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Archive for July, 2011

Fingerprints

When I got an iPad, I was prepared for the number of fingerprint smudges on it.  They are annoying, but if you have a touchscreen for a keyboard you must be prepared to accept that sometimes (i.e., often) you will have a smudgy screen caused by the oil in your fingers.  The same is true of my Windows Phone.

However, one thing I can’t understand is why my laptop has so many smudges on it.  There’s no reason to touch the screen in my laptop.  I open it up but don’t need to put my fingers on it at all.  Yet whenever the screen goes black, I can see tons of smudges on it everywhere!  What the heck!  Even after I clean them off, they return.

The weird thing is that my laptop at work (my old laptop which is old and broken that I use rarely) has very few smudges on it.  The dual monitors that I rarely use have a few smudges on them, but far less than on my current laptop.  I seriously doubt that it’s me that is doing the smudging.

I should ask my beta wife if she has any idea how these fingerprint smudges keep appearing on my laptop screen.

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Today on Facebook, one of my friends (who I didn’t block during my self-imposed exile from politics) posted in his status that the best way to stimulate economic growth is to give money to the poor.  He then alleged that the Congressional Budget Office had numbers to back up that assertion.

As anyone reading this blogs knows, the United States economy is sluggish.  It has been this way since the recession started in December 2007.  It then went full blown recession in 2008 but since it emerged out of it in March 2009, the economy has grown but very slowly.  It’s anemic, even.

Why is this?  Why is economic growth so bad?  What do we have to do to kick start it?  I was going to reply to my friend’s post but I need more time to delve into it than what is available in a simple Facebook reply.

My friend’s response reflects a theory pushed forth by the economist John Maynard Keynes.  This is the dominant economic model today in all the world’s economies.  In an oversimplified nutshell, this view says that economic growth responds to aggregate demand.  All of us buy stuff.  When we want more stuff, the economy grows because people who sell it will make more.  We buy more, people make more, and in order to make more they will hire more people and give them jobs.  More jobs = more taxes to pay = more government income and less unemployment.  It’s pretty simple.  More buyers = better economy.  If people demand less stuff, people make fewer things and lay people off, leading to more unemployment.

My friend’s view that giving money to the poor stimulates growth fits into this.  Since the poor cannot afford to buy things, there is not enough total demand in the economy.  If the poor had more money, they would spend it.  Producers would see “Oh, there’s more demand for my stuff” and hire more people. 

Where would this money to give to the poor come from?  From the government.  Where would the government get this money?  From rich people.  Rich people do not spend all of their money, therefore, there is potential capital sitting on the sidelines.  If the government were to take their money (in the form of taxation) and give it to the poor, or we were to give it voluntarily, the poor would spend it whereas the rich just horde it.  Unused money sitting in a bank account is less efficient than poor people spending it and driving economic growth. 

In truth, my friend’s view is an extreme one; most Keynesians say that the government should tax the rich and spend it – the government does the hiring or gives it to private businesses to do the hiring (i.e., the government needs to build a dam therefore they hire an architectural firm to do it; this is what they mean by shovel-ready projects).  They don’t take from the rich and give directly to the poor, instead, they employ them in order to make them productive citizens.

To sum up, according to my friend, the more people who are buying stuff, the better the economy.  Giving money to poor people takes unused money and gives it to people who will buy stuff.

More in my next post.

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I saw an act on America’s Got Talent last night that seriously impressed me.  I said "Holy sh*t!"

Acts involving magic I kind of shrug at.  There are some other acts that are fun to watch and  handful of singers are good.  Some novelty acts are impressive.  Others do stunts that look like they involve danger but are really quite safe.

This act tonight had me going.

It was a performance where a guy jumped off a diving board three stories high (36 ft) into a pool of water.  Now, you’ll say "So what?"  Well, the pool of water was a kiddie pool and the water was only 12 inches deep.  Not 12 feet, twelve inches.  Measure that out with your hands.  Now imagine jumping from a height of 36 feet into it.

What this guy does is he jumps off and does a belly flop into it.  He climbed up to the top, they told everyone to be quiet and he jumped.  He then landed in the water belly flop style (or something).  He then got up and everyone cheered.

I was like "Holy sh*t!"  I have to admit that is impressive because my jaw dropped.  I wouldn’t even belly flop from two feet up, let alone into a pool of water only 12" deep.

This guy earned a kudos from me.

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As someone who has never played competitive sports or considered himself an athlete, I’ve been fortunate to avoid injuries to parts of my body from overuse (this is what frustrates me about my hips – the fact that I have never overused them but yet they have chronically deteriorated).  Certainly, I have played sports and suffered many injuries.  For example, in sponge hockey I once slid into the end boards foot first and hurt my ankle.  While playing football once I sprained my finger once and my wrist another time.  But those are acute injuries, they are not a natural part of the game but occur as an accident.

When I do get injured, I rest the sore body part and avoid exposing it to more danger (unlike my brother who doesn’t seem to learn from this sort of thing).  However, now that I have taken up hiking, acute injuries are the least of my concern.  Now I get injuries from overuse.

Runners often get shin splints.  Tennis players get problems in their elbows or shoulders.  I have two problems from prolonged hiking:

  1. I get a sore left foot.  It’s not the top or bottom of my foot but a tendon that runs alongside the navicular bone called the post tibial tendon.  The full name of the muscle is the tibialis posterior muscle.  This is right along the side of the foot and after I have gone hiking for a prolonged period of time, it hurts.  It feels like the side of my foot is rubbing up against my boot and it aches.  In order to heal it, I have to rest it.
  2. Of course, rather predictably, I get problems in my hips.  I’m not entirely sure but I think I have bursitis. This occurs when small sacs in your body filled with fluid become inflamed.  Normally the joints glide over them, but when they inflame they are painful.

    I feel hip pain in the outside of my hips.  This distinguishes it from my chronic pain in the inside of my joints (both hips).  Luckily, this current condition is treatable with rest, ice, compression (or stretching) and ibuprofen.  I guess after not using them for physically demanding activities in the past, they are protesting that they prefer inactivity to doing stuff.

Luckily, the joints I don’t have problems in are my knees or ankles (other than fatigue after a long day).  I don’t know how I managed to hit the jackpot on those joints seeing as how my genetics have disposed me to all sorts of lousy physical short coming (hay fever, poor vision, bad hips, etc). 

They say that exercise is good for you.  I agree; but I didn’t realize it was also hazardous to your health.

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Today is one of those days.

I have been holding onto shares in Netflix for 8 months or so.  This is a stock that goes up and pulls back, goes up and pulls back, etc.  It does this regularly on a predictable cycle.

I decided I was going to make some money on the downside.  Just when I thought Netflix couldn’t get any higher, I bought a put option.  This means that you make money when the stock goes down.

Well, it didn’t go down.  It kept going up. Eventually I rolled my eyes and took my loss.  The stock went down the next day.  Had I held, I would have recovered 2/3 of my losses on that one.

But that’s not why I hate trading.

Today, Netflix released its earnings after the day closed, and in after-hours trading it is down 28 points (about 10%).  I could have made a lot of money by buying a different put option and then waiting until tomorrow to sell.  But no, instead, I lose money waiting for it to go down – which it did but not in time – and then by holding it some more the stock gets slaughtered (in truth, they did that to themselves with their ridiculous increase in prices).

Some days, I hate the market so very much.

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Deal or no deal?

One of the things that my beta wife likes to do is go camping.  In fact, a lot of people I know like to do that, too.  As I have gotten older I no longer understand the appeal.

It used to be that once upon a time I liked doing it.  Now… not so much.  Here’s where I am coming from:

  • I don’t like dragging stuff around.  I like to travel but the part I don’t like is packing up all of my stuff and then unpacking it, and having to drag it around with me.  I find that a pain.  I get tired of it very quick when I go anywhere and try to either minimize the stops I make, the amount of stuff I unpack, or the amount of stuff I take along.  Camping forces me to take along a lot of stuff in order to be comfortable.

  • I hate being cold at night.  I come from a cold country where it is below freezing for six months of the year.  I like to be warm at night.  At camping, I have to be tucked into a sleeping bag with a hat on which makes my face cold yet my head hot.  The rest of my body… so-so.  Getting up at night to go to the bathroom is an annoyance… and cold.

  • I like to read at night.  I can give it up for one day or so but multiple days in a row, there is not enough light at night.  I can’t see anything and reading by candle light is hard on  my eyes (anyone’s eyes).  Why should doing something that is supposedly fun (camping) detract from doing something I like?

  • This one is the most important.  I could put up with all of the others but this is the one that tips it over: I hate sleeping on the hard ground. I’m quite bony without much padding – neither muscle nor fat. That means that when I sleep on the hard ground, I feel everything; in my arms, shoulders, back and hips. After not even two minutes on my side, I have to change positions.  The ground is hard and the next morning, because my bones have been on the ground all night without any padding, it hurts the next morning (it hurts at night, too).

    I know that camping is supposed to be “roughing it” but I lost any desire to “rough it” after spending a night on that that ledge in Fiji five years ago. You won’t hear me wake up the next morning saying “Gee, I really enjoyed being painfully uncomfortable all night long, I can’t wait to do it again.”

As I said, I have camped in the past.  I did it in New Zealand and Australia and have done even more trips when I was younger.  Now I am no longer such a big fan.  It really began when my hips started to go downhill.  I’m quite happy to do an 8-12 mile hike.  But that’s on the condition that I can recover at night.

My beta wife finds a thrill in camping that I fail to see.  It must be one of those magic eye things where you stare at a picture and something meaningful emerges. 

However, here’s where the fun begins.  We’re going to go to New Zealand this year and apparently it has a lot of camping (oh, hooray).  So, we started playing a game of bartering and negotiation.

I will go on these camping trips (read: tolerate them) if we make trades.  Can I get a Lexus in three years time?  How about a new Toyota?  What if we go here next year instead of that location?  What if you come to Dallas with me?  Can we move to Los Angeles?  What about northern California?  Southern?  Can I get 300 books about magic?  What about 200?  What about a trick that costs $100?  $200?  No?  How about $150?  And so forth.  My beta wife isn’t the only one that can ask for stuff.

And it turns out to be a fun game!  It’s awesome!  Making these sorts of trade offs makes turning something into that I don’t look forward to into an opportunity to trade off into something that I do! 

So if you ever see me driving a fancy, expensive car in the next few years, you’ll know what I agreed to in exchange.

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I was reading a couple of articles the other day.  They deal with the following question: Why do people believe certain things and refuse to change their mind even when they are clearly wrong?

The reason has to do with neuroscience.  The first part of the answer has to do with a condition called cognitive dissonance.  This is when we believe two contradictory things and in order to believe one of them, we invent or rationalize why it’s okay.  For example, smokers know that their habit is bad for them.  But they rationalize it and say “Oh, everyone dies sometime” or “I’m just not thinking about the future.”   This is in order to maintain the immediate payoff that smoking a cigarette gives them.  To minimize the health risks, they have to invent a reason to disbelieve its reality.

Another example are people who don’t drive with their seatbelts on.  There are countless studies that show that you are at a much greater risk of injury or death if you don’t wear your seatbelt.  But yet there are still many people (1/6 as of 2008) who don’t wear them.  Why not?  They tell themselves that the risk of wearing them is low or they are uncomfortable.  Another example is that they know a guy who died because he wore a seatbelt because of a freak accident.  None of these are good excuses but they people to rationalize their bad behavior or ideas.  These are two examples of cognitive dissonance.

I think that the prophet Isaiah had it exactly right – Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." (Isaiah 30:21, NIV)

The second part of the answer to why people believe wrong things is because of confirmation bias.  This is where people accept the evidence that supports their beliefs and discounts the evidence that contradicts it.  This is very evident in politics.  People who are Republicans will hold up moral failings of the Democrats as evidence that they are an immoral party yet will come up with excuses about why their own politicians did such-and-such activity, and vice versa. 

Today as I write this, Republicans are digging in their heels at raising the debt ceiling because it would be irresponsible and only shows the Democrats spendthrift ways; but their own President did it during his Presidency.  Democrats claim that they must raise the debt ceiling but rationalize the fact that in 2006, Senator Obama voted against it, claiming it was irresponsible (it was irresponsible then but is necessary now – this is a very obvious demonstration of confirmation bias).

Even with my seatbelt example, people will cling to outliers (someone died because of a seatbelt) yet discount the safety record of seatbelts (I’m a safe driver and have never had a serious accidents).

Okay, so far we have seen two things about why people believe wrong things:

  • They will make stuff up in order to rationalize what they want to believe.
  • They will pick-and-choose what evidence they believe and ignore.

Why do people even cling to wrong beliefs to begin with?

It is because of self-actualization – the desire to feel good about ourselves.  When we cling to a strong belief, certain parts of our brains are firing.  These parts are not related to logic.  Various chemicals are released and we feel good about ourselves.  Look at our own life – when a $1000 question on Jeopardy! shows up on the TV screen and you know the answer before anyone else, how do you feel?  You feel great!  You were right!  That’s your brain’s reward system reinforcing itself.

We have a biological drive to need to feel right.  I won’t get into why, but it’s because we needed it in order to take chances to survive (I’m confident this crappy spear will kill that two-ton mammoth).

Knowing this, I can see why two of my favorite topics are fruitless for debate because logic doesn’t work.  Religion and politics reinforce a person’s self-image and therefore attacking that part of a person’s character, if they feel strongly about it, will not work.  Even if you use logic, it won’t work because:

  • People want to be right because their brains are wired that way.
  • To be right, they have to discount information that shows them wrong.
  • If they don’t have any information that can prove them right, the brain will make it up.

I have found that religion and politics get people fired up.  If you have a stake in the game, there’s no way you will let go and leave your position undefended.  It doesn’t matter if your position is illogical.

An example of this is many years ago I was debating some friends on an Internet discussion board.  The people I was talking to were very smart folks.  They knew their biblical passages inside and out. They could debate circles around most evangelical Christians I know.

But the problem, as I saw it, is that they clung to a belief in biblical inerrancy and tried to force some very unnatural interpretations into the text.  The one belief they have is regarding demons.  To evangelical Christians, demons are supernatural beings who may or may not have a body that “haunt” the earth and can even possess people, causing them to do many nasty things and behave in a manner that is outside of societal norms.

To my friends, there are no such thing as demons.  Instead, in the bible, all references to demons are really talking about people with mental illnesses.  Here is their rationale:

  • Demons don’t exist in many places in the Old Testament.  They only make their appearance later on.
  • Idols are false gods.  In the Old Testament, the word for false is not “a supernatural entity that is not the true God” but “non-existent”.  The Old Testament prophets claim that idols represent nothing (they have plenty of texts to demonstrate this, and a couple from the New Testament).

  • The term “satan” is not a personal being.  Instead, the term literally means “adversary” and could be used to refer to any number of things.  Sometimes, angels are referred to as “satan” or adversary.  For example, Jacob wrestled with an “adversary” even though it was an angel.  God himself has acted as an “adversary.”  Thus, the term “satan” is not a supernatural being but instead its meaning is derived from the context.  What kind of satan/adversary?  Human?  Angelic?

  • All of the people who are demon possessed in the bible show signs of mental illness.  How do we know that?  Because people today have the same symptoms but we say that they are mentally ill, not demon-possessed.  We treat them with medication and possibly changes in diet.  Nobody ever gets better by an exorcism.

    Oh, yes, I know someone reading this will say that your friend’s brother’s sister’s co-worker knew a pastor once that cured someone who was demon-possessed.  Uh huh.  It’s always “someone you know… distantly” who can do this.

Going through that above, their position is sound.  It almost sounds rational.  Except that it forces a very unnatural interpretation of a few texts in the New Testament.  One example is the story of Jesus healing a man with demons and the demons beg to be cast into some pigs.  Jesus grants their request and the pigs then run off a cliff (see Matthew 8). 

If this man was acting crazy because of demons, and Jesus really did cast them out, then the story (sort of) makes sense because the demons go and find a new home in the pigs.  Yet according to my anti-demon friends, Jesus was “acting in the local context” by not correcting his audiences’ misconceptions and gave the man’s mental illness to the pigs.  He only pretended to act like the mental illness was caused by demons but in reality did not really believe it.  I know, it doesn’t really make sense… and that’s the point.  All instances where Jesus casts out demons are Jesus “playing along” with the crowd and not correcting the crowd’s mistaken beliefs.

This is a very unnatural interpretation of the text.  It strains credibility.  Yet they defend it because:

  • The bible says that there is no such thing as demons.
  • The bible is inerrant.

The cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias is at work.  It doesn’t make sense but people still believe it.  These were very smart people defending things that made no sense.  It didn’t matter how unlikely it was, what mattered was a consistent set of beliefs – the two points above.  It was these discussions that made me wonder if these guys who I thought were very smart could be wrong more often than I thought.

I don’t get involved in debates involving religion anymore (or rather, I try not to).  I won’t change anyone’s mind.  But more than that, it doesn’t matter to me if people agree with me or not.  People can believe what they want to believe and as long as they are not causing harm to others or even themselves, it’s not that big a deal.

But another reason why I don’t get into these types of debates is because I’m as biased as anyone.  Totally biased!  I have my own political beliefs (I lean right wing for economics but social issues I ping-pong back and forth) and I pick and choose what I accept and what I don’t.  Other writers will say that such-and-such are wrong and I’m like “Yeah, whatever, what about this and this?”  I have my own need to be right and it feels good to be right.

I am aware of these biases but I am also aware that the more I step into the debate, the more I dig in my heels.  Staying out of the discussion avoids putting me into the position that I have to hold my position at all costs live some sort of military battle.  I know that makes it worse because I have experienced it… and regretted it years later when I realized I was wrong.

Maybe one day I’ll get back into it.  Who knows, my views can change again and I’ll be able to separate myself from my beliefs.

Or maybe one day the whole world will realize that I’m right.

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