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Archive for April, 2013

This past week, the Winnipeg Jets, Winnipeg’s NHL hockey team, missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year since returning to the city. They missed the final playoff spot by 3 points compared to 8 points last year.

Many of my friends on Facebook are saddened and disappointed by this. While it is frustrating for your team to miss the playoffs, let’s put this in perspective:

  1. The Jets relocated from Atlanta where they were the Thrashers. They retained most of the same players, changing a few in the off-season the same way that most hockey teams change players in the off-season.

  2. Therefore, we can probably expect the Jets to have the same level of playoff success that Atlanta did.

  3. The Atlanta Thrashers only made the playoffs once in eleven seasons. This is season/playoff success ratio of 9%.

Given that hockey teams tend to have similar success from year-to-year unless they go from good to bad (due to loss of key players), it usually takes hockey teams a while to reverse their fortunes. There is a lot of competition.

It is no surprise that the Winnipeg Jets are not making the playoffs because the team they relocated was not one the league’s most successful franchises. So calm down, my Jets friends. It’s (unfortunately) news when the team makes the playoffs, not when they miss it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Are Winnipeg’s expectations too high?

Looking over 1979 to 1996, the Jets made the playoffs 11 times and missed it 6 times. But during that time, the Jets were a below-average team. They only had one great season (1984-85 where they won 16 more games than they lost), and a pretty good season in 1986-87 where they won 8 more games.

The rest of the time, they were either slightly above or below .500 (even wins and losses), or a very bad team (at least 15 more losses than wins – 6 times which is nearly 1/3 of the time they were in the city before leaving for Phoenix).

So yes, I think Jets fans have waited a long time since 1985 to see a great team, but unfortunately, mediocrity occurs more often.

Even so… Go, Jets, Go.

 

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I comment to the wife on a regular basis how she has a lot of jackets. Many of these jackets end up in the kitchen on one of two chairs and they end up tempting the cat to swat or sometimes chew on them.

But can you really blame the cat? There’s just so many to choose from!

I took a picture the other day. Maybe now the wife will believe me.

image

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Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books on Behavioral Economics. This is the study of human behavior about how we actually behave, not how should behave.

Traditional economists have theories about how humans operate. One example is that all things considered, we naturally gravitate towards the lowest price for a consumer product. It is very rational to do this; we get the product we want at the lowest price so we have more money for other things.

Behavior economics agrees that sometimes humans are rational, but we are frequently irrational. And I’ll prove it to you.

I’m going to give you a choice. What would you rather have?

  1. $100 one year from today
  2. $101 one year and one day from today

I’ll give you a moment to think this over.

But I’ll bet that most of you take option 2. Sure, $100 is great but if you’re already waiting a year, you may as well wait one more day for the extra dollar.

Now let’s make a second choice. What would you rather have?

  1. $100 today, right now
  2. $101 tomorrow, twenty-four hours from now

I’ll give you a moment to think this over.

If you’re like most people, you take option 1. You’d rather have the money to spend immediately rather than 24 hours because it just isn’t worth your time to wait the extra time.

But why? In our example above two choices, the difference is $1, and the time difference is 24 hours. But in the first option you decided to wait the extra 24 hours but in the second choice you didn’t.

What changed?

To a traditional economist, you acted irrationally. But did you? In psychology-speak, this is called “hyperbolic discounting.” The closer something gets to the present time, the more important and urgent it becomes. That’s why you wait until the last minute to study for that test. When it becomes close, its urgency can no longer be put off. It’s why you don’t work on that report until the day before.

The old saying is true: If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.

But this isn’t necessarily bad. While economists may think you’re irrational, your brain is doing what it was designed to do. You see, your brain has different modules that are responsible for different things. Some modules seek to optimize short term goals (I’m hungry, put some food in) and other modules are designed to optimize long term goals (let’s go exercise so I can stay in shape).

Your brain is frequently calculating the rate-of-return between these different modules. If you’re only a little bit hungry, you can wait until you get home to eat something healthy. But if you’re starving, your brain says “Put food in me now!” and you buy something from McDonald’s.

When your brain puts things off, it’s calculating the rate-of-return against long-term and short-term modules. The consequences of not studying for the test tomorrow is not going to hurt because the test is five days from now. But you’re tired right now, and therefore you nap. Or you watch a movie because your short-term goals of being entertained will be met.

But when the test is tomorrow, the short-term impact suddenly goes up and now you have to study. And that’s why stuff gets done. It’s because your brain calculates that the pain associated with not studying will be higher than the pleasure achieved by napping or watching a movie.

The way around this is to know that you’re irrational and plan for it. I know that I will be lazy in the evening so I will punish myself by paying $250 to my evil friend if I don’t go to the gym. That’s the secret to people with strong willpower. They don’t actually have stronger willpower, they just design their lives to realize that they are susceptible to the same weaknesses we all are.

And then they plan ahead.

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[Hey Shaun Warkentin, if you’re reading this, this post has good advice for you]

As a guy who works at a computer job, I sit a lot most of the day. While I do get up to walk around from time to time, this is the exception rather than the rule. I get up and walk around after lunch for a bit, but I really should do more of it.

To combat this, I sometimes go to the gym after I get home. But this is a constant struggle. I am frequently tired and just want to nap because my brain has been drained after thinking all day. I don’t feel physically tired, just mentally drained. I just want to go on the couch and nap for a bit.

Unfortunately, when this happens, it means I don’t end up going to the gym even though it’s only a 3 minute drive from our condo.

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This is not good.

In fact, it is terrible for me. Sitting down is very bad for your body. It is especially bad for those who sit as much as I do, and no amount of exercise can reverse the damage. While I don’t have problems with my back, I do have problems with my hips. I am certain a large portion of my chronic hip pain is because I sit so much. While I do have a genetic pre-disposition to it, my lifestyle has aggravated it.

That’s why exercise is so important for me. I need to move in order to slow the damage. While exercise cannot reverse what I am doing, it can slow it down. Heck, maybe it even can undo the damage.

So you can see my dilemma – I get immediate payoff by being lazy after work and doing nothing, but I need to exercise.

That’s where I decided to use psychology against myself.

As humans, we experience the pain of a loss more intensely than the desire for a gain. If we had to choose between not losing $10, and gaining $20, we prefer to not lose the $10. It’s not logical, but that’s how we are wired.

And that’s how I decided to motivate myself to exercise more.

I said to the wife “If I don’t go to the gym 8 times in the month of March, I will give my evil friend Frank $250.”

$250 is enough money that it will hurt if I have to pay out, but not so obscenely high that if I do have to pay out I won’t follow through. It will especially hurt giving it to Frank. It’s on the honor system, but I’m an honorable guy.

In this way, I am motivated to not lose the money more than I am motivated to obtain the long term benefits of exercise.

Eight times is about twice per week. That doesn’t sound like that much but my goal needs to be attainable (we all are busy during the week; this forces me to budget my time). I’ve never counted how often I go to the gym before and so 8 times seems like a good place to start.

How did it work?

In March, I went to the gym 7 times and went hiking twice. Going hiking counts as a gym session because the hikes are usually very difficult (8+ miles, 2000+ feet elevation gain). That’s a total of 9 times.

In April, there are 3 days left in the month and I have gone 7 times. I got a late start and have been working to catch up.

So you see, the desire to be in shape is not enough motivation for me. It’s too slow and the immediate pay off of not going is better than the pain of going. However, the relatively short-term pain of paying out $250 is enough to shake me out of my sloth.

How long will I keep this up?

I don’t know, but for the past two months it has worked.

And that’s how you motivate yourself to do something – make the pain of not doing it costly enough that it will hurt too much not to.

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It’s been a long time since I have written anything on this blog. I haven’t been idle, though. I’ve been doing several things that I have prioritized over blogging. Here’s a summary:

  1. Trying to get an iPad app developed

    As I wrote about in February and March, I launched a Kickstarter project to create a travel-themed app for iOS. I needed about $25,000 to fund its development to do a quality job, but unfortunately my fundraising goal fell short. The iOS app is dead, it’s too expensive to create.

    However, I re-incarnated it as an HTML5/CSS3 web page. I’m working on it when I have time. I first have to learn HTML5 and CSS, not to mention javascript, and I was doing that for part of February and much of March. One of the most difficult parts is creating the theme of the webpage; my graphic design skills are very weak.

  2. Supporting unauthenticated email over IPv6 (stuff at work)

    In February, we received a request from one of our customers that they wanted to receive unauthenticated email over IPv6. "Unauthenticated" means:

    a) Senders must not need to getwhitelisted ahead of time before sending email to the receiver. This renders my previous plan for IPv6 useless (for more details of that plan, see my post A Plan for Email over IPv6, part 1). 

    b) Receivers must not require an SMTP transaction over TLS in order to accept email over IPv6 (which is something we already do today).

    By combining both of these two requirements, we were going to have to come up with a solution that scaled in IPv6. To figure this out, I had a series of discussions with people smarter than myself – both within the company and requesting help from people outside of it. I learned about how various email receivers are dealing with this problem and decided to align ourselves with them. The result is that we have a workable IPv6 plan.

    It’s a big deal for me at work.

  3. Reading other books not related to spam or security 

    In addition to working a regular day job, I like reading books about neuro-science (how our brains work) and behavioral economics (how we really behave, vs. how rational economics predict we will behave). But I also like reading books on anthropology (the study of human development over the course of history). These are the same area-of-interest in my articles on Practical Cybersecurity.

    I started reading more and more books on my Kindle devices. Most people I talk to about this say they prefer books, and I like physical books, too. However, the ease at which I can go online and download a Kindle book… the instant gratification is too strong to resist! Anyhow, here are a few books I have read over the past few months that fall into this field:

    The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. For much of our existence as a species, we humans were hunters-and-gatherers. It is only in the last 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution that we settled in large groups. In evolutionary terms, this is only around 0.1% of development. In this book, Diamond looks at the last remaining hunting-and-gathering tribes left in the world and compares how they live to how we live, how we all may have lived only a few tens of thousands of years ago, and what lessons we can draw from it.

    The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. In 2008, Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog rose to fame by correctly predicting the outcome of 49 out of 50 states in the US Presidential Election. In 2012, he predicted all 50 of 50 states. In this book, Silver looks at why we are so bad at forecasting (for example, elections, the weather and earthquakes) but also goes over how much our forecasting has improved over the past thirty years (for example, earthquakes and the weather, but not the economy or elections).

    Predictably Irrational, and currently reading The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely. Dan Ariely is a professor of Behavioral Economics. In his two books, he describes how we as humans do things that are counter-intuitive and not always in our best interests (contrary to what rational economists predict), but that these counter-intuitive behaviors are predictable and can be used for improving performance. As an industry, computer security can probably learn from these.

    The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely. Why are we as people so dishonest? What factors influence us to cause us to become more dishonest? What factors influence us to become more honest? Did you know that the probability of getting caught doesn’t really affect it one way or the other? I didn’t. It’s one of the things I learned from reading this book.

    You are not so Smart, by David McRaney. This book goes into all the cognitive biases that we as humans have. After identifying these behaviors in myself, it’s a wonder that I ever get anything done. 

    The Wheel of Time Series, by Robert Jordan. When I went to Argentina, I took along a couple of fiction books. I’ve been reading these books of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series off-and-on for the past couple of months and I am enjoying them.

  4. Trying to exercise more

    As a computer guy, I don’t get enough exercise. This is especially bad because I sit down a lot all day, and sitting is terrible for your health. It wreaks havoc on your lower back and hips. While my back is still fine, I have had problems with my hips for years. I need to exercise to get the health benefits because I do feel better after I go, move around and stretch.

    I have a gym membership but I don’t go as often as I could or should. To motivate myself to go more often, I decided to apply something I learned from the above books on behavioral economics. We, as humans, will feel the pain of a loss far more than we feel the joy of a gain. We also feel the effects of short term behaviors (I don’t want to go to the gym tonight since I am too tired) more strongly than long term ones (going to the gym to stave off the effects of a sedentary lifestyle). This is known as hyperbolic discounting.

    To combat my lackadaisical approach to exercise, I told my wife "If I don’t go to the gym at least 8 times in the month of March – which is twice per week – I will give a friend of mine $250." $250 is a painful amount; enough to hurt if I don’t comply but reasonable enough for me to follow through and not write it off.

    And it worked in March – I went to the gym 7 times and went hiking twice (a hike counts as a gym session because I typically go for several miles up a couple thousand feet of elevation gain). I’m currently behind in April but I am working on catching up.

When you combine all of those points together, it adds up to less blogging, but that’s what I have been up to this year so far.

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