Friday, December 31, 2010

new beginnings

The human mind is naturally an integrator, rather than a compartmentalizer. Life runs together in a continuous, albeit turbulent, river of experience, passing seamlessly from context to context with nothing fundamentally changed besides the arrangement of the same waves of thoughts. Our tendency towards abstract thought, induction and generalization, forces us to cling to every current of life, weaving those experiences and conclusions into a consistent broader story of self.

This serves as a friction against change. Personal evolution must trickle slowly in and habits are agonizingly difficult to drop once and for all. And so we invent discontinuities in our experiences in order to trigger perceived discontinuities in everything else, manipulating our minds into separate channels. We move to new places to forget the habits learned somewhere else, we leave lovers with whom we've entrenched ourselves in unhealthy ruts, we change our haircuts when we want to change our personalities. Somehow, somewhere in the mysterious chasms of the mind, these things have a real effect.

So here's to the most universally observed false discontinuity. Happy New Years.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

books

The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker - Fantastic, fascinating book. Pinker is a wonderfully clear writer. I preferred The Blank Slate because it drew on so many different areas of knowledge to speak to a single issue, but this was great too.

Science and the Creative Spirit - A collection of essays on the subject. Disappointing.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sachs - The stories are shorter, more anecdotal, than in An Anthropologist on Mars, and I would prefer a little bit more scientific cohesion and explanation. But I suppose a lot of the reason for that lack is that it doesn't yet exist. Very very interesting though: every story about a brain deficit or surplus shocks you into realizing how specifically the brain compartmentalizes different tasks that we often don't even realize we're doing. Neuroscience may become my favorite popular science topic.

Monday, December 27, 2010

kindling

I got a new tech-toy that I'm more excited about than any other new tech-toy since wireless internet or maybe ultra-cheap digital storage.

Ironically, I was finally convinced to buy a Kindle for the most un-tech of motives. With a one-month battery life and 8 ounce size, I can take a week's worth of reading material on a backpacking trip without making my backpack too heavy to lift. With the non-backlit screen, I can use it outside and with a dim red flashlight at star parties. And with 3G internet, with a new REAL (not just text and mobile pages) web browser built in, I can leave the laptop and cell phone at home way more often.

Ok, the price was a motive too. It's fallen in half since its initial release, and if I drop internet service on my phone it'll pay for itself in 19 months. I honestly don't know how amazon makes money. Obviously the idea is that losing money on the free 3G will be made up for by selling their proprietary format kindle books, but with a real web browser people will want them just for that and skip the books. Not to mention that it's insanely easy to fill up with, um, various forms of free reading material...

Even ignoring the kindle, I can't imagine what outrageously good bulk shipping contract they've worked out that the free 2-day shipping on everything (for students, at least) pays for itself in increased sales. And last week I discovered an arbitrage opportunity in returns: I accidentally ordered the wrong version of something, sent it back, and they reimbursed me fully plus $3 more than I paid for return shipping. Presumably they keep an eye on frequency of returns...

I think I'm perfectly fine with amazon taking over the world with google. But in case they don't, I figured I should buy one now before they drop the free 3G...

Anyway, I've been using this thing for a month now and have only discovered new good points about it that make me wonder why I didn't think this was a great idea from the start.

1) It is SO easy to hold and read. Just prop it on something and it stays "open" and you hit a little button occasionally to turn the page. One-handed operation in any crazy lounging position imaginable.

2) The text is very easy on your eyes compared to reading e-books on a backlit computer screen. E-ink is awesome. (Something to do while holding a fishing rod in the other hand!)

3) I am pretty sure I actually read faster on it than with a real book. I think it's primarily because I don't get lost in thought and accidentally read a whole page of text over again - only a tiny kindle-sized page. I also don't "read" without taking in the words for a long time before noticing it. The page ends too fast. But it also feels like the gravity pulling your eyes down the page is stronger on a little page that you can read in 5 or 10 seconds. If that makes any sense...

4) Searchable!

5) Notes, underlines, instant dictionary look-up - also all searchable!

6) I worried that without a physical book, my spatial memory that puts things in order based on where in the book and on the page it was would be undermined. But, with the little progress indicator at the bottom of the page, not at all. It's even better, I think, to see that you're 22% of the way through the book, rather than a-substantially-thick-portion-but-much-less-than-one-half.

7) So little and light! 8 ounces, can you believe that?

8) The pdf reading capabilities are much better than I ever hoped. I can put papers on it, rotate them 90 degrees to read half of each page on one landscape screen, and it is beautifully legible. I can't do math in the margins anymore, but that was always a pretty futile practice in such a cramped space anyway...

9) The web browser works so much better than on my phone. It loads the full, not mobile, page, and never "runs out of memory", as the phone did on about half of all pages. No more printing directions for the car or writing down library call numbers or phone numbers or addresses...

...hey amazon, want to pay me to keep gushing? :)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

inequality in self-knowledge

I think that in the last 60 years or so, American society has fundamentally changed its idea of marriage, even if we're calling it the same thing. I'm not talking about gay marriage or interracial marriage or the sexual revolution. Almost the opposite, in fact. Marriages used to last because there was no other option. Now they last because (or rather, if) the partners put a lot of effort into maintaining a healthy and happy relationship so that neither of them wants to leave.

In the mid-20th century, divorce became socially acceptable, and those rates skyrocketed. Over the next few decades, we slowly learned how to make a relationship last when it doesn't have to. We have self-help books, marriage counselors, couples retreats, and more broadly, immense dedication to self-knowledge of any kind, which is a luxury we have only recently been able to afford. All this study has slowly seeped into the common knowledge base, and now divorce rates are falling. So much for the collapse of the family! We just had to figure out how to hold together families in a new culture.

But, divorce rates have plummeted among the educated and wealthy and barely moved among the financially challenged. We've heard the scary statistics: half of all children born in the U.S. are now born out of wedlock (and the wealthy and educated have far less than their proportion of children), couples earning less than $25,000 per year have a 50% chance of divorcing whereas couples with postgraduate degrees have less than a 15% chance. This all just serves to extend income inequality to family life inequality.

I hope that as income rises across the board, lifestyle inequality will decrease as self-knowledge becomes a more accessible luxury. But I wonder if, the longer the upper and lower classes exist in society in different ways, the more they develop diverging societies entirely. Is a stable family no longer the goal at all? Is it the norm to hop from person to person and help the kids through the chaos as much as possible? Are they only learning how to tolerate chaos better, rather than how to avoid it in the first place?

Honestly I feel like that has already happened in a lot of ways. In some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, almost every 15 year old girl I see has a kid or two with her. Maybe they are babysitting, but they can't all be. Even a single girl like that in a rich private high school would be an enormous scandal. I don't think the rich educated suburbanites have the right answer to everything either, far from it, but I think that that lifestyle clearly is less prone to condemning children to an existence they don't like and can't escape from. And that's a bit tragic.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

social science deliciousness

"A day without social science is like a day without sunshine." -David Brooks

A case in point, via Greg Mankiw, this is awesome:


Monday, December 13, 2010

moral wiggle room for billionaires

I forgot to write about this when it happened but it so appalled me that I still want to long after the fact.

Imagine that you are a billionaire and a fellow billionaire asks you to join forces to share your good fortune with the world, changing the trajectory of history for the better for millions of people. Choose one of the following options:
  1. Yes!
  2. I worry that we will have conflicting interests or fall victim to groupthink. Instead let's each go our separate philanthropic ways and hope that our diverse efforts will more quickly lead the way to effective solutions.
  3. I would love to use my wealth for good but I worry that I cannot do so effectively. Let's instead delegate our decision making to the masses and the experts and focus on their chosen priorities instead of barking on an individual crusade.
  4. I admire your intentions but I personally prefer to keep my fortune for myself, my investments, and my heirs.
  5. How dare you suggest such a thing! You're trying to take over the role of government! No single person should have so much power to make the world a better place and I refuse to use my wealth philanthropically at the risk of destructive hubris.
Reasonable answers? 1-4. 5? Clearly insane. But that didn't stop Peter Krämer from riling up the rich Germans with just that logic when Bill Gates asked him to join a pledge (with 40 other billionaires) to donate half of their money to philanthropic causes.

He vaguely defends his argument with the fact that charitable contributions are tax-deductible in the U.S. First of all, Bill Gates's billionaires aren't responsible for the tax deduction law. Either they join the pledge and get the deduction or they refuse and "donate" a third the amount to the government instead. Is he seriously saying that the latter is the better choice, even though "join the pledge, don't get a deduction" is not an option?? (Or at least, not a reasonable option. Obviously no one, including Mr. Peter Krämer, is going to voluntarily pay extra taxes as though the government is a charity.)

Second of all, is he really suggesting getting rid of the tax deduction? It is well-documented that tax law has a huge effect on the amount of charitable giving in the U.S., especially among the top income brackets. Without it we'd be depriving many wonderful non-profit organizations in favor of a much smaller boost to huge ineffective government bureaucracies.

Third of all, what do you think the chances are of a large philanthropic effort producing destructive results? People are philanthropic in part because they want to be seen as philanthropic; if they're doing things that the world doesn't want done or failing miserably, they will of course stop. And they are also philanthropic because they want to do good; if it turns out they are making things worse, they will of course stop. The only example I can think of where a large donation led to a bad outcome is when eminent domain was used to confiscate property in my hometown to build an athletic village for OSU with a donation from T. Boone Pickens. And guess what? That's because the government was involved. Private charities can't claim eminent domain.

And all of those points pale in comparison to the last two: Who in their right mind thinks the government knows what is best to do with our money and can use it efficiently?? Or that they even have the power to address many important issues, or have any political incentive/feasibility to address the ones that don't win voters (other countries, shockingly, have problems too...)? And where on earth did this idea that government is the only entity that is allowed to be responsible for philanthropy come from???

*melodramatic sigh*

Edit: I also forgot to mention that the very existence of the tax deduction for charitable contributions means that the government has deemed the best use of that money to be the charitable contributions...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

punctuation

It never occurred to me that emoticons are punctuation until reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but the thought has been stuck in my head since then. I'm pretty well convinced that ":)" needs to be recognized as legitimate punctuation, indicating tone in a way similar to "!" or "...". It fills a much-needed role, don't you think?

"!" is too extremely excited to be used to indicate that something is said non-seriously or friendlily. "..." can occasionally indicate that something shouldn't be taken literally, but more in a drily sarcastic way:

"That's a great idea!" <- excitedly enthusiastic
"That's a great idea..." <- hesitation, perhaps even sarcasm
"That's a great idea :)" <- simply, friendlily affirmative

I would also advocate for allowing ";)" to explicitly denote sarcasm, inside jokes, etc. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge. And ":p" to indicate playfulness or nonserious poking fun. But one step at a time.

The barrier, I think, is that while these are already in very widespread usage, they're limited to direct communication from one person to another. Can you picture the following passage in a book?
Margaret knocked on Bruce's door and was surprised to be greeted by his roommate Ed instead.

"Hi Ed :) Hey, is Bruce here by any chance?"

"Why... hello Margaret ;) You have something personal to need to discuss with him? He stepped out but I'll be sure to give him your urgent message :p"
Looks weird, but compare that to the alternative:
Margaret knocked on Bruce's door and was surprised to be greeted by his roommate Ed instead.

"Hi Ed. Hey, is Bruce here by any chance?" she said, trying to sound casually friendly, but anxious to see Bruce.

"Why... hello Margaret!" Ed responded slyly. "You have something personal you need to discuss with him? He stepped out but I'll be sure to give him your urgent message," he said, winking. He wasn't about to let Margaret off the hook without some friendly hassling.
Barring my inexistent narrative writing skills, I think the former is clearly preferable.

I dare you to start including smiley faces in your research papers. We economists are already enamored with cutesy not-really-funny paper titles, so it's not much of a leap :)