Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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.

Pointless brain teasers

Friday, March 26th, 2010

A few brain teasers here and there are nice, but I am highly skeptical of those who come up with “clever” but really pedantic arguments using logic on dubious prior beliefs, with the seeming purpose of either 1) to demonstrate how clever the questioner is, or 2) to wreak havoc with the average sensible person’s beliefs just to be a rabble rouser. I am, of course, referring to Steven Landsburg, who has a blog that I don’t think is worthy of linking to (but check it out if you’re into people calling your core beliefs into question just to make a buck). The following is my satiric stab at this curious man.

If a tree is in a quantum superposition of falling and not falling in a forest, and a countable infinity of people are around to hear it, under what special assumptions on the nature of space-time does it make a sound?

And now for the real brain teaser:

Two trees are in quantum superpositions of falling and not falling in a forest. One of these trees only lies and one only tells the truth. What is a single question you can ask one of the trees to determine which among them are falling, and, if one or both are indeed falling, whether either will make a sound? (Assume for this argument that you can ask the tree a question without collapsing its quantum state).

And yes, I know brain teasers and contrarian argumentation are different, but I thought these were funny anyway.

Unreasonable beliefs

Friday, March 19th, 2010

A friend from grad school posed a question to ponder on, which is actually a pretty deep one, so much so that I’ve only begun to do any serious thinking about it. And that question is: “What is your most unreasonable belief?”

This is the kind of introspection I don’t do enough in spite of the importance I place on it. Since I value reasonableness very highly (pop quiz: my favorite judicial test is the reasonable person standard), my gut reaction is that most of my beliefs are pretty reasonable. Another off-the-bat reaction is that beliefs are kind of like preferences: they can’t be wrong. But, that’s not what’s being asked, and since we can imagine some pseudo-objective standard of reasonableness, I think the question is still valid.

I didn’t have a good list of my beliefs, which feels like a precondition for evaluating the most unreasonable. But coming up with an exhaustive list is a hard problem in its own right. I figure I can just start listing beliefs I have and see where that gets me.

I believe people are by nature good. I believe there is one supreme omnipotent awesome (etc) being called God. I believe that things tend to work out in the end. In that vein, I believe in some grand cosmic plan that’s somehow consistent with free will. I believe that science (and, to a lesser extent, technology or knowledge) is the best bet for humanity’s long-term welfare. I believe that most of the time what I do / say / think / etc is correct (since it’s hard to operate under the alternate belief). I don’t know if this counts as a belief, but I’m pretty sure computers will become sentient one day. Okay, probably my most unreasonable belief is that zombies are real and will one day infest the planet unless we start preparing now. But now that I have a short list in front of me, most (all?) of the above could reasonably be challenged.

The follow up question is: What is the (non-trivial) belief that you’re most confident in? I’ll leave that one as an exercise to the reader, for now anyway.

Dynamic equilibria

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

What am I going to do when I finally live in one place?

I’ve moved more than a few times in my life. During my early years I moved within New Jersey, one time that I can’t remember, and five or six that I can. Actually most of those moves were within the same town. Then at some point I went off to college, where moving in and out of one’s dorm room each year is part of the natural ebb and flow of semesters coming and going. Nowadays I find myself living in DC for some reason, and I have the feeling moving will be commonplace for the foreseeable future.

I kind of like moving around. That’s not to say I don’t like staying in one place — because I do. But there is no better way to get one’s material possessions in order than to pack them all up and head on out. One reason college is awesome is that you can pack up all your worldly belongings into a car and then drive away. There is something liberating about living with as few possessions as feasible. Then again, unpacking thereafter is a necessary consequence. I think I still have some boxes still packed in my basement from younger moves, and that’s been quietly nagging at me for years.

The truth is that packing up clears my head. There are never enough opportunities to fit the world so neatly into little boxes with cleanly demarcated edges. Some day I might live in the same house for years at a time. I think at that point I’ll need to take turns every few months boxing up a whole room and then unpacking it into a different configuration.

Grad school as constrained optimization

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

I had a thought while sitting in class the other day. (This is, in fact, less common than you might imagine.) In loose terms, graduate school can be cast as a constrained optimization problem. Students have preferences over their classes, so that they prefer to spend time on the topics they enjoy learning about. I for one used to like microeconomics, but now I am leaning toward macro, for reasons to be discussed in the future. Students also prefer not to fail. So, other things equal, they will spend more time on classes that they’re doing poorly at.

I posit that, for whatever reason, not liking a class and not doing well in a class are correlated. For students who are sufficiently intelligent, and thus not close to failing any one of their classes, this doesn’t matter. They can spend the most time on the classes they like most. Those are good times.

But if you are up against the failure constraint, you will tend to be spending less time on the classes you like and more time on the classes you need to make sure you pass. It is all the worse if the classes you are doing poorly at are also those you do not enjoy very much. (This is probably the case: see above). Those are not very good times.

Here’s hoping my constrained optimization problem has a feasible solution.

Powdered gumption

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Caffeine. It comes in a liquid form (dissolved, really), but personally I prefer my caffeine as pills. Now, if my real-life conversations are representative, about half of you will be thinking “that’s a little messed up” and the other half will be thinking “that is pretty cool”. Here are a few reasons I consider pills superior: they are cheaper than coffee (~$.10/ea), caffeine dose is precisely metered (200mg, can be cut in half), no calories nor excess liquids are consumed, you can’t scald yourself, and you can’t discretely carry around a coffee in your backpack and then consume it midway through your 3hr marathon Friday morning macroeconomics lecture.

I stopped taking caffeine pills regularly when I stopped needing to be alert or freed from the effects of sleep deprivation — pretty much when I graduated college. The most interesting thing I have noticed about caffeine is how it makes me want to do things. My natural state is kind of lethargic, to be honest. Even when I’ve had plenty of sleep, I can just sit around and feel like doing nothing. I look at my to-do list and feel apprehensive. Thinking about doing any item is an unpleasant experience — my mind wanders and I do nothing at all.

When I take caffeine, I feel the opposite way. When I take caffeine, I have an intrinsic urge to do things. I look at my to-do list and suddenly the next few hours are a flurry of productivity. Aside from early morning exercise, I have found no close substitutes for the productivity enhancement I experience when I take caffeine.

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