What am I up to now?

May 31, 2024

September, 2022

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the best part of a PhD is the summer before you start it, when you get to tell everyone you’re doing a PhD and they’re all like “oh that’s so cool” but you don’t have to actually do any of the PhD yet.

— Nikhil Basavappa (@NikhilBasavappa) June 21, 2020

I’ve met Nikhil; the first two years of his PhD went much better than this tweet might imply.

At 6am on 26 September, I landed at London Heathrow airport; at 9am I walked into the first class of my PhD.Not a PhD. See the caveat on my homepage. Friends and classmates told me this was cutting it a bit close, but I wanted to use every last minute of my last month free of the tyranny of grad school.

In short: I moved into my new house in Oxford; we hosted a housewarming (I made a giant vegan chili); I went back to Bern for three days; I flew to New Jersey; I worked in Columbia University’s Law Library; I climbed on the roof of Yale’s Hillel; I read poetry in the Elizabethan Clubhouse; I drove an ambulance to three car wrecks, four cardiac arrests, one stabbing, and one case of the hiccups; I ate soup dumplings with my dad and a Reuben with my grandma; I attended EAG DC for at least 10 hours; I made it to the first class of my PhD with about ten minutes to spare.

My libertine September was inspired by heterogeneous feelings. Since stepping back from my work at GPI following the June workshops, I have been content. Travel has been a blessing, I’ve spent time with dozens of close friends; I’ve read great books and listened to good music; I’ve done useful and important work. This sufficiant frame of mind persisted everywhere I went. Preparing for the first day of school, my first first day since 2017, I felt a wave of imminent stress looming over me. This wave hasn’t crested yet, maybe it never will. But the first year of economics programs have a reputation.

I was surprised how difficult it is to reconcile these themes of summer 2022. I’m familiar with feeling content and stressed at the same time; the camaraderie of responding to a car crash on an ambulance or working on a short-turnaround deliverable for an important client replicate some of these feelings. What has been different is the anticipation of stress.

It occurred to me, throughout the summer, that there are probably things I can do to limit how unpleasant the first term will be. And I did some of these things! Phil Trammell lent me the flashcards he made in the first year of his MPhil; two different professors sent me their copies of Simon & Blume; I watched the entire online lectures from ASU, Chicago, and UMinnesota math camps. But I do not expect this to make much difference to how dumb I feel over the next few months. This is a feature of the first year — the Department is trying to cram as much knowledge and intuition into our brains so we can do good research. The feeling of dumbness will be a symptom of learning! And I’m fine with that! I just expect to find it unpleasant.

The important decision I’ve made recently was my class schedule.Probably the most important decision of the month overall, besides how much of my back garden to allocate to ferns, and how much to allocate to a tulip/daffodil aggregate. All first year econ grad students, everywhere in the world, take micro, macro, & metrics. I don’t get any choice on the topics, but Oxford’s new MPhil/DPhil does allow for choice in difficulty. The eight of us in the cohort are told to take either one or two of these classes at an “advanced” level. As best I can tell, without seeing detailed syllabuses, these advanced courses are slightly above what would be expected in the first year of US PhDs, and the “core” courses are slightly below. We were all surprised to learn that, in the first cohort of six MPhil/DPhil students last year, all but one chose to take two advanced courses. Now that we’ve anchored on this, tho, it’s unimaginable to take just one at the advanced level.

My last macro course was in 2015, and business cycles, crises, & monetary policy have never been my passion. Consider also my research of the past year fitting firmly within applied econometrics, and the microeconomics techniques required for development and political economy, this should have made the answer obvious.

But Elodie, the French representative in our cohort, made a convincing argument — the core courses will be large (50+ person) lectures; these are the ones we’re most likely to slack on and least likely to engage in classroom discussion and study groups. If I did this with macro, I’d struggle more and learn less; if I was in a large micro course, I’d remain committed regardless, due to my commitment to the material.

The 2015 Joseph who decided macro “wasn’t for him” is long gone — my only major interaction with macro since then was a foray into growth theoryVia one of Phil’s dead ends which he enjoys lecturing on. which I found quite enjoyable. Maybe I should give the ugly step-sibling a second chance. I’ll have decided by the first week of October — it’s quite likely I remain with metrics & micro, but we’ll see!


  1. Reading
  2. Listening
  3. Writing
  4. Eating


My nonfiction reading in September focused on two “minimal trust investigations.” The first was a question about slavery abolition with bearing on factory farm abolition; the second was the question of whether the Columbian pathological exchange was evitable.I.e., was it possible to introduce American and non-American populations without non-American diseases killing large fractions of American populations. I hope to write up my findings in October, but it’s likely these will take a backseat to coursework. At the least, I’ll post my reading lists and notes here next month.

I spent a few hours organizing my Pocket app; here are my favorite articles I’ve read in 2022.This section is remarkably easy to write, as I’ve sent many of these articles to friends and family over the past year, with my thoughts attached. Lots of self-plagiarism here.

Three Blind Kings, an interview with Edward Luttwak in Tablet. At the time, the best interview I’d read in 2022, despiteI do mean despite — it adds nothing. Luttwak does all the work here. the abrasive style of the interviewer. The first two-thirds are extraordinary; the last third is straight up psychotic. I shared this with a friend who worked closely with J Street for years: “Anybody who is associated with J Street, even if they are totally obtuse after a while, must realize that it exists in order to provide legitimacy for communal euthanasia.”

Cracking Cultures, by Gavin Leech. Great for both describing something I try to do, and teaching me how to do it better. I complained once that I wish I could read more; Gavin would have accused me of scope insensitivity and asked how much Mongolian punk rock I’ve listened to in the past month.And then he’s disappointed in my answer of ‘‘just two albums.’’ I often say that I don’t want to read poetry; I want to be the kind of person who reads poetry. This essay prompted me to design a reading syllabus which successfully made me read poetry.We’ll see if it sticks.

Something That Needs Nothing, in the New Yorker. A coming of age story in the back of a sex shop. “At 5 a.m., I was gliding through the night on a bus. The bus was just a formality, though—actually I was flying, in the air, and I was taller than most people are, I was nine or twelve feet tall, and I could fly, I could jump over cars, I could say “cock” ravenously, gently, coyly, demandingly. I could fly. And I had three hundred and twenty-five dollars in my pocket.”

“The Clock is Ticking”: Inside the Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster in Decades” in Vanity Fair. It’s impossible to tell this story badly, but VF tells it very well. The SS El Faro sank with all hands during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, and it’s black box was recovered in 2018. The story is riveting (the second mate is my favorite character), but the transcript of the crew as disaster looms and falls drives the story. The last moments on the bridge close the article:

Hamm said, “Cap! Cap!” He was having a hard time climbing the deck.

Clinging to the high side, unable to reach Hamm, [Captain] Davidson kept urging him to try.

Hamm said, “You gonna leave me?”

Davidson answered firmly, “I’m not leaving you. Let’s go.”

A low rumbling began and did not let up. It was the sound of El Faro going down. The last words heard on the bridge are Davidson’s. He is crying out to Hamm: “It’s time to come this way!”

Much adulation was given to Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ profile of Will MacAskill; I read his earlier profile of Franklin Tao, a Chinese academic who was indicted for espionage. I find Tao’s story convincing, but who cares; it’s beautifully told.

Haunted by Venus, in the Alpinist. A climber in love with a particular face, experienced more than 20 years ago, returns to find it defiled by new bolts. I don’t understand a lot of the climbing lingo or communal norms,'’If anyone wanted to add bolts to an existing route, they should have asked the first ascenders for their opinions as a sign of respect. If I were asked, I wouldn’t have said you shouldn’t [place any bolts on Venus].’’ but the tale of mountains found and lost is familiar. The article is certainly written for climbers, but I got a similar joy out of it which Gavin’s piece on cultures projects.

Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force, on some Substack. The best interview I read in 2022, beating the Luttwak above by a mile. This one’s with Matthew Bogdanos, New York’s assistant district attorney heading the city’s antiquities theft task force. Bogdanos is amazing, I want six movies about him. From his time as a Marine colonel in Iraq, fighting antiquities theft:

When we got to the fake Saddam Hussein presidential palace that was overlooking Babylon, the absolute monstrosity right in the middle of the sights, we were on one of the lower balconies, and I said, “Guys, you realize we’re standing right where Alexander the Great stood? When he came to Babylon” … and where he probably got drunk and got malaria. And they all wanted to start taking pictures of that exact spot. I realized, okay, I probably better, you know, cool it on the exaggeration.

And tracking stolen antiquities in New York:

We executed a warrant on a $3 million Persian Garden Relief. And we did it during the VIP showing [at the largest antiquities show in the world], thinking there would be a lot fewer people and there weren’t. We don’t slither around, we don’t hide; we do warrants professionally, respectfully. But the last thing I want to do is make a scene or anything like that.

And we walked in and I presented a warrant to this very proper British gentleman who had smuggled a $3 million Persian Garden Relief, stolen from Persepolis in 1933, into New York. And I said, “Here’s a warrant, we’re going to take this.”

And he, in his very proper British accent said, “What if I say no?”

And I just chuckled because I’d never—no one had ever actually said that before in all these years of search warrants. “What if I refuse?” I had two detectives with me. One of my detectives was like a third generation Irish cop, the kind of guy who would if you see him on the beach in a bathing suit, you go up to him and say, “Excuse me, officer,” right? He just smells of cop. And I turned to the detective because he had taken a step forward and I said, “Tommy. Tommy, deep breaths. Deep breaths. We’re good.” And then I said to the guy, “I don’t—I guess you’ll be arrested? I mean, I don’t know what to say. You just, it’s a hypothetical, right? But yeah, that would actually be a crime.” He proceeded to curse me out with some of the most elegant phrasing, it was pretty colorful.

Bogdanos is probably personally responsible for Sotheby’s moving their antiquities team out of New York, to London and Paris:

Some auction houses and some parts of the market have decided that rather than just honoring the law, rather than just changing the practices of last century, it’s a better business model just to move. Sotheby’s annual New York auction? It was the biggest auction of the year, the New York classical auction. Sometimes they had it twice a year. In 2019, they moved their entire operation to London and Paris. They claim it was where the clients were, but one would be justified in being skeptical of that reason. London is wonderful. The Scotland Yard Arts and Antiquities Squad are some great people. But there’s just three of them. Three.

Seriously, read the whole thing.

Also worth reading, if the title catches your eye:


Not much new this month, besides Luke Muehlhauser’s and Ted Gioia’s playlists. I did binge all of George Collier’s archive on YouTube — CollierNo relation to Jacob. makes and hosts transcriptions of excellent and/or odd music. Some of my favorites:


Memorable meals:

During September, I spent three Sundays at Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, a volunteer fire department I’ve been a member of since 2018. Volunteers ride on the same night every week, and on most night crews, the ambulances and fire apparatus will go into town to get take out. Sunday nights, tho, we cook. Regularly cooking for 15-20 people is a different experience than cooking for yourself or a small family. It requires, at minimum, one big pot and lots of bread.

I applied the same strategy in Oxford earlier this month. We moved into our houseI’m living in a three-bedroom house with Phoebe Freidin and no one else because we don’t have an HMO license. We’re especially not living with the excellent Ivan Burduk. in Oxford on September 2nd, and we hosted a housewarming party on the 3rd. The house was not at all put together, but 30 people showed up anyway. I made a large vat of vegan chili and about six batches of cookies. I’m hoping to do this again twice in October; first, on 4 October for my grad school cohort and all my other friends in the set (economists ∩ Oxford). Second, some birthday/halloween party towards the end of the month.


August, 2022

November, 2021

October, 2021

September, 2021

July, 2021

June, 2021

May, 2021

What am I up to now? - May 31, 2024 - Joseph Levine