Friday, March 27, 2015

"Bubble Boy" Is a Better Movie Than "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble"

Bryan Caplan likes to say he lives in a bubble (or "a bubble within a bubble") and he recommends we follow his lead and create our own bubbles.

On the one hand, I think this matches up well with a rule I've named after myself: if something is causing you stress, stop doing it. On the other hand, this seems like the anti-voting argument that all brand-new libertarians shout from the housetops. Yeah, great, I get probability. And you are suppressing the vote total of candidates you ostensibly support. Someone's going to win the election, and it's not going to be the guy whose supporters have smug math-based reasons for staying home on Election Day.

I don't think bubble living is compatible with the ideas expressed by Arthur Farrer (and quoted by Neal A. Maxwell here):

Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced, but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief is possible.
Caplan would prefer to live in a world that embraces libertarianism, but that will never happen if all libertarians retreated within their bubbles. It will probably never happen anyway, but Caplan's system more-completely guarantees it.

The bubble strategy would say, since I can't influence nuclear negotiations with Iran, the stability of the Yemeni government, or Barack Obama's petulant revenge on Benjamin Netanyahu, I should ignore those things. But Jesus tells us that the Signs of the Times are given for the benefit of observers. This means I'm supposed to observe, not ignore, world events.

Perhaps there's a hybrid strategy, being in current events but not of current events. I can follow the news without allowing it to change my emotional state. Be in a bubble, but watch the world outside of it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Brother" As an Honorific

As a church, we've lost the point of the use of the terms "brother" and "sister."

The idea is to grow intimacy. You aren't a stranger, you're my brother (or sister). But then I undermine that intimacy when I combine the title with your surname instead of your given name.

Is it significant that early members of the church knew "Brother Joseph" and "Brother Brigham," but today we know "Brother Jones" and "Sister Davis"? I think it is. The surname short-circuits any familial intimacy the "brother" or "sister" had hinted at. I'm supposed to treat you as family so we can build up Zion, but then you're so distinct from family that I'm not even allowed to use your given name.

The article to which I linked in my previous post calls a guy "brother" when there is no connection to his status as a church member. He's a member of the public who did an interesting thing as a member of the public, not as a church employee or as a church official. Why does his status as a church member matter? What if he hadn't been a church member, or if he had collaborated with a non-member? Would the article refer to such a duo as "Brother Johnson and Mr. Harris"?

Here the term "brother" has been further undermined, not just losing its intimacy through its coupling with a surname, but losing its universality through signifying in-group/out-group status. The point of calling ANYONE "brother" is that ALL men are my brothers. While the struggle of a Zion mentality is to expand the circle of affection, the exclusionary use of "brother" and the coupling of the term with a surname builds a wall around the in-group and then compartmentalizes each member of the in-group in isolation. This is not an expansion of the circle of affection, but its greatest possible contraction.

Adversarial Economics

I know some people who are constantly trying to make money in financial markets. They think that I, as an economist, should be a natural ally. I start to talk about "random walk," "efficient market hypothesis," "mutual funds," and "buy and hold," and their eyes glaze over. Borrrr-ing! Why can't I be more like Jim Cramer? That guy doesn't tell people crap like that! (It is interesting, though, to imagine what that would be like. Cramer's show would be 15 seconds, like the winning Lotto numbers. He'd come on and say, "Here's my advice for today: keep holding what you already have. See you tomorrow!")

Beyond the poor economics of trying to beat the market, I have additional qualms. Production is win-win, investment is win-win, but participating in secondary markets is win-lose. If you make money from it, by definition someone else lost money. That's not how you change your mind to a Zion mentality. If I know something about the company that leads me to believe there's money to be made, I have a responsibility to tell the existing owner, not play dumb and wait for the profit.

"But what if it's not secret information? He already knows some people believe this, he just doesn't agree." Have I put any effort into showing him the error of his ways? Or do I just mumble a grateful prayer for the "sucker born every minute" and pounce?

I read an article yesterday that brought all this to mind. Someone found a picture for sale on eBay.

“When I discovered the image and knew who it was, I began to shake,” said Brother Fox. “I called my wife in to look at the image. I realized I had found something very special and very valuable.”
So when you find something on eBay that you realize is very valuable, do you still participate in the auction, which is designed to give the seller the lowest amount of money possible? Yeah, I'm aware that most auctions are subject to what Richard Thaler calls "the winner's curse," but with imperfect information, some auctions end up like this one: the seller and all other potential buyers have too-low a valuation and one potential buyer has an accurate valuation. What do you do if you are the accurate potential buyer? Contact the seller and tell him he's about to lose a fortune, or wait quietly with your poker face on, hoping no one notices your dancing feet under your chair?

I don't know what this guy did. I don't know what I would do. But I know what I should do, and I don't think participating in adversarial economics moves me closer to that goal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Husband of the Year

Yesterday afternoon I had a thought I decided to share on Facebook.

I like my wife. And I've liked her for 31 years, now. I tell her sometimes, "I'm surprised I haven't grown tired of you yet." That sounds mean, but I just find it surprising that, three decades after meeting her, I still think she's great.
What a nice husband, right?

Wait for it.

Last night, I locked my wife and daughter out of the house before heading to bed.

May I remind you of what a nice husband I am?

So here's how I ended up locking them out: Our door has a key-operated lock and a small deadbolt that is only connected to a knob inside the apartment. So when you're inside, you can lock the door with the deadbolt, but when you're outside, you can't operate the deadbolt. You can also use the key-operated lock from the inside, but it requires a key. Fearing that, in an emergency we would not remember to unlock the door with our key, we keep a key in the lock. However, this interferes with using a key from the outside. So someone who is inside the house has to prepare the door for someone trying to use a key to enter the house.

Before going to bed, I pulled the key 80% out of the lock, so it was still in the door if we had to leave quickly due to fire or something, but so that it wouldn't interfere with my wife using her key from the outside. But I forgot to disengage the deadbolt.

I went to bed. They came home and unlocked the door, but couldn't get in. They called, texted, and WeChatted me, but I mute my phone at night because it doesn't allow me to turn off notification noises from e-mails and I get e-mails all night long (because it's mid-day in America). They sent me e-mails, Twitter messages, and Facebook messages, but my iPad allows me to turn off those notification noises. Eventually, they remotely activated my son's Kindle location service, which made it beep enough to wake him up. He then heard them knocking and let them in.

I had a lot of notifications when I woke up this morning.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Good Reading

I can go years at a time between reading really excellent books. Well, I guess the same could be said of someone who barely reads. But I actually read quite a bit, I think. It's just that I think words should mean something, and not every author who bangs away at a keyboard has, upon growing tired of banging, produced something "amazing." Not every book is a five-star book. Something most people seem not to realize is that on GoodReads it's the TWO-star rating that means "liked it." Not three. (Currently on my GoodReads account, of the 866 books I've rated, I have given 68 five-star ratings, which is 7.85%.)

The culture disagrees with me, it seems. Every actor or actress describes all his or her co-stars as "amazing." My wife and I were recently reading through the GoodReads reviews of some decidedly middling books and were dismayed with how much hyperbole was employed. "I absolutely LOVED this book!!!!!" started most of them.

I know that criticism is easy and creation is hard. I'm not looking down my nose at these authors. They've created books that are probably better than mine. (Some of you have read my novels. The fact that you prefer to pretend you haven't is confirmation of my surmise.) But I also think I do artists a favor by describing only truly extraordinary achievements as, in fact, extraordinary.

This is why I'm very surprised that I'm currently reading two very great books. They are For Zion by Joseph M. Spencer and The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. They are both great enough that I will have long blog posts detailing my responses later. But for now, I'm very happy that, when I finish a chapter of a great book, I get to read a chapter of another great book. My reading these days is very enjoyable.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Boosting Blog Production

Occasionally my blog production slows down and I fight it for a while, then decide there's nothing I can do until it comes back, so I write a blog post where I say, "Sorry, I'm out of ideas for right now." Then, invariably, a bunch of ideas come.

So it seems obvious that, when I want a bunch of ideas, I just need to start with the declaration that I'm all out of ideas. So that's what I'm doing here.

Expect a whole bunch of posts this week, people.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Articulate Joe, Jr.

Back when Articulate Joe was known as Mumbly Joe, it was because he came around to talking quite late. When he finally did decide to start talking, it was often unintelligible. Once while driving in the car to Walmart and being convinced he was talking about robots, I discovered that, to him, they were homophones. Some people say "they're their there" the same, some say, "marry Mary merry" the same, and my son said, "Walmart robot" the same. Later in his life, he got assigned the job of saying "three free trees" and making each word sound distinct.

Anyway, a few days ago, I became aware that Screamapilar has his own homophone tongue-twister: "bicycle skyscraper."

It's no accident that Articulate Joe calls Screamapilar [Articulate Joe] Junior.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Jerk Brain

At about 4:50 this morning, I had a very convincing dream that my wife had accidentally woken me when coming to bed, and I talked to her a little bit and checked the clock and saw that it was almost midnight.

Ten minutes later, my alarm went off at 5 AM, and I felt like I'd had the shortest night of sleep in my life.

Thoughts on the Economics of Consecration

As I've been reading more and more about ideal socialism schemes, it has become more and more obvious to me how different socialism, even in some utopian model, is from Zion.

Firstly, Zion is entirely based on utility calculations. This contrasts sharply with socialism, where levels of goods are what's equated. How much to redistribute is based on comparing quantities possessed. If Person X has more money that Person Y, take some money from X to give to Y until they have the same amount.

Secondly, the controlling party is the self. In socialism, redistribution is imposed from outside the self. Only ideal models have us redistributing out of the goodness of our hearts, because at the point where my calculations show the utility gained is negligible or negative, the levels are still different. I say, "That should be good enough," and some controlling party says, "It's not; let's have some more."

Thirdly, ideal socialism requires the defeat of self-interest, but self-interest can never be defeated. Instead, it has to rely on self-interest through the desire for self-preservation in the face of a threatening controlling party. In contrast, Zion redefines self-interest through empathy. I share willingly not because I am threatened, but because I care for someone else. I receive positive utility from sharing instead of receiving negative utility from not sharing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lest We Forget How Much Our Superiors Hate Us

I got another e-mail reminder that we must be at work until 4 PM on July 8th.

Poor Advertising

Several years ago, I bought a KHS bicycle. I blogged about it, and I included the promotional picture in the blog.

Today I had reason to browse around in my old posts and I saw that the picture I used has been replaced with one that reads, "This is a stolen image from"

So I created a free ad for KHS and they were so worried about copyright that they undermined it. Because, evidently, the revenue stream from a copyright-protected picture is greater than that expected from a favorable user review.

Scenes of Domestic Bliss

A RANDOM STRANGER: You're the laziest woman I've ever met. And I've met [Crazy Jane].

MY WIFE: I bet there's a conference talk about not calling your wife lazy, either*. I don't call you lazy when you play your iPad game.

A RANDOM STRANGER: That's not lazy. Conquering the world is hard work. Who's ever accomplished it? Alexander the Great? Failed. Adolph Hitler? Failed. [A Random Stranger]? Once a day!

CRAZY JANE: [laughing throughout]

* = As I remember it, one Saturday I was dismayed by the lack of cleanliness around the home. I called our kids lazy for never cleaning after themselves. Then I went out the door to watch a session of General Conference at church. In the session, President Hinckley said, "Brethren, don't ever call your children lazy." I came home and called the kids to me and said, "President Hinckley said I'm not supposed to call you lazy, so I'm sorry." Articulate Joe (who was not yet speaking at the time) hugged my leg and ran away.

However, I can't find the conference talk now. It happened while we lived in Kansas, I know that, which limits it to five conferences (between our moving there and President Hinckley dying). I've looked through all of President Hinckley's talks from those five conferences and none of them is it. So maybe it was a Worldwide Training Broadcast, but I don't know where to find archives of those.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Scheduling (Or Lack of It)

My school's schedule was set by a drunk. That's the only explanation that allows me to sleep at night. Because if a sober person developed this calendar, and is in an authoritative position, well, I don't want to think about that.

I teach AP classes, where the capstone event is the AP exam. These exams happen during the first two weeks of May. School then continues for two more months.

Well, only for teachers. Seniors get to stop coming to school at the end of May. The other students get to stop at the end of June. Only the faculty has to keep coming to work until July 11th. And we've been told very explicitly, we must be at work until 4 PM on July 8th.

You've got to hand it to those Communists, still sticking with the labor theory of value. If we make our workers be at work, even if they have nothing to do, we make the school better.

There are three major American holidays in summer: Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. If I were overseas and looking to go back to America for a visit, I would target a holiday, when it would be more likely that my friends and family would be available to see me. But our school is in session for all three American summer holidays.

I'm fine with it because I wasn't going to America for the summer, anyway. But this isn't the schedule of a school that wants to increase its appeal among foreign potential teachers.

Kid Nicknames

Our oldest son, Articulate Joe, was very blond, very blue-eyed, and very non-verbal. Our second son, Jerome Jerome the Metronome, is less blond, brown-eyed, left-handed, and has been reading since he was three. Our third son, Screamapilar, is a slightly-more-verbal copy of the first. This is why he calls the youngest [Articulate Joe] Junior. Under the influence of our non-stop reading of the Harry Potter series (we started Book Five last night), I referred to Jerome as Squib [Articulate Joe].

The thing is, the boy already has more nicknames than everyone else in the family combined. It comes from his dislike of nicknames. As a result, he is called Fritz "The Spritz" MacGuillicuddy, 3rd Earl of Tootington (a.k.a. Eyebrows Johnson). Rarely, though, does the entire name get used at once. He's usually just Fritz, Fritzy, Eyebrows, Mr. MacGuillicuddy, or Lord Tootington. Also, because of his terrible morning breath, when I first wake him up, I usually call him Baby Stink Breath. Oh, and when he's especially demanding, like that annoying kid Colin in The Secret Garden, I call him The Little Rajah. I told you, he has a lot of nicknames.

And that's just in seven years' time. By the time he gets married, his wedding invitations are going to require 11x17 paper to fit his entire name.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Keeping Our Friends Close and Our Colleagues Secret

I work in an "international department" in name only. Many, many things happen around here in Chinese instead of English, or at best, in both languages side-by-side. Each office has a sign on the door identifying the workers it contains, with the foreigners' names in Roman letters and the Chinese names in characters. This was how I spent a week e-mailing a guy who, it turns out, sits ten feet away from me. I can't read his name on the door.

I've mentioned to both my boss and his boss that this doesn't breed collegial familiarity. They both agreed and said they would correct it immediately. It's been three months.

This morning, a colleague (he of the bank meltdown) came in my office and asked, "Where does Mrs. Zhao sit?" Now, because the two Chinese women in my office are identified to me only by their English given names, I have no idea who that is. I asked, "Who is that?" His answer: "Mrs. Zhao."

Well, since neither of the Chinese women in my office are married, there's no "Mrs." anything around here, smart-ass. I said, "There's [Name 1] and there's [Name 2]." He said, "Not [Name 1]." I said, "So [Name 2]?" He said, "Yeah, Mrs. Zhao."

When I was IMing my wife about this later, she asked, "Was he all perturbed like he was at the bank?" I answered, "No, he was all friendly about it, like, 'All us friends call each other Mrs., even when we're not married! Wheeeee!'" Then I added, "Full disclosure: he didn't actually SAY 'Wheeeee!' with his mouth, but his flamboyancy said it for him."

Jobs I Didn't Get

My post from last week about which of my connections got me which of my former jobs left me thinking about the jobs I didn't get. So here, to the best of my ability to remember, are the jobs for which I got interviews but didn't get the jobs.

  1. Kinko's: I thought, "I like typing and stuff," so I applied for a job at Kinko's (back when it was a local Ventura County business) to format and print word processing jobs for customers. But just because I knew how to format the types of documents I liked to make didn't mean I knew how to format all the different types of documents customers would need.
  2. WaldenBooks: I barely remember interviewing here, but it seems like the manager wasn't impressed with my lack of ability to recommend books. If someone told me, "I like mysteries," I'd say, "That's cool. They're over there." I guess I was supposed to be able to say, "You should try [some mystery author--I told you my recommendation ability is unimpressive]."
  3. Del Taco: The manager seemed to feel I was overqualified for the fast food industry. I felt I wanted to take home his money. The manager won the argument.
  4. City of Sahuarita, Arizona: I applied to be a city planner there. They didn't hire me. Which might be just as well, as I'm not really sure I know how to say "Sahuarita." Where is the stress in that word? Hua? Ri?
  5. Camden County, Missouri: This isn't a "job I didn't get" so much as a "job I didn't take." They made me an offer, and I turned them down. The distance from Camden County to Springfield would have made finishing my schooling virtually impossible, and without finishing my schooling, I probably wouldn't have been able to get any other job. We (I was married by this point) thought, "If we take this job, it's the job for the rest of my life." And we didn't want to commit to living in rural Missouri for 50 years.
  6. Richmond American Homes: Another job I turned down. They didn't offer enough money to make it worth my while. At least, I thought that at the time. Over the next two years of nearly-broke poverty, I repeatedly questioned that assessment. But I was in graduate school with evening classes and they were very adamant that sometimes I'd have to work evenings with no advance notice and they weren't going to back down on that.
  7. Casey Trees: Not getting this one sucked. I had "set a date" (former Mormon missionaries will know what that means) and my wife discovered this job posting on the date I set. It would have paid about double the Richmond American offer that was too little. I applied, got an interview, and progressed to the short-list interview. And I felt that interview went really well. But I didn't get an offer.
  8. County of Fairfax, Virginia: This one also sucked. More than enough money, good commute and hours for school, and generous benefits. I was going to do GIS work for them. But I'd been out of everyday GIS work for about two years at this point, and the version of their software was one generation newer than what I'd used at my previous job. Part of the interview was completing a task within a given amount of time. I totally screwed it up. In the parking lot I made sure to remind myself that I should have taken the Richmond American job.
  9. Some school in Shenzhen, China: I applied thinking, "Working in China could be fun." I got an interview with a headhunter, and he seemed to like me, but he said the school was looking more for a single person (that's the type of thing you can still get away with over here in China). My family was very opposed to the idea. My children specifically prayed, "Please don't let Daddy get the job in China." And, for a change, our prayers about employment were answered.
  10. Church Education System: If you can't get a job with regular people, maybe it's just people being jerks. But when you can't get a job with your own church, it could be that God doesn't want you to be employed. (Keep that in mind for a later failure.) I applied, I thought the interview went well, my skill set and availability lined up well with what they needed, and I really needed a job by this point. But the dude decided to not hire me. Then, because he was in my stake's leadership, I got to be reminded of my failure every time I saw him at a stake event. Good times.
  11. Koch Foundation: I thought this interview was going very well. One woman on the panel noted I had written that Hayek's Road to Serfdom was an influential book for me. The book had just received some press, but I had read it several years before. I decided to make a joke by saying, "I read it before it was cool." She then asked a pretty intense question about Hayek's meaning. I thought I answered it well, but it was hard to read her reaction. I don't know if they thought I was a pompous jackass who got taken down or if I wasn't. Another job that would have paid well, had benefits, and had a lot of room for future opportunities.
  12. Some tutoring company: Another job I turned down. The commute would have been terrible and I probably wouldn't have been able to finish school. A few years later, the hiring manager requested me as a Facebook friend. I figured it was a result of just requesting everyone she'd ever e-mailed.
  13. Some firm: This job would have involved writing of some kind. I don't remember. I know I already had two other jobs by this point, so I didn't need the work as much. I had to go home and complete an assignment. From the interview, I had decided I didn't really want the job, so I contemplated not doing the assignment, but I did. It passed muster, but I declined the offer.
  14. Virginia Commonwealth University: It sucks when you already have a job and are basically interviewing to continue or receive more work and they turn you down. My first semester at VCU I taught two classes and it was worth the 100-mile commute. My second semester I only had one class. They wanted to know if I was going to come back for a third semester and I basically told them, "Not for only one class." They said, "Well, then, it was good working with you."
  15. BYU-Idaho: I don't want to talk about it.

And now I live in China.

I used to think I interviewed well and my resume was my hold-up. If I could just get the interview, I could get the job. My first interview after I got my associate's degree was the first time that I didn't have to explain why my lack of education was a problem. It was very relaxing. Then, I progressed to where hiring managers often start the interview by commenting on the strength of my resume. I've been told several times, "When we saw your resume, we knew we had to bring you in for an interview." So now when I don't get the job offer, it isn't because they have some hang-up that doesn't allow them to see past my lack of education. Now, they've taken the time to get to know me, and they are fully aware of just how terrible I am. I think I'd rather go back to the old days when I had no degrees at all.

The Value of Time

Here's an article about a guy who decided to Photoshop the original NCC-1701 Enterprise into the J.J. Abrams reboot. This article provides today's evidence of America's worthless decadence:

As Acosta told Wired, each image took an average of eight hours to complete. It was clearly worth it.

Say WHAT?!

Clearly worth it? On what metric of "worth" is it "clearly" worth eight hours to produce a Star Trek picture?

Something is "worth it" if the utility derived from its existence is more than the utility that would have been derived from all other alternative uses of the consumed resources. So only if this was the most productive use of Acosta's time (in terms of happiness produced) is it worth it.

I don't doubt Acosta is happy with the results. After all, he didn't have to do this, but he decided to. That's a powerful case for the argument that he received more utility from this outcome than from his forgone alternative outcomes. But what about the rest of us? Some people will derive pleasure from these pictures, sure. But more pleasure than from his forgone alternatives? Questionable. I think of things that are "clearly worth it" as being so obviously beneficial that there's no room for argument. I don't think Star Trek pictures surpass that threshold. I think there's plenty of room for arguing that perhaps it's not worth eight hours of your time to produce something that nearly all observers will look at for less than five seconds before saying to themselves, "How is this different from every other Star Trek picture?".