independent film, most people think the film is the better use of the money).

I’m trying to give myself a hard time on the advice about being personable, but I still think this holds up. It carries with it the recognition that not everyone is so active in stating their interests or meeting people (particularly the people in a position to give them a job). That is, it’s different from ‘have a good attitude’ because it does not immediately imply that people who have not followed my advice are arrogant or standoffish, just potentially shy. Even then, I think there are problems here. I dealt with some pretty verbally abusive and demanding bosses. This is an unfortunate reality of at least my department (and I think in the film industry in general, and I have little reason to think it’s changed even though it’s now been a while since I worked in it), and I think it would be a firing offense in any other context. This advice could very well lead someone to a position where they are belittled and degraded and don’t stand up for themselves in the name of ‘following good advice’. It’s hard to find the right balance here, because on one hand advice should account for the realities of the industry (i.e. If someone is looking for advice regarding to working in sewage treatment, the smell should probably be taken as a condition of employment), and yet this is a negative that should be changed and advice that leaves people in a position to simply ‘accept’ it may entrench something that should be dislodged. In truth, I probably make more of a virtue of my ability to work with difficult people than I should, because it absolutely was something that allowed me to get more work when I was starting out. On the other hand, I also think that working with difficult people is a good, if not essential, skill to have. Perhaps the change I would make would be to leaven it with a bit more attention to the individual and their ability to be professional and personable without being a doormat.

Advice on advice

It’s hard to avoid a certain self-consciousness about writing about advice. During most of the writing I’ve had plenty of reflections on ‘motes and logs’ (Matthew 7:3) running through my head. Mostly I think we could stand to be a bit more discerning in the advice we consume because technology seems to move much faster than our ability to appreciate the shift it creates in the landscape. Various social and media platforms have created a level of specialization where it’s not that unique to be ‘famous for being famous’ and that even small time players (such as myself) can develop something of a dedicated audience. It’s great that people like my stuff, but being entertaining, or even knowledgeable in one area, does not grant me any special weight when discussing other topics. As it is, I know I certainly still react as if I’m in a media environment where I see people for basically accomplishing things and generally being sought out for their opinion on the topic being discussed. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Because this environment is becoming more and more specialized many more of us are finding ourselves in which we are sought for advice, and so we can also take some steps in terms of what we are saying and the potential effects it can have. We are obviously not responsible for the behavior of others, but it doesn’t hurt to take some time and consider basic things like “am I saying this because I think it’s good advice, or because it will make me good?” or “am I really setting someone down a worthwhile path with this?” (or, simpler “should I even be offering an opinion here?”). I may bruise my ego in admitting that I don’t know something, and maybe the person asking will think less of me for it, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll think any better of me if they turn around and blame me for whatever half baked advice I come up with to avoid social embarrassment.

What’s in a Name: The Case of ‘Metrics

While it is hard to think of an econometrics book being popular in any traditional sense of the term, the best candidate for a popular econometrics textbook is Josh Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke’s Mostly Harmless Econometrics (MHE). The title is a deliberate reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and communicates the irreverent tone taken in the handbook. While it came out a bit before I was aware of such discussions, it seems like the Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (free to read online) seems to be dedicated at least in part to the approach the book takes (though almost certainly these were in practice before the book) and responses to it. While MHE does not concern itself too much with theory, it is a good companion to an existing textbook, or may be of interest to someone who is interested in applied work, though it demands a certain level of sophistication from the readers (I’d say it’s probably targeted to an advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate level).

This year saw the release of the pair’s second book called Mastering ‘Metrics (MM) which is geared more towards an undergraduate level. On the first page of the introduction they say “Economists’ use of data to answer cause-and-effect questions constitutes the field of applied econometrics, known to students and masters alike as ‘metrics.” When the book was released I was taking my 3rd course in econometrics and found that it was the first I had ever heard of the abbreviation. Now in the graduate program and taking my 4th course in econometrics I find my classmates referring to it as ‘metrics, though, curiously, those who use the term most readily (and originally from my understanding) were my classmates at UBC who received the same econometrics education that I did and had not used the term before. Reading MHE or MM will tell you how I could design a project to test whether or not the release of the book led to the adoption by my classmates, but I will state without evidence that I believe the release of MM marks the coinage and widespread adoption of the term ‘metrics. (Edit: not entirely accurate. See below)

Is there anything we can make out of this? As always, I’m interested in reading too far into things, but I think the title of the book indicates positive things for the social sciences and Angrist and Pischke’s audience, though does not communicate anything favourable about my peers. MHE contains an endorsement from James Robinson (probably best known for his collaboration with Daron Acemoglu on Why Nations Fail) declaring it a “must-read… [for] political scientists, sociologists, historians, geographers, and anthropologists.” He himself seems to stand astride economics and political science, though his collaborations with Acemoglu unquestionably fall under economics. My interest in the abbreviation to ‘metrics in the undergraduate level text (MM) is that I think it communicates to open up these extremely helpful tools for causal inference to a wider range of disciplines. I am too early in my academic journey to be able to speak with much authority on this, but econometrics appears to offer one of the best sets of tools to answer these kinds of questions, and they may find ready applications outside of economics itself. For instance, my undergraduate thesis involved taking a data set from a political science paper and in a first pass I simply replicated the results then went in and adjusted where I felt the methods were inconsistent with my understanding of how to work with such data, which immediately resulted in stronger results (later, it also identified some areas in which the other paper was weak and possibly the results were heavily worked to promote a particular conclusion). My own result wasn’t necessarily impressive in any respect (for instance, there are likely endogeneity problems and, well, I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about), but I think it at least some evidence that good questions can find good answers if researchers are willing to look at the economist’s toolbox which seems to hold some of the most advanced techniques.

The idea here is that the abbreviation is a good one because it removes the ‘econo’ element and communicates that the techniques (the ‘Furious Five’ as Angrist and Pischke call them) are not limited to questions in economics, but have more general applications in conducting any kind of causal inference. This isn’t to limit economic inquiry (the great appeal to me at least is the great flexibility economic analysis affords me), but rather to be more inclusive in the terminology. It doesn’t really change anything, but it does avoid the hang up of, say, a sociologist taking advantage of something like quantile regression, explaining it’s a helpful econometric technique and then having to answer “what does economics have to do with any of this?” (or worse, dealing with the assumption that economics is somehow tainted by unreasonable assumptions and thus the technique is invalid). Basically, if we have social scientists using the best tools available (at least so far as I’m aware), then we, as a whole, benefit. A common language between disciplines will allow for easier collaboration, and, rather than hoping that economists have all the good ideas, disciplines with other interests can take advantage of these tools to improve their research (this, of course, makes it more difficult for researchers if the overall quality of work improves, but this is a nice problem to have. I won’t cry if there are fewer papers with results that collapse with a minor change in assumptions). Of course, to gain the full benefit of the tools available, researchers should take up MHE, and maybe move on to something like the Handbook of Econometrics (behind a paywall but possibly available to you if you went to a university that gives alumni access to academic journals) which requires getting over the red herring of what we call things, but I don’t mind dropping ‘econo’ in the introductory material if it means we’ll benefit from better research.

My enthusiasm for the rechristening to the term ‘metrics is somewhat diminished when I hear my peers use it. There are a couple of PhD students who use this term, but I notice a fairly high rate of adoption amongst the MA students. I can get the impulse, the hope to communicate that one is hip to the latest trends in the profession. It’s a bit problematic when you consider that the term seems to have gained currency when an undergraduate level book has been released, but never mind that, only squares who use words like ‘hip’ (and square) call it econometrics, all the cool kids call it ‘metrics. My problem is that I actually think taking the econ out of the MA economics cohort is actually a fairly accurate assessment of the situation. Here’s an example: I spent a few minutes this afternoon writing in the discussion for wiki entry on the protestant work ethic because I noticed a claim made about Schumpeter’s account of the origins of capitalism that I’d not read before. Following the reference did not present any support for the claim in the entry, and so it raised a few interesting questions for me: Did Schumpeter ever write on the origins of capitalism? If so, where? If not, where might this impression have come from (it seems similar to Marx’s account, but not enough for me to want to make an edit)? What I would like to be able to do is to raise any one of these topics with a classmate and investigate it (it might be a short conversation because I’ve only read a little of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but I’d find it preferable to find myself understudied for conversations with my peers). The most common conversation will be either how to find problem set solutions or how to land a good job after grad school. In fact today a student more or less said they haven’t really understood what’s been said in the last two econometrics courses (not classes) and have just focused on how to solve the problems. It’s hard to see the class as particularly interested in economics so much as building the appropriate ‘signal’ to employers that they’re worthy of a high paying job.

Again, I sort of understand the impulse. Everyone has to make a living, and we prefer a high paying job to a low paying one. Likewise, econ is a decidedly employable degree, and a BA has been reduced to the point that it has become a requirement to rent cars to people at Budget. But that’s not the reason why I’m in the program, and in the end, I think advanced study in any subject should be more than just finding a good job. To me it’s a problem that I cannot have a conversation with an MA student about a topic in economics if it is not directly related to the grade they will be getting in the end. It gotten to a point that I argued with a classmate who was complaining that we weren’t permitted a formula sheet for the mathematics final as being ‘unfair’ because they were planning on writing the solutions to past finals. In addition to pointing out the dubious application of the term ‘unfair’ my position was that the purpose of the course is to teach us not just mathematical techniques, but reasoning (ie. how to do proofs), and that rewriting a past answer (which is actually more successful than you’d think) is simply imitation, not understanding. For this I was perceived as being the unreasonable one because the material was ‘hard.’ The problem is that I know it’s hard, because I struggled with it and had to write the same exam. Topology defines open and closed sets in a way that allows sets to be both open and closed at the same time, confirming my suspicion that they are deliberately trying to make the subject even more difficult than it already is. But it’s economics, and mathematics is the tool and language we use to bring clarity to the problems we work on. We don’t study topology to impress the ladies (though, ladies, you know where to find me), we study this because that branch of mathematics allows us to prove certain propositions fundamental to our analysis. A working understanding of mathematics not only allows us to understand the fundamentals of our discipline, but equips us to handle our ultimate goal: answering questions that nobody has gotten the answer to yet (or, ideally, haven’t even asked yet!). You can’t imitate your way to that, and it requires a lot of hard thinking both mathematically and creatively. A technically perfect solution to an uninteresting question is at least useless as a poorly formed but interesting question (although, in theory, the latter can be picked up by someone with the capacity to do the heavy lifting). Economics problems are worth taking the time to do right, and nobody ‘owes’ us our degrees. Either we have the tools or we don’t. It sucks for me, because I know I’d love to have free time to stream, and read for pleasure, but I also want to be able to formulate and answer these questions head on without hiding behind “well I haven’t learned <topic> yet…”

In the end, while I think the general abbreviation to ‘metrics is inclusive and encouraging, its specific application is a tragically accurate representation of the priorities of my peers (at least most. Obviously there are exceptions in any case): concerned with appearances, and not too interested in economics.

Edit: It dawned on me I could actually find out of Mastering ‘Metrics was the origin of the term by checking out economics resources. I’ve never really seen it used in any blogs, but I noticed that on EJMR there are references to ‘metrics going back 4 years (possibly more). While I still think its application in my cohort comes from the use in the book (I have the advantage of seeing them before and after), it’s definitely not Angrist and Pischke’s coinage.