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Archive for January, 2015

I read an article today about how a high-schooler was told to cover up at a school dance because a dress was too revealing – it showed her shoulders. By modern standards, the dress is still reasonably conservative:

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She had to spend the evening with a jacket around her shoulders. She was distraught by it; why should she have to cover up? It’s not that bad! This was in Utah which is a more conservative state so while it’s unusual for most of the United States, it isn’t that far out of the ordinary in Utah.

I read through the article and then read through the comments and most of the reaction is pretty typical – the school authorities overreacted and shouldn’t be imposing conservative’s moral convictions on others. Furthermore, from the article:

… the dress code puts the onus on girls to make sure boys don’t have “unclean” thoughts, and calls this treatment a subtler version of victim blaming. “Telling a girl she can’t wear something that makes her feel good because it might make a boy think inappropriate thoughts is so damaging,” she says.

“Any conversation about dressing modestly or inappropriately is inherently sexist. No one has that conversation with boys,” says the girl’s mother.

I understand why people feel this way: It’s an unfair treatment of men vs. women. Women are treated like objects and men are the ones objectifying them; this isn’t fair and needs to stop. By telling women to cover up, it reinforces the idea that women will be objectified by men and undermines the belief we’re supposed to have – that men shouldn’t do this.

I sympathize with this view.

But I also think it is naïve.

The fact of the matter is that men and women are different. Men have this chemical inside of them called testosterone and it can drive them to act in aggressive ways, even towards women. This is not necessarily physical aggression, but instead, it is testosterone that is behind male sexual desire and thinking certain thoughts.. Furthermore, adolescents do not yet have full brain development of their frontal cortexes, the part of the brain responsible for judging risk and reward, and restraining behavior.

In other words, teenage boys are not good at self-control.

This, of course, does not get them off the hook. We should teach men and boys to respect women and to not objectify them, punish them when they violate the norms we are trying to impose, and reward them when they follow the norms we do want them to follow.

But testosterone and brain development are biological. You can’t get me to stop wanting to eat chocolate cake just because you tell me I shouldn’t do it.

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Similarly, you won’t get teenage boys to not think certain thoughts just by telling them not to. Human biology doesn’t work that way.

However, what does help is understanding human nature. One of the things I learned over the past few years is that will power is a thing, and it can be depleted.

I remember playing the Legend of Zelda in my growing up years and one the things you can do in Zelda is use magical items. However, when you do this, your magic power decreases. The more you use your magic items (like the cloak of invisibility – which was around in A Link to the Past before there was a Harry Potter… wait, am I getting the timelines right?), the more your magic goes down.

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Will power is like that. The more you exercise it during the day, the more your will power is drained and the more difficult it is to resist temptation. If you work all day in a chocolate factory and you love chocolate, but you’re trying to resist the urge to eat it (maybe you have cavities, maybe you are trying to lose weight), you have to exercise restraint every time you don’t eat any.

But by the end of the day, you’ve used up all your will power because you’ve had to use it so much. And then you slip up and eat a bit of chocolate. And unfortunately, this leads to the “What the hell” effect where you say “Oh, what the hell, I’ve already eaten a bit of chocolate. I may as well go ahead and eat an entire bar of it!” And despite having resisted all day, you now have no more will power to resist and eat more than your fair share of chocolate.

This is a well known phenomenon in behavioral science and it is called Ego Depletion.

One of the ways to combat ego depletion is to modify your environment so you don’t have to exercise your will power. For myself, I could work in a chocolate factory because while I like chocolate, I don’t find it all that hard to resist eating junk food.

But for a person who is struggling to lose weight, their best option is to work in a job where they are not around junk food. That way, they don’t drain their will power and when they walk home at the end of the day, they can skip past that candy store.

This is why it is so important to toss away any junk food in your house when dieting – it’s too easy and too accessible and requires too much will power to resist it.

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A good way to reward yourself with junk food is to take the decision out of your hands. On Shark Tank a few weeks ago, I saw a product for a time-locking kitchen container. Basically, you put an item into the container and set a time limit. The container doesn’t open until the time limit runs out and at that point, you can open it.

So, if you love chocolate, put a chocolate bar in there and set the timer for three days. If you like soda, put some soda in there for x number of days and when it completes, then you can have it. You don’t have to resist because you can’t get the item even if you wanted to.

The sharks all complained that at a $50 price point, it was too expensive. I disagree; at the price they wanted ($30 or less), it’s too cheap. You’ll break it open if you really want it but at a more expensive cost to you, you will think twice.

Modification of your environment is very important when trying to modify behavior.

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And that brings me back to the school dance. Teenage boys are not good at self-control. Testosterone fuels their behavior. It’s one thing for adults with fully developed brains to be expected to control themselves, but another thing for adolescents.

Biology and hormones do certain things in boys’ minds. Even though to women and girls, they ought to be allowed to dress in certain ways, teenage boys’ brains work on auto-pilot because that’s encoded into their DNA. Seeing young, attractive girls kicks off a series of events in boys. To the girls, they simply want to look nice.

But that’s not what boys think.

Of course, not all boys think this way. There are some that are respectful. But there are many that are not, there is a lot of genetic variation.

I think I understand why religious conservatives think the way they do in this case. They are obviously not using behavioral psychology to shape their thinking (that is, they believe that women should dress more modestly than the above picture because of certain religious convictions and the source of these convictions is divinely ordained), but the end result is the same – less revealing clothing is less tempting to men.

Girls who wear less revealing clothing at a dance will, in all likelihood, make it less likely that boys will have unclean thoughts. And, they can still look nice wearing conservative clothes. Is the dress the girl wearing in the picture revealing? I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t substitute my judgment in place of a 16-year-old teenage male.

So, on the one hand, I don’t think it’s fair that women can’t dress the way they want without inviting judgment from men. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect adolescent males to exercise the level of self-restraint you would expect of an adult, either.

Gender inequality has made significant progress in recent decades and will continue to make progress.

But we’re not there, yet. And until we are, these debates will continue.

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I’ve been cooking some pretty fancy stuff lately.

Why, you ask?

A couple of weeks ago, the wife and I signed up for the Blue Apron food delivery service. If you’re unfamiliar with Blue Apron, you sign up and they send you 3 meals per week, enough for two people (or you can choose the family plan). They send you all the ingredients by mail and then you cook it. When you’re finished, you’ve used up all the ingredients (except for maybe some garlic or some shredded cheese).

Here are some of the things we’ve cooked:

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Thai shrimp soup   Roasted brussel sprouts with freekah salad   Cardomom-spiced butternut squash gratin
         
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Whole wheat linguine (possibly my favorite so far)   Banana leaf-steamed cod   Cremini and porcini mushroom-barley soup

I like several things about Blue Apron. First, I like the variety of having different things to eat that I would not normally eat. The above are examples of 6 things I would never have had otherwise.

Second, I like how everything is used up at the end. If I were to go regular grocery shopping, I have to plan ahead because vegetables go bad if you don’t use them up soon. Not so with Blue Apron.

Third, I like how I don’t have to think. They do the meal selection and shopping for me, I just have to follow the directions in the instructions. I actually enjoy the cooking process.

It’s not all fun and games, though. The meals take forever to prepare, sometimes a bit over an hour. That’s because there are lots of ingredients and we frequently have to chop up a lot of vegetables, and we are slow choppers.

Painfully slow.

Still, at this point it is worth it. I don’t mind the cooking and it makes me feel like I accomplished something. Will I feel like this forever? Probably not.

But for now I do.

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Yesterday marked the seventh month I’ve had braces on my teeth, and in the past two months progress have accelerated. Below are a couple of pictures from the past.

Below is six months ago (July 2014). You can see on the bottom that there is one tooth that is majorly out of place, basically behind the others:

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Next is from five months ago, the bottom tooth is hidden behind the others:

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Today, I took a picture of my teeth from close to the same angles. You can see that the tooth that was out of place is now more or less inline with the others and only needs a slight adjustment:

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The tooth looks a little crooked because both teeth are slightly chipped in front at angles making it look like it is more out of line than it really is.

I literally cannot remember the last time my bottom teeth were not crooked. As far back as I can remember that bottom tooth was out of place. I never worried about that tooth because it’s been like that forever, it has never been straight.

But now it is almost straight. I run my tongue over my bottom teeth all the time. Indeed, my earliest memory of that tooth is 25 years ago or so when I was maybe 10 years old, possibly younger, and I went for a dental cleaning and after I was done, I pointed out to the dentist that tooth was kind of crooked. The dentist replied that we would keep an eye on it.

I can’t recall anything before that. I must have been when the adult tooth first came in (after my baby teeth fell out) that I noticed it was not straight.

But now it almost is.

My teeth still have a ways to go, and you can see that they are not the same size nor are they level. But I never would have thought that tooth could be saved when I first got my braces on.

I guess it could.

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In 2014, I paid down my mortgage principle more in one year than I did in the previous 5.5 years put together.

For you see, from Sept 2008 to Dec 2013, I paid off 11% of the principle. From Jan 2014 to Dec 2014, I and the wife paid off 20% of the principle (meaning that the mortgage is 31% paid off).

We’ve been reasonably aggressive in paying it down. My condo is currently rented out but it still loses money each month. If I only paid the exact amount I needed to pay, I would lose $416 each month, or $5000/year. Because of the way taxes work, it ends up being less than that. But I am still losing money on it because I can’t get enough rent to cover everything relative to how much I could actually get (i.e., the market won’t let me raise the rent high enough to cover the total payment).

The goal is to pay off the condo in less than 4 years, maybe 3 years which is aggressive. Once it is paid off, it will generate about $450/month in net positive cash flow assuming nothing breaks.

I am looking forward to that day.

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This year, we had a very low-key New Year’s celebration.

I’m still recovering from being sick starting two weeks ago. And while nearly all of my symptoms have gone away, there’s still one that has stuck around – I get very sleepy at around 4 pm. This is true whether I am at home or at work.

On New Year’s Eve, the wife and I went with some friends to see the latest Hobbit movie at 4 pm. We had food and drinks and watched the two hour and 15 minute film, which I enjoyed. Afterwards, we went out with another couple to a restaurant and I had a bit more to eat. We hung out for a bit and then went home after, arriving between 8:30 pm and 9 pm.

It was cold that day, so we went upstairs after. But I had missed my 4 pm nap because I was watching the movie. I felt very sleepy when we got home. The wife streamed the New Year’s countdown in New York City and we watched the celebration, and then after I drifted off to sleep for an evening nap.

That’s right – no party, no games, no staying up late – I just wanted to go to bed early because I was so tired.

It’s basically because I was sick with the flu. I don’t feel lousy anymore but I still have the mid-afternoon crash (like a cat), no matter how much I sleep at night (I get plenty of sleep, at least 7.5 to 8 hours lately). But on New Year’s Eve, I just couldn’t stay up.

But it doesn’t matter; I feel like I should be able to do what I want to do. And if I want to go to sleep early, then that’s what I’m going to do.

At least in 2015.

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