Saturday, January 11, 2014

When Nobody is Watching


"Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching". 
I find different forms of this quote going back more than one hundred years. So many variants, so many authors, they can't be wrong.

The chances to exercise our integrity are dwindling. An estimate of 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the UK, one for every 32 people. The Washington Post says the NSA can scan 1.7 billion emails a day. Everybody wants our data to rummage through. The privacy ambiguity introduced by the cyber lives we invented makes it hard to know when no one is watching. 

Given this is only getting worse we need new workable quotes for integrity and character. Something like "character is what you do when you think nobody is watching", and I have already read variations of that sort. 

Or maybe "doing the right thing when nobody cares", because all these Big Data engines are not really judging me I believe. Even if they are I may not care about their opinions of me. It would read as "doing the right thing even though we do not care about our reputation to the watcher. Nah, too long. 

The sign at Dojo had it right, "doing the right thing regardless of the consequences".

But then again there was another Japanese proverb used at the Dojo that conveyed the opposite.




Friday, August 23, 2013

Degrees of Separation


An instructor once told us that a classic conflict source was expectations mismatch between parties. She gave us marital and corporate examples. Her point was that these mismatches are solvable with the right appreciation and tools. They are not irreconcilable.

Arizona desert trip planning guides we read last year made the same point. Frictions surface in family trips precisely at the time people should be in their most fun and easy going moods. Mismatched expectations, nothing deeper than that. And once identified we can fix it by aligning expectations, I guess.

To align expectations in our trip we can divide the time to visit each other's friends, we can divide meal preferences. If we can split atoms what could possibly get in the way? 

It is August in Tel Aviv, hot as always, and air conditioners have gotten very good indeed.

But temperature remains indivisible. Setting the thermostat is an unsolvable mismatch in expectations. This time we have technology to blame. We went from suffering together to fighting over who suffers the other's temperature preferences.

I found the reason, its the thermostat stupid. Next comes an academic paper plotting divorce rate vs. temperature preference differential. It is titled degrees of separation.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Poor Man Rejoice


Finding anything previously misplaced around the house always follows this script:

- Me: "When does a poor man rejoice?"
A rare case where the original expression "Cuando se alegra un pobre?" sounds better and more compact in Spanish than in English.
- Her: "Oh shut up you are not poor.

The expected answer, from my father, is: "When he finds what he lost"

"A poor man rejoices when he reclaims what he lost" is the best approximation. Though it is not really joy, and what I reclaimed was not exactly lost.

It feels more like a boxer winning a fight. In many ways.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Most Interesting Man in the World


He has received acceptance letters from all Ivy League schools... that he has not applied to...
He was awarded a full scholarship... just for posing in their college
sweater...
He graduated Summa Cum Laude... from elementary school..
Teachers ask him for letters of recommendation...
He was only once a point short of a perfect exam score... only because he was given the wrong test form...
A fellow student once received an approving nod from him... and ended up listing it on his resume...
Schools ask him for merit-based financial aid...
Universities send him essays on why they are a good fit for him...
He is... The Most Interesting Applicant In The World.

'I don't usually send out applications, but when I do, I send them to BU.'

That was Ben's essay for Boston University where the Most Interesting Man In The World really studied. 

In my day it barely required having a pulse, but today college admission is a highly choreographed game refereed by arbitrary characters behind a desk. Applicants go to the far ends of the planet for community work credentials. My spleen says that if all submissions were true there would be more applicants volunteering in Asian orphanages than orphans in Asia. Artifacts of a game they make you play.

Game over, now colleges fight for Ben while we sip a Dos Equis. Stay thirsty my friends...





Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Incredibles


The dust has long settled on the theme of teams beating individuals, or viceversa. We already passed judgement on that in the old post Teams vs. Individuals.   But what if the participants are of the Superhero class. A Superhero in a comic book and in real life has extraordinary powers of some sort.

These extraordinary powers are generally uni-dimensional, either the ability to fly, run at amazing speeds, climb walls like arachnids, or some other very specific quality. Even a Superhero cannot excel at everything.

Specialized traits force screenwriters to sacrifice credibility through plots where a narrow ability somehow saves the day. This is compounded by most superheroes working independently, so if there is no use for the skill, that is it, the superhero is as powerless as any mortal.

Sometimes, like in The Incredibles, Superheroes operate as a team, in this case as a family of superheroes. Interestingly its creator, Brad Bird, was open to a sequel of the movie if he could come up with a plot superior to the original one. 

Here are the powers the sequel characters should have. They are not physical powers, that is boring, we already have powerful machines.

One has the trait of knowledge. Knowledge is power you might say, and we can use that character in half the action movies you see on TV. 

A second one knows how to read people, a not so subtle variant over raw knowledge. Reading people helps untangle things involving human motives and actions. Tangle and untangle people.

And the third just understands. Hard to explain what understanding the essence of things means, but superheroes are seen in action, not explained.

Reality provides abundant plots. Having named their powers I can now stop and let plots happen.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mentor


I remember the earliest diagrams of transistor circuits from Professor Rasines and how they worked. Professor Rasines was a mentor, because in my book a mentor is one whose teachings we remember, not one whose teachings we understand. 

One may argue that my mind was then "tabula rasa" and recorded anything new thus turning every teacher into a mentor, but that is not the case. His sentences were important and synthetic enough to be stored. For example the mysterious precept "beware of a person that does not laugh".

I never understood why I had to beware of them. I do use and abuse humor, possibly because I believe people take themselves too seriously. And just like that, a couple of days ago, a comedian-academic shows up on my radio dial to prove Rasines' wisdom.

Check out this link for Robert Lynch's take on the role of humor in human evolution. Lynch believes a reaction to a joke reveals if people's beliefs and preferences matched what they found funny. By laughing at the same joke we signal to each other that we share the same values and beliefs. 

So far so good. A way of predicting the fate of a blind date, or an engagement would be through laughter and humor. I buy that. 

But it gets better, Lynch experiments with laughter vs. self-deception (where self-deceivers are people who don't see their own values and beliefs clearly), and remarkably self-deceivers were less likely to laugh.

Rasines has been vindicated, my use of humor has been vindicated, I am just too lazy to find out the hard way what others are all about, so I just test their reaction to my humor.

Today, on the same dial, the late Gore Vidal is asked what does he want to be remembered by. He bluntly replies that anybody stupid enough to want to be remembered will surely be forgotten.

Want it or not, my mentors are remembered.




Saturday, June 16, 2012

Culture


Compound interest stopped being the most powerful force in the universe way before I heard that Albert Einstein may have never said it was. I have heard about the power of exponentials from other credible people, and I heard that in person. But is exponential growth a force in the usual sense of driving action? Or is growth a force only to the extent that it pushes and displaces things around it?

A powerful force must lie behind actions that otherwise would not occur, or that otherwise would be unexplainable. Specifically human actions that are unexplainable either under the opposing models of Homo Economicus or Homo Reciprocans. 

These actions pop up everywhere, from people running in front of a dozen bulls in Pamplona every year, to entire countries placing a Queen and her family in Buckingham Palace to lead a life of idle ceremony for 60 years and then make a big fuss to thank her for her service. What service? Privilege is no service.

Mysteriously unexplainable are familial episodes of honor killings. Make one to reconsider if all parents really want the same for their children, and if we are all really driven by the same forces.

Partially unexplainable are the self sacrifices of the Fukushima nuclear plant workers deliberately taking radiation. One may argue they fall under the same self-sacrifice umbrella of suicide bombings in war, a la kamikaze or their well known Middle Eastern variants. But the latter ones are hardly explainable, because when a young person sacrifices their entire descent bloodline disappears, by not ever happening. Why is then the suicide bomber profile a really young person as opposed to an 80 year old bomber whose bloodline is already spoken for?

The invisible force behind all these is Culture, making it more powerful than compound interest. Anthropology early on defined culture as some sort of cultivation of the mind, but the URL in your browser shows that this is my blog so I get to pick the definition, one with some McGrew elements. Patterns of behavior that are consistent across performers in social units, patterns that endure across generations. 

Or Culture simply as a set of actions we take automatically, without questioning, out of group tradition.

Right or wrong, postulating Culture as "the force" is a more benign view than the alternate mantra of the only common thread in the world being absurdity.












Sunday, April 8, 2012

Milleage


Time to break a lance for gas guzzlers. A curse affects most oil producers and many oil consumers, and if gas guzzlers hasten the end of our "Oil Age" they are welcome. Walking is the wrong metaphor here but I walk the walk by feeding a 3.5L engine for as long as I can.

Given Sheikh Yamani's mantra "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil" does conservation delay the end of the Oil Age as I suggest?

GM folks are doing high fives since the Chevy Volt earned multiple Green Awards in 2011. Not earth shattering to have a plug-in-hybrid in 2011 when GM had a fully electric vehicle in 1996, the EV1. And really old news when Ferdinand Porsche made Lohner-Porsche mixed gasoline electric cars (aka hybrids) around 1901. The same 1901 year the Oil Age arguably started at the Spindletop oil field in Texas.

I want to witness the end of the Oil Age. Electric cars are long overdue, but I do not have another hundred years to wait for them. And it is not clear conservation is always welcome. Riding a bike and using solar energy are great, but more efficient gasoline cars can have unintended consequences.

Doubling fuel efficiency, for example, means oil supplies will last twice as long. Is that good?

Actually with double car gasoline efficiency producers could raise fuel prices with no impact to consumers. That is what I would do in their place, and cartels are smarter than me. Producers would get twice as much per unit of production, instantly making them twice as rich either on revenues or reserves. A higher sustainable oil price also adds production capacity that would not be viable at lower prices, along with the environmental impact of production, emissions, and the prolongation of the Oil Age.

Granted, one can dig deeper than my facetious plot does. Me, I find no heros in the story worth a curtains call when it ends, preferably sooner rather than later.





Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Minkey


Not that we can avoid the pitfalls of neglecting the important by spending energy in minutia, but in our family we at least have a term to identify such situations. A minkey, as Inspector Clouseau's French pronunciation of the word monkey.

The metaphor is inspired in a great scene from "The Return of the Pink Panther" where distracted checking the license of a blind accordionist and his monkey, Clouseau botches a bank robbery.

It turns out that the Social Security Administration denied survivor benefits to twins artificially conceived after their father's untimely death. The case bubbled up all the way to the robes at the Supreme Court. There are about one hundred such cases in the whole country, so this case does not affect the citizen's lives in any meaningful way, and clearly the lawyers and process involved will cost much more than just paying based on pragmatic and humane common sense. That case is a minkey in my book.

I understand that justice is done one case at a time, but God knows while the nine justices deal with this minkey bigger injustices fester and grow.

And before my disappointment wanes I open the umbrella to the fallout of the Health Care Individual Mandate case just started at the Supreme Court. Three years of legislative energy hanging by the thread of the decency of a few unelected appointees in robes. Nine lucky robes that landed a job and health insurance for life are deciding for lesser ones.

I can accept any ruling, but I cannot accept a 5-4 ruling. The law may be flawed, but an outcome where it is flawed to roughly half of them and not flawed to another half means that more than law experts they are political animals.

If we ask untrained jurors to be unanimous in their findings why can't we ask from justices the same thing? Stay sequestered until you agree, or let me get my Justice from a blind accordionist and his monkey.





Saturday, February 4, 2012

Elections

Close elections maximize the leverage voters have to get their singular issues addressed. That can be useful, but a 51-49% kind of result tastes of division. Division tastes bitter.

I wonder why we bother counting votes at all. If forecasts show a conclusive result, they can be used to call the winner without voting. If forecasts are very tight we should toss a coin. It is cheaper and less prone to manipulation than vote counting. A close call means we are ready to live with either outcome.

With elections decided by statistical sampling, the sampled population has a higher chance of influencing the result. High schoolers study every day in case they are called up the next day. People would likewise care to be informed about the candidates in case they are sampled.

Granted, with my scheme individual votes are not counted. But who cares about counting every vote when a single vote cannot make a difference. Take California, before the polls close the elections are generally settled by the Eastern states results, so no vote here counts. But even in perfectly synchronized elections what are the chances that my lone vote decides the outcome?

The odds of a single vote deciding an election are lower than the odds of dying in a traffic accident on the way to vote. And yes, accidents seem to be higher on Election Days according to Mark Brady. He also tackles the myth that one should vote else one cannot complain.

"Don't Blame Me, I'm From Massachusetts" Nixon era bumper stickers morph into "Don't Blame Me, I did Not Vote" but the idea remains, you can only complain if you did not vote for a deficient leader.

Personally I wish for 70-30% outcomes so we have a sense of direction and common purpose, yet without falling into the ridiculous 99% results common in some places. Places I wouldn't like to live. Places where the ruler can say he is the 99%.