Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Diversified New Year's Resolutions

With investment, it's good to diversify. So why shouldn't it be the same for New Year's resolutions? I have personally never made one before, but I've often thought part of unhappiness comes from a failure to do you want (losing weight, saving money, getting ahead at work). This year I plan to make several specific goals (vagueness results in failure) publicly (as a commitment tool) starting today (waiting until New Years only encourages my procrastination) and will post again in three weeks (the time it takes to change behavior) to check back in. Here are my goals for 2010 and beyond:

1) Moderate exercise for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week. From what I have read this is the minimum time needed to remain nominally healthy. Hopefully I will work my way up from here, but it's good to start small.

2) Drink 0-1/2 a soft drink daily in my home. Again, the plan is to work down to zero, but there's a good chance I'm addicted to caffeine.

3) Read the Bible every weekday. Not many exact parameters on this one yet, but I would like to open and read a portion of the Bible 5 days a week. I claim to believe it's valuable, but my actions say otherwise. (update)

4) Pray regularly. Same details as the previous one.

5) Allow my wife to pick one for me. She knows my flaws better than anyone and I trust her more than anyone. Who better to help me improve? (update)

One final note: I acknowledge that taking on so many changes may overload me and I reserve the right to fail in part or in all. It is incredibly rare for people to change in the short run and as hard as that is to hear our interpersonal relationships would be better if we remembered it. My hope is that there is value in trying, even if you fail. And if that's not true, I bet people who believe it probably succeed more anyways.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Worthwhile Sentences on Life

From Ben Casnocha: "be intense about things that matter, super laid back about everything else."

From the WWF: "Of all the species that have lived on the Earth since life first appeared here 3 billion years ago, only about one in a thousand is still living today."

From Carl Jung: "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."

From Seth Spearman: "Marriage as an instittuion has a profound capacity for producing amazing happiness but also the deepest and bitterest soul-crushing misery."

From Justin Wehr's friend Bob: "Feelings are tools for understanding information we get. Our interpretation of them is both influenced by and contributes to our model of the Universe."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Santa: Naughty or Nice

I waited until after Christmas so as not to be a Scrooge, but this topic is too interesting to pass up. In my family, we went along with the Santa story until all the children figured out it. That is my youngest sister asked me and I unmasked Santa, which is still a point of contention. So the question is important: Is pretending Santa is real good or bad for kids? Here's an experiment from the University of Texas:
Fifty-two children who no longer believed in Santa Claus were individually administered a structured interview on their reactions to discovering the truth. Their parents completed a questionnaire assessing their initial encouragement of the child to believe in Santa and rating their child's reactions to discovering the truth as well as their own reactions to the child's discovery. Parental encouragement for the child to believe was very strong. Children generally discovered the truth on their own at age seven. Children reported predominantly positive reactions on learning the truth. Parents, however, described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child's discovery.
By age seven, the story of Santa Claus seems to exist more for parental enjoyment than for their children. Not even considering the complications of explaining the purpose for celebrating Christmas (Jesus) and how it mixes with elves and flying reindeer, the bottom line for me is the dishonesty. To continue the charade, parents must lie to their children. Whether it's leaving cookies for someone who doesn't exist, having them meet an impostor in the mall, or attempting the explain the scientific impossibilities of Santa; parents who want to convince their children St. Nick is real must deceive them. Though I'm not in their situation yet, it seems most parents tell their children Santa is real for the same reason they circumcise them, peer pressure. They don't want to be different, so they go with the flow. As for now my wife and I plan to treat Santa like a game that some people play more serious than others. My kids will know he's not real, but it's fun to tell fictional stories about him.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Unconscious Competence in Improv

In psychology there are stages of competence that measure the steps needed to progress in learning any skill. In my five years of performing comedy improv, I've seen myself transition through each of the 4 stages:

1) Unconscious Incompetence: "The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it." This is most people. May have heard of improv, or seen Whose Line is it Anyway?, but don't really know what it is because improvisation is hard to understand. It's not a play, stand-up, or sketch, but something completely different all together.

2) Conscious Incompetence: "Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it." This is the regular improv audience member. Likes to watch it, but doesn't really understand the mechanics. Many times they believe the performance was scripted or at least partially pre-planned. What they don't understand is that would be much harder than playing and supporting.

3) Conscious Competence: "The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration." This is a student of improvisation. They are learning the basics (characters, games, and "Yes, and"), but have it has yet to be completely natural. They constantly remind themselves of ""the rules" and play tightly to them.

4) Unconscious Competence: "The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply)." These are the experts. Like a pro-athlete who relies of experience and muscle memory to complete their task. Though I do realize that even experts are still learning. Michael Jordan did peak when things became natural for him. Hopefully neither will I. Also, this stage would make a great name for an improv team.

I think that I am currently transitioning from 3 to 4. I can feel myself naturally reacting on stage in ways that would have been calculated before. I haven't put in the 10 years or 10,000 hours that many claim are needed for expertise, but I hope I don't have to wait until 2014 for that. The other major difference from Unconscious Competence and the first 3 stages is that they are equipped to train others. In fact, starting on January 13th I will be teaching my first class at the Dirty South Improv Theater. The cost is usually $195/$150 for students, but there is a holiday price of $125 that expires December 31st. There is no obligation to take another level of classes and many community members use it as a tool in their work. You also get to see shows for free during the 6 week course. However, if classes aren't for you, maybe you should consider Conscious Incompetence; seeing me perform every Friday.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Emptying the Bottle: Late-December '09 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It's True, Giving is Better than Receiving

I can be kind of a downer about Christmas gifts, but here's some research that shows there is real value in the act of giving gifts:
Whatever your gift philosophy, you may be thinking that you would be happier if you could just spend the money on yourself – but according to a three-part study by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, givers can get more happiness than people who send the money on themselves.

Liz, Lara and Mike approached the study from the perspective that happiness is less dependent on stable circumstances (income) and more on the day-to-day activities in which a person chooses to engage (gift-giving vs. personal purchases).

To that end, they surveyed a representative sample of 632 Americans on their spending choices and happiness levels and found that while the amount of personal spending (bills included) was unrelated to reported happiness, prosocial spending was associated with significantly higher happiness.
I got that from the blog Barking up the wrong tree. Though I don't totally get the name, I do find the blog very thought provoking. Here are some other great posts I've come across recently:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Give Away Intellectual Property

Last week I was contacted by another teacher in my county. One of my students moved, switched schools, and was now in her class. Apparently when she asked him where they were in history, he showed her his notes and she was impressed. I've spent the last year and a half created an outline of each section in our US History book. Then she asked if I would mind sending her a copy of the notes (without paying I assumed). In that split second I had to make a decision and I've spent the last week deciding whether it was the right one. I gave her the notes.

Last year I worked 60 hours a week preparing them and for someone to just get them with one email somehow violated my sense of justice. Yet, just like me, she a women with scarce time. If production is the key to wealth, then hopefully I just made a lot of people better off. Instead of going through each section and creating an outline, now this teacher can work on other educational projects, spend more time with her own children, or in the least catch up on Lost before it returns. Here's the most important part, I have increased her wealth with almost no decrease anywhere else. So what do you think, did I make the right decision?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Healthiness is Happiness Research

Happiness economics has become a growing study as people realize that life satisfaction isn't all about wealth. However, there are still a lot of complaints about the research. The two major problems I have with the science: 1) How to compare happiness throughout time? For example is a peasant is the 1500's less happy because they don't have anesthesia or vaccinations, things they've never dreamed of? 2) How accurate is self reported satisfaction? So instead of relying on how people feel they feel, let's measure how they actually feel. If happiness equal healthiness, then use it as a form of measurement. Don't resting heart rate, body mass index, and blood pressure seem like better measures than "are you very happy, fairly happy, or kinda sorta happy"? Speaking of, here are some interesting things the current research says about that little thing called happiness.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Causes of and Responses to Recessions

In case you haven't heard the news, the "Great Recession" ended sometime over the summer. All that means is Gross Domestic Product (a sum of everything we produce) is no longer shrinking. That doesn't mean unemployment and company profits are back to normal. That's the good news, the bad news is that we, as in the general public, still don't fully understand what causes recessions. As a free marketeer that doesn't necessarily scare me (we don't need to understand it for it to work), but as a voter it worries me. There is historical trend that government power increases in times of uncertainty (Civil War, Great Depression, 9/11). The more we understand economic hardships, hopefully the less fear mongering.

The definition for a recession is when GDP decreases for at least two quarters. That means for 6 months we produced less stuff than we used to. But why? We have the same people, the same buildings, the same machines. The most simple explanation is that recessions aren't economic losses, because nothing is lost that can't be gained back, but are instead economic shifts. In this most recent example, we had a housing bubble. This is due to government subsidies (predicted in 2003) and a general lack of information in the housing market (or tulip market in the 1600's). After the boom busted, houses were plentiful, decreasing housing prices, sending a shock wave into investment and banking. All of a sudden construction workers, realtors, mortgage lenders, etc. are out of work, not buying as much as they would normally and now everyone is hurting. While the unemployed look for new jobs during that transitional period, production is lost. It's important to note, recessions start with loss of production (or mis-production), not loss of spending.

So if that's what causes recessions, how should nations respond to them? Bush and Obama both followed the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Among other things, he proposed using government spending to counteract the loss in private spending. The idea seems logical, but ignores the fact that any government money comes from present (or future) taxes. Not to say that large government spending can't increase GDP, but that any increase it causes will have at least an equal decrease later. Also, public money is subject to the wills of political officials, with all the inefficiencies and special interest that come along with that. The main opponent of these ideas was Milton Friedman (here's a good rap about the debate). As an advocate for free markets, he proposed waiting through the transitional period and letting things get better on their own. Though he did support government lowering the interest rates to encourage scared investors to come back sooner.

But Keynes is not stupid. If he read this blog post he would agree that in the long run the market would self correct. But he famously said, "in the long run we are all dead". What he forgets is that our children are not. It seems very plausible that Bush's and Obama's stimulus packages increased production and helped some people, in the short run. But our children will be left to pay the bill (but maybe that's not all bad). Yet I must admit, even in a perfect market prices and wages are sticky, which means people don't like to see them change. Much like unemployment benefits, this only makes the transition period longer. Hopefully as time moves on, recession length should shrink due to ease of transportation and internet connections like Craigslist. I personally support allowing the billions of individual decisions of the market to eventually get us back on the road to more prosperity, but I also realize that a government stimulus out of fear is better than electing the next Hitler out of fear.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Read All Legislation Aloud

Whether it's watching the Democrats push reform that ignores market ideas (individual tax exemption, cross state purchases, and HSA's) or watching Republicans become no robots (nobots?) doing everything they can to halt any reform, I haven't been enjoying the health care debate. However, a recent Republican tactic has given me a great idea for future legislation. A Vermont Democrat withdrew his amendment after a Republican called for all 767 pages to be read aloud, which would have taken 17 hours. With the average length of congressional bills getting longer over time (this one is about as long as the Bible), the likelihood of Congress actually reading the bill gets smaller. I propose that all laws have to be read aloud by one of the authors (no clerks allowed). This might not increase knowledge about the bill, but my hope is that it will shrink them or at least discourage wasteful additions. If I'm lucky, it may even increase the opportunity for fast talkers to run for Congress.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Most Popular Christmas Toys Since 1960


Guess for 2009 is a Kindle, iPhone or maybe Snuggie. Either way it's good to live in 2009.

Graphic from Permuto Discoveries.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-December '09 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Decade's Counterintuitive Ideas

In case you haven't noticed, I like ideas you have to think twice about (there are too many examples to link, so just click on random post under Subscribe and you have a pretty good chance of coming across one). New York magazine recently collected a list of ideas from the last 10 years that may blow your mind, here are the highlights:
  1. Amateurs are better than experts.
  2. Boys are the biggest victims of sex discrimination.
  3. Hard work is more important than intelligence for success.
  4. Breast-feeding's benefits are more correlation and causation.
  5. Car seats are less safe than just a seatbelt.
  6. Global cultural homogenization is good.
  7. Drug dealers don’t make more money than the working poor
  8. Gay marriage is good for Conservatism.
  9. New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt.
  10. Obesity is not an epidemic, but America's obsession with it is.
This is just the top 10, the rest are worth looking into as well. As usual, this was shown to me by the internet's great hunter-gatherer, Tyler Cowen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Men, Women, and Humor

Women like funny men, but men like women who think they're funny. I find this true in my own experience and apparently the research agrees:
I found that women were more attracted to humourous men, but men's mate choice was uninfluenced by women's humour production. I also found that women were most attracted to a partner's production of humour, while men were most attracted to a partner's receptivity to their own humour. Men and women also differed in the extent to which they reported producing humour in the presence of the opposite sex; men reported a greater increase in their use of humour around the opposite sex than did women.
This must be at least part of the reason women are underrepresented in comedy improv, even at the theater I perform with. There is little doubt that women have the ability to be funny (I can name plenty of examples), but it seems men are socially groomed for it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Christmas Audio Wishlist

As I mentioned last year, Christmas is a tough time for people who like efficiency. 'Tis the season to give and receive more gifts then we would have otherwise bought without the social pressures of December 25th. Even worse, many of those gifts cost more than the person receiving them would have ever paid (creating a loss of wealth). Now before you call me Grinch, let me state that the increase in happiness people get from spending time with other people most likely outweighs the loss from gifts. That said, what I most want most from my loyal blog readers is not something I can buy myself, but something only you can give me. We all come across lectures, sermons, talks on different topics that we found interesting, but we don't always share them. This is your chance to make my daily commute more interesting with your favorite TED talk, NPR interview, or even local sermon. After all, I'm not afraid of the intangible gift. Please post the links in the comments and thanks in advance.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Economics of Menus

Restaurant menu makers use incentives to nudge customers in the most profitable direction. The more you understand them, the more you can avoid them:
1. The Upper Right-Hand Corner
That’s the prime spot where diners’ eyes automatically go first. Balthazar uses it to highlight a tasteful, expensive pile of seafood. Generally, pictures of food are powerful motivators but also menu taboos—mostly because they’re used extensively in lowbrow chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s. This illustration “is as far as a restaurant of this caliber can go, and it’s used to draw attention to two of the most expensive orders,” Poundstone says.

2. The Anchor
The main role of that $115 platter—the only three-digit thing on the menu—is to make everything else near it look like a relative bargain, Poundstone says.

3. Right Next Door
At a mere $70, the smaller seafood platter next to Le Balthazar seems like a deal, though there’s no sense of how much food you’re getting. It’s an indefinite comparison that also feels like an indulgence—a win-win for the restaurant.

4. In The Vicinity
The restaurant’s high-profit dishes tend to cluster near the anchor. Here, it’s more seafood at prices that seem comparatively modest.

5. Columns Are Killers
According to Brandon O’Dell, one of the consultants Poundstone quotes in Priceless, it’s a big mistake to list prices in a straight column. “Customers will go down and choose from the cheapest items,” he says. At least the Balthazar menu doesn’t use leader dots to connect the dish to the price; that draws the diner’s gaze right to the numbers. Consultant Gregg Rapp tells clients to “omit dollar signs, decimal points, and cents … It’s not that customers can’t check prices, but most will follow whatever subtle cues are provided.”

6. The Benefit Of Boxes
“A box draws attention and, usually, orders,” Poundstone says. “A really fancy box is better yet. The fromages at the bottom of the menu are probably high-profit puzzles.”

7. Menu Siberia
That’s where low-margin dishes that the regulars like end up. The examples here are the easy-to-miss (and relatively inexpensive) burgers.

8. Bracketing
A regular trick, it’s when the same dish comes in different sizes. Here, that’s done with steak tartare and ravioli—but because “you never know the portion size, you’re encouraged to trade up,” Poundstone says. “Usually the smaller size is perfectly adequate.”
Via Marginal Revolution

Friday, December 11, 2009

Worthwhile Sentences on Bad Government

From Tyler Cowen: "China uses American spending power to enlarge its private sector, while America uses Chinese lending power to expand its public sector."

From Milton Friedman: "The minimum wage is a law saying that employers must discriminate against workers with low skills." or "We regard the minimum wage law as one of the most, if not the most, anti-black laws on the statute books."

From the Tax Foundation: "Remarkably, the share of the tax burden borne by the top 1 percent now exceeds the share paid by the bottom 95 percent of taxpayers combined."

From USA Today: "The marketplace doesn't determine how many doctors the nation has, as it does for engineers, pilots and other professions. The number of doctors is a political decision, heavily influenced by doctors themselves." (and also the government)

From Bryan Caplan: "In the thirties, governments had Four Year Plans. Today, they have Four Year from Now Plans - big policies that basically don't kick in until the next election."

*Past worthwhile sentences.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Economics of Hell

I've been trying to quantify the impact of religion on economies and came across this:
results show a strong correlation between economic growth and certain shifts in beliefs, though only in developing countries. Most strikingly, if belief in hell jumps up sharply while actual church attendance stays flat, it correlates with economic growth.
I think it's because of the good qualities religion encourages that are important for economic growth. Trust, self-control, sympathy and fairness are all vital to economic cooperation.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Microlending: Good, Not Great

One of the first things I ever pointed to on this blog, and other lending agencies like it, recently got some bad press:
But two new research papers suggest that microcredit is not nearly the powerful tool it has been made out to be. The papers, by leading development economists affiliated with MIT’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab, have not yet been published, but they are already being called the most thorough, careful studies yet done on the topic. What they find is that, by most measures, microcredit does not offer a way out of poverty. It helps a few of the more entrepreneurial poor to start up businesses, and at the margins it may boost the profits of existing microenterprises, but that doesn’t translate into gains for the borrowers, as measured by indicators like income, spending, health, or education. In fact, most microcredit clients actually spend their borrowed money not on a business, but on household expenses, on paying off other debts or on a relatively big-ticket item like a TV or a daughter’s wedding. And while microcredit champions point to microloans as a tool for empowering women, the studies see no impact on gender roles, and find evidence that if any one group benefits more, it’s male entrepreneurs with existing businesses.
That's not to say they aren't helping, but they aren't a miracle solution.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Learning by Teaching: The First 13th Amendment

Here is a fact I recently came across in my AP US History class. Apparently before the familiar 13th Amendment was passed, another one had been proposed called the Corwin Amendment (named after the politician who proposed it). The amendment would have made any attempt to by the federal government to interfere with slavery illegal. This final attempt at preventing the Civil War actually passed through Congress, but was never ratified by the states (more proof that the Civil War was about states vs. federal rights not slavery alone). The most ironic part is that the proposal that later became the 13th Amenmdent actually abolished slavery completely. Even more interesting, becaue the Corwin Amendment was not given a time limit and could technically still be ratified today. Here is a list of other failed amendments, including regulating child labor, equal rights for women and representation in Congress for Washington D.C.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Physical Human Potential

Recently I've been wondering what humans are capable of; here's what I found. A human can

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Capitalism and Virtue

Many complain that the market is cold and callous, but the Acton Institute for the study of religion and liberty gives four great examples of how markets bring cooperation, not harmful greed:
Trustworthiness. Why do people keep their promises? There are surely many reasons. According to Smith, one of the more prominent is self-interest. He writes: “Where people seldom deal with one another, we find that they are somewhat disposed to cheat, because they can gain more by a smart trick than they lose by the injury that it does to their reputation.” Thus, the principal sanction that holds dishonesty in check is the loss of business that would follow the damage to the businessperson’s reputation. A reputation for being trustworthy will create business opportunities, while even a hint of suspicion of untrustworthiness may preclude such opportunities.

Self-Control. Trustworthiness assumes self-control. What, after all, is promise-keeping if not the ability or disposition to pass up an immediate advantage or gratification? That explains why, for Adam Smith, “self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.” Self-control is not a tradeoff between self-interest and the public interest; it is instead a tradeoff between short-term and long-term self-interest.

Sympathy. In a market economy, the fortune of an economic agent depends upon successfully meeting the needs of other people. To the extent that sympathy—or what might be called empathy—helps an entrepreneur to anticipate those needs, it contributes to economic success. Smith knew that sympathy is indirectly linked to self-interest because it might be in our self-interest to work to understand the needs of others.

Fairness. Like the other practical virtues, a reputation for fairness or equity is likely to create business opportunities. Since it is virtually impossible to regulate complex transactions by means of simple written contracts, in many cases parties prefer to restrict their business to those on whom they can rely not to take advantage of them if circumstances change. They are spared considerable transaction costs such as attorneys, auditors, and inspectors of all kinds.

All of the complaints against capitalism, except for maybe equality of results, are when we stray from markets and towards an intrusive government. Whether it's bailouts, bonuses, or stimulus packages, when the government does more protect property rights these virtues are skewed. What do you call a system where costs and benefits are returned to those who caused them? It's not Karma, it's capitalism.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Emptying the Bottle: Early-December '09 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:

Friday, December 04, 2009

Answering My Own Questions

A while back I considered renaming this blog "Answering My Own Questions", but I figured it's been through enough changes already. So instead, here's a list of random questions floating around my head:

1) What is the Ad Council?
Privately funded organization that helps other non-profits and the government advertise their public service announcements. To me it sounds a lot like the United Way.

2) What continent is Hawaii in?
Apparently there is a lot of controversy over how many actual continents there are. From I can gather it is part of the Oceania ("I remember when Australia was a continent"). This is further evidence for why continents are useless structures of human geography.

3) Who paid for Michael Jackson's funeral?
The memorial cost Los Angeles $1.4 million in security and traffic control. The rest was paid for by the family, the Staples Center, and the Jackson estate.

4) What does "ZIP code" stand for?
It stands for Zone Improvement Plan. It's a backronym from the 1960's that was originally named to imply the mail was quick.

5) After the Bible, what is the best-selling book of all time?
To my disbelief, the answer is Quotations from Chairman Mao at almost 1 billion sold. Here are the runner ups.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

We are Royalty

Not only are you rich, you are as rich as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. We know because we faced the same problem they faced, too much good food and relaxation, also known as heart disease:
subjected [mummies] to whole-body CT scans to look at their insides. 16 mummies still had identifiable hearts or arteries. And 9 of them showed hardening of those arteries.
and here's us:
more than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed as with coronary artery disease

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Roots of Prejudice

Whether it is a lack of interracial marriage, an anti-foreign bias in politics or a nativist desire to keep out immigrants, it's clear people naturally prefer people who are like them. Even Switzerland, usually seen as a bastion of tolerance, recently passed a Constitutional referendum banning the construction of Muslim minarets on mosques (the picture on the left is fear mongering propaganda from the campaign). I'm also not exempt from this trend. Most of my friends are white, twenty something, upper middle class, and college educated. I work hard to ensure my bias doesn't reach the classroom, but I think it is important to understand why these preferences exist. I believe the solution is the main point where my religious beliefs and economics background converge, human selfishness.

I believe people are totally depraved and rationally self-interested (or maybe this justifies our inherent extra selfishness). The Bible and other faiths say we should love or neighbor as a ourselves, assuming loving ourselves is the default. You don't have to teach children to be selfish, though sadly we do. So if we are our number one, then number two must be people who are like us. This is true racially, geographically (neighborhood, city, state, nation) and even within our social class. Not only is it easier to put ourselves in someone else's shoes who is like us, it is also more likely to be us in the future. My bet is that people from Boston were more sympathetic to 9/11 victims in New York or that people from Miami better understood the pain felt by Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. There is even evidence we are nicer to the siblings that look like us. The good news is as the world becomes more connected we see how similar humans are all over the world, the less prejudice we there will be.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Worthwhile Sentences on Education

From Justin Wehr: "The single biggest problem in the public school system is that schools are run by politicians in the interest of politicians instead of by businesspeople in the interest of parents."

From Lindsey Jones: "This is not to say that I need my students to love – or even like – what I’m teaching them in order for me to like and appreciate my job. But I gotta say, I’ve started to feel more like a parking cop and less like a purveyor of life-enriching knowledge."

From Tyler Cowen: "Vampires do not seem to mind social disapproval, and in this sense many teens look to them as role models."

From Mark Perry quoting Larry Summers: "male intelligence is inherently more variable than female intelligence."

From Penelope Trunk: "In typical parent fashion, parents stress what they are lacking so that their kids don’t lack it."

*Past worthwhile sentences.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Likelihood of Government Run Health Insurance

I'm not one to claim blogging will replace the mainstream media, but here's something TV regular fails to cover, prediction markets. I've talked before about the accuracy and problems of markets like, but there is a lot of evidence they are accurate. Despite all the media coverage of government health care reform, the possibility of anything actually passing is pretty small. The current chance of reform with a public option passing by June 10th this summer is 20%:

So next time you hear about the future, check the markets.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Don't Get Organized, Get Simplified

Now that Thanksgiving is over I can post on a Christmas related topic. In about a month we are all going to get a lot of stuff and as someone who participates in gift exchanges, I think it is mostly a good thing. But for some reason, some people allow their stuff to burden them. The Freakonomics Blog recently linked to the Happiness Project's 11 Myths of De-Cluttering. It's mostly about how desires for organization are just excuses to keep your house cluttered. When I moved to North Carolina last year I realized how much stuff I had that I don't use regularly. Stuff is great, but we should buy things that relieve the stresses of everyday life, not add to them. Our stuff should allow us more free time to spend with people we care about, not replace the people we care about.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bloggers Should Link to Wikipedia

One of my favorite things about writing online is that I can link old ideas to news ones. That is why throughout posts you will find links to old posts. Another benefit of online writing is that I can link my ideas to others' ideas. Instead of fully explaining some economics term or historical event, I just assume you know what it is and link to it just in case. But a problem arises when deciding which site to link to. There are plenty of choices, so which do you use? I say Wikipedia. Not only is it currently accurate (old post), it is also adaptively so. Information is always changing and wikis have the ability to chance with it. It is also a reliable down the road. Nothing is more frustrating than clicking a dead link (here's a site to check if you have any). And finally, Wikipedia is concise and familiar. Quick summaries at the top with details outlined below and best of all, no ads. So if I ever want to tell you about the least famous famous American, I'll probably link Wikipedia.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Last Names and Academics

I have seen this trend in my own classes; students with names near the end of the alphabet generally do worse. This reminds me of the classic correlation vs causation problem (my comments at the bottom). So here are my attempts at explaining this phenomenon:

1) Business owners with last names near the end of the alphabet are more likely to be in the back of the yellow pages (or at the end of a bookshelf), more likely to be less successful, and more likely to have less money to spend on their kids education.

2) Whether it's lining up for lunch in elementary school or handing out papers in high school, people with last names near the end of the alphabet may have a more contentious relationship with the educational system.

3) When put in alphabetical order, they may be more likely to be in the back of the class, which has a negative effect on learning.

4) Being at the end of the alphabet puts you later in class registry for college, which could decrease grades, which could decrease income, which could decrease the money spend on children's education.

5) Perhaps last names starting with X, Y and Z are harder to pronounce, which I can imagine has a negative impact on career.

I'm grasping at straws, anyone else have a better explanation?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful For Health Improvements

The Wall Street Journal recently 20 recent health advances, here are the highlights:
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Beware of Passion Fatigue

Sacrifice is a good thing, but too much of it can hurt you. I've talked before about how all relationships are part give and part take. I've also cautioned about having too many friends that take more than they give. Humans have their limits and when we try to push past them, it can cause huge mental and emotional distress. One example are judges who hear asylum cases for potential immigrants. Everyday they hear first hand the most horrifying stories from around the world. This has resulted in some of them developing secondary post-traumatic stress syndrome. Not only does this decrease the quality of their life, it also inhibits their ability to hear refugee cases without bias. If it is true in the extreme, it is probably marginally true for the rest of us. I've trying (and often failing) at taking more responsibility for those around me, but it is good to remember I have limits.

Emptying the Bottle: Late-November '09

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Talk Faster, Listen Faster

One of the complaints I hear from the classes I teach is that I talk too fast. I've tried to work on it, but maybe I shouldn't:
The average person talks at a rate of about 125 – 175 words per minute, while we can listen at a rate of up to 450 words per minute
Even if that second number is half what the research says it is, we should all be talking faster.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mister Diplomat Blog: A World Without Oprah

I've recently become a contributer to the Mister Diplomat comedy blog. Here's my first post:
In 1984, Oprah Winfrey became the host of a morning talk show that in less than a year became so popular that it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. That means I have never lived in a world without Oprah on TV, but this is about to change. Last Friday Oprah announced that she will be ending the show next season. From a ridiculous interview with Tom Cruise to pulling a Radio Flyer wagon full of 67 pounds of fat that she lost, who knew a woman with misspelled Bible character’s name could go so far. Even worse, with Oprah not giving away cars, boosting book sales or starting new television shows, we may just fall back into a recession. But don’t fret middle aged housewives, there is some silver lining to this daytime storm cloud. Perhaps Chicagoans who used to devote their time to Oprah will now leave their homes and go see some great improv. And now maybe now she’ll finally have time to take us up on our Diplomat guest offer.
Subscribe here to see me get my comedy writing feet wet.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Don't Tell My Students, Sleeping Helps You Learn

This could be a guest post from most high school students I know:
There’s nothing like a good nap. It can refresh your mood—and possibly your memory. Because a new study in the journal Science shows that a quick snooze after a mental workout helps to consolidate learning. And that sounds heard during sleep can trigger associations that sharpen memory even more.
Here's the full story.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Economics of "I Want One Too"

We've all seen children playing in a room with dozens of toys only to end up fighting over one. Most would explain this away with irrationality or jealously, but those reasons rarely satisfy me. A better explanation is that playing with a toy signals that it is valuable. When a child sees another child playing with a toy, it is evidence that the other toy is fun. When they try and take it and their friend resists, this only confirms what they suspected. This also helps explain the strategy used by parents to distract fighting children by showing them how fun other toys are. They are trying to signal that other toys are just as fun and aren't already being used. Speaking of adults, how are we like this too?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Combat Is Not the Only Threat

I stick by my statement made last year about letting sovereign nations decide for themselves whether they want American occupation. Here is a shocking statistic I recently heard about US deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom: So far in 2009 there have been 292 American combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. During that same time there have been 140 active duty suicides. I hate war, but I respect men and women who are willing to die while serving in the American military. The more I hear stories like this, the more I think the best way to honor them is by bringing them home.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yet Another Reason for Men to Get Married

Not only are wives smart, funny, educational, and a good investment, they're also good for you're health:
Swedish scientists have discovered that long life and good health have nothing to do with a man’s education and everything to do with his wife’s. Men married to smart women live longer — simple.
By improving our nutrition and keeping us from being too risky, educated women help their husbands live longer. They also help them die less:
The mortality rate among single men under 34 is about 2½ times higher than that for young married men. Widowed and divorced men over 80 have a mortality rate one third higher than married men.
This is yet another motivator for me to keep my promise to treat my wife well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Politics in Football

Here's some drama to get me into sports. Patriots have the ball, 4th down, 2 yards to go on their own 28 yard line. They're currently up by 6 with a little over 2 minutes left. Should they punt or go for it? The answer depends on what you want:
Economist David Romer studied years worth of data and found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, teams seem to punt way too much. Going for a first down on fourth and short yardage in your end zone is likely to increase the chance your team wins
If you goal is victory, go for it. But is that the coach's goal?
Even though going for it increases his team’s chance of winning, a coach who cares about his reputation will want to do the wrong thing. He will punt, just because he doesn’t want to be the goat.
This story was particularly interesting because of it's parallel to politics. The goal of a elected officials isn't to create good policy, it's to get votes. This should make us at least skeptical, if not outright pessimistic, of politicians.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Diminishing Marginal Utility of Wealth

Don't get scared by the title. Here's the vocabulary: diminishing: increasing at a decreasing rate, marginal: counting each increment, utility: happiness, and wealth: how rich you are. Or to put it plainly, Diminishing Marginal Utility means the more you consume of something, the less you enjoy it. The first bite of your dinner is better than the last. You'd pay one price for the first ride on a roller coaster, but you'd pay less for the 10th ride. Personality quirks can be charming on the first date, but get irritating by your one year anniversary. The same hold true for money.

Diminishing Marginal Utility of Wealth means the more wealth you have, the less happy each incremental dollar makes you. A dollar means a lot more to someone in third world, than it does to Bill Gates. I say this as a challenge to what I say regularly on this blog. Sure people are richer they than used to be, but does that mean they are happier? The general consensus seems to be that once humans get above the minimum wealth needed to support life, then the happiness brought about by each dollar gets smaller and smaller.

One possible explanation for why is happy amnesia. We forget how bad we used to have it. It could also be because happiness comes from relative comparisons of wealth. A keeping up with the Joneses mentality. A final reason could be the wealth/time constraint I've talked about before. That said, though they are diminishing, the benefits are not zero. There is still a strong correlation between measured happiness and wealth. We should continue pursue human progress, but not idolize it.

Update: The diminishing marginal utility of wealth begins at $40,000.

Sports as Reality TV

Since I can remember, I've never really been into watching sports. Don't get me wrong, I like participating. At my peak, I was playing basketball three times a week. But watching sports for entrainment never really appealed to me. Sure I went to football games at my high school, but that was more a social activity. Even in college, though I went to most home Clemson football games, I was always a fair weather fan. This weekend I went with my older brother Austin, who is a true sports fan, to watch Clemson trounce NC State 43-23. It was there that I finally understood the attraction of sports entrainment. My brother said it best: "sports are like reality television."

It's an unscripted documentary of real events featuring non-actors. People like sports for the same reason I like my favorite reality TV show, Survivor. The more you know about the players, the more relatable they are, the more interesting the show is. Committed fans know the back story. Whether it's the new up and coming coach or the possible Heisman winner, it's the drama that brings the audience in. That said, my sports apathy probably isn't going way. It's the same reason I didn't start watching Lost until after they announced how many seasons there were going to be. Time is scarce and I won't give sports the attention required to be engaging.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-November '09

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Only Strategy is Not to Play the Game

I did this bid last semester to convince students to take my AP Economics class and it worked perfectly. Sadly my class got canceled for budgetary reasons (the economics of economics?), but this video shows how an all-pay auction would be a good sell AP Political Science too:

Via Marginal Revolution. This is how the online auction site works. They sell a flat screen TV for $12, but make hundreds on sale. Find a product and watch the bidders countdown, as long as you're the one watching, not bidding.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basket Producer

I've written generally about my long term financial plans, but here is some simple, but good advice on how exactly to invest. It's a graphic from a recent addition to my blogroll, The main idea is diversity. Not only do you want to invest in a variety of companies in different industries, but also in in different countries. It might also be a good idea to put some money in businesses that actually do better in hard economic times.

Another idea mentioned is not investing in the company you work for. Even if you are getting a employee discount on the purchase, you are putting yourself at incredible risk. If your company goes bust, then you not only lose your savings, but your current income. For the same reason, it is probably not a good idea for breadwinners in the family to work for the same company. "But my company is a secure staple of the American economy." Tell that to the laid off employees of General Motors or Jim and Pam from last night's episode The Office.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Search Item Biography

Came across a quote recently about how we are most honest in our search box. Well, here are my search topics for yesterday (go here to find yours):

7:34pm: poop as a fuel source: wanted a funny comeback to a blog comment
6:22pm: gay celebrity: wondered if Ellen Degeneres would be the first result, she wasn't
1:52pm: spanish mission: wanted to show a picture to my students
1:07pm: o magazine: my wife must have been on my username
9:16am: us map in 1850: also for a class
9:04am: dark horse: read this in a text book and wasn't sure what it meant
8:55 am: stephen austin: always get him mixed up with Sam Houston
8:43am: davy crockett: trying to figure out if he survived the Alamo, he didn't
8:21am: bad in school if your name is at the end of the alphabet: upcoming blog post idea
7:43am: harrison brookie: apparently I searched my own name first thing, can't remember why

Not as interesting as I would have thought. Maybe blogs should have a side bar of what the writer searched for that day. It has the potential to be either really boring or really weird. I found an RSS feed for the "hot trends" on Google, but it updates every hour. Anyone know where I can find a daily version?

Work Comes Back Home

Friend, fellow improviser, and the World's Best Presenter two years running, Jeff Brenman, recently posted another interesting slide show. It's about the increasing trend of working from home. Thanks to increases in communication technology, jobs that were created only a decade ago, are already be homesourced. However, the title of the slide show, The Future of Work, misrepresents world history. Working from home isn't the future, it's the past. Before the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800's almost all people worked on the family farm. It wasn't until the birth of factories that men left the home to work. Perhaps the last two centuries may be the exception to the long term trend of working from the home. As someone that commutes a lot, I look forward to that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm Not a Special Interest

I take it back, I'm not one to lobby government to help me out at the expense of other citizens. Since I bought my car last year, I've put 30,000 miles on it. That's 82 miles a day, or about an hour and a half of driving. Despite my long commutes to work (45 mintes), theater (25 minutes) and church (20 minutes), I not only denounce consumer price bullying, but support a gas tax. Here's why:
After adjusting for inflation, Americans now spend some 35 cents less per gallon of gasoline than they did in 1950.
Don't worry there's more:
Increased gasoline prices would have spurred more rapid development of fuel-efficient automobiles and alternatively fueled vehicles such as electric cars.
and more:
Air pollution would have been reduced significantly
and it's not just for hippies:
The Federal treasury would have received more than $250 billion over the past 12 years [with a 30 cent tax]. These funds could have been used to reduce the deficit or to address other critical needs, such as rebuilding America's transportation infrastructure.
There also the reasons I've mentioned before of less behavior distortion and reduced traffic deaths.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Importance of the Economy on Human Life

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the successive end to the Cold War, I'd like to make a brief comparison on the impact communism and capitalism have had on human life. According to the Black Box of Communism, direct governmental take over of a national economies has resulted in 100 million deaths. That is equal to the number of dead from World War I and World War II combined. However, the impact of capitalism is not one of destruction, but of creation. The emergence of the free market, which in turn allowed for the Industrial Revolution, brought about the largest increase in prosperity ever seen in human history. The population of the world had been relatively constant, at about half a billion, until this increasing wealth has brought another 6 billion people into the world. I not only thank unhindered human industry for more life, but also for a better life.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

DISH, Texas

Here's the story behind the name of the town:
The municipality was previously named after its founder, Landis Clark, who incorporated it in June 2000 and served as its first mayor. Clark was beaten by one vote in the Spring 2005 election by Bill Merritt.

In exchange for renaming the town, all residents of the town have received free basic television service for ten years and a free DVR from DISH Network. There was no formal opposition to renaming Clark; twelve citizens attended the council meeting to support the measure.
Don't tell Ed Helms, but I didn't pay anything for Harrison, Ohio.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Love Your Spouse as Your Neighbor

Recently I heard some good advice from a friend's Google shared item (are you still not sharing?). It was about how married couples often treat strangers better than they treat the one person they have vowed to love. My first instinct is to say I think that's bad, but my actions are probably a better measure of my true beliefs. I need to understand why I in my head, which seems to be stronger than my heart, I act this way.

After a fun show at the theater last night, I got the chance to talk with some audience members and I really enjoyed it. On the ride home, I felt the need to continue the conversation, but my wife was busy watching Rihanna's interview with Diane Sawyer (she loves human interest stories). Then it hit me, I selfishly love interacting with strangers, especially ones that want to interact with me. For the low low price of a couple minutes of polite questions, these people will walk away with a positive opinion of me. My wife on the other hand, has a lot more information. One conversation with her has less impact on her opinion of me because it is one of many.

But don't worry, this is a confession, not a justification. If it's inexpensive to gain the approval of strangers, then I'm probably getting what I paid for. Random people forget me as quick as they met me. My wife's admiration, because it is based on many interactions, is more valuable. Her opinion of me is not based on the me I want people to see, but the real me who puts his dirty clothes on the back of the couch, rarely does dishes, and probably spends too much time blogging. The solution is to recognize that cheap praise, is just that, cheap.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Emptying the Bottle: Early-November '09 (II)

Here is a summary of the Google shared items from worthwhile sites I've found lately:

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Phillies Lose Globally

Just a few minutes ago the New Yankees beat out the Philadelphia Phillies in game 6 of the World Series. After the game I noticed the players were wearing championship merchandise with their logo on it. This got me thinking, what would happen if this was game 7 and they didn't know who would win? Answer: they would make two versions and shred the products of the losing team. Seems like a waste to me and apparently to the NFL:
They will be shipped Monday morning to a warehouse in Sewickley, Pa., near Pittsburgh, where they will become property of World Vision, a relief organization that will package the clothing in wooden boxes and send it to a developing nation, usually in Africa.
Sadly, even in third world countries, the Phillies still lost.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Supply and Demand for Husbands

Surprisingly, some women in Russia are lobbying their government to legalize polygamy because "half a good man is better than none at all":
"Friends of mine in Siberia told me that their friends were lobbying parliament to legalise polygamy," she says. "I always knew that there were men who like the idea of polygamy, but what I found fascinating was that women were also in support."

So is the recession going to turn the good burghers of Tunbridge Wells into polygamists? It's unlikely. But it remains the case that the reasons why men – and, even more interestingly, women – are advocating polygamy in Russia and Mongolia are as much about economics as they are about sex. The critical issue is demography. The Russian population is falling by 3% a year – and there are 9 million fewer men than women. Nationalists, such as the eccentric leader of the Liberal Democratic party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claim that introducing polygamy will provide husbands for "10 million lonely women" and fill Mother Russia's cradles.
As a libertarian Christian this is one of those tough issues for me. I want to give people the freedom to chose their best life, but I wonder if they know what their best life is.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Get Rich Slowly

As of yesterday my wife and I are 100% debt free. In one year we paid 30% of a teacher and social worker's income to knocked out my student loans. Now we can start working on the rest of our financial plan:

With all this talk of savings it got me looking into how much I'll actually have to set aside, especially once Traci starts to stay home with the kids. I've talked before about how the stock market is so complex that it is essentially random. What this means for the average person is that stock market is for long term, not short term saving. Historically there’s an 55% chance that the stock market will give a 10% return over one year. There’s an 85% chance over a decade. But, there is a 100% chance of earning that return over a 30 years. Here's a resource for calculating how much you have to save/invest each month to reach your goals. For example, you have to only have to invest $442.38 a month in the stock market at 10% over 30 years to reach a million dollars! I'm looking forward to sitting down with a professional financial adviser in the near future to see if my opinions, which are a combination of my economics background and financial radio talk show host Dave Ramsey, make sense in the real world.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Emptying the Bottle: Early-November '09

Here is a summary of the Google shared items from worthwhile sites I've found lately:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Market Knows Best

One of the main complaints against capitalism is the unwieldy power "the market" has. Stocks go up or down seemingly at random, speculative bubbles burst affecting even those not investing, businesses distort prices to victimize consumers, etc. These all too often misunderstandings of the free market forget that "the market" is simply a result the combined preferences of consumers and relative scarcity. Gold is more expensive than iron because the collective preferences of buyers prefer the attractiveness of gold. Anytime the government tries to regulate these prices (taxes, subsidies, minimum wage, etc) they confuse the information embedded in them. What's most amazing is the combined wisdom of market agents can give us a lot of information even before we know what it is. Here's a great example from an old college professor of mine:
We provide evidence on the speed and accuracy of price discovery by studying stock returns and trading volume surrounding the crash of the space shuttle Challenger. While the event was widely observed, it took several months for an esteemed panel to determine which of the mechanical components failed during the launch. By contrast, in the period immediately following the crash, securities trading in the four main shuttle contractors seemingly singled out the firm that manufactured the faulty component. We show that price discovery occurred without large trading profits and that much of the price discovery occurred during a trading halt of the firm responsible for the faulty component. Finally, although we document what are arguably quick and accurate movements of the market, we are unable to detect the actual manner in which particular informed traders induced price discovery.
In other words, the market was able to figure out what went wrong before the scientists did.