Saturday, December 31, 2011

How to Make a Twentysomething Have a Midlife Crisis

Read my old post about how our perception of time changes then have them read this:
We all know that time seems to speed up as we grow older - but according to studies at the University of Cincinnati in the 1970's, this effect is so pronounced that if you're 20 today, you're already halfway through life, in terms of your subjective experience of how time passes, even if you live until you're 80. And if you're 40 - again, assuming you live to be 80 - your life is 71% per cent over. Basically, if you're older than about 30, you're almost dead.
Happy New Years...

Friday, December 30, 2011

Alchemy Improv Comedy with Stories from Chris White

Every so often I like to post a video of a different kind of improv show I've been doing. Here are two examples  from my old college group (and here's another I haven't posted called Snakes on a Stage that is a must see). Here was a Harold and Two-person show from my days at the DSI Comedy Theater. And here's one from a team I coached there.

Now here's one of the first shows from Alchemy Improv Comedy, the company I run out of Greenville, SC:

Part IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Warfare

In honor of the end of American direct involvement in Iraq.

From NYT's Nicholas Kristof: "When the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussed on television whether the 9/11 attacks were God’s punishment on feminists, gays and secularists, God should have sued them for defamation."

From a bounty hunter: "God made man but samuel colt made them equal."

From The Daily Beast's Jesse Ellison: "In fact, it is the high victimization rate of female soldiers—women in the armed forces are now more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat—that has helped cast light on men assaulting other men."

From Ohio State political scientist John Mueller: "Your chance of dying in a bathtub is about one in a million, and from terrorism is about one in 3.5 million"

Monday, December 26, 2011

Holiday Card from a Reader

By listening to my holiday advice on getting people exactly what they ask for he got me just what I asked for. From Justin from here.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Avoiding Xmas Deadweight Loss, Part VI

Okay, last one (for this year at least):
You’ve found that perfect, pricey gift for your significant other. Now, you decide to pick up a little something else. But wait! The second smaller gift can actually take away from the powerful impression of gift number 1. That’s according to an analysis in the Journal of Consumer Research. [Kimberlee Weaver, Stephen M. Garcia and Norbert Schwarz, The Presenter’s Paradox
The researchers call it the “presenter’s paradox.” The person presenting the gifts thinks more is better. But the receiver unconsciously averages the two – so a cheaper addition makes the bigger gift seem, surprisingly, cheaper itself. 
The researchers evaluated seven test situations. In one, subjects were asked to assign a value for a gift iPod. Others were asked to value an iPod plus a free mp3. The participants assigned a significantly higher value on just the iPod. 
And this occurs in other facets of life. Participants in another trial were asked to rate the severity of a littering punishment. And they rated a fine of $750 as a more severe punishment than a fine of the same $750 fine plus two hours of community service. 
So, to avoid the averaging effect, keep it simple with gifts. It’s the thought that counts. The one thought.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Late December '11 Links

Here is the best of what I've shared on Twitter recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Avoiding Xmas Deadweight Loss, Part V

Just in case you haven't finished up your shopping yet, here's some more holiday saving (ruining?) advice on gift giving:
my first guideline for efficient giving: Gift-giving should be redistributive. Reciprocity is a lovely sentiment, but the holidays are an excellent time to rebalance the overall family or friend group portfolio in favor of its needier members.
Not sure if I agree with the desirability of that, but I think it is definitely true. Here's another:
When you step outside the circle of things you know for sure your gift-getter likes, you risk creating a massive deadweight loss. (You give her a ticket to Las Vegas, without knowing that she hates gambling.) But with the greater risk comes a greater potential reward.
And once you've decided to give a gift, you should give an experience:
In particular, people consistently overrate the extent to which money in general and material possessions in particular will make them happy, underweighting interpersonal relationships and new experiences in the process. So try to give your loved ones the opportunity to go do something new, ideally with other people.
Here's part one, two, three, and four of the series.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Legality of Santa Clause

Santa's not real. If you're reading this and you didn't know that, I'm sorry. In fact, if you're reading at all and you didn't know that, I'm very sorry. But if Santa was real, would he be an international criminal?:
I. Trespass and Consent  
At first glance it might seem that Santa Claus is liable in tort and criminal law for trespass, but the homeowner’s consent negates both charges. Sending letters to Santa, hanging stockings with care, setting out milk and cookies, and the like are all clear manifestations of consent for Santa Claus to enter one’s home and deposit presents (or coal, as the case may be). Indeed I suspect it would be quite difficult to find someone who received a present from Santa Claus yet could honestly claim that he or she did not consent to its delivery. 
II. Airspace Restrictions 
Another potential problem with Santa, as with many superheroes, is the issue of air travel regulations. In Santa’s case however, the fact that he is tracked by NORAD suggests that he has clearance from the US and Canadian militaries to travel through US and Canadian airspace essentially unrestricted. 
III. Customs and Immigration 
Santa may be cleared to travel through US and Canadian airspace, but what about entering the countries in the first place? As it turns out, Canada has extended Canadian citizenship to Santa Claus, so the answer is trivial for Santa’s travels through Canada. Furthermore, as a Canadian citizen his entry into the US is fairly straightforward because he’ll only be in the country for a few hours; there is no need for a special visa. One brief stop at a border crossing when he enters the US is all he needs. If he can visit millions of homes around the world in one night, that small delay is unlikely to present a problem. 
Customs is a bit trickier as Santa Claus ordinarily would have quite a lot to declare. It seems clear, though, that Santa does not actually physically possess all of the presents to be delivered in his sleigh (obviously that would be impossible!). Instead his sack of toys functions as a kind of teleportation device, allowing him to pull out presents as needed, as depicted in this well-known documentary. That would seem to neatly skirt the problem of filling out the world’s longest customs form.
Though he may be breaking some European labor laws:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XXVIII

Going back to part 1 of this series there is a difference in the way humans and animals learn. But perhaps the biggest difference isn't learning, but teaching:
I know this may come as a surprise, but it does so because we tend to mix up teaching and learning. A young chimpanzee can learn how to smash nuts on a rock by watching an older chimpanzee in action. And when she grows up, her own children can learn by watching her. But in these situations, the students are on their own. They have to watch an action and try to tease apart the underlying rules.
The article goes on to give some possible exceptions, but it's interesting to think I could be the missing link.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Experience Bank

Everything either brings net positive emotions (happy) or negative emotions (sad). They also bring varying amounts of happiness or sadness. For example, the night I got engaged was one of the happiest days of my life. Let's just label that 100 (happiness) points. My recent move on the other hand, has been fairly difficult. Let's label that -25 (sadness) points. Positive experiences add a finite amount to our life satisfaction and negative ones subtract a finite amount from it. The balance of those events are the measure of how we feel about our lives.

Although this seems obvious there are some interesting implications when you start to consider that experiences, like money, can be borrowed. Upcoming events, both and good and bad, have expectations. Those feelings are you taking some of those points out before they are earned. Here are three scenarios:

Neutral: Imagine you have a holiday coming up. The entire week before you imagine all the great experiences you are going to have. When the day arrives, it goes exactly how you thought it would. But when things go exactly like we think, even when they are great, we aren't ecstatic. It's because we consumed a lot of the positive happiness points before the event even happened. We borrowed from future happiness. This Louis C.K. bit describes it perfectly.

Deficit: But like real debt, sometimes we can predict our future earnings incorrectly. Imagine that same holiday is coming up and we have the same expectations. But nothing happens. No one shows up to your get together. No one calls. Nothing. Then you are sad. You're not sad because nothing special happened. Nothing special happens all the time. You're sad because all week you borrowed from the experience bank and your Christmas bonus didn't come.

Surplus: Now imagine a third scenario. The holidays are coming up, but you have no expectations of fun. All week you dread the day because you just know it is going to be miserable. Then suddenly all your friends and family arrive for some amazing holiday fun. You explode with joy. You hadn't consumed any of the experience value until that very moment and now you get to gorge.

So which situation is best?Neutral account? Deficit account? Surplus account? Well clearly the deficit is worst. No one likes to be let down. Except I see a lot of people who live their life like this. They have unrealistic expectations for the future. They live rich in the present, but will suffer in the future. A surplus account also has it's problems. Sure you get the explosion of joy when things turn out great, but in the meantime you are miserable.

That why I personally prefer a neutral account. You get to spread out the joy (or pain) of events over a long period of time. It's not about being optimistic or pessimistic. It's about being right. It's giving the gift people want for Christmas is best, even if you were able to accurately guess what they wanted. And why having a loved one die suddenly is worse than having them die slowly (unless they die too slowly which creates a whole different experience). This is what happened with my recent life transition. The experience itself wasn't that terrible. I had just not expected my life to ever get worse. I had been borrowing from my "imaginary eternal spiral upward, into a bigger and better future".

But here's the kicker. I started this post assuming my preference was the right answer. But I broke one of my own presuppositions that people have wildly different preferences. It turns out some people do like to play the lottery. Conversely, other people fear change so much they would rather be a little more sad in the present than ever be really sad in the future. I expect that there are different discount rates for happiness like there are for money. Perhaps being experientially patient results in more wealth just like being economically patient results in more real wealth. I know I often tend towards preferring the present too much. So feel free to get your hopes up or down, just know there is no so such thing as a free hope.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dreams May Help Calm Us

By exposing us to our bad memories when our brain can better handle them:
During REM sleep, which is the dreaming stage of sleep, the brain stops releasing stress chemicals. Now a new study finds that as we dream we can even soothe our stressful associations to certain experiences. 
Scientists scanned the brains of 35 subjects while they viewed emotionally arousing images. Half of the subjects viewed the images in the morning and again in the evening of the same day. The other half viewed the same images in the evening and then again the next morning after sleeping. 
Those who slept between viewings reported a significant decrease in their emotional reaction to seeing the images the second time. And brain scans corroborated the self-reports, showing a reduction of activity in the amygdala, an area responsible for processing emotions.
So it helps us learn emotionally and intellectually. I wonder if this a reason to argue with your wife before you got to bed or to definitely not argue with your wife before you go to bed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Avoiding Xmas Deadweight Loss, Part IV

In parts one, two, and three of this series I've discussed how to prevent the efficiency loss of Christmas. I've suggested giving guilty pleasures, giving in your expertise, exchanging names and buying less gifts, and using Amazon's patented auto-return policy. But perhaps the easiest (and most efficient) way is to just get exactly what they asked for:
Five studies show that gift recipients are more appreciative of gifts they explicitly request than those they do not. In contrast, gift givers assume that both solicited and unsolicited gifts will be equally appreciated. At the root of this dilemma is a difference of opinion about what purchasing an unsolicited gift signals: gift givers expect unsolicited gifts will be considered more thoughtful and considerate by their intended recipients than is actually the case (Studies 1–3).
And here's how you ensure this:
In our final two studies, we highlight two boundary conditions for this effect: identifying a specific gift and using money as a gift. When gift recipients request one specific gift, rather than providing a list of possible gifts, givers become more willing to purchase the requested gift (Study 4). 
And then there's always cash:
Further, although givers believe that recipients do not appreciate receiving money as much as receiving a solicited gift, recipients feel the opposite about these two gift options (Study 5).
This is why this year I'll be exchanging names with my siblings and I asked for 1) Greenville event/activity tickets (expertise), 2) Apple gift card (guilty pleasure=cash), and 3) a thin mouthed gray Nalgene bottle (very specific). Though the more I consider the idea that giving is better than receiving, I wonder if doing neither is best.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

OUCH!#$*%&! Makes You Feel Better

My wife and I go back and forth about the acceptability of cursing. Here's one argument for the foul side:
The researchers found that 73% of the participants kept their hands under water longer while swearing, replicating the original finding. On average, the swearers lasted 31 seconds longer in the cold hand plunge.
And here's the most interesting part:
Interestingly, however, the more frequently participants reported swearing during the course of their daily lives, the less effective cursing was at killing their pain and the shorter their endurance time in the cold water test.
Here's why:
It seems that swearing may help relieve pain by activating the brain's endogenous opioids, the natural pain-relieving chemicals whose effects on the brain are similar to pain drugs like morphine and oxycodone. As with opioid drugs, repeated swearing may increase people's tolerance to their effects, and cause them to need higher "doses" of cursing to achieve the same effect. In some sense, people may become addicted to — or at least physically dependent on — cursing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New Place and New Phone

If I'm going to talk about the bad, I should give updates on the good. First, I got a new phone:

photo taken by my wife's matching iPhone 4S

For a guy who reads a lot about smart phones, it's taken me a long time to actually dive in. Just looking back at my old phone reminds me of my old car. I'm hoping to keep up with my blog reading and so far it's been helpful. I hope to keep to my previously posted texting rules and I've been trying to limit my use while driving. Though it is unusual to be excited to pull up to stop lights and be excited. Let me know if there are any great uses for smart phones I should know. The other good news is I've moved:

this one was taken by my phone

After struggling for 4 months to find a house, my wife and I have decided to take a break. We'll be taking my old advice and renting for a while. We plan to pick up the hunt next summer. In the meantime we are downtown and close to my work. Now if I could just get a break from school for a couple weeks...

Economics of Speeding MPG

I've done the economics of speeding tickets. Now here's what speeding costs (more than I thought), from a new blog I've been following The Simple Dollar:
if you’re tooling along on the interstate at the speed limit of 65 miles per hour and drop that back to 64 miles per hour, you’re actually improving your gas mileage by about 1.5%, according to
Here's how it plays out:
In short, driving one mile per hour slower will add six minutes to the trip and save you $1.04 in gas. Your savings simply by driving one mile per hour slower is $10.40 per hour.
I highly recommend the practical advice regularly posted at The Simple Dollar.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Culture of Economics Today

This has been my experience as well:
Economists don’t have to be free-marketers. But that ends up being the canonical model, and then everything else ends up being a departure from the canonical model, which you’ve then got to explain why you’re departing from. It’s not because the canonical model is right, it’s because you ask most economists and they’ll say, “At least we understand how that economy works very, very well. So you want to tell me that we’re going to move away from this one and move to something else, that’s fine, but you have to explain why you’re putting in all of these imperfections.” So it’s not that you can’t write those things down, it’s just that there is less of a standard way of doing it. 
Economists essentially have a sophisticated lack of understanding of economics, especially macroeconomics. I know it sounds ridiculous. But the reason why I tell people they should study economics is not so they’ll know something at the end—because I don’t think we know much—but because we’re good at thinking. Economics teaches you to think things through. What you see a lot of times in economics is disdain for other's lack of thinking. You have to think about the ramifications of policies in the short run, the medium run, and the long run. Economists think they’re good at doing that, but they’re good at doing that in the sense that they can write down a model that will help them think about it—not in terms of empirically knowing what the answers are. And we have gotten so enamored of thinking things through that the fact that we don’t know anything needs to bother us more.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What's Wrong with America

Here's what the other half of the economics blog Marginal Revolution says in his new book published by TED:
Unemployment, fear, and fitful growth tell us the economy is stagnating. The recession, however, is just the tip of iceberg. We have deeper problems. Most importantly, the rate of innovation is down. Patents, which were designed to promote the progress of science and the useful arts, have instead become weapons in a war for competitive advantage with innovation as collateral damage. College, once a foundation for innovation, has been oversold. We have more students in college than ever before, for example, but fewer science majors. Regulations, passed with the best of intentions, have spread like kudzu and now impede progress to everyone's detriment [the worst he seems to claim is limits on immigration]. Launching the Innovation Renaissance [link] is a fast-paced look at how we can accelerate innovation and build a solid 21st-century economy.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Buy Local, Waste Resources, Part II

The Freakonomics blog does what I tried to last year, but so much better than I could have dreamed. First, the thesis:
Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals—all of which come at a cost of carbon emissions.
Now the numbers:
In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals.
And the issue of transportation:
It’s not even clear local production reduces carbon emissions from transportation. The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser estimates that carbon emissions from transportation don’t decline in a locavore future because local farms reduce population density as potential homes are displaced by community gardens. Less-dense cities mean more driving and more carbon emissions.
And here's what happens to cost:
A local food system would raise the cost of food by constraining the efficient allocation of resources. The monetary costs of increased input demands from forsaken gains from trade and scale economies will directly bear on consumer welfare by increasing the costs of food. And, as we try to tackle obesity, locavorism is likely to raise the cost of precisely the wrong foods. Grains can be grown cheaply across much of the country, but the costs of growing produce outside specific, limited regions increase quickly. Thus, nutrient-dense calories like fruits and vegetables become more expensive, while high fructose corn syrup becomes relatively cheaper. 
Finally, higher costs on certain foods may be a solution to the big health challenge in the developed world. But higher prices on any food are precisely the wrong prescription for the great health problems in the developing world, where millions remain undernourished.
A Freakonomics commenter gives a pretty good response:

Well, if we’re going to think like economists, then lets talk about how we got here. The food distribution network cannot thrive as it does now without the massive public works program called the Interstate Highway system, which subsidizes distant food movement.

Which is why I have called several times for a higher gas tax.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Legalizing Marijuana Leads to Less Traffic Deaths

I've given my argument (in factsstories, and loser drug dealers) for the legalization (and decriminalization) of drugs. Here's another about another of my favorite topics, driving:
To date, 16 states have passed medical marijuana laws, yet very little is known about their effects. Using state-level data, we examine the relationship between medical marijuana laws and a variety of outcomes. Legalization of medical marijuana is associated with increased use of marijuana among adults, but not among minors. In addition, legalization is associated with a nearly 9 percent decrease in traffic fatalities, most likely to due to its impact on alcohol consumption. Our estimates provide strong evidence that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Early December '11 Links

Here is the best of what I've shared on Twitter recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

One More Reason to Get a Real Tree

As I am unable to get a tree this year (can't have a tree without a home), I can be comforted that no tree may be better than a fake tree:
In 1930 the U.S.-based Addis Brush Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. The company used the same machinery that it used to manufacture toilet brushes. The trees were made from the same animal-hair bristles used in the brushes, save they were dyed green.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Working Around Immigration Restrictions

I've talked a lot about immigration and the reasons why I think we need more (patriotic reasonsmoral reasons, economic reasons, population reasons, employment reasons, and selfish reasons). I've also briefly discussed it's costs. Well here's a new company hoping get to highly educated immigrants around the complicated legal systems and get them working. First here's an example of how it's already happening:
Microsoft's decision to open a new Vancouver office in 2007 as an example. He said the decision to open the facility, which could eventually have as many as 5,000 employees, was motivated by the difficulty of getting visas for foreign workers. 
"They chose Vancouver because they wanted to be relatively close to Seattle," Siskind says. The decision to locate in Vancouver "was a real shame because out of those 5,000 jobs, at least 4,000 were going to be for American workers." Now most of those jobs will go to Canadians, and Microsoft will be able to bring in non-Canadian workers under Canada's less onerous immigration system.
Here's the rules that made that happen:
Immigration law makes it difficult for many would-be immigrants to get permission to work in the United States. For example, there's an annual cap on the number of H1-B visas available for American employers to hire skilled immigrant workers. However, permission to travel to the United States for business or tourism is much easier to get.
Now here's a weirder way around them:
Blueseed plans to provide regular ferry service between the ship to the United States. While Blueseed residents would need to do their actual work—such as writing code—on the ship, Marty envisions them making regular trips to Silicon Valley to meet with clients, investors, and business partners. 
With the ship only 12 miles offshore, it should be practical to make a day trip to the mainland and return in the evening.
It reminds me of the company I posted about 3 year ago, the Seasteading Institute, which wanted to create floating islands of libertarianism. In fact, it even looks like it:

And unlike Seasteading, this actually seems reasonable:
Blueseed estimates that rents will range from $1,200 per month for the smallest rooms to $3,000 for the largest—figures Marty says are comparable to what entrepreneurs would pay for an apartment and office in Silicon Valley.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XXVII

Christmas present edition:
Male nursery web spiders often woo potential lady-friends with gifts wrapped in silk. Mating may ensue, during which a female unspools the present, expecting to find a tasty treat. But the males can be unscrupulous. Some offerings contain inedible plant seeds or empty insect exoskeletons.
But he won't stop skimping until she starts noticing:
Females clearly prefer males bearing edible presents. But some males know they can get limited action without expending the energy on a real gift. And the females laid almost the same amount of eggs fertilized by males bearing real or phony gifts. With both strategies successful, the behavior gets maintained. And the species stays stocked with deadbeat dads.
The difference for humans is we have posters:

But don't worry gentlemen, the ladies of the animal kingdom can be cheaters too:
The Scientific American blog post (based on this paper) makes it sound as if the males are the only ones using deception and dirty tricks. But why do the males silk wrap their gifts? Why not just present the females with food? 
Females presented with food will often grab the food and run, leaving the males doubly hungry. A wrapped package is harder to steal (the males have a better grip on the silk) and as the females slowly unwrap their potentially delicious presents the males copulate.
Sounds kind of like engagement rings.

Maybe There Are Only Two Continents

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Gospel Response in One Experiment

The golden rule makes you feel like gold:
When a person performs an act of kindness the brain produces dopamine, associated with positive thinking. Secondly, the brain has its own natural versions of morphine and heroine: endogenous opioids, such as endorphins. It is believed that when a person does an act of kindness they feel good on a chemical level thanks to the production of these endogenous opioids.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Why Men Have Less Friends

Or why the move to be closer to family has been harder for me than for my wife:
Drawing on decades of research, Thomas Joiner weaves a neglected story about how the manly pursuit of status, power, wealth and autonomy leads to great rewards in work and play but at the expense of loving, caring friendships. This is laid out beautifully in his book to be released this week titled, Lonely at the Top: The High Costs of Men's Success.
Although not complete, this article is the simplest explanation I've heard yet.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Gospel in One Experiment

Prior to reading a scenario in which they were to imagine being mistreated by their classmates, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three perspective-taking conditions: (a) recall times when they mistreated or hurt others in the past; (b) imagine how the victimized classmate would think, feel, and behave in the scenario; or (c) imagine the situation as the personal victim. Participants then read the scenario, which was followed by an elaborate apology from the classmate. Results from both cultures indicated that, compared with the participants in the control condition, the participants in the recall-self-as-wrongdoer condition were significantly more likely to accept the apology from the classmate and forgive the transgression.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Growing

From Muhammed Ali: "The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life."

From neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert: "So once you don't need to move, you don't need the luxury of a brain."

From Jonathan Swift: "A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying... that he is wiser today than yesterday."

From Lindsey Jones: "The things most worth doing are so hard most people will quit before they get them done."

From economist Bryan Caplan: "Our ability to change others is overestimated. Our ability to change ourselves in underestimated."

Global Skin Color

Here's the source of the map below and the explanation why it represents the the skin color of the indigenous people:
The twin role played by the skin – protection from excessive UV radiation and absorption of enough sunlight to trigger the production of vitamin D – means that people living in the lower latitudes, close to the Equator, with intense UV radiation, have developed darker skin to protect them from the damaging effects of UV radiation. In contrast, those living in the higher latitudes, closer to the Poles, have developed fair skin to maximize vitamin D production.

And it doesn't take that long for decedents' skin color to change:
for many families on the planet, if we look back only 100 or 200 generations (that's as few as 2,500 years), "almost all of us were in a different place and we had a different color."
If my more racist ancestors could see me now.