26 December 2005

Too many choices: blogsphere style

If you know me or read my blog often you know I don't believe in too many choices. Just pick one already! But I couldn't help despairing, if only for a moment, over all the different blog sphere choices at my disposal. For instance, I have accounts here here here and here (won't even get into online dating sites... haha). That seems a bit excessive, in fact you may be thinking that I enjoy filling out all the registration forms for these sites. The actual reason for all my accounts as you are probably well aware is that in order to interact with users of a particular system you often have to have an account on the system. To add comments many blogs require you to login. To connect to friends on systems like facebook and myspace, you obviously need an account.

What is the weapon of choice to slay the beast of many choices... hyperlinks of course. Specifically, set up your bare bones account and then link it to your choice sites.

25 December 2005

Two blog posts on Christmas

Few things sadder than two blog posts on Christmas... Actually, I'm fine with it. I've had some time to catch up on some of my favorite blogs as well as get through a good chunk of my current reading interest, The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Not to mention watching some funny videos (vulgar) with my brother and cooking up a delicious pasta with linguiça white sauce!

As the saying goes, "there must be opposition in all things." Well, in the long run, experiencing a Christmas outside my family's normal tradition may only make my future desire to have the tradition that much stronger. And, God-willing, I'll have plenty more Christmas-es with which to test my theory!

Cohabitation: Morality versus Evolution

In my experience the debate over cohabitation before marriage is dominated by this general debate

Con: Cohabitation before marriage leads to a higher rate of divorce (... for such and such a reason). Divorce, generally, is negative. Therefore cohabitation should be avoided.
Pro: Marriage is a big commitment. Cohabitation gives you a clearer vision of whether it will work out or not. Maybe cohabitation leads to more divorce for some people, but I will take my chances.

David Friedman's new blog has an interesting new take on this conundrum. His basic premise is that evolutionarily we become more emotionally attached to people with whom we have physical relationships. As such we may settle for a less than ideal mate today because the benefit of the relationship now seems to outweigh the uncertain future benefits if you go back on the market (and potentially don't find an equally good option). Because we "severely discount future benefits" cohabitation will lead to less searching and therefore a lower probability of finding of the ideal mate.

This is the kind of stuff I like to read. Unconventional approaches that lead to surprising conclusions.

20 December 2005

State of Confusion, Part II

We have all heard girls and women complain that they are expected to look like the models and celebrities in magazines. In fact, it has become so common, that the only appropriate response to such complaints is for the guy to say, "Of course we know that all the pictures are airbrushed." Though I would surmise that not all know to what extent. Well here is an example of the evil magic (takes a minute to load). If you like that link, you'll probably enjoy this one too.

I'm less interested in why magazines do this and what its effects are on teeny-boppers than I am about finding out how much it would cost to have my mug done up style!

Thanks (as always) to MR for the tip. Yes, I freeload off them a lot for my entries... sue me, at least I am citing them.

State of Confusion

I read a review for Michael Crichton's most recent book, State of Fear, which pretty much wrote it off as NeoCon propoganda. Every since I've been wanting to read it. Finally, a few days ago I found time to block off for some "trash fiction" and I picked up the book to see just how bad it really was. (NOTE: I do not use the term trash fiction in a derogatory sense. It has it's purposes and I plan to write a trash novel one day!)

The basic plot of the book is that a rogue environmentalist group is trying to convince the world that global warming is a serious threat through the use of environmental terrorism. The protagonists start out as good intentioned if ill-informed environmental activists. Then a "real" scientist, named Kenner, comes along and tells them that all they think they know about global warming is wrong. A couple of his broad points are as follows

  • The globe isn't warming very much if at all.
  • Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by humans are, at most, very small contributors to this.
  • We cannot predict climate change, nor can we say that computer simulations that predict climate change are anything more than guesses.
Much of the books was devoted to the characters arguing between convential wisdom on global warming and the non-convential, yet "real" science that Kenner proposes. It is obvious that Kenner is just a mouthpiece for what Crichton believes himself as he flat out says in the Author's Note at the end of the book.

I didn't check any of the many references that Crichton lists through out the novel, nor do I know much about the topic in the first place. Just as the main characters did in the beginning of the book, I think pretty much everybody believes in global warming. Yet sitting down, immersed in the novel, I found some of the arguments persuasive.

So as a novel, I found it mildly entertaining. As propoganda, I found it mildy persuasive. As a new look at how people can be manipulated into believing things fiercely without having a clue what they are talking about, I found it to be a success!

If for nothing else it might be worth reading just to see if you know enough about global warming and the current science to knock down Crichton's arguments. Unfortunately, I am not, so I can only speak as a member of the "general readership" and say that it was an interesting book.

15 December 2005

Would you survive in Rio? The beta test of the test

What are your chances of survival?

Edit: Post your results in the comments section!

14 December 2005

Significant: The insignificance lessens.

My Brazilian apartmentmate and I are trying to figure out how to economize a bit next semester. Every one knows the electricity bill can be huge, especially in the winter. But really how much are you saving if you take a slightly colder shower, or turn off the heat and use an electric blanket?

First let's assume a 10 cent per kilowatt hour rate. Now we need a tasty example. How about heating up some pão (bread) for café de manhã (light morning breakfast). I am using Portuguese because I'm using my appliances here in Brazil as an example. As I see it there are four methods of heating up my pão.

The Oven. We have a tiny one, but for all the heat it loses making the handle untouchable, I'm going to assume it is pretty inefficient. I'll assume 1 kW/hr. Time to cook: 15 minutes. Total cost: 2.5 cents

The Microwave. I would cook on high power so, 1.4 kW/hr. Time to cook: 30 seconds. Total cost: 0.12 cents

The Light Bulb. Standard 60W bulb gives .06 kW/hr. Time to cook: 30 minutes. Total cost: 0.3 cents

The Rio Sun. According to a solar car site, about 1 kW/hr on a square meter on a sunny day with the sun directly overhead... but that is a mute point since it is free.

I've order the above by the quality of preparation each cooking method gives me. Over the course of my stay here in Rio, had I used the microwave every morning instead of the oven, I would have saved $4.28 (180 days * [oven tc - microwave tc]). My time here has no value, therefore the oven is the winner!

Edit (12/16): Yeah, so my oven is gas... I guess I'll need to revise my calculations.

09 December 2005

The final analysis

During finals season, I always seem to suddenly become very busy with non-studying related activities. First year it was Settlers of Catan, second year was Age of Mythology with Wu, third year was Invisible Heart and a crazy Role playing game Chris made up, and forth year I'm going on a weekend retreat and then to the beach. But with me gone, and with no blog updates, you'll be ever more productive. Stop reading now and come back in a week.

Now for all of you still with me, you naughty kids, here is my short list of worthy diversions to keep your mind off all those heady matters like Econometrics, Microbiology, and Computer Architecture...

Sudoku - If you haven't already been sucked into this one, you should probably wait until after finals
Face Transform - Click here for Jeff of all Times and Nations
Hive Intelligence - A neat idea

06 December 2005

Corruption on the roads... Mob vs. Gov't

The bus ride home from Fundão takes about 1 hour. Taking a van takes more like 40 minutes (beacause it skips a bunch of stops in Centro and goes straight to Zona Sul). When I first arrived, I thought this was a wonderful solution for people who wanted a straighter shot home after a long days work, or not, as the case may be.

Anyway, I got to thinking about how they determined which van drivers take the route from Fundão to Zona Sul. Apparently the vans are somewhat illegal, or at the very least the government doesn't regulate them. So what keeps all the van drivers from taking the best routes and leaving others alone. At first I thought it was that the drivers would move around a lot, always looking for the best route. If a route goes dry, they could just switch to a better one that fewer other drivers are running on a particular day.

But after seeing the same drivers, more or less, doing the same routes day after day, I started to wonder what could be reducing their mobility to other routes. Believe it or not, it may be the mob. It seems that if the government doesn't restrict entry (through licensing) and it doesn't protect a van drivers' right to drive around willing customers then that leaves room for somebody else steps in. In this case, it is the mob.

For a fee, the mob allows bus drivers to take a certain route (if you don't pay, I don't know what happens, but it probably ends with you without your van/life). They do this by selling stickers that the drivers place up in the front wind shield to show which route they are running. I think they rent them on daily or weekly basis. This restricts entry to those drivers that feel they can make a profit after costs (van maintain, gas, doorman, mob fee, personal alternatives, etc). First glance says that means you only get the most efficient drivers to run the routes with expensive stickers. However, it is also prone to corruption, because if you know the mob you can probably get a discounted sticker, so maybe you end up with drivers with mob connections.

A lot of this is speculation based on my poor understanding of van drivers speaking in Portuguese, but its still pretty interesting.

04 December 2005

The upper limit, perhaps n does not approach infinity

I have always been torn on my feelings about skyscrapers. On the one hand, the design genious and grandour says something amazing about human ingenuity. On the other, they also hold an air of human cockiness and inefficiency. But they continue to rise to new heights as we develop new technologies (faster elevators, lighter/stronger building materials) and feed the desire to stand above the competition. So eventually all building will be skyscrapers, right?

Well, according to this geologist, your high-tech, earthquake resistant skyscraper, may cause my low-tech 1950's apartment building to tumble to the ground. If this is proven to be the case, shall we call on government to enact regulation to nullify this negative eternality?

First glance tells me yes, we should. Building a new tall tall building is different from introducing a new technology. Whereas the new technology may throw some people out of work, it does so by increasing the efficiency of the production process. In a competitive market, this efficiency is passed along to the consumers in the form of lower prices and better selection of products. In the short run, what for a few workers feels like a negative eternality, is more often than not outweight by the positive benefits. However, with the skyscrapers, if they do cause earthquakes, the negative external effects would probably outweigh the benefits, right? Potentially causing billions of dollars in damage and taking lives...

Second glance is not so sure. It really all depends on the increase in the probabilty of earthquake caused by the skyscrapers. The problem is, even if the increase is really small, if an earthquake occurs, blame will likely be placed on the skyscrapers. However, if the increase is sufficiently small, then regulating the size of skyscrapers could cause more harm than good.

30 November 2005

Introducing, Nucleo Boy! (Obituary)

In one of those crazy Friday afternoon thank-goodness-the-weekend-has-finally-come-gee-I -am-going-to-use-a-lot-of-dashes moods, I have decided to create my own self-fulfilling proffecy, namely, "this blog is going downhill, fast." Luckily it hasn't far to fall.

This just in...

In a freak nuclear accident, an american researcher was exposed to a high dosage of radiation while operating an off-site control room simulator. The source of the radiation is unknown, but the effects were quite clear. The photo below was taken just prior to spontaneous human meltdown, a controversial occurance that has never been caught on film (nor has it here).

Insignificant Microb, here I come.

29 November 2005

Magneto is no match for the Doritos Heroes!

Perhaps the only thing sadder than having spent the time putting together these almost 3d chip bag "action figures," is the time it took me to figure out how to construct Tempestade (Storm).

An ensemble of your favorite Doritos heroes. Wolverine, Tempestade, and Homem de Ferro

The economics of this situation (why Doritos put these in the bag instead of lowering the price, why I am eating Doritos and not Tostitos, why I put these things together and didn't spend the time looking for a job, etc) would cover nearly all the material for an introductory Economics course. The last italized part may cover the material for two Abnormal Psychology courses...

28 November 2005

The Little Prince... it's all relative

I have been reading O Pequeno Príncipe (or The Little Prince). In the story there is a prince that lives on a planet. In the illustrations it appears that his height is about 1/4 the diameter of the planet. At the moment I don't find the book particularly interesting so my mind wanders...

How would I behave if I suddenly found myself of a similar size on Earth (about 2000-ish miles tall)? I would think I would want to do the least damage possible and hopefully use my size for good, but how? Well I'd probably need to stand in the ocean because otherwise I'd crush millions of people with my 300 miles long feet. And eventually I'd need to sit down. The only viable place I can think of would be Antarctica. But in addition to killing lots of penguins, I'd melt the ice caps with my body heat and drown half the world's population (this is not to mention lying down to sleep where even if I did so in the ocean, I would displace enough water to cause big problems in low-lying coastal regions).

In fact, there doesn't appear to be much I could do without screwing up people's lives and the environment. So I'd probably take a big leap and hopefully eventually get to Mars. Only the equal and opposite force of the jump would probably send Earth careening out of its orbit and colliding with Venus. But if I had to do it I'd need a launch site. Iran came to mind first, but that's I realize 99.99% of the people there are awesome, so I probably again use Antartica. So really the best thing to do would be to somehow vaporize from existance (but without enough heat to ignite the atmosphere or anything like that).

Or better yet, just stop dreaming and find a job.

27 November 2005

Elasticity of Demand with respect to Transaction Costs

When transaction costs are high relative to the value of the good, you may find yourself doing rather strange things. Consider when you need one rubber band or one paper clip but you don't have one at the house. Obviously you aren't going to the store to buy one paper clip. That would take 30 minutes and you end up buying a whole package because they don't sell just one. So instead you engage in a work around activities.

I use a rubber band to secure my door key to my wrist when I go running. See below for my work around activity when the rubber band broke. To get an idea of the transaction costs of finding another rubber band, notice the number of iterations on the work around activity.

Count 'em... That's four knots.

24 November 2005

Things I would have bet against, turkey style

After every Thanksgiving meal in my memory, some one would bring up the sedative effects of Tryptophan in the Turkey as an explanation for everyone's drowsiness. In fact, it has almost become a cliché after dinner conversation on Turkey Day. Well folks, when the inevitable happens tonight, lay this one on the battle field (dinner table) to stir the crowd out of their (falsely attributed) stupor!

Operating under a new grading paradigm

In the U.S. a bad grade on a test is always a bummer. But alas, you suck it up and say, "I will do better on the next one. After all it is only the final grade that matters."

Here is quite a bit different. If your average on the first two test is a 7/10 or higher, you don't need to take the final. You pass the class and it's over. If your average is less than 7 but greater than 3 you must take the final which is weighted 50% of the overall grade. You will pass the class if you recieve an overall grade of 5 or higher.

Under this system the emphasis appears to be on passing. There is not a lot of worrying about grades so long as you pass. I finished my Applied Statistics II class with an 8/10, which was the average of my first two tests, so I "got" to skip the final. However, if an 8/10 translates into a B- in the U.S., then in the U.S. I would probably opt to take the final and perhaps improve my grade so my GPA doesn't suffer. But not here... I take my 8 and am just happy I don't have to take the final. Besides, the class credit transfers but not the grade.

I feel bad for the OSU students here, who's grades transfer too... Luckily for them, our program director is essentially making up the grade conversion table between the two universities. And with finals coming up, it may be a good time to take him out to dinner ;).

22 November 2005

Pascal's Wager... save your money.

The premise is simple enough. God either exists or He does not. If you believe in Him and He exists, in the next life you will have infinite happiness. If you believe but He does not exist, or you do not believe and He does exist, or you do not believe and He does not exist, then you gain some non-infinite happiness in life. [Described more rigorously here (pdf)]

As the math works out your expected value of believing is infinity, which means even if you are uncertain about the existence of God, you are better off believing (even if the probability He exists is extremely small). In the paper by Alex Tabarrok, linked above, Mr. Tabarrok makes an interesting offer. Let's say you are uncertain about God's existence and Alex comes along. He says, hey, I'll talk to God and help you get your foot in the door. According to the logic of Pascal's wager, not only should you take Alex's offer, but you should be willing to give him all your wealth for it... even if you think its possible that he doesn't really have pull with God (which he probably doesn't!). He is even kind enough to put his address at the bottom of the paper to recieve your checks! If it is hard to see why his argument works, and it was for me, read the paper... It is actually entertaining and really short.

The problem with all this talk surrounding Pascal's Wager is that the wager itself is weak. It rests on assumptions that are themselves uncertain. Why should we assume that belief in God, given He exists, will bring infinite utility (joy). Has he told you that? If you believe He has, then I would hope you also believe the other stuff He says to you too... which might help you understand the nature of belief.

For instance, perhaps you cannot believe just because you will it to be so. So even if you accept the wager, you cannot go from a state of unbelieving to believing. You need to believe in God first, to believe He can/will offer this eternal reward. If you think you don't need to believe first, then I might as well come up with Jeff's Wager which says I'll offer you infinite joy. Granted the probability is probably lower than in Pascal's Wager, you'd still have to accept it.

I think, help me figure this one out. Oh, and give me an equation to describe the nature of the universe. And I know I am taking a theoretical argument and trying to apply it to real life...

20 November 2005

Putting woman on the moon...

Don't look to rockets or mass elevators or rail guns... no, the answer lies in eastern European contortionists. While performing an experiment inspired by a recent numb3rs episode, I attempted to see how many times I could fold a piece of paper in half.

Answer: 7.
Thickness of paper before folds: .0001 m
Thickness after 7 folds: .0128 m
Surface Area (one-side) before folds: .05677 meters squared
Surface Area after folds: 4.4 E -4 meters squared

Let's now apply the same concept to our contortionist... To get to the moon we need to travel 385,000,000 meters. How many times does our contortionist have to bend and fold to get to the moon...

Thickness of contortionist : .15 m
Thickness after 31 folds: 322,122,547 m
Surface Area (one-side) before folds: .42 meters squared
Surface Area after folds: 3.9 E -10 meters squared

I don't know about you but that doesn't seems to hard to do! Granted our little contortionist would be very little after the folds, about the width of an atom...

18 November 2005

Two way to two...

I learned in Mr. Block's 9th grade geometry class that 1.999... = 2 . That is, "One point 9 repeating" is another way to write "two." Speaking of all this making sense but not agreeing stuff, and a recent comment by Anne on the same topic, I went in search for a proof. I found this discussion. Here are some clever attempts...
If x=1.999...infinity, then 10x=19.999...infinity. Subtracting 10x from x gives 9x=18. Dividing both sides results in x=2.

1.99.. does equal 2

1.99.. = 1.99..

1.99.. = 1+ .99..

1.99.. = 1 + 9 * .11..

1.99.. = 1 + 9 * 1/9

1.99.. = 1 + 1

1.99.. = 2
Because .9999... means a decimal with an infinite number of nines after it, the only possible value for 1-.9999... would be .0000000....1 in other words, an infinite number of zeroes..... followed by a one. Clearly, this is absurd, and therefore 1-.999999... must be zero.

As fun as these are, as far as I can tell, they aren't based on real math. I think 1.999... = 2 by definition.

12 November 2005

The Army supports the playing of Civilization IV

You may have heard of the recent release of Civ4, the newest edition of the the best PC game series ever, also widely accepted as the most addicting game ever. In fact, instead of the ESRB's rating of "Everyone 10+", I would suggest this more appropriate warning,

Everyone 10+ EXCEPT people with dependents, people in a relationship or trying to be in a relationship, people in school, people who work, people on a time sensitive medication schedule, and people that rely on food for subsistence.

Fortunately for this blog, Civ4 has not yet been released in Brazil, and so I will continue to update it until said game reaches the stores (Nov 15th). Granted that I find a way to get nourishment without leaving my computer, I'll still need a way to brush my teeth. This is where the US Army comes in. They are developing a chewing gum to replace tooth brushing. And they thought they were doing it for the soldiers in the field... well, I'm going to create my own world, build up my empire, and DOMINATE everone who gets in my way!!! So give me the gum NOW!

(You can download the DOMINATE link by following the instruction at the bottom of the download page... video is highly recommended.)

11 November 2005


Unsolicited e-mails are annoying, but thankfully spammers are not very clever and so it is easy to pick out and delete without having to read them. Usually by reading the first line of the e-mail you can tell it is spam. Here is one suggestion for the problem of generic spam salutations

Don't start the letter with Dear Valued Customer... which is a very common spam salutation. Instead try to guess the name of the recipient by using some version of the e-mail moniker. Many times you'll probably get the name right... such as with jsmith@rigthwingconspiracy.org. How about starting it Dear Mr. Smith if it is for Viagra or Dear Mrs. Smith if it is for flowers. Sure you may be wrong half the time or more, but if you do get it right you might earn just a bit more credibility... perhaps enough for the recipient to actually view the contents of the message.

Got any others?

07 November 2005

All I want for Christmas is... Thanksgiving

In the U.S. Christmas decorations rarely go up before Thanksgiving. However, lacking Thanksgiving, the Christmas spirit starts early in Brazil. The Rio Sul shopping mall aready has a huge display across the entire front of the building. So what do Amazonian and subtropical trees look like decked out in white lights and tinsel... I wouldn't know, because they use coniferous trees just like in the U.S. (no, I don't mean real ones)

06 November 2005

The value of guest bloggers

I've been debating contracting a guest blogger for the following reasons...

  1. I am a little dry on ideas right now. If you stop by my blog and don't see a new entry you may not think twice. If you do it several times in a row you might knock me off your list of sites to check. Then again perhaps it is unfair to demand your attention if I am not producing attention-worthy material.
  2. I want to get as many people I know involved in blogging as possible. This would give an opportunity to a non-blogger to get a feel for the medium without feeling committed to keeping up his/her own blog.
  3. Guest bloggers often have ideas "saved up" and offer a fresh breath to a stinky blog.
  4. Because I aspire to be like MarginalRevolution.

01 November 2005

It makes sense but I don't agree with it

A few years back my Dad told me about an advertisement for a radio program where in the announcer stated something like the following about a planned guest, "He makes sense but we don't necessarily agree with him." Over the insuing months this caused some heated debate at family/friend gatherings where it was brought up. I think, as of a year ago or so, it has been outlawed as a topic of convesation... so I am going to revive it now from the only place I safely can, 5000 miles away in Brazil.

Can you rationally believe that one's argument makes sense and yet not agree with it? Since the start of the argument, I have said "No, you cannot." I've been of the opinion that those that answer "Yes" to that question are confusing what it is really saying. Their argument usually goes something like this
I can see how they would think that. The argument makes sense to them. But I don't agree with it

Exactly! It makes sense to them, but not to YOU and so YOU do not agree with it because it doesn't make sense to YOU. A common counter to this statement is

Well perhaps they were talking about the theory of black holes. It may make sense but I cannot agree with it because I don't have enough knowledge in the area. It is just a theory after all, who knows if it is really true!

Unfortunately, this is just a more specific instance of the first argument, and hence not a counter at all. In this case the argument appears more valid because it is supported by someone with more specific knowledge on the subject. Perhaps the theory is correct or perhaps it is flawed. To say that a theory makes sense is to say you believe it adequately describes the observable domain. To agree with the theory has the same meaning. If you cannot say whether it adequately describes reality, then you should say neither that it makes sense to you nor that you agree with it.

I don't claim to be 100% certain that I am right on this, so let me issue a challenge: Find me an argument YOU think makes sense but with which to you do not agree.

Do I care about Learning?

Not enough to be a successful academic. Of the things I learn day to day, I most enjoy those that are new and big ideas. I do not hate the details, but my marginal propensity to learn details about new topics declines rapidly. Unfortunately, 99% of significant advances do not come from a new approach to life so much as from a new way of looking at one little detail. The effort expended to become fluent in the details of a particular field and hence get down to the building blocks of a significant advance, much less a meaningful contributions, is too great for me.

Yesterday, as I watched a collegue surf the iienet.org, a site about Industrial Engineering. Whereas I waste most of my time on MarginalRevolution.com or Slashdot.com. My sites carry insights and news more generally, while my collegue was directed to a field specific site. I am wondering if the diminishing marginal returns I experience from learning a particular field is a symptom of not having found the field that interests me enough. Or perhaps it is a symptom of a larger problem with my motivation to make meaningful contributions (and expend the effort necessary to do so).

31 October 2005

Do Economists care about the real world?

I've been burning through my pre-downloaded Radio Economics Podcasts over the past 24 because I've been without internet! The most recent one was on what Economists can learn from Biologists.

A common criticism of economists, certainly by Tyler Cowen, is that they don't read enough intellectual writting from other disciplines. The reason this is disconcerting to some is because economists tend to high-jack other disciplines. Over the past 15 to 20 years many economists have focused on traditionally more behavioral based topics, things that would usually be deemed the territory of Psychology or perhaps Sociology.

An economist, by my definition, is a fan of the economic way of thinking. Often we feel so confident in the power of this way of thinking, that we would like to extend it to fields outside our core competency. Experts in those fields may claim that we have nothing news to add.

The economist does not argue that by pooring over data and looking at incentive structure, she will discover a new biological process that changes our perspective on Nature vs. Nurture. Though the economist may try to argue that, given we don't know exactly how the process works, let's use collected data and logic involving incentives of individuals and see if we cannot develop a model that helps us understand behavior better. This is a theory. If the theory helps us predict behavior, then so much the better. However, if we test the theory in the real world and prove the theory wrong, that is also progress.

A common problem in economics is to develop a theory that makes sense without supporting it adequately with empirical analysis. It is a lot easier to preach from the soap box these theories that sound so logical without putting them to the test. I would love for my ideas to be supported by empirical analysis, but I am usually not in the position to attain the necessary data (either it doesn't exist or I don't have access to it). Whenever some one develops a theory about the way the world works, even if it makes sense, there is a need to test it in the REAL world. Are the results statistically significant? If so, are they really significant enough to change the way we behave? The value added by economics rests on these two questions.

A dream worth reading?

Typically I am not a big fan of listening to other peoples dream stories, unless they are a good story teller. The fact that it didn't really happen is one turn off. The other is that at the level of detail that it is being retold, usually in summary form, it doesn't lend itself to in depth psycho-analysis (as if that is what I wanted to do in the first place). What I would prefer to know is how a dream is currently affecting an individual. For instance, did they have a scary dream and need comfort. If so then the details become more interesting because the listener feels more involved, that is, that listening and perhaps commenting may help bring the comfort.

I just woke up from a nap in which I had an interesting (to me) dream. In spite of what I have just said, I was so excited to have remembered the elements of the dream I have decided to write them down FULL DISCLOSURE: This dream shortly followed the consumption of 17 peices of Laffy Taffy (To Mom: I flossed and brushed before I crashed)...

The following will apply when I get my internet access back: Click Here to Read my dream. I have place it on another site because I don't want to waste space for readers who, like me, wouldn't click on the link!

We, the group I remember including Me, Alex, Dave, and Alex's parents, are in Rio de Janeiro. Alex's parents are obviously visiting. We are in a van that his parents have rented but Alex is out running an errand. I am talking to Alex's parent about what they are going to do tonight. Originially they want to go to a show. I think they mention Genipabu, so I say that that is 3 hours by plane and obviously will not work for tonight.

At this point, as we are driving down the street, we spot Alex on the corner of the street. He hails us but Alex's dad refuses to stop for him until we come to a red light further up the street. Alex is forced to run us down but once he gets in he doesn't seem to have minded too much. It is now that I realize that his parents weren't talking about Genipabu but about some place on a hill marked by a Rock Head. In the dream this apparently was a location where concerts were frequently held and it was just a bit out of the city (In actuality this is a location where several other dreams of mine have taken place; it does not exist to my knowledge in the real world).

As we continue driving we pass a large conference building and decide to check it out. It appears to have a stained glass image of three figures, perhaps the Three Wise Men, and therefore I assume it has religious affiliation. As we enter the conference hall we discover that it is full of elderly people. The speaker is not noticably elderly but he is bald. As we sit down we transforms to consist of me, Alex, Dave, and Orlando (our Capstone Project Adivsor). The conference we are attending appears to be on Aviation Safety, the topic of Dave's capstone project.

After a short while sitting in the audience, I notice an employee of my former workplace, INPUT. I identify him as James Reason, though in reality I believe his name is James Something-Else. He is sitting with two similar looking people that turn out to be his brothers. He notices me talking about him to Dave and Alex and he calls me over (in a voice too loud for having a conference going on). I come over and he ushers me out a side door. Immediately upon stepping out I recognize that I have just stepped into an INPUT office. Apparently after I left working there (in January 2006) they decided to open an office in Rio de Janeiro. Scanning over room, there were a few familiar faces from INPUT, but mostly new people. Most greeted me by name, even though I had not been introduced. I went around greeting people and then James brought me over to a corner where about 10 people were working. One of the ten was Steve Chandler, a gentleman I know from church. His face was noticably red and he seemed to be worried that James was going to tell me business secrets. James assured him that I was harmless but Steve wouldn't back down. So James took me aside and told me that in short we should concentrate our project on the "Computer Architecture and Networking aspect." I mentioned that I wasn't actually working on the Aviation Project but was only attending the Conference as a visitor. I then mentioned that the concentration of our project was helicopter maintanence (i.e., his advice seemed invalid.).

As the conversation ended I went into another room to visit briefly with other employees I might remember. One older lady with a name plate stating she was Rael seemed to remember me. There was another nameplate on her desk that read MÃE, or "Mom" in Portuguese. I figured it was an endearing nick-name picked by the staff. To me she was Sally Bitner, a former manager of mine at a law firm I worked at in the summer of 2001. I asked her how INPUT came to have an office in Rio de Janeiro. She said they had a vote and it was either Idaho or Rio, and so naturally Rio was chosen.

As I walked out of the room she instructed me to pick up some candy from a basket located near the door. She instructed me to take one of the yellow cellophane bags containing an Easter egg and assorted candy in it. I took he bag and proceeded to dump out the egg and the other candy and stuff the bag full of Laughy Taffys and three bags of peanut M&Ms. I started to walk out and back into the conference room when I was asked if I wanted a baked potato. I looked up and behold, a work table had been cleared off and a makeshift aluminum fire pit was a blaze on top, with a foil wrapped potato in its midst. Initially I accepted the offer but decided it would take too long to cook and so I declined and said "Tchau" to everyone. As I re-entered the conference room the speaker was still going.

Upon seeing me, Dave and Alex jumped over the back of their seats and into an empty row where we proceeded to dig into the candy bag.

Where is the door

I got to talking to Colleen today about the relative merits of the exit door placement on the city buses.

There are essentially two locations for the exit door on the standard city bus. The first is near the back of the bus, right behind the back axle. The second is near the front/middle of the bus a few steps past the turnstile and cobrador.

Front Pro's

Easier to see who is getting on, and if everyone is off.
Sometimes the bus driver starts to pull away or close the doors before everyone has exited... The call for the driver to "Pare" or stop is easier to hear. Also most robbers get on through the back door.

Front Con's

Fewer front/middle seats. I happen to enjoy sitting forward of the back axle. The ride in general is more comfortable, perhaps it is less bouncy, there is better air flow... When the door is in the front, there can be no seats there. The seats that would have been there are instead located behind the back axle. So you are more likely to get a seat in the back.

Exit near the turnstile where people are getting on... potential human traffic jam.
This can create a two way flow. First flow toward the back of the bus when getting on and second toward the front when getting off.

If you trip out the door and the driver pulls away you could get run over by the back tires.

The Back's Pro and Cons are simply the contrary of the Front's.

29 October 2005

How to stop eating Laffy Taffy

Part of addictive behavior may be explained by allowing chemicals to overcome will that is linked to rememberance. Keeping the memory of why you want to stop something on hand while battling the chemical dependency can be really rough. One way I'm going to try to overcome my chemical dependency on Wonka's Laffy Taffy, the best candy in the world, is keeping in mind just how much of this deadly goo I am consuming. Another incentive is the realization that while in Brazil, having been shipped from the US, this is the most expensive candy I've ever eaten.

A small pile of said goo consumed while listening to a Radio Economics podcast interview of Tim Harford. Look out for his The Undercover Economist, coming to stores in November!

Size matters, but that's not all

I am considering moving in with 3 to 5 Brazilians next semester. If all 5 and I decide to live in a 4 bedroom house, that means 4 people will be sharing 2 rooms and 2 people will have their own. Let us say all the rooms are of equal size. How do you split up the costs?

A simple answer may be to have each room cost 1/4 of the rent. In this scheme, a room splitter pays 1/8 of the rent, while a single pays 1/4. (For a $1500 house this is $187.50 for a splitter and $375 for a single).

But a house is not only rooms. There is the kitchen, living room, bathrooms, storage space, lawn, etc. So the question is, how much is all that stuff worth? If we decide that 50% of the value of the house is in the rooms, then the rest is valued at 50% of the total rent. Example:

We go in on a $1500/month house. Let us give value of rooms to value of rest of house a 50/50 ratio. Now each inhabitant pays ($1500*50%)/6 people = $125, solely to live in the house. But of course you want to live in a room right!? Well the marginal (or extra) value of adding a room is ($1500*50%)/4 rooms = $187.50 per room. Under this scheme a room splitter pays $218 and a non-splitter pays $312.50.

The driving metric is the ratio of the value of the rooms to the value of the rest of the house! A room splitter argues that the rooms are very valueable and should not have to pay much for just living in the house. Whereas a single roomer, which I will be, argues that rooms aren't that important and it is really the whole house that we are splitting.

Perhaps it seems interesting that the people deciding to have a roommate think (or at least say!) that room space is so important, while those having their own room think that room space doesn't matter so much; they should switch! The falacy here is that all room space is equally important. If I have a big room to myself and you take away one square foot, I might not even notice. Do the same thing in a small room I am sharing with some one else and I will surely notice! I value the square foot much more when I have only a few to start.

28 October 2005

If you haven't seen it before, it is news to you

I found these pictures of the 1939-1943 era fascinating because they are are in color! I feel like a lot of the black and white pictures and filmes I see come from a different era. Surely they are from a different era but seeing them in color gives them so much more immediacy.

Thanks to Micheal at 2blowhards.com for the tip.

26 October 2005

Mind control: It begins

This technology is still rudimentary and only affects balance by using electricity to mess with your sensitive inner ear, but the implications of a remote application are quite interesting. Let us hope we work out world peace (and brotherly love and all that) before the deriviatives of this technology get too advanced.

25 October 2005

Is speeding worth it?

A good start is to ask, "is speeding worth what?" Possible negative consequences include the risk of a speeding ticket or the increased risk of incurring an accident fatality (notice I'm not saying risk of an accident). With the exception of adrenaline junkies, the major benefit appears to be in time saved in transit. Let's look at an example,

Driving from UVA in Charlottesville to my house in NoVA is about 100 miles. Assume that this is all traffic free highway (no stop lights, train-crossings, etc) so that average speed is equal to instantaneous speed. At the speed suggested by the modal sign, 55 mph, the trip takes 1 hr 49 min. At this speed there is essentially no risk of being pulled over on Rt. 29, the longest stretch of road on the route.

Now let's make the same trip at a speed of 72 mph. The trip now takes 1 hr 23 min. This a savings of 26 minutes. My friend Ben was pulled over on Rt. 29 for going 72 mph. I'm not sure I want to get into a deep cost-benefit analysis augmented by some abitrary statistical hit-rate distribution. Instead, realize that most journeys, even those involving highway travel, are much shorter than 100 miles. And so the time shavings will typically be much reduced. Surely all these minutes add up, perhaps even to a full day over the course of a year, but can two minutes here and three minutes there be put to good utilization if taken seperately... maybe now would be a good time to take up speed meditation.

Side note: I don't think there is an authoritative source on this but it seems a fairly common assumption that 10 mph over the speed limit is rather safe (in terms of ticket avoidance) when on major highways. Of course this depends on the time of day, flow of traffic, etc. Think about how you determine your travel speed...

22 October 2005

Slay the lamb to protect the beast again

Saddness ensues. Phone companies want to put an end to my wonderful Skype experience. So far I've made several hours of SkypeOut calls (calls from my computer to a land line or cellphone) and have only spent about US$6. Compare that to the more standard 17 cents a minute calling card and I've already saved $30 or so. Try to make a call without a service plan and you could be paying over $1 a minute. Not to mention the untold hours of the completely free Skype-Skype user calls. Established phone companies have hated companies like Skype and Vonage since their inceptions, but now they have a way to get even.

New technology created by Narus Inc, allows phone companies to indentify digital communication packets (from broadband phone calls) and block them. In serveral countries this is already being employed. Although U.S. companies must comply with their common carrier status and thus cannot block the calls outright, apparently that doesn't mean they can't make the calling experience miserable for us through staticky connections and transmission delays.

My only hope is that as a result of Big Phone's oppressiveness more people jump on the broadband bandwagon. Of course I'd be doing the same thing as the phone companies if I were them ("These new services are using our existing lines and then have the nerve to undercut our prices!"). However for the sake of humanity, let's innovate and be competitive rather than just try to protect our outdated investments.

Slay the lamb to protect the beast

There is not nearly enough outrage at the slaughter of 100,000,000 sharks per year! I've never had fin soup but I also don't eat baby seal burgers. In general the chicken isn't as good here in Brazil so I eat lots of cows (this to the horror of my sister who claims chickens have a reason to die, namely they are delicious, while cows do not, namely they are cuter and not so tasty to her. She has been saying it since she was 7 years old.) I've come up with the following rather incomplete spectrum of human perspective on eating edible material (those of us without pica)

  • Vegetables - Line 'em up and knock 'em down
  • Sharks - Kill for fun, kill for "beach safety," kill for sport, kill for food, kill kill kill!
  • Chickens - Grow them without claws or beaks, put them in tiny cages and then kill them. (actually an urban legend but if you don't click my links then you might just believe it)
  • Cows - A little more forgiving. In fact, open range meat is becoming more popular. Let them live a decent life and then slaughter them.
  • Baby seals - Okay so no one really eats them... but why not? They might taste good.
The very general trend is that the more mammilian and more pet-like the animal, the more guilt we feel from filleting it up. Amongst mammals, guilt also increases with the likelihood that the animal would be found in the zoo. Unfortunately, sharks are the only thing on the list (that we eat) that we don't grow in captivity. So we are pretty much cleaning up the ocean of one of its top level predators... I hope that doesn't screw everything up or you can say good-bye to the surf-and-turf dinner!

Want to see how the odds of shark death stack up to other causes of death (in Australia of all places!). Click here and note that drowning death in the ocean is several hundred times more likely than being killed by a shark.

21 October 2005

The digital laughing problem revisited

First read my previous entry on the subject. Then you will realize how sad the following situation really is:

I accidently typed "hahaha" just a few minutes ago, though I did so without really laughing out loud. I immediately felt bad and chuckled a little bit out of obligation so as not to deviate from the meaning I had ascribed to the characters in my previous blog entry.

A dear friend has mentioned that I've left out the so-called evil laugh, denoted by, "muahaha." In my defense I think I have only ever seen her use this digital laugh, though I will admit that now I've started to use it on occasion.

Another good comment from Alex was that things we might typically laugh at in a genuine social gathering elicits little or no laughter during an IM conversation. This point being entirely separate from the polite or fake laugh in that you would genuinely laugh in the face-to-face situation but have little desire to do so online. Perhaps this accents the social role of laughing (and smiling for that matter).

20 October 2005

Things I would have bet against: Printer Codes

I am actually still in disbelief over this news. Appearently, the Secret Service asked printer manufacturers to add hidden dots to printed sheets to make conterfeiting easier to detect. The dots, which show up under special light and a magnifying glass, encode information about the printer and the date of the printing.

"Hahah," you imagine the printer manufacturers saying. "Unless you make it a law, there is no way we'd do this with out alerting our customers."

Think again. Many of the major manufacturers (e.g. HP, Xerox, Canon) have been doing it clandestinely for years.

When I hear stuff like this I just have to ask who was the executive that was confronted with this proposal and said, "You know what, this is a great idea. Let's do it." (By the way I say this all the time when I see bad TV commercials). This is just another case where people dessecrate property and privacy rights for the slightest perceived benefit.

Addendum: Some good pictures and decoding.

19 October 2005

Let Fandangos be

Thank goodness for consumer advocate legislation! Yesterday I bought a package of Fandangos, the semi-delicious cheese flavored corn chip. I don't know what I would have done if the package hadn't told me that the 66 g bag had been recently reduced from 73 g or by 9.6%! In fact I can tell you the history of Fandangos package reduction for the past 5 years

2000 - 100 g
2001 - 84 g
2004 - 73 g
2005 - 66 g

Now there is no way those guys at Elma Chips are going to trick me into unknowingly paying the same amount for a smaller bag!

The larger question is whether this is good legislation or not. I would personally error on the side of less legislation. Perhaps an upstart chip company needs to experiment with different package sizing in order to find the most profitable size. If consumers see the size constantly changing, they may defer to an established brand (supporting a monopoly and raising prices). Then again, maybe all the companies really are trying to gouge the masses of poor illiterate addicted Fandangos eaters (in which case this legislation would be worthless).

The digital laughing problem

A typical instant messaging (IM) conversation

IMcrazy4IM: And then I got bopped on the head like little Bunny Fufu.
GirlzRule4884: lol, at least you didn't get turned into a Goon!
IMcrazy4IM: Haha luckily I still have 2 more chances...
GirlzRule4884: Hahaha, leave those field mice alone!

Social communication typically contains plenty of humor and lightheartedness. In fact, people's ability to make us laugh is usually a very endearing quality. Often the degree of laughter serves as feedback to the speaker of the demand for further joking (there is nothing worse than a speaking who has a large supply of low demand jokes!).

The IM world imposes a digital shroud between two participants, for instance by converting vocal and sub-vocal laughing into alphanumeric characters (e.g. "haha x 1000") . Through my years of experience in this mode of communication I've noticed the following

  • Haha is the most commonly used. It rarely means that person is actually laughing, instead, a mental laugh or a slight smile usually accompanies this reponse.
  • LOL is a relatively close second. Literally short for "laughing out loud," this is probably only true in slightly more cases than haha.
  • Haha and LOL are often used interchangeably to add variety to the conversation.
  • Usually when some one is really laughing out loud, they will deviate from these two common responses by either adding more ha to create a longer chain, and/or by typing in words the fact that one is truly laughing (e.g., hahahahaha. I can't stop laughing!).
So while standardization and translation of the laughing inputs may help lower the shroud blocking the feedback loop, this is probably not in high demand by IM users. For one, IM often creates funny situations because of this barrier. Also it is a lot easier to be polite by laughing over IM than trying to laugh in real life (where it may be obvious that your laugh is fake).

18 October 2005

I may be dumb but I have a decent reason: Toothpaste

My last installment by the same title was on the "one, zero" power switch. This one is about toothpaste. You've seen it before - the little label that reads

For best results, squeeze from the bottom and flatten as you use the product.

I have never heeded this information for an entire tube of toothpaste. Invariably, I will be brushing late at night and, too tired to think, I just squeeze from where ever my hand happens to pick up the tube. My question is for what "best results." Although I've had some doubts, I have generally assumed the purpose of this message is to help cheapskates get every bit of paste out of the tube. Though if this is the only result derived from this practice, I think I will save my effort and possibly buy one extra tube of toothpaste over the span of my lifetime.

However, if somehow squeezing from the bottom and flattening promotes the optimal mixing of the paste substance as it is ejected from the nozzle, then perhaps I should heed the advice. Then if I ever sue Crest for all my cavities they can't use as their defense, "Well Your Honor, he just didn't flatten as he used the product. It said it right on the tube."

17 October 2005

More on grading/economics

Effort grades are inefficient. Instead of seeing how much time you can get your students to put into a homework assignment, state explicitly what is expected for each grade and then let them decide the level of effort they desire to exert to achieve a given grade. Although it may seems to a professor that Stochastic Decision Modeling is the most important subject ever, remember that the student is taking many courses as well as being involved in dozens of other activities.

As an example, let us say we have two student operating under two grading systems, one based on inputs and the other on outputs. Grading based on inputs cancels out some benefits for efficient students. Certain math classes where many similar, repetitive problems are required for homework is an example. The student that is good at math can probably learn the concepts necessary long before the assignment is completed; the rest of the time spent is wasted. On the other hand the weaker student may need extra practice to master the concepts; the effort required by the assignment is no more than an estimate of the effort required to master the concepts - it may not suit any one individual student.

On the other hand, grading based on output allows the more efficient student to achieve the same level of performance while saving time for other activities. In essence, she is rewarded in both a desirable grade and free time. At the same time, in terms of efficiently achieving performance, the weaker student is no worse off; he must still potentially complete the assignment and do more. In addition to all this is the fact that many students learn in different ways, and usually each individual knows which ways are best; again, the assignment is only an estimate of the best way to master the material - it may not suit any one individual student. So output grading is a pareto improvement over the input grading system.

16 October 2005

A short, unsystematic treatise on grades

Matt Olsen posts an interesting question on grading, specifically with regards to school grading. What is a useful grading system? Notice I do not say fair, though I am of the opinion that these adjetives by definition describe the same system.

The primary goal of a grading system should be to give information on performance. As such, I am in favor of systems that are based exclusively on output rather than inputs (i.e., based on performance demonstrated rather than efforts exerted).

Let me say at this point that I have yet to see a perfectly implemented grading system (one that provides perfect information on performance) and indeed, I have seen some rather terrible systems. The lack of perfection stems from the inefficiency in evaluating performance. As humans we can only process so much information intelligibly and therefore generally sacrifice information on specific performance by aggregating grades (e.g., one grade for an entire test, one final grade for a class, one cumulative GPA, etc). To the extent grade users can glean enough information from these aggregated metrics, this is not such a grave problem.

One question often asked is whether to use an absolute grade scale or a "curve" scale. This depends on what information is most useful to the grade's user. Mastery of clearly defined material, if standardized appropriately, is best supported by an absolute grade. Using the curved scale, I may get an A+ in Thermodynamics without mastery granted everyone else does worse. The curved scale comes into play to eliminate variablilty caused by a particular class (e.g., bad professor, lots of snow days, etc).

13 October 2005

The best deal of my life

I just received a $20 service for 40 cents. The catch... it was a set-up, a scam. I felt somebody coming up behind me fast -- my first thought -- I'm going to get robbed. So I turned around and the guy steered off and started jumping around like we was crazy. Okay, fair enough, another crazy guy in Rio, nothing new. I cross the street and get to the beach where I am confronted by another guy with a shoe shining kit. He is asking me if I want my shoes shined. No, you idiot I am wearing sandals! Then he points to my foot which is now covered a lovely pile of fresh dog poop.

How did dog crap get on top of my foot? It is not as though I went around sticking my foot under squating dogs. So obviously the guy that came up behind me threw it on my foot so that the guy on the beach could get some business (creating your own demand!).

As I had poop on my foot I allowed the guy on the beach to clean it up. My theory was confirmed when the guy that threw the poop, not suspecting that I knew he did it, as well as a couple other shoe shiners came up to watch my shoe shiner clean up my foot and shoe.

After all was cleaned up, I pulled out 80 centavos (40 cents) and said that was all I had. The now rather irritated shiner said, "that's not going to pay for anything. I just cleaned *explicit* off your foot" (in portuguese). He then pointed to a marking on his shoe shining kit, which had been conveniently hidden from view, that set the service at R$50 (US$20). I almost laughed. I could get some people here to eat dog poop for R$50 (only a slight exaggeration). And besides I knew I had been set-up. I don't know if the law is on my side or his, but I placed down my 80 centavos and took a hike.

So if I disappear over the next few days, blame it on a band of three shoe shiners working the intersection of Santa Clara and Avenue Altantica at about 10:45am on the 13th of October, 2005.

Addendum: I told my friend Dudu, the famous samba artist, judge in training, kiosk owner, and English student about this incident and he gave me kudoos for not paying up ("They're robbers"). Anyway I am sitting at his kiosk talking to this married couple from L.A. when the shoe shiner passes by again. Dudu asks if that is him and I'm like, yup that's him. Dudu then chases the guy down and has a few word with him. The shoe shiner turns to me, rather sheepishly, and gives the thumbs up, signifying perhaps, that I am relieved of my outstanding debt (R$49.20).

09 October 2005

Jeff's dancing guide for a brazilian family birthday party

  1. Don't wear sandals!
  2. Bring an extra pair of dancing legs (bring two more if it is a samba party)
  3. Watch out for large women in heels (they may kick you in the stomach), and 80+ year old women with facial hair (they love to freak dance and kiss)
  4. If you are a gringo that likes to dance, be ready to be the life of the party!
  5. Don't try to dance with the cute girl in the corner... she has a big black boyfriend. But don't worry if you do, because he is chill as long as your intentions are pure.
  6. Be ready to answer some pretty direct questions about your intentions.
  7. Learn basic steps to Samba, Forró, Hip-Hop, Disco, and Swing (!)
  8. Be ready to show what you got at anytime in front of everybody; you will be asked to show your stuff.

08 October 2005

Inefficient currency distributions

Alex has a great post on the reluctance of Brazilian merchant to change large bills. Today I got to see just how far a vendor is willing to go to hold onto those extra small bills. As I picked up my laundary from Speed Queen the total came to R$22. Ready to hold my ground, I pulled out my R$50 bill and gave it to the attendent. As expected, I was asked whether I had a R$2 bill so that I would be paying with a 50 and 2 and recieving a 20 and 10. [i.e., (50+2)-(20+10)=22].

Here is where the battle begins, because I want the small bills too. I say I have no R$2 bills, but concede that I do have a R$1 bill, noting that unfortunately that won't help in the current situation. To my surprise however, the attendant took the R$1 bill, and still gave me a 20 and 10 in return. So I ended up paying (50+2)-(20+10)=21, saving ONE REAL!!! Wahooo.

To the Brazilian government: Print more smaller bills and take up some of the bigger ones. It appears people are more willing to deal with the extra hassle of storing and counting a larger number of bills than the (in-)convenience of the larger denominations.

Interesting geographical facts about Brasil

  • All of Brasil lies east of Washington, D.C.
  • The distance from Natal to London is the same as from Miami (about 4450 miles / 7160 km)

Picture of Colleen, John, me and Alex on the eastern most tip of Brasil (just outside of Natal), closest to Africa. Note: Farol means lighthouse (not shown)

07 October 2005

I may be dumb but I have a decent reason

I have always had trouble figuring out the switch below (is O for on and I for off or the other way around):

The problem, which may have always been obvious to you, is that the symbols are not letters but numbers (i.e., the binary numbers 0 and 1). In binary, 0 is off and 1 is on, which I have known for a very long time. I suggest the following improvement to the interface of these type of switches:

Or better yet,

28 September 2005

Joke of the day

Life is short, so let's make fun of it.

24 September 2005

Job search woes

The past several hours have been spent scouring career guide material. The one really big overriding piece of advice is "first, figure out what do you want to do." Let us consider an unfortunate soul who, from an early age, has been a generalist. Here is a little background,

  • He did Track and Field in high school
  • Was good at standardized tests and essay tests
  • He is a blogger
Our initial approach is to decide between graduate school and a full-time job. The research conducted generally states "...only go to graduate school now if you absolutely know what you want to do." Uhhh... X. So if he doesn't go to graduate school now that still leaves him with trying to find a good job match.

The generalist background/skill set points him toward the consulting industry. But the promise of an 80+ hour work week and 3-4 days of travel per week are not that appealing. On the upside it has the potential to expose him to a great variety of industries and may perhaps lead to the "right" one or summon some ideas for graduate work theses...

22 September 2005

The "death of like"

I've never used crutches for ailments of the bone. But I am a frequent user of crutches for ailments of speak. I use words such as "like" and "uh" all the time when I speak without even thinking about it and so it doesn't really bother me. But I notice it in others and sometimes even get frustrated or distracted when a speaker relies too heavily on these useless words. So I am beginning project "death of like." For the duration of this (lifelong) project I am going to avoid the word like. Yes, I realize there are many useful uses of the word, but I plan to subsitute synonyms in for these case so that I can totally isolate this construct and utterly destroy it. Like, okay?

20 September 2005

Windows rules my world...

...to be said in the same way a computer geek would say, "Windows rules the world," which is too say, with some contempt on the tongue.

Windows has hijacked my entire Hard Drive and refuses to let me partition some for Linux without reinstalling Windows (wiping HD) or purchasing some more software (~$60).

Out of spite I may just wipe my hard drive anyway, install Linux and never use Windows again. (Becoming more possible with Microsoft Office Suite alternatives like the free OpenOffice). More realistically I will purchase more cds to backup my data, reinstall Windows and spend many hours figuring out how to fix all the problems I caused. But I don't have the energy for that now.

Weird things you only think about when you are Jeff Shepley

What is the social significance of a boss kissing a woman employee on the cheek she/he greets her. From what I have seen there is a lot more socializing in the business world here. Although my observations are not necessarily typical of Brasil, only of what I have seen. And seeing as it isn't typical for me to be here, I may be observing quite atypical things (which is more valuable to me!).

From my perspective this would make it tougher for me to scould/fire the person below me -- having developed a social relationship. That is, mixing business and social life, like having a party and inviting your professor, appears (at least to me) to lead to greater job/grade security.

Of course companies in the U.S. have happy hours, so I can't say this is unique to Brasil. The company organizes them as a way to get employees to communicate better and in the end work more effectively. The employees do it for entertainment, but perhaps also for job security.

So as the boss I can see myself being pulled in two directions. (1) Go to the happy hour and develop social relationship that will help me better understand my employees and perhaps "juice" more productivity out of them but also perhaps be reluctant to fire some one who really should be, and (2) don't go to the happy hour and be able to firmly rule your underlyings without feeling like such a bad person but perhaps be missing the many toasts to my slow painful demise.

15 September 2005


I don't program in my free time but I still found the first interview interesting. You won't find any love for Microsoft here... BTW I am downloading Linux, which contrary to what I thought a year ago, does not make me a nerd... as evidenced by

Addendum: I just watched interview 2, it was also great.

My little corner of Rio

Should have used Google Earth instead of Google Maps for better resolution, but this will do...

Notable Locations marked on map:

  • 686 (say: Meia-Oito-Meia) is the restaurant I eat at nearly day.
  • Speed Queen is a convenient full-service laundry, though used only when absolutely necessary. Since I started running, socks run out faster than underwear.
  • Vem Q Tem is a great little Kiosk (ou quiosque). I met more diverse peoples here than anywhere else in Rio. It is owned by Dudu (an unfortunate nickname that everyone named Eduardo uses). Dudu is also in the band Quilocura, is in law school, has two kids, and is learning English. He either is lying or doesn't sleep or both.

13 September 2005

Getting your customers to work for you

The van to Fundão that I take several times a week is an example where the customers' interests are in line with the owner's. Once the van is full we can take a direct route to Fundão. The sooner the van fills up on the route, the quicker I get to school and the owner can make another loop. However here my desire to help fill up the van is not nearly large enough to compel me to advertise its use, such as screaming "Quatro-Oito-Cinco até Fundão diret" out the window.

The nature of some businesses is such that some of your customers' interests conflict with the owner's. Consider an amusement park. As a customer you want it to be empty so you can get on rides easier. But the desire is not nearly large enough to compel the customer to try and drive people away.

I can think of a couple examples where the customer's desires, in or not in the owner's favor, is strong enough to compel direct action:
  1. Reconsidering the amusement park, the desire to hang out with friends will likely overwhelm the emptiness desire and they will end up drawing more customers and increasing the owner's revenue instead of decreasing it.
  2. Network services such as instant-messaging and e-mail have at times compelled me to encourage others to set-up accounts. BTW, get Skype.
  3. Whenever you discourage somebody you dislike from going with your group (to the movies, a restraunt, etc).

06 September 2005

Taking your pulse in the City

I'm sitting in one of thousands of cabs in Rio. The meter clicks up a notch and that's another 30 centavos in the cabbie's pocket. But wait, we weren't moving! How does that work? I pay for going and I pay for staying. Rio has been my first taxi experience, so I think I can be forgiven my ignorance of the "Time and Distance" charging scheme.

You are charge based on Pulses. Whatever comes first: 265 meter pulses or 265, .226s pulses.

Apparently, you are charged for time or distance and not both at the same time (check link for details). So what is the incentive of the taxi driver under this scheme? Well common sense says the taxi driver wants to drive as far as possible in as short a time as possible, hence recording tons of meter clicks. However, it also allows for compensation during a traffic jam (or any speed less than about 16 km/h), which may alleviate sidewalk driving and the such.

So what would happen if you raised the fee of the time rate or lowered that of the distance rate? Well, driving slowly would be less costly, so you may not get to your destination as fast, but perhaps you'd get there in one piece.

Question: Can anyone find accident statistics on Taxis relative to other types of Drivers?

03 September 2005

The transformation

Riddle of the Weekend: What is great to have a lot of, none of, but not some of?

This enty provides an answer to that riddle!

We started innocent and näive.

But we were not to stay this way for long... Behold, the tranformation.

And now for the Amerioca Punk Rocker (plus groupie) album shot

Now I'm bald.

More mohawk madness here. I have been told this is exactly the type of thing not to blog about. In a sense I agree -- it's seems more fitting in one of those tell-all (show-all) online journals. But I'm going to justify it by making liberal use of the blog's title, Second Glance. That is, we got a lot of second glances, and you might say "they should have taken a second glance before doing that!"

As for me, I thought we looked pretty good.

31 August 2005

Ronald and Me.

I haven't seen the "documentary", but I really want to. Apparently, Spurlock goes on a 30 day McDonald's binge and gains 30 lbs. Everyone I've talked to says it was a pretty gross film.

I bring this up because I am becoming addicted to McDonald's here in Brasil for the following reasons

  • Adds variety to my diet. I didn't see this one coming, but it is true.
  • It is super close to my house and nearly everywhere else I go.
  • The employees at the one near my house are cool. They sing music while working, laugh a lot, smile, are friendly, etc. Generally more energetic than other restaurant alternatives.
  • McDia Feliz
Also, I've had a great time reading this Anti-Spurlock website. I find I tend to enjoy well done anti- sites because they try to debunk well-packaged arguments which, when the audience lacks sufficient information, may become widely accepted even if they are not credible. Here is Q&A with the lady that lost weight on the McD's diet.

Me with Ronald at McD's on McDia Feliz.

I got a shout out from the DJ for being a "gringo." I corrected him with the proper term, "amerioca."

30 August 2005

Juggle for Nothing: Spring 2005 version

This video is a rough cut of my juggling skills as of early this Spring. It shows the extent of my skills and lack thereof. I hope to create another video while in Rio that will show some marked improvements.

NOTE: The download is 4.6 MB, which is compressed from 26 MB, so the quality is a bit low. But you can see the balls, which is really all that matters.

29 August 2005

Beats watching re-runs

Admittantly it is not that exciting unless you like chess, though I've found reading commentary on famous chess games to be an interesting mind exercise. Two examples of such are The Game of the Century and The Immortal Game (A chess board is suggested though java version are available here and here respectively).

Here is an article on why Chinese Chess (XiangQi) is better and a partial rebuttal.

27 August 2005

Stop this horrible injustice.

I have learned a lot of things here in Brazil but this past week I've solved a life-long mystery. It was one of those little mysteries that you don't think about at all most of the time. It usually formed itself in my mind as, "Why do so many people have cigarette burns on their arms?"

I guess being exposed to Terminator II at a young age formed some connection in my mind between round scars and cigarette burns. I was outraged when I saw people with these scars on their arms. Who was going around mutilating the epidermis of so many people? They must be stopped! But until I came to Brazil, seeing some with such a scar was a relatively rare occurence.

I must say, before I arrived here, I was more than a little skeptical of my initial cigarette burn theory. But after a few days in Brazil, I abandoned it completely. Not knowing if it was a social taboo, I eventually gathered the courage to ask some one what the scar was all about.

Turns out it forms in response to the Bacillus of Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine. It is given to millions of children around the world to lower the risk of contracting Tuberculosis. In the more developed world, includingd the US, it is not recommended.

Knowing the truth about the scars did little to squelch my rage directed at those propogating this injustice. I am not arguing against the use of the vaccine, which I assume has saved many lives. I am arguing against the location. To what end are we scarring the beautiful arms of our people? Why not give it in the bum or some other more discrete location? The only responses I could find to these questions were
By convention BCG scars are looked for over the left arm & hence it is easier to recognize for the doctor when parents do not remember whether BCG was given in the past or not.

Reading and interpreting ...[the test] is as much an art as a science. And the results are dependent on many things, one of which is probably the site at which the test is done. If the test is done on thicker, hairier skin it may be more difficult to read and know what the reading means - so to get the best and most useful results it's probably best to have it done on the inside of the forearm.
I was very unimpressed by the "convention" argument because we can easily start a new convention! The second argument at least sounds more reasonable (the scar is one sign that the vaccine worked; a benefit -- not without a cost -- of its being visible). Comments are open for suggestions of alternative sites. How about the side of the hip or inner thigh?

In any event, the scar is so ubiquotous here that it doesn't seem to bother anyone too much. This is a phenomenom that accompanies another massive mutilation technique that will be the topic of a future blog.

25 August 2005


In my ongoing attempts to understand my role in Brasil's opaque social script, I've decided to start learning Xiangqi, or Chinese Chess. Initial observations include

  • There is a whole lot more space than in International Chess
  • It is crazy hard to figure out which pieces are which (all pieces are identified by characters, each team having slightly different ones)
  • I cannot defeat the java program on "too easy" (i.e., the difficulty settings are relative and they are not scaled according to my abilities)
You can play here. If you find a free download, link in the comments section. If you read this and you are not my Mom, Alex Rixey, or Matt Olsen, add a comment so I can get an idea of my readership.

Parabéns, you are still alive

In Brazil the Happy Birthday song (sung to the same tune as ours) is

Parabéns pra você
Nessa data querida
Muitas felicidades
Muitas anos de vida
or in English

Congratulations to you
On this special day
Much happiness
Many years of life
I find it interesting that they congratulate on birthdays, whereas in the US, we just say happy birthday. So instead of wishing well, they acknowledge an accomplishment, namely, survival. My first thought was that this difference was due to culture differences arising from a lower general life expectancy. However, at 71yrs, Brasil does not rank far behind the US at 77yrs. Although when the song was written (shrouded in mystery but probably around the turn of the 20th century), life expectancy in the US was only 49yrs. So that theory can be safely trashed.

So it seems to me that we should use the American version on peoples birthdays, but every year that life expectancy rises we should have a national/world wide singing of the Brasillian version to congratulate the world on its accomplishment.

24 August 2005

Missing the Point

All the work I've done so far for my first Blockbuster novel fits on half a page of unlined paper in the form of a web diagram (The best thing I learned in 4th grade). I've come up with a lot of scenes and even outlined the core themes I would like to address. What I don't have is a reason to write the story in the first place.

According to Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method (which is loosely "based" on fractals), the first step is to
...take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your story. Something like this: "A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul." (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture.
So while I feel like I have the take away message ("think like me, muahahah"), I lack the crucial part that would complete the following dialogue...

Genuinely Curious Guy: "Hey reader of obscure novice literature, whatcha reading?"
Semi-literate Fan: "Shepley's new Blockbuster Thriller!"
Genuinely Curious (soon to be disappointed) Guy: "Oh, yeah! What's it about?"
Semi-literate Fan: "Oh, its about..." *insert Snowflake step 1 here.

Right now I have, "A vacationing professor discovers the secret behind Rio's darkest favela." Needs work... maybe it will receive some.

22 August 2005

How to know if you're a dork...

5. You attempt to calculate profit margins for every service you consume.
4. You ponder the opportunity costs of thinking about opportunity costs.
3. Your idol is Milton Friedman.
2. You hide your Introduction to Stochastic Processes book inside your Compreendo Trabalho para Transforma-ló book, so you can read it during class.
1. You "chat" with your Computer Chess opponent to try to find a weakness.

18 August 2005

Having too many choices is not so bad

Sometimes having just one standard makes life so much easier, one size scale for jeans, one DVD format, one system of messurament, and for goodness sakes, one instant messenging service. It is there, it gets the job done, there is no searching- now doesn't that sound easy?!

Oh my dear readers, it is not so. Life with choice is always better than life without. Choices allow us to support what we desire and complain against what we do not by our mere patronage. And in this case your complaints actually are felt in the suppliers bottom line - a great impetus for change. But we are still left with this difficulty in getting these systems to mesh. How can you stay connected with your friends and family when you have 3 e-mail accounts to check, 3 instant messenging services to log onto, and a work and personal cellphone?

The answer is what I call Multiple Open Source Access Information Consentrated Systems (MOSAICS). In many cases, we already have them. The little plaque at the department store with size comparisons from brand-to-brand, multi-format DVD drives, and trillian for instant messenging.

One problem is that these systems allow people to turn many choices back into one big choice and we start losing the patronage system where the best services wins out. Second-class services will survive longer because they don't "cost" us so much to keep them, but even so their effect is diminished. So long as the MOSAICS can adopt the features of the best services then this shouldn't be a problem at all.

Having too many choices is not so bad

No, this is not going to be one of those rants asking why we need so many brands of everything. If you feel like you have too many choices, let's say in the toothpaste isle, what it really means is that you feel like you are spending too much time looking for toothpaste. There is a simple solution; don't take so long. If you are deciding between three potential contenders, pick the one that is closest to you RIGHT NOW. If it is so hard to decide, it is because the differences between the products (whitening & cavity protection vs. 10x fluoride & tartar control) are so small that your mind is sent into a nearly endless loop of "what if's." Save frustration and do an impulse buy -- its toothpaste after all!!!

17 August 2005

Meninas de Engenharia de Produção

Here I am demonstrating, for the benefit of several classmates, the cognitive shortcomings of group photos. Note that limited cognition transfer of the photo boundary between the affected agents (camera man and photo subjects) elicitates a "scrunching" manuveur in an unnecessary attempt to complete the desired task. This description is not a red herring.

Uses of Barbed Wire #43: Snag unsuspecting students

Ilha de Fundão, the island that comprises UFRJ has an interesting method for promoting academic excellence; make the students feel like cattle. A far cry from the well-kept gardens and wavy brick walls of UVA, here one is well advised to look twice before leaning against a fence.

Barbed wire is always put up for a purpose (if not, why not just use regular wire), typically to deter crossing of the boundary it creates. So I am a little befuddled that a university would decide to use low-level barbed fences for common fences. In fact, some portions of these fences have fallen, so beware where you place your foot as well. Obviously these wires are not fulfilling a current security need, so my first move as self-elected UFRJ grounds keeper would be their immediate removal. But I'm not the grounds-keeper -- nor do I believe this position exists -- so the barbs stay.

Photos would elucidate the obserdity of this easy to fix problem... coming at some indeterminate time in the future.