Archive for April, 2010

Swear words

Friday, April 30th, 2010

There is this stigma against swear words, that they somehow make or signal that the speaker uncultured; or that they are associated with uncouthness, or associate the user with the underbelly of society; and that they betray a lack of thought or eloquence on the part of the user. There are a lot of different spins on this idea. I think that any way you cut it, this is a fallacy.

I have heard that intelligent people should be able to think of a different way to express oneself than to use swear words. That’s not correct. Swear words have been shown to evoke certain emotional responses in listeners that hearing pseudo-swears don’t exhibit. For example, compare “what the eff?” with its more vulgar equivalent, and you will find there is indeed a difference. The emotions evoked by using and hearing swear words are ineffable. And let me tell you, “ineffable” is a frakking awesome word.

I found this post on a New York Times blog, and I just have to quote from it:

People need special words to convey emotion, which is, by nature, ineffable. For those who use them, swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way. People who speak more than one language report that they always curse in their native tongue; they can say swear words in a second language but they don’t feel them — the gut link to emotions just isn’t there.

Yes, I think there is a time and a place for using intense language. If we use curses everywhere they lose their power, and we will probably lose the ability to express ourselves to the best of our abilities. But they fill a valuable niche in the vernacular of a cultured human, and one which necessarily cannot be filled through other means.

Cocktail party theory of life

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

I want to revisit the “what is the meaning of life?” question with an economics bent: If life is an optimization problem, then what should we be optimizing? Put another way, if life is a constrained maximization problem, then asking “what is the meaning of life?” is akin to choosing and studying one’s objective function. In this case you could also choose your life’s purpose by selecting the right function and thus optimizing the right thing.

So then, what should we be optimizing? Perhaps we should try to be as interesting and personable and awesome as possible. There’s two things going on in there: 1) be awesome and interesting and doing cool things, and 2) be able to share what you’re doing with other people so they can be all “whoah that is awesome and interesting and you are doing cool things”. I think awesomeness is a very important quantity to be maximized, and the second point alludes to the fact that awesomeness is inherently subjective, and when awesomeness falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it it doesn’t make a sound.

I propose a novel theory, the Cocktail Party Theory of Life, to crystallize the above sentiments. You should live your life in order to optimize interaction at a cocktail parties. All your time outside of cocktail parties should be spent on interesting activities you can later share with people. Your work, or the projects you’re working on, should turn into good stories (“Let me tell you about the cool stuff I’ve been doing lately…”). Of course, most of what goes on at cocktail parties is social, so you should be comfortable navigating the social scene. You should be a good story teller. You should be personable and likable. You should know how to engage in conversation with another human being, and generate positive social interaction. And you should be genuinely interested in the people around you, because they’re what makes for a really good time at a cocktail party.

You have to be successful to even be invited to the cocktail party. You need to know your surroundings and what the people around you think are interesting. You have to be good at switching contexts: no one wants to hear about all the technical work you’ve done with NASA at a sports bar. If you don’t like going to cocktail parties alone, you should have a partner you can rely on to navigate the social scene with you. And, of course, you should enjoy a few drinks, though not to excess, unless you’re into that sort of thing. It’s your life, after all.

Quantum vegetarianism

Friday, April 16th, 2010

First, a brief note: people forget that quantum does not denote something in physics or science fiction. A quantum is a small, discrete, indivisible unit of something. Just because the word has a science-fiction connotation does not mean it’s justified.

Most (if not all) dietary restrictions are binary. That is, you are either vegetarian or you’re not, you’re vegan or you’re not, you keep kosher or you don’t. I’m not sure why this is, but it probably has to do with ease of use. It would be cool if you could succinctly express something like “I derive 20-40% of my calories from meat, excluding delicious, delicious bacon.” Ignoring complications of language, it would be difficult even to ensure you’re sticking to your own weird dietary guide — another example is how difficult dieting is. Now I’m thinking how cool it would be to have an augmented reality system that would pop up red X’s over food you shouldn’t eat, and like, smiley faces with nutritional information over the stuff you should eat, while it keeps a tally of how you’re doing over time. But, I digress.

I think there should be more effort made into breaking down the continuum between pure vegetarianism and pure carnivorousness into more sizable chunks. Notice here I’m assuming that we define vegetarian as “someone who doesn’t eat meat”, so take that into account. Of all the different ways to break it down, we need metrics for thinking about partial vegetarianism that are easy to compute, easy to track, and easy to observe. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

For me, the easiest unit of aggregation is to not eat meat on certain days. The Catholics got to this one first. It used to be no one ate meat on Fridays, and now during lent some still don’t eat meat on Fridays. The next step I see is restricting meat consumption by meal, by either only eating meat during a certain number of meals over a period of time, or not eating meat during certain meals. Going by meals doesn’t scale well, since there’s only 3 meals in a day but 21 meals (avg) per week, so every week you would need to tally how many meals you ate meat. Then again, even when you avoid meat at the day level, you still need to remember how many days you didn’t eat meat. Unless you make some proclamation that you won’t eat meat on certain days, which is inflexible, quantum vegetarianism will probably need external systems to track meat consumption over time.

Yet again I find myself wishing for the time when we will all have chips implanted in our brains, in this case to track meat consumption over time. I may yet be the cause of the singularity.


Friday, April 9th, 2010

I’m not sure whether or not vending machine sniping is ethical. You know what I mean, when someone else’s snack gets stuck in the machine, and you buy another one so you can get two. Twice already this semester I’ve made a vending machine purchase to obtain not one but two snack items. In both instances I probably wouldn’t have bought anything if not for this free lunch.

Yes, I act opportunistically. It’s unreasonable not to. Maybe my willingness to pay for snacks is somewhere between the full price and half price. Maybe the idea of getting something for nothing induces a predictable irrationality in me. Now, if I could easily find out who lost their money to the machine, this would be a different story. Then I think I would have a moral obligation to return what’s not rightfully mine. But it’s infeasible to find this person. The welfare loss has already happened. There is no way for me to rectify the situation.

Somewhere, twice this semester, someone has been made worse off because of a vending machine. I had nothing to do with that. But once we accept that their loss is necessarily someone else’s gain, why shouldn’t it be mine? Is that really so terrible?

Olivier Blanchard is a cool guy

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Olivier Blanchard, currently chief economist at the IMF, gave a talk at Georgetown on Wednesday 3/24. So, of course, I went to see him, since occasionally listening to awesome people talk is one of the fringe benefits of being a Georgetown student. His talk was titled “Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy”, which as interesting to me because I rarely even think about macroeconomic policy, let alone rethink it. I’m going to summarize what I found most interesting and prescient in what he said.

Blanchard noted that monetary policy in the past has focused on one target and one instrument. He said that, in the future, monetary policy should instead have many targets and many instruments. His reasoning was that, while in this past crisis there was a housing boom, there wasn’t an overall boom, so raising the federal funds rate may have slowed the housing sector, but it would have hurt other sectors. He also said that the future of central banks should be that they are 1) transparent about objectives, and 2) flexible as to their instruments.

Another thing I really like was an example of what Blanchard called a “schizophrenia” in economic thinking. When economists discuss fiscal policy, there is usually mention of automatic stabilizers, and how they are better than active policies because of the time lag of the political process. But, Blanchard noted, there is no talk about how to design better automatic stabilizers. It’s like the progressive tax system and social services, exactly the way they exist now, just so happen to be optimal as automatic stabilizers. I think this is a really good point — from first-hand experience, I can vouch that Greg Mankiw’s favorite textbook glosses over automatic stabilizers in this exact way.

Blanchard’s thoughts seem to be consistent with my view that economics should become more of an engineering discipline than it currently is.

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