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This happened in a dream I had.  We were at a large round table having dinner.  I was talking about pizza and saying something typically smart-ass about how to make good crust.  Krugman was at the other end of the table and overheard.  He jumped in just long enough to reduce my pizza thesis to mere crumbs.  The rest of the guests looked on in pity.

When the party was over, I bumped into him again on the way out.  We had this little conversation:

Krugman:  When.

Jeff:  When what?

K:  No.  When, dude.

J:  I don’t understand you.

K:  I am saying goodbye.

J:  That’s how you say goodbye?

K:  It’s like instead of saying “see you later,” people say just “later.” you’ve heard that right?

J:  Yeah but you said when.

K:  Same thing. I could have said “when we meet again,” but I just said “when.”

J:  But nobody says that.

K:  They do now.

On my way to yoga this afternoon I heard a bit on NPR about the song “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon.  You remember the song, it’s addressed to some mysterious man who wears a fruity scarf and apparently has a big ego.

At the end of the segment there was a query from a listener that packed a punch.  (Paraphrasing the NPR listener)  She sings “I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you?” Why would she sing that?  After all, the song is about him.

At first I thought that the listener just didn’t understand the point of the barb:  She is saying that he is so vain because when he hears a song about someone he assumes it is about him.  But after thinking for awhile, I see that the listener was onto something.

Is it vain to think that a song is about you when indeed it really is about you?  Can you be accused of being vain just for being right?  What if the guy has never before thought a song was about him.  Maybe this was the very first time in his life that he ever thought a song was about him, and he had good reason to because in fact it was about him and indeed all the clues were laid out in previous verses?

She could have sung “I bet you think those other songs, like you know the song about turning brown eyes blue, by Crystal Gayle, or the one by the Carpenters about birds suddenly appearing, you know those songs, I bet you think those songs are about you.  Well I got news for you, they are not.  In fact those singers have never met you, duh.”  But she didn’t.

Even worse, the song clearly accuses its subject of being vain.  If he thinks the song is about him, then he is acknowledging his own vanity.  Certainly the guy gets humility points for recognizing his own vanity, right?

But wait.  The subject knows that Carly knows that the subject’s recognition of himself in Carly’s song is an admission of vanity, and hence an act of humility.  And therefore “I bet you think this song is about you” translates to “I bet you think you are humble.”  And given that, since the subject indeed recognizes himself in the song he is in fact claiming to be humble, an act of sheer vanity.

So Carly’s lyrics cut deep indeed.

(Postscript:  before today I actually thought the song was about me.)

I am a lousy mathematician.  I can’t do algebra.  My eyes glaze over when asked to follow calculations on the board.  And I have a really bad memory.  These are just a few of my keys to success.

Because I have minimal facility with technical arguments I had to learn early on how to translate them into natural language so that I could understand them.  It takes a long time.  And quite often its just impossible to do.  In those cases I have to give up.

But when it works, I come away with a unique way of explaining things that are otherwise “left to the appendix.”  It makes for good seminars.  And it makes teaching time consuming but fun.

Best of all is that enough practice with this and it begins to pay off in research.  I can’t “figure things out” with a pen and pad in front of me.  Instead I start with an intuition, explain it to myself in a natural language, and see where that goes.  Progress usually means formalizing the intuition, seeing some implications on paper, and then retranslating those back, etc. (It helps when I have the talented co-authors I work with.)

I count this liability as a virtue because a) I have to find something to say I am good at, b) being able to explain things in plain language is a valuable skill which I am forced to acquire and c) I’d like to think that it acts as a mild fiddle-filter.  If I try hard and I can’t explain it convincingly it words, I am content to say that it must not be a compelling idea. (Not to say that silly ideas don’t nevertheless sometimes slip through the filter.)

Catch me on the public radio program Marketplace this evening. I will be talking about pinball.

I sat here in Northwestern’s high-tech studio and talked into that thing to Kai Ryssdal.

  1. More than modern equipment, what the studio needs is a few candles and some incense. Also someone to look at me and pretend that everything I am saying is really interesting. A person instantly gains about 10 IQ points whenever he believes somebody is into what they are talking about.
  2. I don’t think I did a very good job but that’s ok. Things like this tend to feel like impending doom to me. I congratulated myself that for the first time in my life I would try to be detached and take note of what impending doom feels like.
  3. Like standing in front of a big class for the first time, or the first job-market seminar, or a first date the overwhelming feeling is that it’s bizarre that anyone would actually care what I am talking about. My advice when you feel that way is to embrace it as an absurd commentary on life and use that thought to help yourself smile your way through it.

The full title of the Dylan tune is “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”  When you have listened to that song as much as I have you start to notice the patterns.  Check out the lyrics.

  1. Two four-line verses with xAyA rhyme scheme, followed by the chorus “Oh Mama, can this really be the end?…”
  2. The first verse in the pair introduces a character and a scene and there is some hint of strangeness about it.  As with a lot of Dylan tunes the character is often a vague literary reference or some generic symbol of authority.  Sometimes both.
  3. The narrator usually first appears in the second verse of the pair, possibly alongside a new character.
  4. In the second half the narrator has some sense of disconnection with the scene/character and
  5. It resolves in the last line with the narrator being tricked and we are left with a feeling of hopelessness or isolation. (the notable exception to this is the 6th verse were the narrator turns the tables on the character, the preacher. still this somehow makes for even more hopelessness.)

For example, the last verse in the song:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb. (#2a)
They all fall there so perfectly,
It all seems so well timed. (#2b)
An’ here I sit so patiently (#3) (#4)
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice. (#5)

You can almost use this as a recipe and write verse after verse of your own.  I have some kind of strange disease that makes me like to do stuff like that, so here goes.  My very own Memphis Blues verse:

Well the barrister wrote to Ahab
Pleading for his vote
And offering to serenade
At the launching of his boat

And the rickshaw driver said to me
Speeding to the dock
“They’ll tempt you with blue oysters
But serve you Brighton Rock.”

Oh, Mama…

Summer is over.  But that’s old news. My buddy Dave maintained a tradition of polling us for the album of the summer around the time that the season was drawing to a close.  Of course in SoCal, summer never really ends, but at some point you have to start climbing the fence to get into the neighborhood pool and that’s as good a demarcation line as any.

The album of the summer is not necessarily one that came out that summer.  Its not even necessary that you listened to it that summer.  But it should be the album that will always remind you of that summer whenever you hear it.  This summer I had my midlife crisis and the background music was Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens.

I spent the first 25 years of my life a few miles from the Pacific Ocean and never really learned to surf.  I am a fine body surfer and boogie boarder but around the time that most of my buddies got into surfing I was spinning my wheels playing chess (I suck.)  I turned 40 last fall and now I live on the shores of Lake Michigan.  There’s no surf here.

Fortunately I spend a month in California in the summer and this summer it was time to learn.  My buddy Dave gave me a surfboard.  It’s about twice as tall as me and weighs more than my 8 year old.  Its also about 5 inches thick which made it impossible for me to get my arm around it to carry it like a regular cool surfer dude.  I looked like a dork carrying it on my head.

But I can’t imagine a better board to learn on.  Its more like a canoe than a surf board.  It was hilarious to me looking at all of these really cool surfer guys sitting on their tiny little boards that sunk from the weight until they were submerged nearly to their shoulders.  Meanwhile I could dip my toes in the water as I lounged around on my Steve Behre (pronounced berry) cruise liner waiting for waves.  Dave said “It’s massive, its dangerous, and its embarrassing but just in terms of having fun surfing… the next one’s going to be a lot better.”  Thanks Dave.

noname

I got myself a wet suit.  The water stays around 70F in San Diego in August so I probably could have got by without one but (again relying on Dave’s advice) since I was going to be surfing in the morning and since, thanks to Steve Behre, my most temperature-sensitive parts would be afloat and exposed to the morning air, I broke down got myself a spring suit.  When I tried it on, the dude at the surf shop (Rusty’s in Del Mar) says “Its a little loose in the arms, but you’ll grow into it.”  He either thought I was 13 years old or he could just tell that I was going to grow tremendous muscles from paddling.

So I was set. Every morning at 5AM I would start my day with these objects:

suit

You will notice the Advil which is pretty much indispensible when you are a 40 year old man trying to paddle a barge through crashing waves by yourself in the dark.  OK not exactly dark, but I was in the water every morning before sunrise.  I would surf until about 7:30 and then head back to the apartment, usually before the kids were awake.  Parenting advice:  arriving at breakfast with your wetsuit on and harrowing surf tales makes you the coolest Dad in the world. Not to mention the tremendous muscles.

I stood up the very first day.  Fleetingly.  By the end of the first week I could consistently catch waves and stand.  They were small waves thankfully.  I was bragging to my buddy Storn and then I got this email back.

If you are just standing in front of the whitewater after the wave has broken then it doesn’t technically count.  (Not that it isn’t fun.)

How did he know??  In my defense, the Steve Queen-Behre was almost impossible to turn.  I guess that’s the tradeoff.  Storn came down from the Bay Area and he brought his board, which while still technically a longboard was about half the width and weight of mine.

storn

We swapped boards and I could actually get my arm around his (that’s me on the left.)  Didn’t catch any waves though.  Turns out that if you want a surfboard with some degree of maneuverability, you also have to paddle with some finesse.   I put that on the todo list for next summer and went back to my trusty Steve Buoy.  (When you can’t catch a wave you can’t ride the last one all the way in.  “The paddle of shame” is what Storn called it.)

That day was the only time I surfed in daylight so I had Jennie bring the camcorder.  Here’s some shredding on video.

Not video of me, mind you, Jennie was too busy making drip castles with the kids.  Anyway, I don’t need help from no jet-ski.  By the end of the month I could turn and ride the shoulder.

Sufjan Stevens was in my CD rotation that whole month.  It’s a powerful album and one that was made to be played before sunrise.  In your rented Toyota Sienna with a boat strapped to the top:

boat

What’s your album of the summer?

If I am of average ability then the things I see people say and do should, on average, be within my capabilities.  But most of the things I see people say and do are far beyond my capabilities.  Therefore I am below average.

The world is divided into creators and collectors.  Creators have the ability to conjure up inspiration and bring something new into the world.  There are not many creators.  The rest of us can be collectors.

Fortunately for us the world creates things for us and we get to experience them.  That’s a beautiful life by itself, but for those of us who want to be creative, it also provides us with a diverse supply of themes, ideas, examples, scenarios, characters… that we can put into our collections.  Then we can categorize, analyze, and recombine them into something that is just as uniquely our own as the brand new things that creators create.

Pharmaceutical research is a great analogy.  There are two ways to create a new physical substance for some purpose.  The first is to focus on the purpose and devote resources to try to synthesize something new.  The second is to gather articles existing in nature and see what they do and how they work and try to utilize them in a new way.

The second approach is easier because you are just collecting stuff that already exists.  Plus, the stuff in nature is certain to be better than what can be created now because it has been under development for eternity.  On the other hand, collecting is less focused on any one purpose.  What you wind up with is just what you find.  The best you can do is direct your search.

(Incidentally, arguments for enviornmental conservation based on genetic diversity translate to arguments for cultural conservation to preserve memetic diversity.)

To be a good collector you decide on themes you are interested in and have some feel for.  Then you keep these themes in your mind and you go around your life always looking for specimens that fit your themes.  And you write them down.  (I email myself.)  It is a life of constant awareness, of intense passivity.

How many of us could write great novels?  Almost none of us could sit down now and create a novel.  But all of us have many years left to collect that novel and write it when the collection is complete.  Decide today what your novel is about.

Never ask a woman if she is pregnant right?  The explanation given to me is that if it turns out she is not pregnant you are in big trouble.  But, what if I keep quiet and she really is pregnant.  Then she’s thinking “he doesn’t think I am pregnant.  That means he thinks I am actually fat in real life.  Bastard.”  So I am not sure I agree with the conventional wisdom here.

Maybe you are just being cautioned against equivocation.  If you ask then you don’t know and whatever the answer is, your uncertainty reveals that you considered it a possibility that she’s fat.  Under this theory the right strategy is to use your best judgement and just come out and pronounce it with no hesitation.

The Unbundled Economy: It’s one of the implications of (my guess at, given that I haven’t actually read) Free, its apparently what Tyler Cowen is talking about in his new book.  As the price of transmitting small chunks of information crashes to zero, the efficient market structure no longer involves assembly and sale of bundles of chunks, but instead sale of the chunks themselves and after-market assembly.

Case in point, the porn industry (which is pretty much always at the leading edge of structural change.)

Vivid, one of the most prominent pornography studios, makes 60 films a year. Three years ago, almost all of them were feature-length films with story lines. Today, more than half are a series of sex scenes, loosely connected by some thread — “vignettes” in the industry vernacular — that can be presented separately online. Other major studios are making similar shifts.

In lieu of plot, there are themes. Among the new releases from New Sensations, a studio that makes 24 movies a month, is “Girls ’n Glasses,” made up of scenes of women having sex while wearing glasses.

But old habits die hard, even in the porn world:

“The feature is not as big a part of the industry today,” Mr. Orenstein said. But he says he still plans two to three bigger-budget releases each year, including the recently shot “2040,” which is about the pornography business of the future. Mr. Orenstein described the movie as “an almost Romeo-and-Juliet story between an aging porn star and a cyborg.”

I came across this philosophy paper (miter missive:  The Browser) which ponders whether the hypothesis of an omnipotent and omniscient God is any more likely to imply that God is good rather than God is evil.

Suppose, for example, that the universe shows clear evidence of having been designed. To conclude, solely on that basis, that the designer is supremely benevolent would be about as unjustified as it would be to conclude that it is, say, supremely malevolent, which clearly would not be justified at all.

The problem always appears at a much more basic level for me.  Suppose you are an omnipotent God.  What do you do?  Obviously to answer that question you should start by identifying all of the feasible alternatives (ok that one is easy, everything is feasible because you are omnipotent), rank them according to your preferences, and do the one that ranks at the top.  Wait a minute.  What are your preferences?

You are omnipotent remember.  Its not just that you get to choose your preferences.  Your preferences do not exist until you create them.  Ok.  So first you choose your preferences then solve the problem of what to do given those preferences.  How do you choose your preferences?  It is no help trying to choose the preferences that are easiest to satisfy blissfully because you are omnipotent.  All preferences are trivial to satisfy blissfully.  But why do you want to want that anyway?  How do you even know what you want to want?  You don’t have any preferences yet right?

So I think that an omnipotent God would be too neruotic to even get out of bed and decide whether to be good or evil.

List the different varieties of animal meat that are sold at a typical grocery.  Then ask for each item on that list what is the fraction of the US population that finds it acceptable to eat it.  The distribution you will map out is not at all smooth.  Most people will either find it acceptable to eat everything on the list or unacceptable to eat anything on the list.

I believe that both mass points are a result of the same phenomenon:  the slippery slope.  Moral rules are vulnerable to creeping margins and unraveling.  If I want to argue that people should not eat meat it is easier to make that argument if I take an absolute stand.  Absolute rules are easier to defend then nuanced rules that define some interior boundary (it is ok to eat animals if and only if they have no feelings) because nuanced rules admit cases that are very similar but fall on opposite sides of the boundary (you mean its ok to eat squid but not octopus?)

Likewise, people who insist that it is ok to eat all meat are usually painted into that corner for similar reasons. To accept that it is not ok to eat veal makes your filet mignon vulnerable.

So the slippery slope of moral negotiation pushes us to extremes where we are on firmer footing.  All sides lose as a result.  Especially those of us who would prefer that fewer animals are eaten.  I was reminded of this point by an article from the Atlantic about “semitarianism:”  proudly taking the middle ground.  Here is an effective passage:

…, recall that even the most fervently ethics-based vegetarianism isn’t really about an ideological purity of all-or-nothing, us-versus-them purism activist groups foster. It’s about reducing animal suffering. Whether one person gives up meat or three people cut out a third, it’s all the same to the cow, and it should be the same to us.

(a little shout-out to Sandeep who is in Tuscany exercising his finnochiana option.)

In an old post, I half-jokingly suggested that the rules of scrabble should be changed to allow the values of tiles to be determined endogenously by competitive bidding.  PhD students, thankfully, are not known for their sense of humor and two of Northwestern’s best, Mallesh Pai and Ben Handel, took me seriously and drafted a set of rules.  Today we played the game for the first time.  (Mallesh couldn’t play because he is traveling and Kane Sweeney joined Ben and me.)

Scrabble normally bores me to tears but I must say this was really fun.  The game works roughly as follows.  At the beginning of the game tiles are turned over in sequence and the players bid on them in a fixed order.  The high bidder gets the tile and subtracts his bid from his total score.  (We started with a score of 100 and ruled out going negative, but this was never binding.  An alternative is to start at zero and allow negative scores.)  After all players have 7 tiles the game begins.  In each round, each player takes a turn but does not draw any tiles at the end of his turn.  At the end of the round, tiles are again turned over in sequence and bidding works just as at the beginning until all players have 7 tiles again, and the next round begins.  Apart from this, the rules are essentially the standard scrabble rules.

Since each players’ tiles are public information, we decided to take memory out of the game and have the players keep their tiles face up.  It also makes for fun kibbitzing.  The complete rules are here.  Share and enjoy!  Here are some notes from our first experiment:

  1. The relative (nominal) values of tiles are way out of line of their true value.  The way to measure this is to compare the “market” price to the nominal value.  If the market price is higher that means that players are willing to give up more points to get the tile than that tile will give them back when played (ignoring tile-multipliers on the board.)  That means that the nominal score is too high.  For example, blanks have a nominal score of zero.  But the market price of a blank in our play was about 20 points.  This is because blanks are “team players:” very valuable in terms of helping you build words.  So, playing by standard scrabble rules with no bidding, if the value of a blank was to be on equal terms with the value of other tiles, blanks should score negative:  you should have to pay to use them.  Other tiles whose value is out of line:  s (too high, should be negative), u(too low), v(too low.)  On the other hand, the rare letters, like X, J, Z, seem to be reasonably scored.
  2. Defense is much more a part of the game.  This is partly because there is more scope for defense by buying tiles to keep them from the opponent, but also in terms of the play because you see the tiles of the opponents.
  3. It is much easier to build 7/8 letter words and use all your tiles.  This should be factored into the bidding.
  4. There are a few elements of bidding strategy that you learn pretty quickly.  They all have to do with comparing the nominal value of the tile up for auction with the option value of losing the current auction and bidding on the next, randomly determined, tile.  This strategy becomes especially interesting when your opponent will win his 7th tile, forcing you the next tile(s) but at a price of zero.
  5. Because the game has much less luck than standard scrabble, differences in ability are amplified.  This explains why Ben kicked our asses.  But with three players, there is an effect which keeps it close:  the bidding tends to favor the player who is behind because the leaders are more willing to allow the trailer to win a key tile than the other leader.

Finally, we have some theoretical questions.  First, suppose there is no lower bound to your score, so that you are never constrained from bidding as much as you value for a tile, the initial score is zero, and there are two players playing optimal strategies.  Is the expected value of the final score equal to zero?  In other words, will all scoring be bid away on average?  Second, to what extent do the nominal values of the tiles matter for the play of the game.  For example, if all values are multiplied by a constant does this leave the optimal strategy unchanged?

The possibility is nearing that you can take a pill and remove some memories.  (This evening I opened a nice bottle of Yangarra Old Vine Grenache 2005 and removed some memories but that doesn’t count because they will come back tomorrow.)

Media treatment of these advances always focuses on enabling us to erase bad memories.  But its not so obvious that bad memories are the ones you want to lose.  Bad memories often serve an important purpose.  They record a lesson learned.  It may be a lesson about what not to do (memories of car accidents after opening a nice bottle of…) It may be a lesson about people not to trust (memories of abuse.)

On the other hand, many good memories just get in the way.  I remember vividly the film Leolo.  But because of that memory I will never get to enjoy that film again.  Likewise I remember the first time I heard Chick Corea’s Children’s Song #6, how to juggle, the end of The Naked and the Dead and the smell of my wife. These are all novelties that are no longer available to me, unless I could erase some good memories.

The good/bad distinction is less important than the following distinction.  Is the memory affecting my decisions or not?  Whether the memory is good or bad, I want to keep it if it encodes an important lesson helping me continue to make good decisions and avoid bad ones.  And I want to erase it if its function is pure consumption.  The bad memories I want to lose forever, the good memories I want to repeat.

I teach undergraduate intermediate microeconomics, a 10 week course that is the second in a two-part seqeunce at Northwestern University.  I have developed a unique approach to intermediate micro based originally on a course designed by my former colleague Kim-Sau Chung.  The goal is to study the main themes of microeconomics from an institution- and in particular market-free approach.  To illustrate what I mean, when I cover public goods, I do not start by showing the inefficiency of market provided public goods.  Instead I ask what are the possibilities and limitations of any institution for providing public goods.  By doing this I illustrate the basic difficulty without confounding it with the additional problems that come from market provision.  I do similar things with externalities, informational asymmetries, and monopoly.

All of this is done using the tools of dominant-strategy mechanism design.  This enables me to talk about basic economic problems in their purest form.  Once we see the problems posed by the environments mentioned above, we investigate efficiency  in the problem of allocating private goods with no externalities.  A cornerstone of the course is a dominant-strategy version of the Myerson-Satterthwaite theorem which shows the basic friction that any institution must overcome.  We then investigate mechanisms for efficient allocation in large economies and we see that the institutions that achieve this begin to resemble markets.

Only at this stage do markets become the primary lens through which to study microeconomics.  We look at a simple model competition among profit-maximizing auctioneers and a sketch of convergence to competitive equilibrium.  Then we finish with a brief look at general equilibrium in pure exchange economies and the welfare theorems.

There is a minimal amount of game theory, mostly just developing the tools necessary to use mechanism design in dominant strategies, but also a side trip into Nash equilibrium and mixed strategies.

In the coming weeks I will be posting here my lecture notes with a brief introduction to the themes of each.  I am distributing these notes under the Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share-alike license.  Briefly, you are free to use these for any non-commercial purpose but you must give credit where credit is due.  And you are free to make any changes you wish, but you must make available your modifications under the same license.

Today I am posting my notes for the first week, on welfare economics.

I begin with welfare economics because I think it is important to address at the very beginning what standard we should be using to evaluate economic institutions.  And students learn a lot from just being confronted with the formal question of what is a sensible welfare standard.  Naturally these lectures build to Arrow’s theorem, first discussing the axioms and motivating them and then stating the impossibility result.  In previous years I would present a proof of Arrow’s theorem but recently I have stopped doing that because it is time consuming and bogs the course down at an early stage.  This is one of the casualties of the quarter system.

Something I watched recently made me want to write on a topic that I have no interest in and only passing experience with, but which is intriguing once you think about it for a moment.  I decided I would blog about the first such thing I could come up with.  After thinking for more than a few moments the first thing I came up with fitting this description was:

Barbicide. It’s that blue liquid that every barber/hair salon uses to store combs and scissors, presumably to disinfect it in some way.  Before reading that Wikipedia article, some obvious questions about Barbicide come to mind:

  1. Is there really no competition for Barbicide?  How do they maintain their monopoly?  There doesn’t seem to be a monopoly on the combs or the scissors, just the blue liquid that cleans them.
  2. Why always blue?  Presumably it is some kind of branding.  Does Barbicide have a patent/copyright on that particular shade of blue?
  3. The name suggests that it is a special chemical agent for killing some kind of mythical organism whose name has the root Barbi-.  But I don’t believe that.  In fact, I believe that Barbicide is just de-natured alcohol colored blue.  But I must be wrong right?
  4. How often do you have to change a jar of Barbicide?

The wikipedia article didn’t answer many of these questions but it did say something about 3.  In fact barbicide

… is a United States Environmental Protection Agency-approved hospital disinfectant. It is a germicide, pseudomonacide, fungicide, and viricide. In addition, it kills the HIV-1 virus (AIDS virus), Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.

And it raised new questions.  Like, is it true as “Barbicide techinicians claim” that

it is the only disinfectant of its kind which holds its power and color over time; all of its competitors’ products eventually turn green or brown.

?  That at least tells me that there are indeed competitors and presumably they are all blue (at first.)  I checked the Barbicide Material Safety Data Sheet, a document prepared by OSHA and confirmed that alcohol is the primary active ingredient, although it also contains Dimethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride (DBAC), and Sodium Nitrite.  I checked the Wikipedia page for DBAC and found some uninteresting (to me) facts like that it is a

nitrogenous cationic surface-acting agent belonging to the quaternary ammonium group

and some interesting facts like that it is toxic to fish.  Apparently it is not patented.  So Barbicide must be a patented formula combining these chemicals in some specific proportions with other, presumably blue, chemicals.

I went to the homepage for Barbicide.  Did you know that a jar of Barbicide is in the permanent collection at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution?  Now you do.  King Research, which produces Barbicide also makes other products, for example a drain cleaner that apparently excels at breaking down hair clogs. Natch.

I found this discussion forum where exactly my question 4 was raised and after many forum members professed ignorance, a call was placed directly to King Research who suggest replacing it every day, or when it gets cloudy.  This surprised me because when you factor in the claims of the Barbicide technicians, it seems to suggest that the competitor’s product turns brown or green in less than a day.  Well, no wonder they can’t compete.

Finally, I assumed that somewhere there must be a dark side to all of this, so I googled “Against Barbicide” and “Barbicide Controversies” and after many such attempts I finally came across the following transcript of a case from the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in which Barbicide was allegedly improperly used to sanitize a tub used in a pedicure:

Ms. Detraz demonstrated that Virgin Nails did not follow proper sanitization procedures when cleaning its equipment, specifically the pedicure tub in which Ms. Detraz immersed her feet and lower legs during the pedicure.  Virgin Nails used Barbicide, a disinfectant, to clean the whirlpool tubs attached to the pedicure chairs.

So, I learned a lot and it is not all for naught.  I think that I might actually have an interesting topic of conversation the next time I get my haircut.

One of my favorite blogs, Mindhacks, has a post about perfectionism and depression.  An article from the Boston Globe is quoted.

“Perfectionism is a phobia of mistake-making,” said Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, which is based in Boston. “It is the feeling that ‘If I make a mistake, it will be catastrophic.’ ”

Striving for perfection is fine, said Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost, a leading researcher on perfectionism. The issue is how you interpret your own inevitable mistakes and failings. Do they make you feel bad about yourself in a global sense? Does a missed shot in tennis make you slam your racket to the ground? Do you think anything less than 100 percent might as well be zero?

I think this is a somewhat superficial interpretation of perfectionism.  Its too easy to say that someone is a perfectionist because they are afraid of making mistakes.  De Gustibus. I think the deeper source of perfectionism is more subtle and also easier to rehabilitate.

Ironically, perfectionists are not people who have high standards.  Instead, I think a perfectionist is someone who doesn’t trust his own judgement.  There is only one way to do something perfectly, but there are infintely many ways to do it imperfectly.  Sacrificing perfection means making a decision about which imperfection to allow.  So striving for perfection is just a cover for shrinking from decision.

On the other hand, people who are comfortable with imperfection are people who know what works.  People who lack confidence in their judgement of what works insist on perfectionism because that covers all the bases.  And these people never get the opportunity to learn what works because their perfectionism prevents them from experimenting.

Of course perfection is usually impossible but what happens in this case to the perfectionist is that their final product is what’s left when they give up rather than what they carefully planned.  This usually doesn’t work and this further deteriorates the perfectionist’s confidence in his ability to do the second-best.

When my wife, a rational agent, is preparing to welcome our monthly visitor, she is confronted by a preliminary wave of unwelcome hormones.  The proximate effect of these hormones is to make her a tad more grouchy than she normally is about otherwise mundane events. But because my wife is a rational agent, presumably she is able to forecast this effect and account for it.  In other words, when she has the impulse to feel perturbed about some minor calamity she reasons that her impulse is likely an artificial response brought on by the fluctuating chemistry in her brain.  And this reasoning would lead her to moderate her emotional response.

Indeed I have witnessed my dear wife execute exactly these calculations.  When this happens, the household is always most appreciative.  Sadly, it doesn’t always happen.

My theory therefore is that what is happening is not a uniform variation in the hormonal level, but rather a spike in hormonal volatility that forces my wife into a signal-extraction problem that is inherently prone to error.  For example, when her absent-minded husband leaves the lights on in the kitchen and she detects, in response, an oncoming alteration in her mood, she must determine whether this minor offence is something she would ordinarily be upset about.  My theory is that hormone volatility makes it hard to know exactly the current hormonal level and therefore difficult to back out the baseline appropriate degree of aggravation (in this case, i would argue, none at all.)

And thus hormones, an otherwise purely nominal variable, can have real (cyclical) effects.

Genetic evolution is a clumsy way to adapt to a changing environment.  Our genes were presumably shaped by very different conditions than we face now.  Why wouldn’t natural selection favor organisms who can adapt to current conditions and pass on these adaptations to their children?  Wouldn’t we be more fit if Lamarck was right and if so, why was he so wrong?

Turns out he wasn’t so wrong after all.

This was the first evidence, now confirmed multiple times, that an experience of the mother (what she eats) can reach into the DNA in her eggs and alter the genes her pups inherit. “There can be a molecular memory of the parent’s experience, in this case diet,” says Emma Whitelaw of Queensland Institute of Medical Research, who did the first of these mouse studies. “It fits with Lamarck because it’s the inheritance of a trait the parent acquired. There is even some evidence that the diet of a pregnant mouse can affect not only her offspring’s coat color, but that of later generations.”

That is from an article in Newsweek on epigenetics.  Here is more.  And here is a blog about epigenetics.

This raises the theoretical question:  if you were to design the system of inheritance, where would it be optimal to draw the line between those characteristics that should be hard-wired in genes and those that can adapt at higher frequencies?  And wouldn’t that depend on the environment?  So would the line be hard-wired or epigenetic?  And which side of the line is that trait on?

Ever notice how when you are in a crowded resataurant, say, and there is a general rumble of conversation and you are enjoying your lunch and not paying attention to any of it and then suddenly a word or phrase jumps out?  It is usually a phrase that you have some special familiarity with like maybe the name of somebody you know or a subject you have some connection to. As soon as you hear it, it grabs your attention and yanks you out of your daydream.

It is as if in the background your brain all along has been monitoring everything going on around you and filtering all of the noise until it notices something relevant it wakes up and tunes in.  That’s very interesting because it means that there is so much information that you are processing without ever being conscious of it.  That’s a lot of untapped processing power going on in everyone’s head at all times.  (This is saying more than the usual observation that our senses take in a lot of information that we do not process.  Because in order for your brain to do this, it has to actually interpret the words that it is taking in and connect it to stored memories.  So this is real thinking and learning that is happening without us paying attention.)

But here’s the really interesting thing.  Your brain is taking you ever-so-slightly back in time.  When this happens (pay close attention the next time it happens to you) you do not have the sense that ‘oh while i was busy studying my salad someobody just said “Garrison Keillor” .’  Instead you hear the phrase in real time.  It is as if your brain knew in advance that something interesting was about to be said and woke you up just in time to hear it.  But of course that is an illusion.

(I have taken to titling my posts in the style of an Alinea dish.)

I was reading one recent morning to my 2 year old boy a story from Frog and Toad.  In this story, Toad is grumpy about Winter but Frog talks him into coming for a sleigh ride.  Once the sleigh gets going really fast, Toad begins to forget all of his complaints and enjoy the ride.  Unbeknownst to Toad, Frog is knocked off the back of the sleigh as the sleigh starts to hurtle faster and faster down the hill.  Despite the sleigh being without a driver and completely out of control, Toad begins to feel more and more secure and at peace with the Winter.

Of course, something is going to happen to bring it all crashing down on Toad.  In fact, what happens is not that the sled crashes into a tree, at least not yet.  What happens is a crow flies by and upon hearing Toad describe what a wonderful ride he and Frog are having, points out to Toad that Frog is not behind him anymore.  Its only after learning that there is nobody at the wheel does Toad panic and cause the sleigh to crash.

This is a recurrent theme in children’s literature.  I think the quintessential expression of it is from the cartoons, especially the roadrunner/coyote cartoons.  Here is the image.  Coyote is chasing roadrunner through some rugged canyonland along a steep ridge and the chase brings Coyote to a cliff.  He is so focussed on finally nabbing the roadrunner that he does not notice that he has run off the cliff.  He keeps running.  In mid-air.  But then at some point he looks down and notices that there is no ground beneath his feet and at that moment that he falls to back to Earth.  (At which point he turns to the next page in his ACME catalog and the chase is on again…)

If you run off a cliff you should make sure you are running fast and that the opposing cliff is not too far.  It also helps to be like the roadunner: looking down is not in his nature and he always makes it to the other side.

I think of Obama’s first 100 days as running off a cliff.  We have a pretty good running start.  So far we are not looking down.  I hope we get to the other side before somebody does.  And please, pay no attention to the crows.

And the same for food critics/wine tasters.  Also, wine tasters generally drink in moderation whereas chefs and food critics have been known to carry a little extra weight.

In both cases, the choice of profession has revealed a taste for the respective delicacy.  Winemakers love the taste of wine, chefs love the taste of food.  And, as demonstrated by wine tasters, you can taste without consuming, and you can partake without consuming to excess.  The wine tasters manage to achieve this but the chefs do not.

Evolution has given us taste as an incentive to acquire necessary nutrients.  Pleasant taste is our reward for consuming.  Presumably, sometimes we might prefer to consume less (maybe more) than what Mother Nature would prefer, so she gives us the sense of taste so that we internalize her preference.  But we try to find ways to manipulate her incentive scheme and get this taste without consuming a lot, or even at all, viz. the wine taster.

Mother Nature is perfectly content to allow us to taste but not consume wine if we see fit.  But when it comes to food, she insists that she knows better than us and she will not let us get away with just a nibble.  As with the taste of wine, the taste of food draws us in, and we expect to have just a taste.  But once the food is in front of us, the trap is set and she deploys her most powerful weapon: temptation that cannot be overcome.

An evolutionary explanation of time-inconsistency and a preference for commitment, a’la Samuelson and Swinkels.

I have disturbing condition that needs a bill of rights and a support group, at the very least it needs medical terminology.  You know those “motion activated” faucets and towel dispensers that are now ubiquitous in public facilities?   They don’t work for me.  Well, at least 30% of the time they act as if I do not exist.  I wave my hands in front of the fixture and nothing happens.  I show it my palms, my wrists, my fingernails.  I clap, jump up and down, step out of and then jump back into its line of sight and nothing happens.

Sometimes  showing the right body part does the trick, other times a shoe or my phone has to be pressed into service.  It gets really embarrassing when I am standing there dripping and I have to ask a total stranger to repeatedly trigger the air-drying device on my behalf.  This is not an option at the hand-washing stage when all of the faucets are activated by infrared sensor.

The engineers who designed these devices must be aware from pre-market testing that there is a small segment of the population that is deficient in motion-activating-aura.  You would think that they would equip the devices with some fallback analog instrumentation, but no, we the unreflective, the hypo-present, the less-than-solid,  we are subjected to the tyranny of digital sanitation and the mockery of little infrared panels that stare back at us like HAL9000 saying “I wouldn’t do that if I were you Dave” as we sneak back into the stall to dry our hands with toilet paper.

The worst part of being a member of the infra-undead is that its a condition that seems to ebb and flow.  And that is a disaster when you are sitting on a toilet that is flushed by motion-activation.  If you think about it for a moment you will understand what I mean.

This post suggests that data on suicide seasonality debunks the myth of “winter blues.”  Most studies show that suicide rates peak in the Spring suggesting that Spring is a more depressing season than Winter.  But to make this inference we need a model of the optimal timing of suicide.

Suppose that your emotional well-being is a stochastic process which is mixed with a seasonal trend.  If Winter makes everyone unhappy, then this transient shock confounds the movements in the underlying stochastic process. You are not able to uncover the realization of your emotional random walk until after Winter is over and the seasonal component has washed away.

So you are really depressed in the winter but you are willing to wait it out to find out how you feel in the Spring. If Spring arrives and you are still depressed, you know you are riding a permanent shock.  Thus, the spike in suicides in the Spring actually proves that Winter is indeed the most depressing season.

Most of us define ourselves by the ways we differ from others.  More accurately, by the ways we think we differ from others.  A lot of the time we are just wrong about ourselves and especially about how we compare with others.

Here is a good test of how well-calibrated is your self-perception.  Do you like your friends’ friends?  Since your friends like you (presumably) and also like their other friends, it follows that you are likely to be more similar to your friends’ friends than you are to your friends.  And so how you feel about them says a lot about how you really feel about yourself, and its often different than how you tell yourself you feel about yourself.

(This trick doesn’t work for SO’s SO.  Because your SO’s past SO is likely to be very different from you since she learned from her mistake.  And if its your SO’s current (other) SO, then for obvious reasons you are probably not able to make a levelheaded judgment about whether you like him.)

It has some surprising implications.  If you are someone who tends to feel superior to others, then you should like your friends’ friends, in fact you should on average feel inferior to them.  If you don’t then you are mistaken about your superiority, at least according to the standard you apply.  And if you are someone who tends to feel inferior, and you find that you like your friends’ friends, then you are probably not as bad as you think.

Now tell me what it means when your friends’ friends don’t like you.

We spent the last week trying to think of a name for this blog. Because Sandeep has bad taste lots of really good names were rejected and we in the end settled for an ok but not great name, Cheap Talk.

This blog-christening process points out an important asymmetry in the creative process. It is much easier to think up interesting names for *some* blog than it is to think up names for this particular blog and these particular bloggers.

For example, some bloggers, somewhere in the blogosphere would love the name “Vapor Mill.” It’s a pun on “Paper Mill” which, especially for academics, suggests productivity. But “Paper” is replaced by “Vapor” which turns it into a symbol for fanciful and ultimately useless ideas.

But those bloggers are almost surely not going to think of that phrase if they just sit down and search their brains. I am not saying it takes great creativity to come up with it. Its almost purely accidental. But that accident happened to me and not to them and unless the name finds them there is lost welfare.

Yes the welfare loss is tiny but every time you have a specific purpose that you are looking for an idea to fit just right you come up with many good ideas that don’t quite fit your specific purpose but would be really great for somebody else’s purpose and each time a valuable thing just disappears. It adds up.

I guess its an argument for the space program and all of the resulting Tang that comes with it.

Hey, that’s a great name for a blog!:  Tang.

(appendix: I hate the word blogosphere and I can’t believe that I only lasted one post in my short blogging career before I had to use it.)

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