Unreasonable beliefs

March 19th, 2010 by ftobia

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.


March 13th, 2010 by ftobia

I know I haven’t been blogging a whole lot lately. Since it’s spring break, I’m taking this opportunity to get back into a groove. I’ve also taken the liberty of recategorizing a bunch of my old posts. The following list should encompass any particular thing I write about:

  • Computers
  • Economics
  • GTD
  • Happenings
  • Musings
  • Muzak
  • Nerditry
  • Science

At least, that’s the breakdown I thought was most relevant. I consider it pretty telling.

One last thing: I want to keep myself on at least a rough schedule from here on out. In my case, intermittent blogging is a vice, and one which I intend to avoid. I should be able to write something at least once a week. Since I’m a big fan of commitment devices, I expect my loyal readers — I know you’re out there — to keep me on target if I slip.

I’m counting on you, guys.

Dedication to customer service

March 12th, 2010 by ftobia

My previous post on anti-virus software had an interesting unforeseen consequence. As you surely remember, I made brief mention of Vipre Antivirus since I had given it a shot before trying Kaspersky. I thought the mention was just idle flavor text, to improve the narrative of my story. Moreover I thought that no sooner would my post be published than my mention of Vipre would be forgotten. I could not have been more mistaken.

The good people at Sunbelt Software must have some sort of Google alert or equivalent set up, searching for mentions of Vipre. Very quickly I was notified of a comment on my post, wherein Sunbelt apologized for any inconvenience and invited me to submit the offending file. After I emailed them a nice guy named Joe followed up and thanked me for my submission.

So, if you’re on the market for anti-virus software, I say give Vipre a try. They’re clearly dedicated to customer service.

Meme stickiness

February 22nd, 2010 by ftobia

Memes are little replicators, kind of like genes for culture (or ideas or general mind-things). Memes have a few properties, like how transmittable they are, or how “attractive” they are to the mind they occupy. Like that song you just can’t get out of your head, some memes are maddeningly sticky. For reasons unclear to me, one meme occupying my brain is bent on expressing itself through the medium of the blagoweb. You’ve been warned.

I’ve had Lady Gaga stuck in my head all week. Frakking Poker Face. It started innocently enough, I was watching South Park and Cartman was Rock-Banding it up. He was hilarious enough that I had to watch the clip a few more times on the YouTube. By that time, it was probably already too late.

This song is addicting on a dangerous level. I think there are at least three parts that are independently catchy — basically all the repeating parts: the opening mah-mah-mah-mah, the repetition of po-po-po-poker face, and the can’t-read-my can’t-read-my part, for those of you keeping track at home. Now, I wasn’t planning on writing about Lady Gaga. I don’t know firsthand how good her albums are. I won’t comment on whether I think all her hype is justified. I just know that forces acting beyond my control are propagating this absurdity over the intertubes.

The meme made me do it.

Free as in culture

February 15th, 2010 by ftobia

I’ve kind of lost my way. Over my past few months in grad school, I’ve forgotten my roots as a technologist, a techie, a computer nerd. I reconnected with my glorious past the weekend of Valentines Day, when the Free Culture Conference 2010 was held at George Washington University.

I haven’t thought about free culture and related issues in about eight months, since I started working toward my PhD in economics. Grad school doesn’t allow me much time to work on outside projects, and that’s a shame. I miss being surrounded by such good people, such technical people, having such interesting conversations, about such important and interesting topics. This past weekend showed me firsthand the massive opportunity costs that grad school entails. I really want to get back into coding or advocacy, but I keep running into that time constraint. What a damn shame.

I’m going to end with some advice. If you want to join a top-notch community, seek out those who identify with the free culture movement. You won’t find a more dedicated group of smart people with the tools and drive to make awesome things happen.

General Petraeus, all-around nice guy

February 4th, 2010 by ftobia

General Petraeus gave a talk at Georgetown in late January. I decided to go, since it’s the first time I had a chance to hear a four-star general give a talk. He seemed really cool. I mean, never mind the fact that the guy has an absurd number of awards, honors, and distinctions — being a general with a PhD must be awesome.  Oh, he’s also the Commander of CENTCOM, meaning he’s in charge of thousands of men in twenty countries. But I digress.

But in spite of (or because of) his awesomeness, it seems like a large group of people make a sport out of being a dick to General Petraeus. I cannot understand why. At his presentation, there were at least a dozen student sleeper agents in the audience who would interrupt his talk by reading the names of people killed in military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m all for non-violent protests, but this was egregious and poorly targeted. Essentially a group of rabble rousers perverted free speech to their twisted ends, not to mention infringed on a lot of peoples’ good time.

I don’t know why General Petraeus is constantly a target for blind hatred. From his Wikipedia article, it seems to me like he made a bad situation way better in Iraq, and helped save a bunch of lives. Also it’s not like this guy embodies the military industrial complex. If you don’t like that we’re in Iraq, go heckle George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. Generals don’t make those sorts of decisions — not least of all generals who weren’t in charge of things at the time. David Petraeus is a gentleman and a scholar, and attacking him only makes you look like an r-tard.

When you decide it’s imperative to be a dick to someone, at least make sure you’re targeting the right person.

Optimal to-do list size

January 29th, 2010 by ftobia

I am a list-maker. I enjoy making lists. Getting Things Done (GTD) utilizes lists heavily, and I also enjoy GTD. I’m not sure which way the correlation runs between those two facts. But not all lists are created equal. I think there are very important constraints on the sizes of to-do lists, Next Action lists, and Projects lists, to name a few. For the differences among these types, GTD’s Wikipedia article is a great read — if you don’t care for the distinctions, just think of your own to-do list (and if you don’t utilize a to-do list, may God have mercy on you).

Lists cannot be too long, if you are going to use them effectively. How many times have you created a to-do list for yourself, and everything was going fine for a few days, until eventually you got bogged down and started procrastinating? I find it incredibly easy to convince myself that, paradoxically, I have so many things to do that I might as well not do any of them. This does not bode well for productivity.

Over the last half of last year, I stopped seeing myself as a task-completing machine, who should optimize his throughput of actions for maximal efficiency. I realized that it wasn’t making me any happier, just checking more things off my list, since the other half of the time I was hiding from the morass of tasks. Yet again I’ve remembered that lists are merely tools for being an effective person.

It’s important to keep perspective as you go through life — otherwise you might end up in the wrong place. I realized that it’s not important what actions I complete; it is only important where they are getting me. So, I still use the GTD system, but with a few caveats:

  • I keep a short list, on my whiteboard, of the tasks I should finish ASAP.
  • I make sure this list doesn’t exceed ten or so items.
  • I don’t let any item sit on the list too long: complete it or scrub it.
  • If I let the whole list sit for too long, I have to finish as many actions as possible in the next free moment I get.
  • If the whole list gets stale, I throw it out and start over. They obviously weren’t the right tasks anyway.
  • I warehouse tasks not important enough for my whiteboard list on my Next Actions list.
  • I review my Next Actions list periodically to see if any actions should be whiteboarded. Stale actions get thrown out.

The key change I’ve seen is that my lists are much, much smaller. Constant pruning of my Next Actions list has kept it under 15 items for a few months now. And I’ve never felt better.

High point

January 23rd, 2010 by ftobia

Yesterday was unequivocally the high point in my graduate school career to date. The big event was our first Micro 2 class, in game theory. Micro was the only class we hadn’t had yet, and my expectations were high: Econometrics is typically dry and exceedingly difficult, and our Macro class is shaping up to be intense, courtesy of our new professor. I was hoping that Micro could be the class to keep me sane this semester.

Luca Anderlini is our professor for Micro. He’s the new Director of Graduate Studies too, so my performance in Micro serves the dual role of not failing out of the program and not embarrassing myself in front of the guy running things. I had seen him present a paper last semester, and this gave me high hopes. He had a sense of humor, an entertaining manner of lecturing, and a way of making the topics at hand seem relevant.

Let me cut to the chase: my hopes were realized. The lecture was interesting, but most important, something crucial happened, something I have been waiting my entire time at Georgetown to hear someone admit. Before Professor Anderlini got into the meat of the lecture, he made a caveat. He expressed to us, in no uncertain terms, that math is not the point of what we’re doing. While, he explained, he enjoys math a great deal, and even considered a career in math, he stressed that math is a just a tool to clarify our thinking. Anyone can reason, he argued, and make a convincing case. The key is that math is a rigorous formal language to express our ideas,  so that we can make sure we are not just deluding ourselves with words. Again, math is not the end, it is only the means.

That was the breath of fresh air I needed.

Supporting alcohol in Sudan

January 18th, 2010 by ftobia

Kiva.org is a person-to-person micro-lending website, which allows prospective do-gooders in the developed world to fund micro-finance operations for entrepreneurs in the developing world. I found out about Kiva around two years ago, and even though I gave a few gift certificates, it took me until today to make my first loan.

My lendee is so awesome that I felt the distinct need to blog about her. First, her name is Joice Pita, which is cool in and of itself. She lives in South Sudan, and runs a pub. I know very little about the Sudan — Wikipedia reminded me that Darfur is part of the country, and also noted that Sudan’s motto is “victory is ours” — but I can posit a guess that they could use more pubs. The thought of helping a pub-owner in the Sudan was too much to pass up.

Here’s her blurb, straight from her Kiva page:

Joice Pita is currently in the business of selling local alcoholic beverages, beer, and soda, and is requesting a loan to stock more crates of beer and soda to sell. Joice is 33 years old and is married with a husband that is a soldier. She has 6 children, and her children go to school. With the extra profits from her loan, she hopes to be able to open a hotel.

Now try and tell me that is not a cause worth funding. I thought so.

If you have some spare time, definitely check out Kiva. The money you put in isn’t a donation or a handout (though you can donate to Kiva.org itself to cover their operating expenses), which means that when your lendees pay you back, you can find new lendees and start the cycle over. You can even withdraw the money in your account after you’ve done some lending with it. So, if your bank account has some extra money in it, and you decide that instead of earning one percent interest you want to help save the world, you should head over to Kiva.org and start lending, like rite nao.

K is the key

January 16th, 2010 by ftobia

Friends, I have a story of an unlikely advertisement achieving its purpose.

Over winter vacation I purchased a netbook, a Dell Mini 10v. It’s an adorable little thing, really gets the job done, and it has a solid feel I haven’t experienced since the old Thinkpad T series, back when IBM made laptops. I’m quite happy with my little netbook. Alas, every copy of Windows needs its antivirus protection. I haven’t had to even think of antivirus software in about four years now: RPI students got a corporate version of McAfee as part of the laptop deal.

A trial version of McAfee came preinstalled on my mini, and I actively shunned it. I heard about a new antivirus called Vipre (like the snake), decided to give it a try. I wasn’t too happy with the trial, though, mostly because it kept deleting the BIOS update I was trying to download. I’m not sure if that’s standard practice, but I distinctly remember telling the program not to delete my BIOS update. It remained obstinate.

So I decided to do some research. Apparently Norton is still the best around, according to a few sites doing antivirus reviews, but one particular product caught my eye. Kaspersky antivirus jumped out at me, because of a ridiculous little video circulating around the interwebs:

That is insanely catchy, and awesome in a ridiculous way. You can see how Kaspersky was stuck in my mind this whole time, just waiting until I needed antivirus software. I also recall one of my economics professors lauding Kaspersky in his technological change class. He liked the idea that Kaspersky keeps track of which files change between scans, and only re-scans those that need to be. Technological progress indeed.

Anyway, I hope Kaspersky is as awesome as that video makes it seem.

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