Monday, January 30, 2012

Emptying the Bottle: Late January '12 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.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Last Post!

1000 posts and over 4 years ago, on January 16th, 2008, I did my first post. Today I write my last post. Not the last post I'll ever write, but the post I'd like to have put up last. Let me clarify. I got the idea from a blogger, who asked his family and friends to publish one last pre-wrtitten post for him when he died. I figured, why wait until you are actually on your death bed? So here are my final thoughts, that I expect to update annually and would like to be reposted after I die.

1) I am doing this to ensure I get to a say in what is written about me when I die. Knowing me in person is the best way to get a grasp for who I am. Sharing stories about me is the second best. Reading this blog is probably the third best. Although my recently deceased grandfather's obituary was fine, it wasn't what I would like mine to say.

2) This is also a chance for me to finally get a legal will and updated life insurance. Your death will already be hard for your loved ones. Any future planning that can make their grieving better should be done.

3) I'd like to die how doctors die. Please spare me any "futile care". Life isn't about surviving.

4) This post isn't about being morbid. It's about facing reality. I will die. And like most of life, it will probably be unexpected. I doubt we think about too much about death and expect the opposite to most likely be true.

5) My final thoughts resemble those of James Madison's deathbed letter entitled "Advice to My Country". His greatest desire was the the United States to perpetuate. My loyalty is a little more localized. My greatest hope is that my family would perpetuate. That my loved ones be taken care of in my absence.

Although I don't want to be buried or have a grave stone, if I did, I'd like this on it: "He Really Lived. He Really Died. He Really Lived Again."

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Past, Present, and Future of Greenville Manufacturing

I love it when NPR does a story on my hometown. Just this week Planet Money did a two part series on the history of American manufacturing through the lens of Greenville, SC. Here's my version of the story:

The Past

With several forces coming together at the right time, the early days of the Industrial Revolution brought about radical economic change. Work moved from the home to factories in cities, greatly improving human life, wealth, and morality. Which meant the late 1800's and early 1900's saw huge economic growth. These increases in production, and in turn increasing wages, didn't require very much expertise (assembly lines run themselves) and could often be created by a lone genius inventor.

The Present

Then we had The Great Stagnation. The Industrial Revolution picked up all the low-hanging fruit of innovation. Printing press, cheap western land, fossil fuel powered machines, penicillin, clean water, cars, planes, basic worker education, etc. all made life better quickly and relatively easily. Computers, cancer research, alternative forms of energy, college education for all, etc are all slow going and complicated to benefit from. Also, much of the innovation of machinery and globalization of trade has replaced the low skill industrial workers of the past and it's still happening (just check this old and new video of automobile manufacturing).

The Future

If you read the full Planet Money story in the Atlantic the future looks grim. Workers are suffering in the name of profit. The poor try, but can never succeed. The reality is a little more optimistic. Every time a human is replaced by a machine (or even a cheaper human) customers benefit. And since all workers are also customers, even the replaced workers' lives can improve. The unemployed of today probably have better living standards than the employed of the 1910's because of increases in productivity. That's why I support some kinds of social safety nets (especially the kind that retrains replaced workers). I also suggest that when choosing a career be sure you can't be replaced by a machine in your lifetime (hint: don't go into the toy assembling business).

The Distant Future

Though if I did have a worry about how technology impacts society, it would be about fertility. As technology improves, jobs become more complicated. That's why the return on education is actually greater than it used to be, even non-economically speaking (especially if you weren't "supposed to go"). This increase in complexity requires an increase in education. Which is usually fine because increases in education result in increases in pay that exceed the cost of that education. But what I'm specially worried that if jobs become so complicated that they require decades of education, they could delay plans for family past the point of our most fertile years. What if we have to learn so much we can't have babies anymore, increasing the future underpopulation bust? My guess is creating a family while still in school will become a more common trend.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reader Request: Do Christians Really Believe?

I always take reader requests. Here's one from blogger and interesting thinker, Justin Wehr:
Here's one I'd like to see you respond to:
They believe that they believe, but their beliefs are of the easily disposable kind. Suppose you could take a devoutly religious person, ask him, “Are the tenets of your religion true?” and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I’m guessing that nine times out of ten, you’d find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there’s rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters.
Quote from Steven Landsburg that I came across in this post: 
Here's what I want to know 
  • Which (if any) tenets of your religion would you hold onto and which (if any) would you discard if your kid's life were on the line? 
  • In your estimate, what percentage of pious people would become, in the above situation, "born again infidels"?
One of the things I noticed on my summer European tour is how global cultural religion is. The American South is famous for religious culture, but it exists everywhere and in every religion. First I'll respond to a specific points made in the post linked above:
If there really is a heavenly and eternal paradise awaiting us after death, one would think more people would be in a rush to get there, right?
I can only speak for Christianity, but the Church mostly agrees that although we long for heaven, we have a mission here on earth. So suicide or a reckless life does not fit with Biblical teachings. Now if the writer had complained that Christians don't live out the second half (the mission part), then that is a legitimate complaint. One that atheist Penn Jillette makes really candidly in this video.
To put it simply, most [religious people] don’t live their lives as if they absolutely believed in the words their religious texts profess. For example, if I truly believed in the Christian God, with absolute certainty, I would live my life in a way consistent with that.
I'm curious what he means by this. If he means living a "good life", that is not the description the Bible seems to describe (Old and New Testament). The Christian life is one of repentance, sin, growth, hardship, joy, etc. And for that, I have witnessed many living that life. Which I don't think this writer gets:
Most religions assert that God is watching our actions even when others aren’t watching. If this were true, my inner economist would tell me that people would avoid displeasing God at all costs.
Now to respond to Justin's blockquote. I think the opposite is true. When people's lives are on the line, we see more religious conversion than abandonment. It doesn't seem to me that this person knows many Christians. I think most I know (let's say 90%), my self included, would not waiver. The biggest belief I am personally sure of is the grace of Jesus. I know of no other way to explain my own failures and my own triumphs. The rest of Biblical doctrine is more malleable. For example I now go to a church that practice believers baptism, which I'm not convinced of. I go to a church that doesn't believe in predestination, which I am convinced of. But I still find myself connected our surety in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Proof of Gmail's Superiority

Working for the school system means sometimes I have to deal with Microsoft Outlook. Here's proof that Gmail is better for you:
We carried out a field study of 345 long-term users who conducted over 85,000 refinding actions. Our data support opportunistic access. People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.
Yet the school system still blocks all Gmail access.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

No One's In Control

Everybody's favorite conservative, David Brooks, on Ron Paul (and really the Tea Party):
I sympathize with their sense that they have lost control of their country. That doesn’t mean that the people who have control are operating in some dark room in the Federal Reserve Building. The fact is nobody really has control. Not even Obama or Bernanke. That’s what’s nice about this place.
Via Justin Scott's Big Find.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Yawning as an Empathy-O-Meter

just try not to
A friend recently shared a CBS News segment on the sociometer, which measures a person's charisma. But what if you want to measure or improve empathy? Here's an interesting way to tell:
A popular theory for how yawns spread is that they automatically engage the empathy systems in our brains. Consistent with this, past research found that children with autism, some of whom have difficulty empathising, are immune to the contagious effects of yawns
Now Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi have developed this line of enquiry, showing that we're more likely to catch a yawn from relatives than acquaintances, and more likely to catch them from acquaintances than strangers - presumably because we have more empathy for people with whom we're emotionally intimate.
Similar to touching, it seems our brain has many ways to force us to empathize.

Money Can't Buy You Votes

With the Republican primaries dominating the news these days, it's worth taking a look at. But unlike most reporting which feels more like sports commentary based on either hunches or the obvious, the boys at Freakonomics ask an important and interesting question: Does Money Really Buy Elections?:
When a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra one percent of the popular vote. It’s the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose one percent of the popular vote. So we’re talking about really large swings in campaign spending with almost trivial changes in the vote.
So even though I'm a big supporter of publishing who gets what money from where, what I thought in 2008 and  2010 still stands. Campaign donations are like voting, they are a way to show your support, but they don't matter much.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Worthwhile Sentences on Relationships

From Justin Landwehr: "Maybe I don’t want to care about impressing you, but I sure as hell want you to care about impressing me"

From economist Al Roth: "Let’s just say that marriage is a dynamic game that you play over a lifetime."

From the Simple Dollar: "The trick to a good presentation is to realize that the audience mostly just wants for the presentation to be over so they can do other things"

From Leela Turanga Turanga Leela: "Society is never gonna make any progress until we all learn to pretend to like each other."

From Anna Jonathan Franzen: “Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Difference Between Conservative and Liberal

A while back I did a two part series on Why I'll Never Vote for a Democrat (because big government has done more horrible things than big business) and Why I'll Never Vote for a Republican (because most change in American history has been good). Though I'll probably eventually vote for both parties (if I vote at all), I have very little patience for the talking points of each (and so do about 30% of Americans). But I talk a lot about political parties and especially political ideology, so I think it's important to put down specifically what I mean when I use the words conservative and liberal (full disclosure I claim to be a libertarian, but most see me as a conservative) .

As I've mentioned before, the two words are used so much and so differently that they have almost lost meaning. At the heart of each word is their definition. Conservatives literally want to conserve. They want to keep things the way they are (or if they're lucky bring them back to where they were). Traditional is praised. Change is pessimistically feared. Liberals literally want liberty. But by liberty they mean freedom to live the life one desires (freedom from harmful controlling forces). The future is praisedChange is optimistically pursued.

But this all gets confused when looked at within a nation (especially one as unique as the United States). Our Founding Fathers were a mix of Conservatives (like the architect of our central banking system Alexander Hamilton) and Liberals (like the ardent freedom fighter Thomas Jefferson). But even these men would not fit into our modern usages of the words. I doubt Alexander Hamilton would consistently support (or could even imagine) the amount of government regulation we have today. And I doubt Thomas Jefferson would consistently support (or could even imagine) the level of personal freedom we each have with the internet, automatic machine guns, and international connectivity. And if you look back in time and support either of these two, it is by its nature Conservative.

So how can we accurately measure relative terms that change based on time, geographies, and issue? I suggest looking to at how we order from menus. A Conservative, who by nature expects future uncertainty to be worse than past certainty, will order what they always order. In my case, bacon cheeseburger with a side of fries. A Liberal, who by nature expects future uncertainty to be an improvement on past certainty, will order something new. In my case, bacon cheeseburger with a side of seasoned fries. Well, I guess by my example you know where my heart is. I don't do well with change.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Major Problem with the Gold Standard

Ron Paul is back and so are his calls for the gold standard. I've talked before that even though gold is the best element for exchange, it still can be gotten rid of, so has similar problems of a fiat standard. However, Tyler Cowen (the only person with his own label on my blog) thinks it has more foundational problems:
The most fundamental argument against a gold standard is that when the relative price of gold is go up, that creates deflationary pressures on the general price level, thereby harming output and employment. There is also the potential for radically high inflation through gold, though today that seems like less a problem than it was in the seventeenth century.? 
Why put your economy at the mercy of these essentially random forces? I believe the 19th century was a relatively good time to have had a gold standard, but the last twenty years, with their rising commodity prices, would have been an especially bad time. When it comes to the next twenty years, who knows? 
Whether or not there is “enough gold,” and there always will be at some price, the transition to a gold standard still involves the likelihood of major price level shocks, if only because the transition itself involves a repricing of gold. A gold standard, by the way, is still compatible with plenty of state intervention.

Monday, January 09, 2012

I Don't Want to Buy Anything

Loyal reader Free Spirit recently asked how the transition has been to my new smart phone. I'd break my use down to 25% email reading, 25% blog reading, 25% gps, and 25% other (camera, games, social networking, calculator, flashlight etc). Mostly things I was already doing right when I got home, but now I can do them on the go, in the line, and on the toilet.

But the biggest change has been my purchasing satisfaction. In the last month I've bought the two things I've been researching and reading about for almost 4 years, a smart phone and a nice TV. And since I've bought both I literally haven't wanted much else. I recently realized that if my income went up $50,000 I'm not sure what more I would buy. Unless you can tell me some thing I'm missing...

Emptying the Bottle: Early January '12 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.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Why Losing Weight is So Hard

Because your body fights it:
A full year after significant weight loss, these men and women remained in what could be described as a biologically altered state. Their still-plump bodies were acting as if they were starving and were working overtime to regain the pounds they lost. For instance, a gastric hormone called ghrelin, often dubbed the “hunger hormone,” was about 20 percent higher than at the start of the study. Another hormone associated with suppressing hunger, peptide YY, was also abnormally low. Levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses hunger and increases metabolism, also remained lower than expected. A cocktail of other hormones associated with hunger and metabolism all remained significantly changed compared to pre-dieting levels. It was almost as if weight loss had put their bodies into a unique metabolic state, a sort of post-dieting syndrome that set them apart from people who hadn’t tried to lose weight in the first place.
This is why it's important to be active and never gain the weight. But that's hard.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Alien Life Letdown

For the longest time it seemed obvious to me that alien life did not exist. Extraterrestrial life seems important enough to have either science or religion saying something clear about it. Then it occurred to me: what if alien life isn't a big deal? What if life on other planets exists, but it's just some simple cell or bacterial life? Or maybe if we're lucky, it's grass. Alien grass, that would be, well, something.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

You Can't Multitask, But You Can Divide Your Attention

One thing I've noticed as I simultaneously entered the world of smart phones and texting is the impossibility of multitasking. Something else I've noticed is the possibility of dividing your attention. There is a difference. Multitasking implies the ability to do more than one thing at a time as well as you would do it by itself. This has been shown to be not possible. When ever you do a task, your brain puts a certain percentage of it's effort towards it. For example, let's say normal driving requires 75% of your brain and texting requires 50%. That means when you do both, you are really doing neither very well. Oprah agrees.

However, I believe it is possible to divide your attention. That is, to do two tasks that require very little percentage of your brain. For example bad TV, which I estimate to require about 35% of your attention, and playing Pocket Tanks on my iPhone, which requires about 25%. I can easily do both of these tasks, even counting for the deadweight loss percentage probably required to switch between the two. So be careful not to overload your brain, but also because not to waste those valuable percentage points.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Diversified New Year's Resolutions, 2012 Edition

For 2010 and 2011 I made several New Year's Resolutions. Both years I was only halfway successful. But as I was sitting down evaluating my past goals I noticed something. They haven't really changed. Here they are, originally from December 30, 2009:
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. (here's the blog I intend to keep up
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? (she choose for me to do 10 minutes of house cleaning a day)
And this year I'd like to add one more: 6) Be on time. I've come to the conclusion that in order to be on time for everything you have to be early for most things. And thanks to my new smart phone I'll have something to do while I'm waiting.

Oh and just to be sure I don't feel like I've accomplished anything by posting this, assume I've failed.