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Archive for September, 2016

My own push-up challenge

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve no doubt noticed various friends of yours doing the 22 push-up challenge. The idea is that when someone tags you in a post, you have to do 22 push-ups per day for 22 days in a row; each day you are supposed to record yourself doing it and uploading to Facebook. This is to raise awareness for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that occurs so rampantly in military veterans.

I had noticed this was going on so I decided to do my own challenge even though nobody had challenged me. I decided to do it to get into better shape and help strengthen my shoulder muscles because I have chronic neck and shoulder pain that requires me to go to a massage therapist.

My goal was this – do 25 pushups on day 1, and then on each following day do 2-3 more.

And at first, I could do it. 25, then 28, then 30, then 33. And so forth. My goal was to get to 100.

But then I started having problems. On one day I got to 50, but the next day I couldn’t do more than 35. What the heck? A drop of 15 overnight? What’s going on? Even worse, my lower abdomen beneath my belly-button was hurting while I was doing it, and even running into the next day.

I started doing research online, and I discovered that this was normal. Instead, I had to rest 2-3 days in between pushups and let my muscles recover and rest.

And that’s what I have been doing. But I still can’t push past 50 pushups. Instead, I do a whole bunch, rest, do a few more, rest, and continue. I’m currently up to about 90. My goal is to get to either 100 without stopping, or 200 with rests in between.

I still have a long way to go, but I’m making progress.

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The mortgage is now paid off

8 years ago, I made a huge purchase – I bought a condo for the purposes of using it as an investment.

The goal, for 8 years, never paid off. This was during the recession and I wasn’t able to get it rented quickly, nor get as much as I wanted in rent. As a result, I was taking a financial beating.

I refinanced once a year later, then refinanced again a couple years after that. Along the way the economy recovered so that turned my big monthly loss to a small monthly loss.

That ends now.

For your see, the wife and I successfully paid off her condo in 2013. We then started to pay down mine.

We paid a little bit extra in 2014.

We paid a lot more extra in 2015.

We paid a ton more extra in 2016!

And with that, the place is paid off. The wife recommended we just get rid of the balance once it got down to a certain amount. I agreed, and now the balance is zero.

That means that this month, for the first time ever, it will be a financial boon for me to own that condo. It’s now actually an asset (from the Rich Dad, Poor Dad point of view).

Hooray!

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I was listening to a podcast today, the Hidden Brain podcast. It was about coincidences and how we, as people, think they have special meaning; but in reality the mathematics behind coincidences is that they aren’t that unusual after all. We tend to confuse probability with unlikelihood, and attribute meaning to it when we encounter it. We’re not good judges of randomness.

Anyway, the podcast went on and then gave the listener a chance to use probability in order to demonstrate their own magical powers. Here’s how the trick goes:

First, you get a group of people together and tell them you’re going to have a coin flipped 30 times. But before you do, give everyone a piece of paper and enter in columns of numbers 1 through 30. Each person in the group should then make a prediction of what a coin toss of 30 times in a row will look like. For example:

1. Heads
2. Tails
3. Tails
4. Head
5. Tails
6. Tails
7. Tails
8. Heads
9. Tails
10. Heads

And so forth.

One person refrains from writing their prediction. It is this person who is going to flip the coin 30 times in a row and write the results on their own piece of paper. They do this while you leave the room. So, in effect, everyone but one makes a prediction of 30 coin tosses, and then that one records the results of the actual tosses. You can’t see the results of anyone – predictions nor actual result – since you are in a separate room.

You then re-enter the room and gather up all the predictions plus one actual result (the reason why you have one person refrain from making a prediction and recording the actual result is so that you cannot tell due to a duplicate set of handwriting who has two sets of results – a real one and a prediction – because otherwise people will accuse you of doing this and narrowing your odds to 50/50 [1]).

You gather up the results, look them over, and correctly announce which one of the sheets of paper contains the actual tosses from amongst all of the predictions.

It’s an amazing magic trick!

So how is it done?

It’s done by using mathematics, and more specifically, probability and statistics. For you see, in the example above, the heads and tails alternate with regularity. Heads, then tails, then heads twice, then tails, then heads, then tails, and so forth. The results flip back and forth quite often because as we all know, flips of a coin are 50/50. It’s either heads or tails, and maybe we get two or possibly three results in a row. That’s what our predictions would reveal.

But in reality, a 50/50 occurrence in a coin flip will have long sequences of heads or tails. That is, we might get 5 or 6 heads in a row followed by 5 or 6 tails in a row. It’s unusual to sit down and flip a coin that often and get that result, but given 30 coin flips that’s almost inevitably what you will see in real life.

So what you have to do is look for the result with the longest sequences of heads and tails because that’s the one that will occur in real life, whereas everyone’s prediction will only have short sequences of heads vs. tails.

And that’s how you use probability and statistics to do a magic trick.

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I decided to throw my hat in the ring and start more actively opposing Donald Trump. I answered my very first question on Quora, which has been upvoted once in a week.


There are some other good answers here on Quora, but one thing that I haven’t seen covered about building the wall along the Mexico border is the dangerous signal that it sends.

It is more than just a wall

The reason people build walls around living areas like cities or countries is to keep undesirables out. Examples include the walls around medieval cities, the Great Wall of China, and cities in flood plains build walls to keep out the water [1]. By building a wall along the Mexican border, it signals that Mexico contains undesirable people.

This is reinforced by the two things:

  1. The fact that Donald Trump kicked off his campaign by railing against illegal Mexican immigrants, referring to them as "their drugs, their criminals, their rapists" with only "some" of them being good people.
  2. The fact that Donald Trump has not called for a wall along the Canadian border. His supporters, and even he himself, has claimed that this is impractical but it’s really not that much less practical than a wall along the Mexican border. It would only cost more money.

So we have a (possible) president calling Mexican illegal immigrants criminals and rapists, and then advocating building an obstacle to keep those people out at tremendous expense. It is worth the cost to build and maintain. Yet we hear nothing about the bad qualities of Canadians, and the US/Canada border is one of the most open in the world. That’s a not-so-subtle signal that "Mexicans==bad, Canadians==okay".

And it gets worse.

How it’s interpreted by others

In his 1986 book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion", behavioral scientist Robert Cialdini lists 6 factors that influence people’s behavior and one of those is authority. We humans take our social cues from many different places, and authorities on subjects are one of them. That’s why companies cast actors who play doctors on TV to sell their pharmaceutical products in commercials (or cast regular actors wearing white coats); it’s why companies pay celebrities to promote their products; and it’s why there is a short and long term spike in suicides among the general population when a celebrity commits suicide [2]. They have either real social status in the case of celebrities, or borrowed authority in the case of actors who are known for their roles as doctors or other professions (or borrow the authority of our association of white coats with doctors), and the average person takes their social cues from that role.

When Donald Trump says that Mexicans are criminals and rapists and we need a wall built along the border, this would be especially inflammatory as President because it’s an office with a lot of prestige and social status. It would send a strong social signal from the top-down that Mexicans are an underclass, are undesirable, and should be treated as such. Latinos are a minority in the United States, and populations around the world and throughout history often have poor histories of protecting minority rights. It is predictable that we would see an increase in prejudice against Latinos if the highest officer of the country were to give explicit consent through clear social signals that it was okay to label them this way.

This is coupled with the fact that there is no desire for Trump to build a wall along the Canadian border. People frequently revert to tribes (forming groups) and we do it naturally. We divide ourselves into Republican-vs-Democrats, fans-of-this-sports-team-vs a fan of that other sports team, and we even fall into group identity by something as arbitrary as being randomly assigned into two different teams. The stereotype of Canadians is that they are all white or Caucasian (which is true for the majority) with light-colored hair, and the sterotype of Latinos is that they are mostly tan-scanned with dark hair. This gives people an easy, visual way to differentiate between the groups they associate positively (whites) vs. the ones they associate negatively (Latinos).

What about when people say it only targets illegal immigrants?

The protest against this is that Donald Trump’s wall is only to keep out illegal immigrants, so legal ones are okay. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. First, as I said, using our visual heuristics [3], it’s impossible to tell looking at someone if they are a legal or illegal immigrant. Second, notice in the paragraph about Authority that I gave the examples of celebrities promoting a product, or actors who are known for their roles promoting a medical product, or increases in suicide when a celebrity does it. Why should we be influenced by a celebrity who has no more expertise than you or I in that product? Why don’t we rationalize in our own minds that an actor is not necessarily any more informed about pharmaceutical products than the average person? Why can a famous person increase our chances of taking our own lives? The answer is that our internal heuristics are not that sensitive that they make these distinctions. We take mental shortcuts and then stop thinking about it.

And that means the claim that Trump is only against illegal immigrants doesn’t matter. The wall along Mexico signals that tan-colored people are bad (because we don’t differentiate between illegal vs. legal), while the lack of a wall along the Canadian border signals that white-colored people are okay. The social signal is that "We don’t need a wall there because they aren’t dangerous. They act, think, *and look* just like us. But the ones that don’t look like us our dangerous."

That gives permission to people, whether explicit or implicit, that’s okay to discriminate against Latinos (whether legal or illegal) because it comes from the most important person in government. With a wall, and statements from the President himself, these signals all tell us that it’s okay [4].

Why calling a spade “a spade” is not always a good thing

The Democrats take a lot of heat for not calling out Islamic extremism. But the reason they water down their language is because of this – if they did not, people would take it as a signal that it’s okay to discriminate against Muslims. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the population are not terrorists. By tossing fuel on the fire, leadership making an association between any group of people and labeling them with a strongly negative stereotype leads to prejudice among the general population, and that leads to discrimination. Political correctness is frustrating because it seems like it isn’t calling out something for what it is, but actually what it does is overcorrect to prevent sending the wrong message which would be even worse. It’s an attempt to prevent fanning the flames.

And that’s something Donald Trump and his supporters don’t seem to understand, or simply doesn’t care. Building the wall is not just about preventing illegal immigration. We already have plenty of laws to enforce that [5]. Instead, building a wall along the border is a symbol of "Us-vs-Them", of descending into group identity and labelling "them" as morally inferior to "us". The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, what symbolism does a giant wall send?

Bringing it all home

The antidote to racial distrust is not to build walls between people but to allow more interaction between people so that it normalizes relations. When you see a person of a different race and they’re just like you, you learn to accept them as having similar goals as you. Building up walls sends the opposite message and undermines inclusiveness.

The leader of the country has to be aware of what his inflammatory language inspires in people, given his or her own social status, and how it will be interpreted among the masses. Not knowing is being derelict in his or her duties.


[1] Even the Berlin wall, from the communist point of view, was rationalized as a way to keep aggressive westerners out. See Berlin Wall, its original name was the "Anti-Fascist Protective Wall"

[2] See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/…

[3] In his 2011 book "Thinking Fast and Slow", behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman differentiates between two different modes of the way we think – System 1, which makes snap judgments based upon heuristics that work much of the time; and System 2, which is slower, deliberate, and rational. Our brains default to System 1 thinking because it’s easier and requires far fewer calories. When you engage in a lot of difficult thinking and problem solving, that’s why you feel so tired afterwards.

[4] It is the same with banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Heuristically, people can quickly divide Muslims and Christians using skin color as a quick heuristic. It’s not completely accurate but it is rough shorthand that gets it right more often than it gets it wrong. Banning Muslims from entering in effect says that they are all dangerous, and that mindset leaks into our consciousness to spread suspicions on the ones that already live in the country. That’s (partly) why people react so strongly to Trump’s suggestions that we should ban them all.

[5] Obviously, nobody wants an open border. We have checkpoints, visas for vistors, designated checkpoints, and so forth. What we don’t need are divisive symbols.

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This upcoming election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is stressing me out, big time.

During the 2012 election, I was an observer but felt good that Obama had a comfortable lead and was probably going to win. During the 2008 election, I wasn’t stressed one way or the other, either. In 2004, I admit I was watching closely and it was starting to get to me, but no where near where this one is getting to me.

And it’s really bothering me.

Back when I thought Trump was going to win the Republican nomination but was going to lose the general election, I felt calm and collected. For a while after the Republican convention when he pulled even with Hillary Clinton, it was starting to freak me out. Then the Democratic convention gave Hillary an 8-10 point lead and I felt fine again, joking about Trump… but only because I thought he would lose.

Now the polls not only are tight, but may in fact be pointing to a Trump presidency.

And that makes me anxious.

And what’s more – it makes me anxious despite the fact that I am a white male with US citizenship, the very group that stands to benefit the most from a Trump presidency.

I won’t go into all the reasons why Donald Trump would be a terrible president. Those are well documented and anyone can read about them. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is how people take their cues from others with higher social status. This is documented in Robert Cialdini’s famous book Influence: The psychology of persuasion.

In his book, Cialdini talks about how when people who have higher social status commit suicide, lower status people commit a rash of suicides in the next several days. We, as humans, take our social cues from others. If Trump gets elected, my fear is that his xenophobic rhetoric will empower the other racists in the country.

For you see, Donald Trump has said that he’s going to have a wall built along the Mexican border. Why would you build a wall? To keep out the undesirables. By normalizing people of Mexican descent that they are undesirable, it gives implicit approval to other racists to commit hate crimes against them. After all, the president of United States says it’s okay. Trump supporters will claim that he’s only trying to keep out illegal immigrants; what they don’t understand (or do understand [which is worse]) is that the average citizen doesn’t draw that distinction. We use mental heuristics to make snap judgments. “The wall is put up to keep the bad people out… and we can identify those inside as looking visually similar to the bad ones on the outside, so let’s treat them badly!” This is similar to what happened to immigrants in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote this past June.

Thus, I predict a serious uptick in crimes against people of Latin-American descent if Trump gets elected.

The same thing will happen to Muslims in the country. Trump supports already hold strongly negative views of Muslims, around 2/3 of them. Once again, this normalizes discrimination against a minority. While it is true we see a lot in the news about terrorism that is driven primarily by Islamic extremism, the majority of Muslims are not violent, and refugees want to come to the US to get away from the violence, the same as anyone else.

Trump supporters try to explain away his more extreme comments as if he really means something else. But what if he doesn’t mean something else, and what if he says what he means? A large proportion of his supporters think he means what he says, and agree with it. And they will be emboldened by a Trump presidency.

This blind-eye towards Trump’s rhetoric bothers me. How can 40% of the country ignore what he’s saying?

Here’s the problem:

I see people on the Democratic side saying that the press has been derelict in their duty of reporting Trump’s foibles. I disagree with this. I think there’s been sufficient coverage already to sink his campaign. Instead, people don’t weight the pros and cons of a candidate’s arguments about why they should be president (most people; only about 1 in 5 is persuadable). Instead, we descend into tribalism. If Trump’s perceived as being on your team, you’ll support him no matter what.

That’s how people rationalize Trump’s comments, or rather, why they rationalize it. They may disagree with what he’s saying but shrug it off as him not really meaning it. It allows them to shrug off the cognitive dissonance.

This makes me angry at Trump supporters, it makes me look down on them. I know I’m not supposed to, but his voters skew towards the older generation, and primarily white. It makes me angry that the older generation will elect a president who will screw up the nation’s economy and respect around the world, and then my generation will spend the next 1-2 decades cleaning up after his mess.

And that doesn’t seem fair.

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