Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Yodlee is an incredibly awesome site I just found out about. I'm a little behind the curve, apparently, but very excited to catch up...

It's for completely effortless money management/tracking. You tell it the information for all your (online) accounts, like credit cards, bank accounts, rewards accounts, investment accounts, loans, and utilities, and it tracks all your spending and payments and transfers. It categorizes pretty well automatically but you can refine the categorization rules easily to see how your spending breaks down.

Even if you instinctively live well within your means, it's good to know these things. And if you're a geek like me, all the numbers are graphs are just delicious...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Obama's racism advantage

Obama has accomplished much by having a misrepresentative reputation. After 8 years of George Bush, the time was ideal for electing the most liberal president in decades. Many thought that's what Obama was. Voters overestimate the liberal leanings of black candidates, and so a calm, moderate Democratic politician (hardly different from Bill Clinton except for the sleeze factor) got elected without the fed-up Democrats feeling like they were compromising an ounce.

With all the accusations of Muslim socialism directed at a guy who goes to church religiously (no pun intended) and doesn't deny the powers of markets, he slipped through enormous moderate-liberal reforms in his first year in office with colleagues who were just glad that their nightmares of socialized medicine and setting terrorists free and shutting down Wall Street for good weren't coming true.

The rest of the world changed its attitude towards America overnight when the backwards, nation-under-God of xenophobic patriotic white men elected a black man with Kenyan Muslim relatives and who went to school in Indonesia. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for his effortless ability to perpetuate a false stereotype of himself, and his implications for the future of U.S. foreign relations, around the globe, despite the fact that most of the Bush-era anti-terror policies that liberals (rightly) used to seethe about have been maintained.

But now that the country has settled down from its post-Bush liberal exuberance, Obama is going to have to pop the illusory bubble to maintain power and confidence of the people. I would say that's not too hard of a task, given his adamantly moderate record and consistent moderate rhetoric, but then again we're talking about a country where only 77% of adults believe that he was born in the U.S... with that kind of abounding lunacy, anything can happen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

No, you're not "running late", you're rude and inconsiderate

Yes, exactly. Oh how I wish that punctuality were considered an important part of etiquette (since it actually affects people) instead of stupid stuff like wearing a tie or remembering people's names that makes people feel good but has no tangible impact on anything...

Sure, I'm late to things a lot, mostly classes. But I'm very very rarely late to things where proceeding on schedule depends on my presence. It annoys the crap out of me that I'm routinely held up for hours because people don't take agreed-upon times seriously, or worse, they assume I'll be late and build in a buffer into the time they tell me (and then show up late even compared to the time they really wanted me to be ready).

And while we're on the subject of things that mysteriously are not considered rude but, in fact, are extremely inconsiderate and frustrating and tangibly impactful, how about splitting the check equally without agreeing on that ahead of time? I am so sick of going to nice restaurants, ordering a salad and water, and then having to pay for everyone else's steak and beer. (Of course, it's always the huge guy who eats four times as much as I do and likes imported beers in large quantities who assumes it's normal to do so.) I have no problem going to your fancy places instead of my dive bars and greasy spoons, and certainly want to remain friends with my richer silicon valley acquaintances even if I have to step into an upper-class world for it. I just don't want to pay for anything besides my side salad.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker - I can't say enough good things about this book, but it's dismaying that it needed to be written at all and how urgently I still think many people need to read it (a certain type of people, those who inform their science with their morality rather than vice versa, and who don't understand the separation of those realms.) Pinker draws on every imaginable field of knowledge to relate back to the central point in a fascinating, intellectually satisfying way.

Someone Like You, by Roald Dahl - Dahl was my favorite children's author and as an adult short story writer he's just as much fun, if not moreso. He's a genius at the uproarious surprise ending.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie - One of my best friends loves this book so I finally took the bait when I saw it on a $1 shelf. Not at all bad, bearing in mind I had extremely low expectations to begin with (I didn't know it was written in 1937 - that helps a lot. No new-agey crap). I'm going to write the sequel for extreme introverts "How to Subtly Discourage People from Looking at or Talking to You Without Offending Them".

Monday, September 20, 2010

Henry Coe

I love this state park. Backpacking doesn't require a reservation or set schedule, no developed campsites, not even any potable water, and only $5 per person per night. Even on the weekends you can find ponds with no one else there. The hills of hay, heather, and those sticky plants with the tiny yellow flowers mix into one amazing smell when the breeze picks it up and brings it to your ridge. And no mosquitoes!

Nothing like a few nights in solitude in nature to recharge your batteries.

I accidentally discovered the secret to hiking boots, too. Get them half a size too big so your toes have plenty of wiggle room, and just lace them extra tight so they're still solid. Didn't get a single blister in four days of hiking.

Friday, September 17, 2010


For the last two weeks or so, I haven't had internet access at home, since we moved and they're changing our internet type. It's been interesting.

I haven't blogged, read google reader, checked my email compulsively, got lost in wikipedia, twittered, looked at facebook, downloaded tons of papers, or any other typical internet-based activity that normally eats up a majority of my day. And it's really nice.

I HAVE read half of a long novel I've been meaning to read for over a year, worked out some social-preferences theory-diddling with pencil and paper, gone to school to work in my actual office four out of five days this week (primarily to use the internet... but still), gone running the last three days, felt no hesitation about going backpacking out of cell range for three nights this weekend (I can just bring a notebook and remain productive!) and most importantly, felt like my brain was only thinking about one or two things at a time at any given point. Such serenity!

I've also kept a post-it note on my laptop with a list of things I needed to do on the internet next time I'm on campus, and you know, when you go through a list like that systematically, it somehow takes a fraction of the time it would if you did them as they came up.

So, next Wednesday when we get our new internet connection, I'm vowing to uninstall google notifier and only check email a couple times a day rather than every time a new one pings me, unsubscribe from about half of the blogs I currently read regularly, turn off the computer and read a real book every night, don't do any stupid online errands when I think of them, but put them on a list to be dealt with all at once in an efficient manner at a later specified time, keep the web browser closed by default, stay away from facebook, go work in the wilderness more often, and keep running every day (ok that last one will never happen in a million years, but good intentions are half the battle right? no? darn...)

Yes, I understand the irony of proclaiming this online. I don't think blogging is a habit I have any hope of permanently breaking...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hamiltonian Altruism

So I'm reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate right now, which is a fantastic book, but has one rather glaring (or at least, misleading, if you interpret the analogy less literally) mistake in the discussion of kin selection, which William Hamilton proposed is the evolutionary explanation for altruism. Even if it's not a widespread mistake, it's an interesting example of the confusion between consumption and utility, utility and marginal utility, and marginal utility and overall motive.

So a bit of background first... the idea of kin selection is that since relatives share genes, and evolution acts on the level of genes (individual genes that are good at self-replication will survive better than those that aren't), genes that cause their host to assist relative who very likely also contain that gene will be selected for. That is, altruism towards family members, and more altruism towards closer family members, can be evolutionarily advantageous.

Hamilton's rule is the calculation that individual genes might be making when considering a costly action that benefits a relative. Since parents share about half of their genes with any given child, and siblings share half their genes with each other, and cousins share one quarter of their genes with each other, etc, this means that if a parents can do something to help their children more than twice the amount it costs them, they should. And if someone can help their cousin four times more than the cost of the action, it's worth it. That is, you should care twice as much about yourself as your child or sibling, four times as much as your cousins or grandchildren, etc.

Steven Pinker considers this principle in the context of sibling rivalry over how to split a pie. He says that since siblings care twice as much about themselves as each other, each of two siblings should desire 2/3 of the pie. Parents, on the other hand, care about their children equally and want a 50-50 split of the pie. Hence, sibling rivalry, and children thinking their siblings got a better deal than they did despite parents' adamant claim of fairness.

But pie isn't the same thing as utility (economist-speak for whatever benefit something provides to someone, in any sense, in sum). If I know that my brother really loves pie and I'm pretty ambivalent about it, I might want him to get much more than 1/3 of it.

Beyond that, at any given moment, marginal utility is more relevant than absolute utility. I don't want to divide a whole pie with my brother, I want to divide each individual bite separately. Say my brother loves every bite of pie equally, but I get sick of it quickly. The first few bites, I like pie at least half as much as my brother, so I keep every bite for myself. But soon I get sick of it, and I let my brother eat the rest. It's unclear, then, how much of the total pie I want my brother to have.

But, note that if utility is concave and the same for each child, it is true that parents want to split the pie evenly between their children. That's because if the allocation is ever uneven, it helps the pie-poor child to get one more bite more than it hurts the pie-rich child to get a bite less. On the other hand, concavity gets us nowhere in predicting how much each child wants to share. If utility is linear, every child wants to eat the entire pie. If utility is concave, the child may still want to eat the entire pie, none at all, or until they dislike continuing to eat. Or any other amount.

Even this is an incorrect way to view Hamilton's rule of pie. Evolution doesn't select for happiness, it selects for reproductive success. And what is the chance that an extra bite of pie will increase the number of my brother's offspring more than twice as much as it increases mine? Pretty much nil, unless my brother is on the brink of starvation. No matter how much I know my brother loves pie compared to me, I will want to eat the pie until I'm thoroughly sick of it.

Steven Pinker is brilliant and, what makes me love him especially, precise. Might as well get this detail right too. Maybe kin selection led to altruism in an environment where everyone was on the brink of death and every kind act pulled the recipient back from the edge, but that's hardly true in today's society, even if that ingrained impulse generalizes to giving change to the homeless guy on the corner so he can get on the bus or buy a beer.