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Archive for February, 2015

Fancy coffee

When the wife and I first got a coffee maker in the middle of 2012, we just got coffee from Trader Joe’s. It’s pretty good coffee, only costs around $7.00 for 12-14 oz of coffee (just under a pound), and it’s convenient.

But lately, we’ve been buying fancier coffee from a few places. This all started in November or December when the wife got a coupon book. One of the coupons was for anything from a coffee store in downtown Bellevue. So, we headed down there and picked up some fancy coffee, by which I mean coffee that costs roughly double what it costs at Trader Joe’s.

It turns out that this coffee was pretty good.

And ever since then, we’ve been trying more expensive coffee. The last few we’ve tried are from Whole Foods, and it costs around $12-$14 per bag. Now here’s the thing – the ones at Whole Foods we have to grind ourselves sometimes because the beans are not pre-ground. They don’t come pre-ground at Trader Joe’s either, but we grind them at the store because the wife says “I don’t want to grind the beans at home! It takes too long!” even though it only takes a few minutes.

But the Whole Food beans we grind at home, plus the fancier coffee, does taste better. I am not a coffee connoisseur but this stuff is pretty good.

I was talking to a co-worker of mine who is currently on a decaf coffee kick because he thought he was drinking too much coffee. He said it’s the experience of drinking coffee that counts.

I said “Not really, decaf tastes worse than regular. And for me, it’s the taste that counts, that’s what drives the experience.”

He didn’t have a good comeback for that and agreed; we’ll see how long he stays on decaf.

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I’m not as clever as I think

I like to think I’m a pretty smart guy. It’s not completely true, but I like to think it nonetheless.

This month in National Geographic, the cover page is entitled “The War on Science.” It lists five examples:

  • Climate Change does not exist. This is something I used to think about a decade ago, or that the fears were overblown, but now I completely disagree and think climate change is a huge deal. It’s mostly people who are politically opposed to it that still deny it.

  • Evolution never happened. I didn’t used to believe in evolution during my teen years, but I have since 100% reversed that position. Evolution explains a lot, biology doesn’t make sense without it.

  • The moon landing was fake. I don’t know anybody who ever believed this, but I guess there are still some people out there who do.

  • Vaccinations can lead to autism. This is something that is getting a lot of press coverage recently, and criticism, because of the recent breakout of measles at Disneyland. It’s upper-middle class people who believe this, people who are educated. And this bad because it weakens herd immunity and harms their own kids.

  • Genetically modified food is evil. And here’s where I have to stop being so smug. For years I never cared about GMO foods, but after moving to the left coast I admit my thinking started to get infected with this. But as it turns out, most experts believe that GMO food is safe. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of studies done and none of the definitively demonstrate that GMO food is bad for you or dangerous. The thinking is “But it might be!” but the science says “Well, probably not.”

So, I got four out of five. I’d like to pat myself on the back but I can’t. As someone with a science background, I should know better.

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A leak in the roof

This morning, the wife came downstairs only to discover that there was a puddle of water on the counter by the sink, and next to the sink. It turns out that by the skylight, there is a bit of a gap there resulting from poor maintenance on the roof.

I thought it would be okay if we took a bit of time to get it repaired as we could put a little container to catch the water (we’ll be out of town this weekend) but the wife insisted we get it patched quicker.

Anyhow, while inconvenient, it’s nice to live in a place where you can get house repairs done within 24 hours.

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Some days, I wonder if I am in the right line of business.

I’ve believed in capitalism for my entire life and that free markets are the best way to run an economy, but lately I’ve wondered how that fits in to what I do at work. I think this because of my observations about the state of the world, and what I know from behavioral psychology.

Even though I still think free markets are great, I think it’s pretty obvious that there are inefficiencies everywhere. There are plenty of poor people still around (although their standard of living is rising), but study after study shows that while capitalism is great for creating wealth, most of it goes to a small group of people. The middle class, at least in the United States, isn’t sharing in much of these wealth gains. If free markets are so good at distributing wealth, why is so much of it concentrated in 1/10 of 1% of the population?

This makes me think that my faith in free markets is maybe not the best thing it should be; they’re great, but not as great as I think, especially for a majority of the population.

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How this fits into work is what I see as the Tragedy of the Commons. This is a 19th century concept where if there is a common resource that gets depleted, everyone loses. It’s in everyone’s best interest to behave in a sustainable way, yet simultaneously also in everyone’s best interest not to behave in a sustainable way.

For example, suppose there is a lake and there are 25 fishermen, and each is allowed to catch only 1000 fish per year. This is to ensure that the fish stocks don’t get depleted. So long as everyone plays along, it’s great. But, suppose one fisherman – let’s call him Frank – decides “Well, instead of my catch of 1000 per year, what if I catch 1100? It’s only about 1 extra fish every three days and no one will notice.”

And nobody does notice.

However, Frank gets to sell 100 extra fish and make just a bit more money. A little later, Joe notices Frank is catching 100 extra fish and nobody is complaining. So Joe says “Well, if Frank is catching 100 extra fish, why can’t I?” and so he, too, catches 100 extra fish. And he, too, reaps the benefits.

But soon, everyone notices that some people are catching extra fish, and soon everyone decides to catch the 100 extra. And everyone gets a little extra money.

However, one thing does eventually catch up with everyone – because everyone is now catch 100 extra fish – 1100 per year – the lake becomes depleted. In a few years time, nobody is catching any fish. Nobody reaps any benefits because now the lake is empty. People’s short term desires trumped their long term interests.

And this is common in behavioral psychology, it’s a very human trait.

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I see this at work. I have friends and co-workers who come from eastern bloc nations that lived under communism, and central planning ruined their nations. And now, after moving to the US, they have a pro-capitalist view because the opposite was a complete disaster.

I used to agree with them.

Except that I think that this point of view is pervasive at the company I work for, but the ignores the Tragedy of the Commons. Acting in your own interests to maximize short-term gain causes long term pain.

In email filtering, there are ways to run a business and I always have to fight to get others to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Just as in industry, businesses can pollute the lake because it’s cheaper for them to dispose of refuse into the local lake than to transport it safely elsewhere (or treat the waste so it is neutral), email filtering systems can pollute the Internet. There are Internet rules that say “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that” because it “pollutes” the Internet.

Yet I find it is common for others to think that just because we work for a large company, if nobody complains then it is okay in order to maximize short term profit. But I think we shouldn’t be maximizing short term profit at the expense of depleting a resource; we should keep the Internet clean and do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even if it takes a little longer or is a more complicated design.

I once said “What you’re saying is that it’s okay to pollute the lake so long as the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t shut you down” and the response was “Yes.”

I understand that I am in business, and a business must make money, and this business pays me, and that customers pay us, but something about that now rubs me the wrong way.

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I see a change in the Millennial generation. Mark Zuckerberg, who at 30 years old is part of that generation, has said that Facebook’s business exists to serve its social mission, not the other way around. Younger people are all about Fair Trade which costs more but is more socially equitable.

I realize that big business can exploit this feel-good-ism, but even on Shark Tank, the investors are almost all about making money because capitalism is the force that does the most good in the world, and charity is something you do voluntarily.

I agree that capitalism and free markets do a lot of good, but I also think that it doesn’t do as much good as its die-hard proponents think it does. I think that humans think about things in the short term and are hard-wired to not look out for their own long-term best interests. So, the profit motive wins even at the expense of doing the right thing since doing the right thing causes short term discomfort, but not doing the right thing is rewarded with money.

I like making money. But I don’t like making money if I think the lake is being depleted. I don’t think we should be polluting the lake just because the EPA doesn’t notice, I think we shouldn’t be polluting the lake because it’s the right thing to do.

Even as I type this, I find myself getting wound up with a mix of conflicting emotions. Am I in the right business? I like doing what I do professionally, and I know my company gives a lot to charity. Without their business generating profits, they wouldn’t do it all.

But I find myself identifying more with the Millennial generation than the profit-first goals of American business.

And I feel conflicted.

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Last November, I had hip surgery on my right hip to correct some movement problems. A lot of it worked but my hip is still sore – I have limited mobility when I rotate, and I still cannot do a deep thigh bend. For example, I can’t ride a bike uphill because I can’t push down at the top of the stride on my right leg. It’s too painful.

So, I went to get some advice on my hip and hopefully they can also do some deep tissue work.

But I also went because I am sick and tired of having a sore neck. It comes and goes with and without massage, but my neck muscles are too stiff. The wife goes to a physical therapist for her back so I figured I can go, too.

I had an evaluation yesterday, and it turns out my hip muscles on both sides are too weak – or as the therapist said, they are growth opportunities.

But my neck is also too weak. He gave me some exercises to do, and I have to go back twice per week.

Hopefully this works.

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