09 December 2007

Why I am uneasy about giving gift cards

In a previous post I mentioned some of the benefits of gift cards. So as a gift receiver, I don't mind getting one especially if I've had input into the location for which it is valid.

Of course, I am aware of the inefficiencies of gift cards vs. cash (gift cards may not be redeemed, they constrain the choices of the recipient, they may expire). But in one way gift cards are very much like cash -- and that's why I'm uneasy about them. Just like money, the value is printed on the gift.

I think part of the "sentimental value" gets lost when you know the exact monetary value of the gift. That's why we peel price stickers before giving gifts! Even when we give a gift that we don't know if the recipient will like, at most we add a gift receipt. Sure, the person will find out the value of the item when he returns it to the store, but that is for another day, after all the festivities and insecurities of Christmas day are long past.

With cash and gift cards you know exactly how much was spent on you. Inevitably, this will be compared with how much you spent on the other person, which, depending on whether the balance sheet comes out in the red or the black may make you, or I, uncomfortable. And that is the last thing anybody wants on Christmas.

14 November 2007

My buddy Tim Harford and I go waaay back....

I sent the following e-mail to my Econ Idol, Mr. Tim Harford, regarding this blog post:

I think if I were a barista I might spend more time making a female's drink so as to impress her... not to spite her. I can't explain the increased wait for blacks though? By the way I think your book is the best in its genre and that you should be writing reviews for Freakonomics and the such, not the other way around! Anyway, write another book... though if your sales did well enough I won't have to entice you with my pitiful admiration.

Peace out,
Jeff Shepley
I know, I know, it has a very starry eyed tone... but he replied!
Hi Jeff,
You may be right, and you're very kind to write. Thank you.
There is (much) more here from the paper's author:

There is another book coming soon - timharford.com/logicoflife/

Yay, a new book! Booo, not in time for Christmas...

08 November 2007

Monkeys popping balloons = Formula for Addiction

The tower defense genre ranks among the more addicting gaming options for the casual gamer. Unlike PC and Console games, all you need is an Internet connection to play, yet it has many of those qualities that make more complicated games addicting:

1. Short levels that give instant gratification. You get a little rush of glee every 3-5 minutes.
2. Something to protect. If an enemy gets past your defenses you gasp as your life force (or balloon quota) is depleted.
3. Steadily progressing difficultly. Causing a little stress ("Will I be able to hold the balloons off next round?") but making each victory that much more sweet ("Yay, my monkeys popped all the balloons!").
4. Simple Rules; Less simple strategy. To play you just need to drag and drop some monkeys; to win, you need to think ahead and save your money for more effective defenses and upgrades (monkeys with boomerangs!).

05 November 2007

Domino deals deftly delivered ding.

On Saturday Domino Sugar slapped me in the face. You heard me right. It happened while I was sitting in the Jiffy Lube lounge waiting to get my oil changed. I was just sitting, minding my own business, when I glanced over at the stale coffee sitting under the TV. Right beside the little Styrofoam cups was a container of Domino Sugar.

The slogan on the container read: "We'll always be your sugar."

EXCUSE ME!!! The audacity of the claim shocked and appalled me. To help you understand why, perhaps I should spell out the events that led up to this simple carbo-bitchslap:

1. I happily purchase my refined sugar at the global (and efficient) price of 13 cents/pound. A Brazilian sugar farmer and a Brazilian refiner got some portion of that 13 cents/pound, and I got some delicious sugar. Note that this sugar includes the sugar in my soft drinks, the packet I put in my coffee, candy, as well as, ice cream, danishes and fudge. Yum!

2. The US sugar concern can't make sugar at 13 cents/pound, so they lobby Congress to subsidize their product and protect it with import quotas. Congress listens and all told I end up paying 52 cents/pound for refined sugar. Sure the American sugar farmer and refiner get a good wage. Heck, its only 52 cents/pound after all, its not like that's going to bankrupt me!

3. On second glance I realize the true injustice of the government support of Domino Sugar. (a) 52 cent/pound adds up to $1.9 billion/year in wealth transfer from me and you to relatively rich American Sugar farmers. (b) Since sugar is so expensive, high frutose corn syrup has replaced sugar in many sweets, especially soda. (c) Sugar is easier to grow in Brazil than in the U.S., which is why it costs less, but is also why it takes more pesticides and fertilizers to grow it here, at the expense of the environment --especially the Florida Everglades. (d) There are fewer opportunities in Brazil than in the U.S., yet our quotas keep them from selling me sugar and keeps U.S. worker who could be more productive at something else, being unproductive and making sugar at inflated prices.

So when Domino says, "We'll always be your sugar," forgive me if I say, "F@#$# off!" By which, of course, I mean "fudge" off, and that with a heaping cup of global sugar!

Papa Bear says: "Don't come near my family."

Sullum vs. Papa Bear on drugs -- use and abuse. But don't worry, I'm sure ol' Papa Bear doesn't mean it, after all, he admits it is "just an act."

01 November 2007

Why is Ron Paul a Republican...

... and not a Democrat?

No. I didn't say, "...and not an independent?" I know why Ron Paul is a Republican. It all comes down to practicality. You get elected in this country by being a member of one of the two parties. That is not the question though.

Looking beyond Ron Paul, more generally, the questions is why are libertarians often seen in the main stream as conservatives and not liberals? A libertarian is some one who believes in self-reliance and freedom to do what one chooses so long as it doesn't harm others. They often find it convenient to label themselves fiscally conservative and socially liberal. But if so, why are they typically labeled as "wacky conservatives" and not "wacky liberals"? I have three partial theories that may sum up to explain the phenomena...

1. Libertarians are just conservatives that don't let religious and nationalistic beliefs sway them into enforcing their morality on others.
2. Liberals have an urge to "do something" to fix our unfair world. They can't just sit idly by while people are homeless or without health care... "if we just spend a little more, it will help so much!" A libertarian believes that the best way to help more people fiscally is not to throw more money and government at the problem but to take more harmful government out of the equation. Liberals see libertarians sitting "idly by" and take that to mean they don't care about the poor, which fits in nicely with the stereotype of the greedy, rich conservative.
3. I should note that the libertarian is often more passionate about personal freedoms than the liberal, so why do liberals overlook this passion? Perhaps liberals, contrary to popular belief, do care more about "loyalty to the cause" than conservatives. You are either with the program or against it... everything is an ideal from welfare to free speech, we cannot sacrifice any of it! Whereas conservatives can tolerate some quirks. Heck conservatives probably would rather that the government were not as harsh on social issues such as drug prohibition and personal privacy, because that would let people make decisions for themselves, which in religion, is the only way to be righteous (you must be able to choose), but their overwhelming urge is to have safe neighborhoods and dead terrorists, ideals be damned.

30 October 2007

Rev-erse psycarlogy

As a general rule manuals get better gas mileage than automatics (just slightly and only if you know when to shift). But when I bought my Honda Civic in 2006 the manual model had an estimated MPG of 38 while the automatic had a 40. People, in general, prefer automatics but price sensitive buyers may be willing to go for the manual if the price is right and they get better gas mileage. But if they don't get better gas mileage more people will now choose the automatic.

So does Honda just make better automatic transmissions than manuals? Or do they purposely lower the fuel economy of manual transmissions to entice buyers to purchase the higher priced automatics?

My bet is that they just make better automatics. If they purposefully try to switch price sensitive consumers over to the more expensive product, they may lose the consumer entirely to a different product (like a Toyota Corolla). Maybe Honda has done the market research and figured it all out, but most likely, they just make good automatics for Civics.

29 October 2007

Ron Paul?

24 October 2007

Halloween Culture: Mass Murderer: Okay! Nazi: Taboo!

Aside from the iPod and Sponge Bob costumes, and oh yeah, the skimpy french maid costumes, Halloween costumes are supposed to be scary! Right...?

Not so fast! I'm sure you all remember the stink over Prince Harry's Nazi Costume. Or perhaps you heard about those unclassy UVA students that showed up to a party in black face. So what exactly is okay to wear and what isn't? First glance tells us to shy away from anything racially insensitive or that is reminiscent of historical tragedies.

But there are clearly exceptions... although not everyone will find these costumes tasteful, they are readily available on the internet and in costume stores (a costume store would be unlikely to stock a costume that most people found objectionable).

1. Indian - May be considered different than black face, because you are simply wearing the costume not usually coloring your skin. But otherwise, wearing this costume is tantamount to claiming Indians were savages. That mind set caused the U.S. to steal their lands and kill them and generally disrespect them.
2. Pimp - Often seen in society as taking advantage of and oppressing women, yet it is classic on Halloween.
3. Convict (especially in chains) - Ostensibly for committing an egregious crime, likely armed robbery, rape, or murder.
4. Jack the Ripper - Probably the closest you'll come to a real historically identifiable murderer on Halloween that is still considered acceptable.
5. Pirates, Gangsters - Both involved in stealing from and killing real people.
6. Devil - Okay, so this one is only offensive if you believe in the devil. But if you do, then this should really be the worst of all of them, right? He will destroy your soul, which is infinitely more important than your life. Yet this is probably the most common costume, even among Christians that celebrate Halloween.

15 October 2007

Where is your mind at?

Click here to be love stoned by a black Kate Moss with a little more boob. Which way does the dancer spin for you at first glance?

For me it was clockwise. But with a little investigation you can get the dancer to change direction at will.

08 October 2007

This blog entry is proven to reduce your gullability by 75%!!!

I have had a lot of "almost posts" in the past few weeks. Most have had to do with how statistics are used to win arguments, scare people, and generally hide the reality. I know it's cliché to mention the book How to Lie with Statistics, so I won't. I just want to vent on 2 things I hate about how people use statistics and one thing I like about statistics that is often glossed over.

Hate #1: "They have proven that X causes/prevents/is better than Y." X can be smoking weed and Y can be lung cancer/Alzheimer's/cigarettes, or whatever. I hate it when people cite papers they have not read in order to claim outright victory in an argument that is by NO MEANS closed. I will cite but not discuss the proposition that most published research is wrong, or at least some is by definition.

Hate #2: "X reduces the risk of Y by 50%." X can be drinking red wine and Y can be dying of heart disease, or whatever. Whenever you hear something like that, your first thought should probably be "so what?!" The relevant statistic is what your risk was and what your risk would be if you do X. Overlooking the possibility that the statement is probably wrong (see Hate #1), if your current risk is 1 in 5,000, your new risk is 1 in 10,000. But if your current risk is 1 in 5, your new risk is 1 in 10. The later is much bigger news to you.

Hate #2 brings me to what I think is glossed over in statistics, especially as reported by the media. Statistics look at a population, but you and I are both individuals. A population statistic, say the risk of dying in a car crash this year, is about 0.013% (40,000 Americans/year/300 million Americans). If you live to 100, the lifetime risk is 1.3% or 1 in 75. But population statistics are meaningless if the population is diverse.

Do you think that your risk is 1.3% if you drink and drive? Nope, higher.

What if you always obey the speed limit? Nope, lower.

The Internet abounds with risk calculators for health problems, presumably because there is so much data in this field. They typically ask you to answer a number of questions and then use some multiplier for each answer to determine your overall risk. Often the calculator will tell you by what % you can reduce your risk by changing your behavior. (Life Expectancy Calculator)

I would like to see a compendium of risk calculators, but for everyday stuff, not just medical conditions. Like, by what percentage can I reduce my risk of choking if I don't eat hard candy or mow my own lawn?!

01 October 2007

Herbal Essences, 1; NYT Magazine, 0

What do 15% of women do on Valentine's Day?
That's what I read on the back of my sister's Herbal Essences Hello Hydration Conditioner bottle... what can I say, I like to read stuff, even in the shower...

Anyway, it goes on to say,
For the answer, see Hello Hydration Shampoo bottle.
Now I thought that was pretty clever marketing. I was hoping (frantically) that my sister had the shampoo bottle! I found it at the other corner of the shower and the answer was, "send themselves flowers."

That got me to thinking about crossword puzzles and how they don't have the answers in the same issue as the puzzle. I always thought that was to prevent cheating. But, honestly, why would NYT care if you cheat or not. Maybe readers have come to demand that answers do not appear in the same issue; a sort of demand for imposed restriction. A more logical reason is that it gives the crossword puzzler an incentive to purchase the next issue. Another clever idea, though I'm giving this round to Herbal Essences because I've never cared to check my crossword answers from a previous week.

24 September 2007

How to make a million dollars: Screw your morals

How much would I have to pay you to stick a pin into the hand of a child you don't know? $100? $100,000? No amount of money would suffice?

Want to know how much it would cost to buy yourself off? YourMorals calculates the amount it would take to violate your morals in several categories (harm, loyalty, purity, etc.).

According to YourMorals, if you paid me $242,020 you could get me to overcome my moral aversion to harming others. Of course the amount would vary greatly with the harm involved, since I have considerable utilitarian propensities.

(Hat tip to Bloggingheads.tv for the pointer)

17 September 2007

Don't wait idly by. Rev up for the environment.

When you pull up to a stop light, should you cut the engine? Should you warm up your car before pulling out of the driveway? According to anti-idling advocates, and contrary to conventional wisdom (i.e., what I was taught), the answers are yes and no.

Myth 3: Repeatedly restarting your car is hard on the engine and quickly drains the battery.
Wrong. Frequently restarting your engine does negligible damage to the engine and does not drain modern batteries excessively. In fact, the opposite is true; idling an engine forces it to operate in a very inefficient and gasoline-rich mode that, over time, can degrade the engine’s performance and reduce mileage.

According to the site, and a quick scan of the google results, if you are idling for more than 10 seconds, it is best to turn off the engine. It is better for your engine, the environment, and your wallet. They also say the best way to warm up your car is by driving it (that you should start driving within 30 seconds of starting the car, even on really cold days).

12 September 2007

Profit-maximizing with a jagged little pill

If you have waited in line at a pharmacy or had to pay full price for prescription meds, you have probably thought about pill splitting. Pill splitting is an attractive decision because drugs of various strengths often cost about the same per pill (compare prices here).

But why do drug companies charge the same amount for 10 mg of Allegra as they do for 20 mg? Regardless of why they charge the same amount, the company is certainly looking to make a profit. Therefore if you are cutting their 20 mg pill to make twice as many 10 mg pills, you are cutting into their profits. For some drugs, drug companies actually help the consumer cut pills by manufacturing the pill with a groove where it can be cut more easily be cut in two. Most likely these are drugs that face fierce competition and the added groove is a much needed selling point to stay competitive. I would predict more grooves in medicines that are no long under patent protection.

But, not surprisingly, drug companies have also devised ways to overcome pill cutting. One is to have a special coating or capsule around the drug to render it less effective when split (pehaps the gel capsule or a time release capsule). The other is to increase the difficulty in splitting the pill by not grooving it or by making it an awkward shape with a slippery coating. I would suggest an unsymmetrical shape that is difficult to divide in half. I would predict more of these types of pills when the drug faces little competition.

28 August 2007

With Pretzels, let the Gold lie

Of late, I've been snacking quite regularly on mini-pretzels. Finding myself at the bottom of a bag of Snyder's of Hanover, and thus in the market for more minis, I made my way to the local Safeway. Now I have been relatively pleased with Snyder's of Hanover pretzels but it had been some time since I last patronized Rold Gold's, and I remember them being the very best.

With their distinctive yellow, blue, and clear bags, you'd think I would have quickly secured my Rold Gold's and been on my way. Not so! I must have overlooked them thrice before finding them in a foreign bag of all blue (like common potato chips!). It was only my disbelief that such a popular brand would not be stocked at the Safeway that I engaged in said second and third glances.

Well then you can imagine my disappointment when I popped the bag only to find the pretzels much too salty. It is back to Hanover for me!

12 August 2007

Top 10 things you need when playing parent to a 13 and 9 year old for a week.

10. Lots of batteries (It's funny how many things still take AA batteries. Carbon Monoxide detectors and wireless mice come to mind).
9. A fully functional kitchen preferred. Especially a dishwasher. If not, then at least a sink. If nothing else, a variety of paper plates and bowls and plastic utensils. Microwave is a must.
8. A job with flexible hours.
7. Internet access. For 9 y/o, Webkinz (trust me).
6. Video rental membership (netflix plus a brick and mortar).
5. A car that gets good gas mileage.
4. At least two food delivery services available to your house (pizza and Chinese suggested).
3. A cell phone service with an "in network" and unlimited text messaging.
2. Sleep overs AT THE FRIEND'S house.
1. Love. Or a severe lack of personal neediness. At the very least, patience. Some wisdom helps, but may not be crucial for just one week.

02 August 2007

Not all new is bad news.

I was talking with my parents the other day about their upcoming trip to Crete. I had just heard a news segment on the island. Our exchange went like so:

Me: "So I heard about Crete in the news today."
Mom: "Uh oh, not a bombing, I hope!"
Me: "Oh my... hahahhaha, no no. It was about how nice the people are there. But it's interesting that that was the first thing that came to mind."

And so it is that some news is good news, even if you have to listen to NPR to hear it.

30 July 2007

The digital lauging problem: Part II

Part I identifies the disconnect between written laughter and oral laughter during instant messaging conversation. My distinguished colleague, Alexandra Vu, in true Second Glance fashion, identifies an unexpected (and pitiful) reality that results from this disparity:
It has become a habit to write 'haha' all over the place, no wonder people who aren't really funny think they're hilarious. We are the reason why they assume they're funny, and yet we complain that they're not.
Ms. Vu goes on to refer to these pleasantly deluded individuals as "poor souls." So the next time you're rolling your eyes at that guy who just told a horrible "soooo a guy walked into a bar..." joke, remember he can't help it, he is getting rave reviews on-line (and hopefully not from you)!

22 July 2007

Bill of Non-Rights: A quasi-hoax

I recently read a facebook friend's posted note extolling the "Bill of Non-Rights," falsely attributed to Georgia State Rep, Mitchell Kaye. According to snopes.com, it was actually written by an amateur philosopher from Mississippi.

Since the note was prefaced with, "This was too good not to share with others...To my liberal friends...don't be offended by the truth," I feel I must respond. Not because I consider myself a liberal (or liberaltarian), but because I am skeptical of any statement claiming to be "the truth" with respect to political matters. Here it goes:
"We the sensible people of the United States, in an attempt to help everyone get along, restore some semblance of justice, avoid more riots, keep our nation safe, promote positive behavior, and secure the blessings of debt-free liberty to ourselves and our great-great-great-grandchildren, hereby try one more time to ordain and establish some common sense guidelines for the terminally whiny, guilt ridden, delusional, and other liberal bed-wetters. We hold these truths to be self evident: that a whole lot of people are confused by the Bill of Rights and are so dim they require a Bill of NON-Rights."
It starts off well enough. I take some offense to the term "liberal bed-wetter" in a paragraph that claims to want "to help everyone get along." But let's get into the substance:
ARTICLE I: You do not have the right to a new car, big screen TV, or any other form of wealth. More power to you if you can legally acquire them, but no one is
guaranteeing anything.
Does anyone claim the right to "a new car, big screen TV"? No. People claim the right to welfare checks and farm subsidies and the such, so why not say that rather than things people don't claim a right to? Oh, and by the way, it is the law that is providing the welfare and subsidies, so I think we could come up with a higher standard than, "if you can legally acquire them."
ARTICLE II: You do not have the right to never be offended. This country is based on freedom, and that means freedom for everyone -- not just you! You may leave the room, turn the channel, express a different opinion, etc.; but the world is full of idiots, and probably always will be.
ARTICLE III: You do not have the right to be free from harm. If you stick a screwdriver in your eye, learn to be more careful, do not expect the tool manufacturer to make you and all your relatives independently wealthy.
There are plenty of frivolous lawsuits with plantiffs of dubious character. Then there are those who have been duped by manufacturers of dubious character. The problem is it is hard to defend against one without allowing the other free reign. I opt for the market solution in most cases (e.g., screwdriver to eye).
ARTICLE IV: You do not have the right to free food and housing. Americans are the most charitable people to be found, and will gladly help anyone in need, but we are quickly growing weary of subsidizing generation after generation of professional couch potatoes who achieve nothing more than the creation of another generation of professional couch potatoes.
As a general rule people should not have government supplied food or housing. There are people who are unable to obtain work due to disability. We live in a society that believes in a safety net for these people. Let's provide that, but be vigilant against breeding a generation of "disabled" people by keeping the definition of disabled suitably narrow.
ARTICLE V: You do not have the right to free health care. That would be nice, but from the looks of public housing, we're just not interested in public health care.
As above, as a general rule people should pay for the services they consume and not for services they don't.
ARTICLE VI: You do not have the right to physically harm other people. If you kidnap, rape, intentionally maim, or kill someone, don't be surprised if the rest
of us want to see you fry in the electric chair.
Is this alluding to capital punishment? The problem is "the rest of us want to see you fry" claims to much; there is not unanimity among non-criminals for the death penalty. We want to see just punishment to be sure, but that is a far cry from saying you have the right to harm others. Again, another non-right that should be more direct to avoid misinterpretation.
ARTICLE VII: You do not have the right to the possessions of others. If you rob, cheat, or coerce away the goods or services of other citizens, don't be surprised if the rest of us get together and lock you away in a place where you still won't have the right to a big screen color TV or a life of leisure.
Um, obviously. Is this a cry for no TVs in prison? Really is that a big enough deal to have its own article?
ARTICLE VIII: You do not have the right to a job. All of us sure want you to have a job, and will gladly help you along in hard times, but we expect you to
take advantage of the opportunities of education and vocational training laid before you to make yourself useful.
I think the Bush administration combed through this before forwarding it along. The original Article VIII refers to the absurdity of foreign wars, with which I largely agree. This replacement is basically a rehash of Article I and IV. I generally agree, you don't have a right to a job. One the other hand, if you have a service someone else is willing to pay for, you should have the right to make the transaction. So you have a right not to be kept from doing a job.
ARTICLE IX: You do not have the right to happiness. Being an American means that you have the right to PURSUE happiness, which by the way, is a lot easier if you are unencumbered by an over abundance of idiotic laws created by those of you who were confused by the Bill of Rights.
Agreed. We have too many laws. This is a direct result of the large number of lawyers and polly sci majors. Hahah, just kidding. But not about the laws. Too many.
ARTICLE X: This is an English speaking country. We don't care where you are from, English is our language. Learn it or go back to wherever you came from! (lastly....)
I'm glad they didn't say this to me when I was in Brazil. I would have considered them a bunch of snobby, uncharitable, isolationist bigots. If you can get by without English here, be my guest. I don't think the government should go way out of the way to provide multilingual services.
ARTICLE XI: You do not have the right to change our country's history or heritage. This country was founded on the belief in one true God. And yet, you are given the freedom to believe in any religion, any faith, or no faith at all; with no fear of persecution. The phrase IN GOD WE TRUST is part of our heritage and history, and if you are uncomfortable with it, TOUGH!!!!
This one is hard to argue with. It isn't really saying anything other than, you don't have the right to re-write history or take IN GOD WE TRUST off the money. I can live with that. If it is claiming more, be more specific.

20 July 2007

Potter Mania

Question: Does the world need another Harry Potter blog post?
Answer: No.

19 July 2007

China in the year 2020: A sausage fest

The human mind has an unlimited capacity for rationalizing convienent behavior. In many situations this prevents us from going bezerk in reaction to mundane annoyances...

You're sitting in traffic for an hour trying to get home after a mind-numbingly exhausting day at work when some bozo pins you in a thru lane so you can't get to your exit ramp. Do you (a) run him off the road then pull him out of his car and beat him until his face resembles raw meatloaf 0r (b) curse under your breath and suck it up; besides karma says the jerk will get what's coming to him someday?

If we always picked (a) one could imagine there'd be a lot less of us living on this planet. On the other hand, the very fact that we pick (b) so frequently has meant that there are a lot less of us living on this planet. China's one child policy is the epitome of this phenomena. Women in China are being taxed, forced to have abortions, or are even sterilized for having more than one child. The first glance result; fewer kids. The second glance result; by 2020 there will be 40 million more Chinese men than women. They'll have to come up with some killer pick-up lines.

We should be outraged enough that women and families are having their right to procreate stolen. But this policy also engenders a perverse culture of gender discrimination leading to the infaticide of millions of unborn females. Where is the outrage?

If you're like me, I can tell you where it is. It's in the same place it is when you get cut off on the highway; under your breath, in the privacy of your car. It's in any of a thousand places, but none that will make a difference.

04 July 2007

4th of July heads up!

I just got back from a fairly traumatic experience. While some are worried about terrorism on this 4th of July, those attending the fireworks display in the town of Vienna need have worried more about errant, if colorful, explosives. My dad and I parked our little camping seats about as close to the fireworks as you could get; literally just yards from the yellow police tape that kept the viewers at a "safe" distance.

As the show began, Dad remarked that they would probably tell us to move back farther as debris from the exploding rockets rained down from above, some still on fire. These proved ominous words indeed. During the finale, several of the fireworks shot off into the crowd about 50 yards to our left and 30 yards to our right. At this point we knew something was wrong but we too shocked to move. Looking back I probably would have ducked for cover.

After the last of the finale, there did not seem to be any panic, even near the sites of the explosions. As my Dad and I walked by the closer of the two explosion sites, on our way home, a few men, including police were clearing people away from the site. We stuck around for a bit as ambulances, fire trucks, police vehicles, and a helicopter swarmed the area.

Again, there was no panic and it did not appear that there were widespread injuries. Hope everyone is okay!

Addendum: According to ABC 7 news, 9 people where hospitalized in the event, two apparently quite seriously.

Addendum II: Video of the explosive finale here.

03 July 2007

No less than 4 fewer dying traditions

According to Barry Leiba, of "Staring At Empty Pages," there are "exactly four" situations where it is proper to correct someone's grammar:
(1) when you're an English teacher correcting a student
(2) when you're coaching a nonnative speaker who's asked for help
(3) when someone else has asked for coaching
(4) when someone puts the equivalent of a "kick me" sign on her back.
My latest favorite is the distinction between less and fewer. From the Dictionary.com entry for fewer:
Usage Note: The traditional rule holds that fewer should be used for things that can be counted (fewer than four players), while less should be used with mass terms for things of measurable extent (less paper; less than a gallon of paint). However, less is used in some constructions where fewer would occur if the traditional rule were being followed. Less than can be used before a plural noun that denotes a measure of time, amount, or distance: less than three weeks; less than $400; less than 50 miles. Less is sometimes used with plural nouns in the expressions no less than (as in No less than 30 of his colleagues signed the letter) and or less (as in Give your reasons in 25 words or less).

26 June 2007

Bad Directions?

Billy Currington's song, "Good Directions" is probably currently my favorite song. It tells one of those cutesie stories that Country songs are known for,
I was sittin’ there sellin’ turnips on a flatbed truck
Crunchin’ on a pork rind when she pulled up
She had to be thinkin’ “This is where the rednecks come from”
Currington has a masterful voice and funny, casual lyrics. And you can't help but smile when you hear
I told her way up yonder past the caution light
There’s a little country store with an old Coke sign
You gotta stop in and ask Miss Bell for some of her sweet tea
However, about the 20th time I listened to the song, I was struck by how quickly Currington falls in love with the girl. The only evidence that we have supporting his line 'Kickin’ myself for not catchin’ her name. I threw my hat and thought, “You fool, that coulda been love”', is
She had Hollywood written on her license plate
She was lost and lookin’ for the interstate
Needin’ directions and I was the man for the job
So Currington is this small town boy selling turnip greens when a girl from Hollywood strolls by looking for directions because she's lost in Georgia, probably scared out of her mind. In reality, Miss Bell probably gave Ms. Hollywood Bad Directions and now the poor rich girl is heading back for the redneck who considers her his dream girl after a short conversation about the quickest way to get out of this backwater town where the best landmark is the "caution light" up the street, surely cautioning drivers that they are approaching the downtown of no town.

I guess it's just funny that my favorite song is about a daydream occurrence with such a low probability of ending in "love" that its almost comical. I think I like it just for the way Currington says "turnip greens" in the last line of the song.

18 June 2007

As nature intends

On the island nation of Libertee Fornone newborns are openly mutilated. A few days after birth their tongues are stripped of taste buds in a procedure called rapalingua. The procedure is relatively quick, though quite painful, so doctors usually use anesthesia. Far less than 1% of newborns die as a result of complications from the procedure.

The island's doctors and religious leaders generally recommend the surgery. In fact, for years it has been the most common surgery on the island! The doctors recommend rapalingua mainly for its health benefits. Dr. Sise Sircome, a prominent doctor on the island explains it this way,
"If all food tastes the same, then there is no incentive to eat unhealthy food. Therefore, the surgery produces healthier, longer living kids."
But it's not just the doctors who advice parents to have the surgery performed. Rev. Verita Evita of the island's Order of the Bländ speaks of the spiritual aspect of the decision,
"We celebrate the child's rapalingua within our community of faith. It symbolizes the love the parents have for the child and the preparation and experience they will pass on to the child as he grows and develops."
It should be mentioned that rapalingua is only performed on males on the island. When asked why, both doctor and reverend alike were shocked, indeed almost offended at the question. Off the record, the doctor claimed women were not as susceptible to overeating. The reverend said, in soft tones, that women's tongues are "next-to-holy" and must be respected.

We caught up with Dablen Mikidselife and wife to be, Takinaway Mikiddisision, who are planning on having many children on Libertee Fornone. Asked if they would consider rapalingua for their kids, their response was automatic, "Of course! How could you say no to that?! Besides everybody does it; we wouldn't want our kids to feel different."

29 May 2007

Flight of the Conchord

As far as I recall, I've only met one Kiwi. He was hilarious. These guys are too. See them here too.

20 May 2007

It takes two baby. Toyota comparison advertisement

I just watched a 0-60-0 test for the Toyota Tundra. If you don't want to watch the 30 second spot, my description follows:

5 trucks are lined up. They all race off at the same time. The Toyota Tundra pulls ahead as the voice track talks of its best-in-class acceleration. Then the Tundra falls back suddenly as the voice track talks of its best-in-class braking. The final shot is an overhead of the Tundra 31 feet back from the competition.

The problem with the 0-60-0 test is that it doesn't tell you what you want to know. If your truck reaches 0-60 incredibly fast, the 60-0 braking part could be incredibly bad and you'd still fair well among the competition of relatively fast and relatively good braking trucks. Seems to me, these tests should be kept separate.

02 May 2007


Listening to NPR the other day, I heard an ad from one of the sponsors, steel.org. I wish I had it verbatim, but the spot went something like

"Each job in the steel industry creates 4 more jobs in other sectors. Each year American steel workers spend over $40 million on computers and high tech products. New Steel; feel the strength."

Now maybe I have the numbers 4 and $40 million off, but you get the gist. My initial reaction was probably the one steel.org wanted -- wow, the steel industry is creating jobs and supporting growth in the high tech sector. Upon reflection, though, neither of those statistics struck me as reasons to support the American Iron and Steel Institute.

"Each job in steel creates 4 jobs in other sectors" -- This would appear to suggest that more jobs in steel is beneficial to the economy as a whole. More accurately, that is, the steel produced by one steel worker provides material support for four jobs in other sectors. All the more reason to have it made most cheaply, thereby increasing the amount other sectors can purchase and hence the number of other jobs those sectors support. If more steel means more jobs, let's get the most steel possible (which means buying it as cheaply as possible). In fact, there is a point at which more steel may create more jobs, but not more efficient jobs. At that point more jobs in steel is bad for the economy because it means fewer in industries with higher need.

"Each year American steel workers spend over $40 million on computers and high tech products." -- Bill Gates probably spends a similar amount on various products, many of which are high tech in nature. The truth is he consumes much of their value, just like the steel workers consume much of the value of the products they buy. Ostensibly, the AISI wants us to believe this is somehow good for the US because it stimulates the high tech sector. In fact, we'd be better off if the steel workers socked away their money instead. As it is, we have $40 million fewer high tech products from which to choose, meaning that the ones that remain are $40 million more expensive (supply and demand). If the workers save their money, we have $40 million extra worth of products on the market, which puts downward pressure on the cost. In addition, investors have $40 million extra from which to borrow and advance the technology that drives the high tech sector.

Nice try, AISI.

18 April 2007

Be the life of the party and save BIG...

...Unfortunately, you do have to be willing to dupe your friends. Luckily for you (and them), there is little chance they'll figure out your scheme. And if you don't get caught, everybody will carry on and have a grand ol' time!

The whole scheme is premised on the fact that most of your friends can't tell the difference between an expensive and a cheap liquor. Clearly, if you pour a shot out of an Aristocrat bottle and another out of a Grey Goose bottle, your friends' biases will favor the Grey Goose and they'll claim that it is much better. In a blind taste test it would be much easier to trick your friends.

Oh, but you have sophisticated friends, you say. Well let's do one better; let's put the cheap stuff in the expensive bottle! Even your more discerning friends will probably fall for this ol' switch-a-roo, especially if you only break out the bottle after they've all downed a couple already.

Of course with any scheme, preparation and presentation are crucial. First, ensure the substitute liquor has the same color as its top-shelf counterpart. I find, for example, that a Patrón -- Reposado can be cloned with 3 parts silver, 1 part gold of almost any cheaper tequila. A $50 dollar bottle of Patrón can be cloned for about $12. Then, of course, there is the presentation. Clearly its not a great idea to present a cloned liquor next to (geographically or temporally) the real deal itself or even the same liquor family. Ideally, a tequila would be presented against a vodka or rum as opposed to another tequila.

Also, to pull this off with the maximum effect, be sure to add a little hype when you initially introduce your beverage. Half the fun of drinking expensive liquors is the "aura" surrounding the various brands (think Hennessy and the such). So be sure to throw in a couple deep-voiced "Pah-trown"s like out of a rap song, perhaps preceded by an appropriate expletive for good measure. Have fun with it... it's a party after all.

Why it's so hard to be happy.

I just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Despite the title, it isn't about how to be a happier person. Instead, Gilbert explores why so many things that we think will make us happy end up be rather disappointing. It is very well documented for a book intended for a popular audience (a la Blink by Malcom Gladwell).

When I read an author for the first time, I generally don't want to know anything about him or her. Nor do I want to read negative reviews about the book. If the author is some "nobody" or the negative reviews seem logical, I find it difficult to give the book an objective reading (I feel the same way about low budget movies and movie critics' reviews). I really enjoy being a few (or a few hundred) pages into the book and thinking, "Geez, this is really good, I wonder who wrote it!" and then looking at the about the author section. In fact, I enjoy this "fresh mind" so much that it is worth it to me to start reading a couple crummy books once in a while just to hold out for that refreshing "aaaaahhhhh" moment.

This book gave me one of those moments.

03 April 2007

Where's the scandal? It's a scandalous world

The US attorney "scandal" has really got me scratching my head? I agree with a lot of stuff said here. Here are a few reasons why this is NOT a scandal (or just part of a larger one):

- Clinton fired ALL the US attorney when he entered the Presidential office. Some say, well Bush's firings were discriminate based on politics, which is not how the office of US attorney's should be rated. Well, Clinton's firings were indiscriminate, meaning he discriminated against all the attorneys by not giving any a chance. Who is to say Clinton didn't bag them all as a cover to get rid of just one or two specific attorneys he disagreed with politically?
- Maybe we should be mad at Bush/Gonzalez for the firings. But, if that angers us, we sure as hell better be angered at Clinton's firings.
- Some say, "well, Gonzalez lied about his involvement." News Flash: The Bush administration lies all the time. I don't have the numbers, but I suspect it is once a week or more. The fact that Gonzalez lied doesn't mean this particular issue is scandalous. They lie about stuff that isn't that scandalous all the time. The whole administration is a scandal.

01 April 2007

Metro Etiquette

You're on the subway and it's really crowded. You take the only seat available -- next to a stranger -- who for the sake of argument is an overweight minority. You are comfortable enough in the seat, though the size of the stranger means you two are more snug than usual.

Eventually you get near the end of the line and the train car clears out. There is an empty bench right across the way. You're sitting on the outside, so it would be easy to slide over. Do you move?

Everybody enjoys some personal space and, let's face it, you'd both have way more if you moved to the empty row. But will the move be construed as disgust or bigotry.

What is the proper thing to do in this situation?

My first instinct is to stay in the chair. That way no one's feelings get hurt, even if it makes for an awkward situation. But is that just being over-sensitive?

Here's an urban etiquette primer, but I didn't find what I was looking for there.

23 March 2007

Why US is sliding toward statism. In 3 sentences.

Democrats could be more libertarian if they weren't beholden to special interest groups. Republicans could be more libertarian if they weren't beholden to the religious right. Libertarians could be more mainstream if they weren't beholden to the allure of a free society.

20 March 2007

From worst to best to so-so

This article, "What's Good about Atheism" has been sitting in my virtual archive for several months. Initially, I was going to title it "The worst article ever."

But then I read it again. And a third time. I'm not ready to claim that it is the best article I've read, but it is a very interesting look at what atheists can learn from theists and vice versa.

Some excerpts:

...Rationality cannot prove itself. The fundamental validity of reason therefore must be taken on faith; the only difference from a purely logical point of view between an atheist who believes in reason and a religious person who makes a primary act of faith is that the religious person recognizes the pre-logical basis of his beliefs, while the atheist does not.

...Virtuous atheists actually have a stronger claim to real goodness than virtuous Christians, Jews, or Muslims, because there can be no taint of cupboard love in their obedience to the moral law. They do not believe in a reward for goodness, and thus must love goodness for its own sake.

...We have seen what atheism looks like on the large scale, and it is not pretty: the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields. Religion has indeed been a cause of appalling slaughter during the course of human history; but it must take fifth place behind atheist ideology, nation-state aggression, mercantile colonialist expansion, and tribal war in the carnage sweepstakes.

...one of Dawkins' favorite arguments against the rather feeble theist objection that you can't prove that God doesn't exist—you can't prove a negative. Dawkins triumphantly retorts that

"There's an infinite number of things that we can't disprove, You might say that because science can explain just about everything but not quite, it's wrong to say therefore we don't need God. It is also, I suppose, wrong to say we don't need the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unicorns, Thor, Wotan, Jupiter, or fairies at the bottom of the garden. There's an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in, and an infinite number of things that nobody has believed in. If there's not the slightest reason to believe in any of those things, why bother? The onus is on somebody who says, I want to believe in God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever it is. It is not up to us to disprove it."

17 February 2007

Blogging from Salvador: Parte dois

This morning I went to Plaze Aeroclube to pick up my abadás (t-shirts) that privelege me to walk for hours on end behind a truck blaring music. Everybody, including the taxi driver that took me out there warned that ladrões would try to steal my t-shirts. At $70+ a pop, this isn´t too surprising as this is about how much a lot of the people here make in a month. My solution was to stuff them down my pants. Let me tell you, three t-shirts down your pants is hard to hide. I got several looks; I´m not sure if they knew what I was doing or if there were just impressed...

Blogging from Salvador: Parte Um

My Hostel is one historic city block from an internet café and instead of taking a nap (difficult when a 20 drums and brass ensemble is banging/tooting away right outside the window), I decided to blog :).

Last night I walked about 2 miles down this main road just to get out and see the city. There were locals selling soda, beer, meat on a stick, and of course, water every two feet. It seems the whole facade of the city along this road has been adapted for the purpose of providing a cold beverage to a festival goer no matter which precise step he wishes to have one (on step 10,304 or 10,307).

I partcipated in last nights festivities as "pipoca" or popcorn. That what they call the people that view the parade from the side of the street because they didn´t shell out 100 bucks or more to buy a t-shirt that allows them to walk behind the music trucks. I did shell out but not for last night . Besides, being pipoca was fun because you get to see all the bands drive by instead of just the one you are following. The other way to watch all the bands is to get a ticket to a "camarote" which is basically a roadside stand/night club, which also costs loads of money.

So as pipoca you are chilling with the poor people, the cheapskates, and the commitment-shy. Some of these would like more than anything to have your money, though I haven´t experienced the hands in my pocket that everyone had been telling me will happen. You can make a lot of friends with $20 by buying people beer or soda for their kids, so you got to bring the money.

29 January 2007

Re: No Subject

No subject is the subject of this post. Or in other words, the subject is "no subject." This is in reference to the vast percentage (though meager quantities) of messages I receive from friends on facebook and myspace with said title.

The subject line is a relic from the days of memos. You never went through the trouble of writing a memo without a subject in mind. Nowadays, in the age of e-mail, text messaging and pretty much just all around constant messaging, sending a message is no trouble at all. So if you just have a short thing or half a thing to say, do you really want to spend the time to think of a witty title?

No, you don't. And you also don't want to write some cheesy ("hey man!") or borderline sketchy ("just thinking of you...") title that sends the wrong message. So you type out a couple cheap lines and hit send. And on the other end the recipient gets that wonderful line

No Subject

The best is when you reply back and forth to this and it becomes

RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: No Subject

About this time you stop hitting reply and craft a new message with -- you guessed it -- no subject.

23 January 2007

You, the Oracle

Bryan Caplan presents the following hypothetical dialog:

"I'm sure that a Democrat will win in 2008."

"Sure? OK, let's bet at 100:1."

"Umm, no thanks. But I'll do it for even odds."

Basically the question is why, if we are so sure of ourselves and our opinions, do we act as if we are something less than certain. Bryan has 4 reasons, but his and my favorite is,
A bet instantly raises the marginal private cost of error, which leads to a sharp increase in rationality. Faced with financial consequences, people suddenly - if temporarily - admit to themselves that they know a lot less than they like to believe - and bet accordingly.

22 January 2007

methods of visualization

You've gathered some data. Let's say you're a private detective and have dug up some dirt on your client's lover. What is the best way to represent that data. You could give them all the documents and photographs that contain interesting information. You could create a bulleted list of things you suspect the lover of having done. You could create a time line of mischievous behavior. The possibilities are endless, but here is a fairly comprehensive list of ways to visualize data.

You are very small

In the grand scheme of things (say compared to W Cephi) you are small. If you don't believe me, then watch this video. If a red blood cell was scaled up to its size on W Cephi, that one cell could hold enough blood to fill three human bodies.

W Cephi = 288,194 X Earth
Red Blood Cell = 1/100,000,000 meters
Size of red blood cell on W Cephi = about 1/4 meter
Volume of RBC on W Cephi = 1/64 meters cubed = about 15 liters
Blood in human body = about 5 litres

Of course size is relative, and you are relatively big compared to the stuff around you. That is probably easy to believe, but for completeness, here is a link of really small things.

The gentlemanly motive.

What is the motive for chivalrous behavior? No, not Chivalry. Just your standard, modern, run of the mill gentlemanly behavior. We are always hearing that "chivalry is dead." Is it dead? Why did it die? In fact, why did it exist in the first place? Here is a theory:

In the past men treated women with respect and courteousness out of pity and guilt for the oppression that women were living in. An oppression caused by the male dominated world.

Today men treat women with respect and courteousness out of desperation due to the progress that women have achieved over the past 50 years. Women are now in direct competition with men. Men have less reason to pity women. The main purpose of chivalry today is to court a woman. Since men generally are trying to impress a small number of women at a time, they show less respect overall.