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Archive for August, 2012

Since moving to Seattle and living in an apartment and a condo, I’ve had “interesting” neighbors:

  1. There was the people who lived downstairs that were super loud with their music.
  2. There was the guy who lived downstairs who snored super loud.
  3. There was the lady who lived next door with the rent-a-cat who would spend most of his free time in my place.

And now I live next to the couple with the really loud kid.

The place next door stood unoccupied for nearly a year. Finally, an elderly Asian couple bought it and fixed it up a bit. They asked me how much rent they could collect, so I told them (total: not much).

Well, a couple of weeks later a new couple moved in.  This couple has two young kids, I estimate that they are both less than five years old, a boy and a girl. Therefore, there’s four people living in the two-bedroom condo. I would think it’s a tight fit.

I don’t envy the job of parents, I think that they have it tough. However, one of these two kids is very loud.

I frequently get home and I can hear the kids running around, screaming. I understand that’s how kids act, they get hyper and need to blow off energy. It’d actually be kind of depressing if they didn’t do that.

However, the one kid next door, I think it is the younger one, can go from laughing/screaming to crying in no time.

“Ah, ha, ha, ha!” in a high pitched scream. BOOM! <crying…>

And it happens almost every single day. The kid is crying about something. The wife and I frequently look at each other and say “The kid next door is crying again.”

And sometimes, the kid goes from crying to screaming/laughing in five seconds. I don’t know what’s going on over there, I just know that the kid is really loud.

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I was going to write a blog post about something else but I changed my mind.  I thought I’d post this cartoon instead.

I think it’s funny.

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Over the past few months, I’ve been inundated with offers in the mail to refinance my condo to lower the rate of interest.  I was intrigued by many of them but it wasn’t until two months ago that I got a phone call from the same guy who set my mortgage up the first time about this special refinancing offer.

He explained to me that the federal government came up with a program wherein responsible home owners could refinance their homes at a lower rate without getting an appraisal on their current dwelling. For someone like me who is $100,000 underwater (i.e., my place would sell for $100,000 less than what I owe on the mortgage, about roughly 35% of what I bought it for), this was intriguing.

What was the catch?  Surely I’d have to dump a load of money into it?

Not so. There was no catch (other than this being an election year). The agent explained to me that the federal government thought that people like me should be able to lower their payment without putting much, if any, additional money in.

Suffice to say, I went for it.

I ended up lowering my rate from 5% to 3.875%, saving about $200/month.  However, I am still paying the same amount towards my mortgage since I have gotten used to paying that amount.  That means the extra $200/month goes straight towards the principle and I will pay it off 12 years early.

Not a bad deal.

On Mint.com, it pulls all of my financial accounts together in one place. When my mortgage was paid off, my net worth suddenly shot up a huge amount!  Of course, it’s all fake.  I’m not really that wealthy (but man, that’d be nice).

Today, I got a letter from the bank I refinanced with that they had sold my mortgage to Wells Fargo.  That means that starting October 1, I’ll be paying my mortgage to them. That is the exact same bank that I was paying before – my initial mortgage company sold my first loan to Wells Fargo, and now they’ve sold it a second time to them.

I’m right back to where I started.

This also means that Mint.com will connect to my Wells Fargo account and will automatically pull in my mortgage.  My net worth will once again drop by a huge amount.

Confused smile

But at least it’ll go to zero faster than before. Only 18 more years until I am debt free.

I can’t wait for that day.

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The other day, I went down to the gas station to fill up my car. But while there, I had the weirdest experience I ever had a gas station.

This particular station has 16 pumps, but you can only fit 8 cars in at a time.  This is because the Regular pumps are next to the Premium pumps. That means that if one car wants Regular but another wants Premium, if there are no open slots one of them will have to wait.

The pumps are laid out in a rectangle, and cars can go on either side of the rectangle.  This means that there can be two sets of cars (four vehicles) on the outside of the rectangle, and two sets of cars (more more vehicles) on the inside of the rectangle.

On this particular day, I drove into the gas station, saw that there was nobody at one of the pumps on the inside of the rectangle – but at the back (meaning that there was another car in front of me) – and drove to the spot. There was somebody already at every other pump.  This wasn’t a problem, it meant that when I was done, if the car in front of me hadn’t left yet, I would have to back out. Unless I had a lot of room to squeeze through the other cars, I’d have to back out.  No big deal.

I drove up to the pump and I turned and looked to my left and saw that I might be a little too far forward.  I was parked in front of Premium whereas I wanted Regular. I kind of hem/hawed for a couple of seconds, looked in my back mirror, looked over my shoulder, and then decided to back up a couple of feet (a couple of feet!) to Regular.

Here’s where it gets weird.

I pulled back and waited a couple of seconds to get my keys out and put the car in park.  I got out of my car and looked behind me and saw another car parked right behind mine. This car was literally parked less was maybe two or three inches behind me.  The lady in the front seat was glaring at me.

Huh?

I couldn’t figure out what was going on. What happened? I walked over to her and said something, I can’t remember what, and she said “You saw me coming and zoomed into the spot ahead of me.”

Um, what?

“What?” I asked, shrugging.

She repeated herself.  “You saw me coming and zoomed in front of me into this spot, cutting in front of me!”

I ran through my memory banks. I drove in, saw the empty spot and went up to the pumps. There was no way I could have zoomed in front of her because the only way that was possible is if she entered in from the other side of the parking lot and I would have seen that – she would have been coming straight at me and I would have slowed down.  Not to mention I didn’t remember seeing another car.

I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. “I didn’t see you,” I said. If she was there, I literally had not seen her.

She shook her head and said “I’m sure that you didn’t see me.” I interpreted that as a lie, as people who lie will repeat back a portion of what you say.

Again, I shook my head and shrugged.  “I’m sorry but I didn’t see you,” which was the truth.  What the heck was she talking about?

She looked straight ahead,not making eye contact, and said the same thing.  “I’m sure that you didn’t see me.”

At this point, I didn’t feel like arguing. I had nothing to gain. I went back and filled up my car, feeling awkward the entire time and thankful that at least she parked two or three inches behind my car instead of ramming me.

After I finished, I got into my car.  However, the one in front of me hadn’t left yet (what was taking him so long?).  The cars on the other side of me hadn’t left either, so I was stuck there.  I couldn’t move.

The lady did not move for me either.  She could see I was stuck in there, but she would not back up for me.  After three or four minutes, she backed up a bit and I thought she would left me out or go to another pump, but didn’t.  She rolled forward again, boxing me in.  I sat there for another very uncomfortable two or three minutes, just sitting there unable to move.

Finally the guy in front of me left and I was able to leave. That was so weird! Later on I scanned through my memory banks. What was that lady talking about? The only thing I can think of is when I drove up to the Premium pump initially and saw I was too far forward and hesitated, then pulled back, maybe there she was planning to use that pump and I pulled backwards to the Regular one.

That would explain why she was so close to me. As she was pulling forward, I was pulling backward and I hadn’t seen her.  She interpreted this as me “zooming into the pump ahead of her.”  Of course, even then, it doesn’t make any sense because she wouldn’t have been able to pull forward to the pump, there’s not enough room for two cars.

Did she think I was pulling backwards to the pump because I saw her there? That doesn’t make sense either because I wouldn’t have been able to squeeze through the other cars in front of her.  All I did was drive and then decide to scootch backwards a bit to line up my car better.

Ultimately, even today, I still don’t know exactly what her problem was with me.

And that’s the story of the weirdest thing that’s happened to me at a gas station.

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I like politics. I like reading about them and discussing them.  The problem is that of all my friends who also like politics (i.e, the ones who regularly speak their beliefs on Facebook), I have no respect for any of their opinions.

Not a single one.

For those of you reading this who say "You have no respect for my opinions?” No, not you. If you’re reading this you almost likely never post on Facebook your political beliefs.  Instead, I’m referring to my friends who post article after article after article that contain slanted editorials about how much the other side is wrong (and by extension, that they are correct). I much prefer looking at both sides of the issue.

Maybe I’m just being ornery. But I post this because of an issue that has come up within the political environment.  It comes from this story about Congressman Todd Akin’s comments regarding rape and pregnancy:

Congressman Todd Akin, a conservative Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, said in an interview broadcast Sunday that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancies in the case of "a legitimate rape," adding that conception in such cases is rare.

Akin, a six-term congressman running against incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, was asked in an interview on St. Louis television station KTVI if he would support abortions for women who have been raped.

"It seems to me first of all from what I understand from doctors that’s really rare," Akin said. "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," Akin said of a rape victim’s chances of becoming pregnant.

His comments raised a brouhaha, and rightly so, for two reasons:

  1. A “legitimate” rape? How can rape possibly be legitimate?  Akin later apologized for the comments and said he meant “forcible” rape, later asserting that no rape is legitimate.

    His retraction seems reasonable, as he went on to say "As the father of two daughters, I want tough justice for predators. I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault. I pray for them."

    He misspoke earlier as I find it hard to believe that anyone could think of a case where rape is legitimate.

  2. But the furor continued: the female body can shut down pregnancy in the event of rape? What is he thinking?  Of course it can’t!

Many of my friends on the left are all up in arms about Akin. He has either misinterpreted the female reproductive cycle (it’s true that there are only certain times when women can get pregnant), or has misinterpreted the female body’s ability to prevent pregnancy (psychological issues can get in the way of becoming pregnant, but it’s not a switch that the brain can flip to disable the reproductive process).

I suspect that Akin has to take the position he does (or did) because he has started at the end and worked his way backward:

  • He is against abortion in all cases.  Women should not choose to abort the fetus simply because they were “careless” enough to prevent pregnancy in the first place.

  • What about if a women becomes pregnant not by choice, such as in the case of rape?  Well, that is a corner case.  Women don’t become pregnant this way very often, and even if did, the body can stop most of this from even occurring.  Because there’s such a small number of cases left over, banning abortion in all circumstances does more public good (it is the moral thing to save the life of an unborn child) than public harm (only a very few number of women would be adversely affected by the illegitimate case).

His rationale, which I have theorized, is flawed. Women can (and do) get pregnant by rape and the body cannot automatically shut down to prevent it. That’s simply wrong. 

I think that the reason Akin said it is because of Confirmation Bias – believing things that agree with your own pre-conceived beliefs.  In addition, Cognitive Dissonance is at work here – trying to believe two contradictory things (all abortion is wrong but pregnancy by rape is unfair) and then resolving one of them to believe what you wish to believe (pregnancy by rape is almost non-existent and therefore all abortion is wrong).

The big problem I have with my Facebook friends is how they spin it to support their own confirmation bias (the other political party are evil and my side is enlightened and good). One friend posted the article GOP official says God chooses to bless raped women with pregnancy, saying “Another rape apologist from the GOP.” From the article:

Sharon Barnes, a high ranking state Republican, came to the defense of her conservative colleague who she believes only "phrased it (his statement) badly."

Barnes was quoted by The New York Times saying, "abortion is never an option." Barnes went on to biblically claim that, "If God has chosen to bless this person [the rape victim] with a life, you don’t kill it."

This is hardly an apologist for rape. The term “apologist” comes from the Greek term “apologia” which means to speak in defense of, and generally is associated with a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. In modern times, an apologist is someone who defends an idea.

Neither Barnes nor Akin was defending rape. Instead, they were saying that a third party – a child – should not be harmed even though a horrible act has been committed. They shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences.  Rape does not become legitimate because of a child, but abortion does not become legitimate because of rape, either.

I don’t really agree with this view. In fact, most Americans don’t agree with this view, either:

  1. A nationwide ban on abortion puts Akin and Barnes outside the mainstream of even evangelical women.

    A few months ago on Christianity Today I read an article entitled “Evangelical Women’s position on abortion more nuanced than previously thought” (unfortunately I can no longer find the link).  In it, while a majority of evangelical women opposed abortion for themselves personally, a majority did not want a ban on it.  This was a “this is wrong for me, but I don’t want to prevent it for you, too” position.

    Furthermore, the likelihood of women more likely to support abortion was inversely related to their socio-economic class (or maybe it was their race). White women were more likely to oppose the possibility of abortion for themselves than were Latino or black women. That is, wealthier women (whites have more money) would be more likely to be able to afford to raise a child and give birth to it, and therefore would be less likely to pursue an abortion.  Since black women are usually poorer than white women, on average, they would be more inclined to seek an abortion.

    The fact that evangelical women, the very constituency that Akin and Barnes represent, are not in favor of an all-out ban on abortion places them outside the mainstream of their very own base of support.

  2. Why are men leading the charge to ban abortion when they don’t even bear the majority of the cost?

    In pregnancy, women bear the majority of the cost of having a child. They are the ones that must carry the child to term for 9 months. For men to ban abortion, they are putting a requirement upon others (women) that they will never have to bear. If men had a 50/50 chance of getting pregnant, how strongly would they be leading the charge to ban abortion?

    I’m not in favor of one group of people voting for a set of laws that will disproportionately affect another group.  For example, there are many people that are in favor of higher taxes and redistribution of wealth, but most of the time, the people are in favor of redistributing someone else’s wealth, not their own.  In similar manner, it’s easy for men to say “We oppose abortion” when they never have to worry about enduring the (majority of the) consequences of that belief.

For both of these reasons, I find Akin and Barnes’s position untenable. It’s one thing to oppose abortion personally, but quite another to impose it on everyone else as the law of the land.

This is the type of discussion I’d like to see. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to have a rational one because someone blows up and starts distorting someone else’s position.  People find very strong group identity in politics (as I’ve talked about earlier), and unfortunately, this is reflected in the us-vs-them, good-guys-and-bad-guys mentality that we see today. Flying off the handle is counterproductive because I pretty much just write off what my friends say in regards to all of their opinions.

Even if they have something valuable to say.

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How did you do that trick?

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to perform a magic trick at a church campout.  Whereas the last couple of years I performed I did a mentalism effect, this time around I did a mentalism effect that turned into a “pure” magic trick.

The effect is this:

  • I ask for a member of the audience who has a background in first-aid.  I get them to come to the front and I hand them a first-aid kit.  The sit to the side of the stage with instructions that should something go wrong, they need top help me.  But not until then.

  • Next, I show the audience four wooden bases, but sticking out of one of the wooden bases is a sharp nail.  If it punctures my hand, it would be a very serious injury.

    I get second member of the audience to come up on stage and write his initials on a small piece of tape, and then I wrap the tape with his initials onto the tip of the nail.

  • Next, I cover the wooden bases with styrofoam cups and the cups are mixed up so that nobody, not even me, knows where the nail is.  The audience member then names a number 1 through 4 and I lift up my hand over the cup corresponding to it, and slam it down onto the cup.  Obviously, if the nail is there, I become very badly injured.

  • The first cup is called out and I slam my hand down.  But my hand is fine! The audience member then names a second number and I slam my hand down on it.  They then call out the third and final number and I slam my hand down on it, but each time I have escaped uninjured!

  • Finally, as the coup-de-grace, I say that the audience member did a great job.  But what would have happened had he called out the other number?  I then quickly raise up my hand and slam it down onto the last remaining cup.  Everyone expects me to cry out in pain, but I don’t!  Instead, I escape from that one uninjured, too!  The nail has mysteriously vanished and I wasn’t in any serious danger.  Success!

  • Originally, that was the final ending to the trick.  I did it that way in Vancouver in 2010 when I presented it for the first time at a conference:

    Nails

    But for this trick, I decided to take it one step further.  The original audience member with the first-aid kit has been at the front the entire time.  I then walk over to them and ask for the first-aid kit.  We peek inside and get rid of all of the stuff in there – bandages, gauze, and tape.  But at the bottom of the kit is a nail… with tape on the tip of it… with writing on the end of it!

    I tip the box over and the nail drops into the first-aid kit audience member’s hand.  She takes it over to the other audience member.  Was that the nail you signed earlier?  It is the nail you signed earlier!  It is!

    This is amazing!  The nail that the hand-slammer signed ends up in the box that the other audience member had been holding the whole time! 

    Absolutely incredible.

There was a small hiccup in the trick that I think I got away with, and the audience member I wish I had back.  But the rest of it went pretty well.

But today, as I was walking across the field, a young girl asked me “How did you do that last night?”  I answered with my usual response – I smiled and said “It’s magic!"  But now that I think about it, that was a poor answer.  Even though I want to preserve the secret, people deserve a better, more magical explanation.

This trick is the first one that I designed specifically to use both psychology and magic.  I intentionally added parts into it to enhance the quality of the effect:

  1. Breaking the “logic” trap.

    In order to get an audience to stop thinking about how a trick is done and more “into” the trick itself, I have to get them to stop thinking logically.  The more emotionally invested you are into something, the less energy you can devote to deconstructing how something is done.

    In other words, emotion gets in the way of logic.

    This is not easy to do in magic. Some people will always care, but there are always some that don’t.  How do I get them to care? By invoking fear – the fear that I would get hurt, or the fear of seeing blood, or the fear of a serious injury.  When someone tells you of a serious injury someone suffered (such as twisting their ankle all the way around), don’t you cringe, close your eyes and turn away?  You’re not using logic at that point, you’re responding to the emotion of fear (that you don’t want it to happen to you).

    The fear of personal injury to me is the first emotion I try to create in my audience.  This isn’t really the novel part of the trick, though.  I’ve seen magicians perform this type of trick many times.  But the danger principle works.

  2. Reinforcing the logic gap.

    In order to sell the audience that there is legitimate danger involved to me personally, I set it up ahead of time.  Why should the audience take this trick seriously?  Because I am taking it seriously.  I take preventative measures up front because if something really can go wrong, I need to be prepared for that.

    At the beginning, I ask for an audience member with medical experience to help me out and I give her a first-aid kit.  I then give someone else a pre-printed map to the nearest hospital and instruct them that if something goes wrong, me and my temporary nurse will need a ride to that hospital (at the conference, I put the address of the hotel on the big screen and instructed someone to call 911 and come to that address if something went wrong).

    Why do I do this?

    Because it reinforces in the audience’s mind that something dangerous is happening. If I am taking it seriously enough to set up preventative care, then they should, too.

    This little bit – the ride to the hospital and the audience member with medical background – are new innovations to the trick that I invented.

  3. Selling the uncertainty.

    When I am up on stage and I’m about to slam my hand down on the cup, I mustn’t do it with a high degree of confidence.  I may know that I will be safe, but I have to make sure the audience believes I think I’m in danger.  How do I do this?

    I act out the emotions associated with uncertainty.

    Three years ago I learned how to read body language.  I also paid especially close attention to what we as humans do when we’re nervous.  So, when I’m doing the trick, when I’m about about slam my hand down, I act nervous.

    For example, I raise my arm and touch the back of my neck with my hand.  I purse my lips together.  I tap my leg up and down just as I’m about to slam my hand down.  My hands tremble with indecision.  At one point, I backed away and walked around in a circle with my hands on my hips the way a person may do if they were undecided (something I personally do but it’s not a universal action across all people).

    These are all actions that we, as people, subconsciously recognize as pacification techniques.  We do them unconsciously when we are uncomfortable with our surroundings or situation.  When others exhibit them we pick up on them.

    I know what body language signals the emotion I want people to think I am feeling, and so I do them.  This further reinforces the logic gap because people are empathizing with my plight at a subconscious level.

    This is an innovation that I added to the trick.

  4. The kicker finish

    Originally, the trick ended with a surprise – the nail is gone.  But after I performed it twice, I began thinking “Where did the nail go? Where should it go?”

    That’s when it hit me. It should be in front of the audience the entire time. While I had the audience member at the front at first, I didn’t give her (or him) anything to hold onto.  But what if they ended up with the nail at the end? 

    How could they get it?  By holding onto a box or something that they had the entire time. 

    But what sort of box?  A first-aid kit, because it’s something they would naturally need.

    I like this finish because it introduces something up at the beginning and then closes with it at the end.  It’s a natural finish to the trick.

    One thing I forgot to account for are the theories that people would invent for how the nail got into the box.  To the audience member with the first aid kit, it’s very clear that when it is opened, I remove bandages and gauze and stuff and underneath it all is the nail.  It’s impossible for me to sneak anything in there.

    When I was practicing the trick, I would show both my hands open as I went to grab the box.  I wouldn’t call attention to it (too obvious), but the point is to ensure that I don’t put anything into the kit.

    During the trick, I have one hand on a microphone. Then I have to do an awkward hand-off between the mic and kit and only then can I show my hand empty, if only briefly.  I do unwrap the rubber bands and you can see my hand, but it’s not as clear this way.

    I say this because some people (i.e., one person) claim I stuck the nail into box while I was unloading stuff from it (i.e., I tossed stuff out and then snuck the nail in).  This is not how it works.  Unfortunately, it didn’t come across as clearly during the show as it did during rehearsal.

    The trick “object-to-impossible-location” is a pretty common one in magic.  The idea for how to get the nail into the kit came to me as I recalled a discussion with another magician about 7 years ago when I heard the story of how he borrowed a dollar bill, and then it ends up in the pen cap of the sharpie that the audience member had used to sign the bill and he had been holding the whole time.  He explained to me the technique.

    I don’t use quite the same technique; I’m proud to say that I use some mentalism and a variant of his method to accomplish it.  My innovation with the marked nail tip – and the way it is discovered by the audience – is something I haven’t come across before. 

    Anyway, the way it worked this time – the first time I have ever tried it – was better than I had planned.  My hand-slammer audience member was genuinely surprised when his nail ended up in the box at the end (I watched his body language).

    A slam dunk!

So you see, the answer to the question of “How did you do that?” is complicated.  It combines magic, suggestion, psychology, showmanship and misdirection all in an attempt to present an amazing effect.

I think that this one went pretty well.

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After the wife’s latest bout of injuries, we ended up going to the doctor to get her leg x-rayed to make sure it wasn’t fractured.  I didn’t think it was because if it were, it’s unlikely she would have been able to hike down from the mountain on it. However, the wife insisted she go otherwise she’d be continually saying that it might be broken. She also likes going to the doctor even though half the time, they don’t give advice beyond what you’d find on the Internet.

As it turns out, going to the doctor was a great idea. Why? Well, he said he didn’t think it was broken but we did an x-ray just to make sure (it wasn’t). But he explained what would happen:

  • Her leg would swell up.
  • It would turn colors, to a blue-and-green tint.
  • It would start to spread down into her ankle because of gravity.  This was all part of the healing process.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened:

IMG_1706

Had we not gone to the doctor who explained that this is exactly what would happen, the wife would be freaking out about her leg and subsequent foot discoloration.

Luckily, since he predicted it, it’s not that big a deal right now.

Thank goodness for doctors.

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