Archive for July, 2009


Friday, July 31st, 2009

People are very good at acclimatization, of getting acclimated to whatever situation they find themselves. It’s one of the fundamental consequences of the human condition. You know what I’m talking about: when your life’s situation changes, even in drastic ways, you get used to it relatively quickly.

This makes sense from a survivalist point of view. The quicker a hunter-gatherer can adapt to new animal migration patterns, types of predators, invasions of non-native flora and fauna, the better chance that she’ll propagate her genes. I think there are parallels from modern life, but I’ll leave those as an exercise to the reader.

Quick adaptation explains why people who get a pay raise (or a pay cut) experience a temporary increase (or decrease) in happiness before returning to their steady-state. Some people are going to enjoy their lives no matter what. Some people are going to be miserable even if they’re millionaires. There are a lot of depressed upper-middle class suburbanites. There are also a lot of happy slum-dwelling Kenyans.

But because one’s perspective often gets entrenched at whatever you’re used to, it’s a useful exercise to shift your focus from time to time. Covey’s Seven Habits is a pretty good introduction to that sort of thing. It’s my opinion that perspective is one of the scarcest resources in the ‘verse.

Vegetarianism as diet

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

As hard as it is to do science on one’s self, I’m confident in the hypothesis that my weight and meat consumption are inversely proportional. I was pescetarian for around fifteen months back in college — or as I described it, I just didn’t eat meat. Though I constantly changed my reasons behind my pescetarianism, I was intent on the conclusion that I should not eat meat, and I enjoyed the lifestyle. It was certainly difficult, both at first and throughout. I gave it up for no apparent reason, and then went pescetarian again for the summer I spent in San Francisco.

I do miss not eating meat. There is some amount of deep contentment through self-control and self-denial. The community is nice, too; you become part of a special group where the only shibboleth is your diet. And there are a lot of really strong reasons not to eat meat. My favorites were the inefficiency of converting calories up the food chain, the various sorts of environmental damage that factory meat production entails, and an argument that a society which treat its animals better is also one which treats its people better.

But right now I’m focusing on the dieting aspect. I decided I need to lose some weight. I’m also pretty lazy, and have been struggling with enacting a consistent exercise regimen for months. And since the easiest way to lose weight is to restrict your caloric intake, it’s pretty much win-win. Now I just need to get to the point where I can make that commitment not to eat meat anymore.

Or I guess I could just not eat meat as much, but that’s actually just as hard. I’m pretty bad at self control when I don’t have clearly-delineated monolithic rules for my own decision making.

A 21st-century conception of “arms”

Friday, July 24th, 2009

The second amendment never made sense to me. Not the reason behind it, I mean the grammar itself. It seems like a run-on sentence, or one with too many parts — though I guess removing some commas solves the problem.

I also found it curious that it was right after the first amendment. Most important, it seems, is freedom of speech, of religion, and of assembly. But guns are a close second. Maybe the framers were seriously worried about bears.

But guns were the way of protecting yourself back in the good old days. Nowadays I’m not so sure. But if you really want to protect yourself from the government, I say a smartphone is a much better investment. When everyone’s phone is a camera that can instantly post pictures to the intertubes, a government responsible to the people has to watch its back more often.

I know that it’s not quite the same thing. Maybe the point of the second amendment is physical security, so that we should also be protecting crowbars. But if you look at the beginning of the Bill of Rights as: 1) you can say what you want, worship how you want, and assemble how you want, and 2) you can defend yourself in those rights, it seems sensible that the second amendment should cover PCs, digital cameras, and assorted Twitter-accessible devices.

This post was shamelessly inspired by Mr. Munroe’s xkcd comic entitled “Legal Hacks”.

Relationships are stupid

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

I want to see myself as a scientist. Doing science is maybe one of the most awesome activities possible. It’s like, hey, we could keep talking in circles like idiots, or we can actually go figure things out. The scientific method is likely mankind’s greatest innovation.

But what if I want to figure things out in the very important realm of human relationships — specifically the romantic kind? Tough luck. I mean, first of all, how can you do science on relationships? There are too few data points! Even if you are Mr. Playboy and date, say, one new girl per week, it would be nearly seven months before you could use the OLS large sample assumption. And that’s no good, because then you’d just be testing something about short relationships — probably not the kind you’re interested in studying.

There is no control group: you can’t clone yourself to see how you would act under two different relationships. Besides, you’re not a static person either. Each relationship you’re in changes who you are to a great extent. Even if you determined some profound result, it would probably only be valid on a past self.

You would need to use a between-subjects design. It would be virtually impossible to organize two groups of people in relationships and keep the treatments the same. How would you control for all the possible differences in peoples’ personalities and relationship dynamics?

No, doing science on relationships is all but impossble. We’ll probably have to settle for psychology or something. (See what I did there? Thinly-guised psychology insults are the first thing a budding economist learns.)

HSBC win

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

A few months ago I received a very peculiar correspondence. Upon close inspection I realized it was from HSBC, probably regarding the checking account I have with them.

HSBC: Important Information

The text reads simply:


Please keep this with your other important documents.

Effective immediately, your Account will be governed by federal law and the laws of the state of Virginia, whether or not you live in Virginia and whether or not your Account is used outside of Virginia

My first emotion was confusion. This quickly gave way to near-fatal hilarity. And hey, isn’t Virginia a commonwealth? Last, I became increasingly impressed at how closely they mimicked the tone and prose of a very intense card game.

Later on I would receive a new letter, with appropriate context, explaining this letter. But the damage is done: I don’t think I can ever take HSBC seriously again.

Malleable preferences

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I think a lot about peoples’ preferences and how individuals make decisions to achieve their desired ends. Microeconomic theory touches on these sorts of questions, which I think is why I’m drawn to it. But while micro theory does some good explaining, it doesn’t go the whole way. I don’t just want a descriptive framework that maybe works good enough in most cases. I want some heuristic models that I can apply to my everyday life.

So I’m going to bastardize microeconomics and use it as I see fit. Here goes:

A rational decision maker will be better off the more malleable his preferences are. Imagine a continuum of control over one’s preferences. At one end, individuals are endowed with perfectly stable, static preferences at birth. At the other end, individuals can change their preferences however they see fit, so that only if they starve to death will their utility be less than infinite.

Now, I’m pretty sure standard utility theory presupposes stable preferences. With malleable preferences, you’re essentially optimizing two things at the same time: the mix of goods and services you purchase, and how you feel about the goods and services you purchase. That would probably lead to some pretty ridiculous maths assuming a tractable solution exists.

Behavioral economics has shown us that, no, preferences are not always pre-formed and stable. For a very cool paper on this point, try reading “Tom Sawyer and the construction of value” by Ariely, Lowenstein, and Prelec. I mean, sometimes our preferences are well-defined, like if I know I dislike strawberries. But to me the interesting case is when we are in a new situation and don’t have our preferences defined. For example: Do I like guava? I’m not sure. Allow me to assume that I do. Some other behavioral economics studies have shown that you can actually frame experiences so that you are more inclined to like (or dislike) them.

Obviously if your preferences are malleable enough, you will be happy with pretty much anything you consume. On first face this may seem like a trivial point. But I think the question “What shall I choose to consume to maximize my happiness?” is one step too far. The question instead should be “How shall I best maximize my happiness?”. Utility theory should help answer that question, I think, in as rigorous a manner as possible.

I wonder if I can formalize this idea using a neoclassical utility framework.

Awesome Foundation

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Another brainchild of the eminent Tim Hwang, the Awesome Foundation for Arts and Sciences is accepting micro-applications for awesome ideas. They’ll hang out a micro-grant of ~$1k once a month to the most awesome idea they get.

So, what is awesome? I’m not sure exactly either, but I know it when I see it. Whatever it is, I agree that we need to subsidize the production of awesome, since it should go without saying that awesome has significant positive externalities. (Jon Pierce compares it to the broken windows theory in reverse.)

The Awesome Foundation itself is an awesome idea (does that make it meta-awesome?). I for one am looking forward to seeing what comes out of it. And in the back of my mind I’ll be mulling over their subtle call to action: “We’d also be happy to help others start an awesome foundation in their location.” I wonder how much awesomeness exists in DC.

Linguistic engineering

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Over the past few years I have come to realize the importance of language. Language not only expresses thought: it shapes thought. So what does it say when a popular term used as a jocular disparagement is also a synonym for “homosexual”? The vernacular shouldn’t be a place to perpetuate hatefulness.

My design sense kicked in, against my better judgment: I need a new word, usable in the same context, which doesn’t have any bigoted overtones. Wait — better — a word which specifically flips the nuance to be disparaging toward heterosexuals. Then we get satire and linguistic engineering for the price of one.

And so, friends, let us henceforth banish the terms “gay” and “fag” from our discourse, and replace them with “het” (a term derived, for those of you keeping score, from “heterosexual”).

Bring it back. Fight heteronormativity.

End note: my friends and I tried this back at RPI. Needless to say, it did not catch on, which is for the best. From now on I’m leaving language to natural selection.

Albums as conceptual wholes

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

I have a very particular method of consuming music, which I feel a strong urge to pontificate about.

I outgrew illegal music downloads some time in high school. This had little to do with a fear of legal repercussions. In fact, I began to implicitly value my time more, so that the opportunity cost of manually downloading every song I wanted and then organizing my music collection became prohibitive. Not to mention how difficult it is to build a playlist worth listening to.

Luckily at this time I started earning discretionary income, and through the magic of the internets I could purchase used albums on Amazon. Ripping albums is straightforward, my music collection organizes itself, and each new CD yields a band-vetted play list. I listen to albums all the way through now. If it’s difficult for me to get through each song in order, that’s something wrong with the album (or more specifically, I don’t like the album). More than a hodgepodge of songs, each album has a feel to it, a theme that it plays out through each sequential track, leading you on a musical journey. Here I postulate: one can more accurately judge a band by the quality of its albums than by the quality of its songs. Producing an album is hard work, and much effort goes into ensuring a certain flow, a certain style. A good album is a conceptual whole.

There are other benefits to an album-centric view of music. Like not missing out on b-sides or less “popular” songs — which are actually just those songs the main stream hasn’t picked up on. Example: off of Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill, which song is most often played on the radio? Probably the worst on the album, “Ironic”. Both “Forgiven” and “Not the Doctor” are at least twice as good, and you probably aren’t familiar with them. (That’s right, I’m being pretentious about Alanis Morisette music.)

Another example: greatest hits albums suck. Originally I theorized that I could be more money-efficient by purchasing greatest hits albums, just getting the best songs and leaving all the unworthy ones behind. But that is entirely the wrong model. While some songs are better than others, the concept of some set of songs being “best” and using that criterion as basis for a playlist is folly. Greatest hits albums are exactly a hodgepodge of songs. They are like the Frankenstein monster, discombobulated parts stuck together, seemingly alive but distinctly lacking a soul.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to Jagged Little Pill. Again.


Thursday, July 16th, 2009

I enjoy summers a great deal. All my childhood summers were spent at the Jersey shore. There’s a certain humidity, the ocean feel to the air, that isn’t found anywhere else. I knew it was summer when the fireflies would come out, and catching them was maybe my favorite pastime. Fireworks were up there, though, especially on the beach. We could set up towels and sit around and watch, and for a while the only important things were explosions in the sky.

I still like fireworks. I still go to see them every chance I can make the time. But I can’t view them in quite the same way anymore. I hear them go off when I’m not expecting them, and it sounds like what I imagine war zones might sound like, mortar fire off in the distance.  I don’t know why the first thing my mind goes to is being invaded by the Soviets — could be all that Red Alert 2 I played as a kid.

If I were another superpower bent on invading the United States, I would do it on Independence Day.  Partially because it’s supremely ironic, or that it would be some kind of dramatic literary device. But also there’s a shock appeal that, no, those explosions are not a part of the celebration. Not this year.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.