You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘california’ tag.

He died earlier this week.  If you grew up in Southern California, and you watched TV, you may have forgotten Cal Worthington but his dog Spot, the acres and acres of cars, the “Go See Cal”, the giant selection of cars and trucks on sale, the “open every day til midnight” and the music in the way “nineteen” springboarded the cars vintage out of your set and into your ears are all still stored away in some synapses somewhere in there and they’re all gonna come flowing out when you watch this video and probably bring with them a whole bunch of other stuff lost in there that you are gonna be pretty tickled to find again.  RIP Cal Worthington.


Check out these pictures of bodysurfers ducking under waves.

I grew up body surfing and boogie boarding in Southern California.  Riding waves is exhilarating and its the #1 reason you are there but there’s one other unforgettable experience that comes with it and that’s ducking under a passing wave.

A crashing wave is an awesomely powerful thing.  So its such an incredible feeling of freedom that with just a little agility and perfect timing you can get yourself down below a 1 or 2 foot protective layer of water where all of that massive power can only just roll over you at most gently rocking you forward and back.  And then you pop right back up to the surface to get ready for the next one.

With bodysurfing this is everything:  ducking under waves until you are in position to catch just the right one.  With boogie boarding there’s a little bit of paddling in between but the board is still small and light enough that when necessary you can get under even the most threatening wave.

But for sure the hardest thing about surfing is that this manoeuver is no longer available to you.  For one thing you would be putting others in danger if you bail off the board and let the wave throw it around.  But anyway the board is so bulky that the wave is going to drag you along with it.

Forget about learning to ride a wave.  That’s as easy as anything else when you can get enough repetitions in.  The bloody hard thing about surfing is that it can take months to get that many repetitions in because every time you fall you have to paddle back out through those waves.  Yeah there are still tricks (turtle roll, duck dive), but even getting good enough at those for them to be useful takes weeks. The first few weeks you are lucky to get into position for 1 or 2 shots per session at actually catching a wave.

Chullo chortle:  Kottke.

The Magic Kingdom of Data:

The Walt Disney Co. recently announced its intention to “evolve” the experience of its theme park guests with the ultimate goal of giving everyone an RFID-enabled bracelet to transform their every move through the company’s parks and hotels into a steady stream of information for the company’s databases.

…Tracking the flow through the parks will come next. Right now, the park prints out pieces of paper called “FastPasses” to let people get reservations to ride. The wristbands and golden orbs will replace these slips of paper and most of everything else. Every reservation, every purchase, every ride on Dumbo, and maybe every step is waiting to be noticed, recorded, and stored away in a vast database. If you add up the movements and actions, it’s easy to imagine leaving a trail of hundreds of thousands of bytes of data after just one day in the park. That’s a rack of terabyte drives just to record this.

Theory question:  Suppose Disney develops a more efficient rationing system than the current one with queues and then adjusts the price to enter the park optimally.  In the end will your waiting time go up or down?

Eartip:  Drew Conway

When I was back home over Winter Break my Mom tried to get me to throw away all the old papers and junk that I left behind in a box but it didn’t work.  Still I rummaged through and I found this gem.  Its an essay assignment in a Freshman history class about racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  This is very typical of my work in college.  The grader’s comments in red are especially entertaining, again quite typical.

It’s the canonical example of reference-dependent happiness. Someone from the Midwest imagines how much happier he would be in California but when he finally has the chance to move there he finds that he is just as miserable as he was before.

But can it be explained by a simple selection effect? Suppose that everyone who lives in the Midwest gets a noisy but unbiased signal of how happy they would be in California. Some overestimate how happy they would be and some underestimate it. Then they get random opportunities to move. Who is going to take that opportunity? Those who overestimate how happy they will be.  And so when they arrive they are disappointed.

It also explains why people who are forced to leave California, say for job-related reasons, are pleasantly surprised at how happy they can be in the Midwest. Since they hadn’t moved voluntarily already, its likely that they underestimated how happy they would be.

These must be special cases of this paper by Eric van den Steen, and its similar to the logic behind Lazear’s theory behind the Peter Principle.  (For the latter link I thank Adriana Lleras-Muney.)

In academia, Americans are a small minority of your colleagues.  And so very frequently the conversation turns to the subject of American public schools.  Europeans, Asians, even Canadians are deeply suspicious about the quality of education in American public schools.  All but a few of them put their kids in private schools.

As for the Americans, while they also favor private schools more than the typical non-academic family, still a majority of them happily enroll their kids in public schools.

And the conversation about schools is remarkable because there is general agreement about the facts but polarized opinions about their consequences.  American public schools are less rigorous, less challenging, and less disciplined; they are more focused on socialization, “creativity” and self-esteem.  For the Europeans these are the weaknesses and for Americans these are the strengths.  (Of course I am exaggerating the polarization but not by a lot.)

Having been involved in countless variations of this debate I have finally figured out why its so entrenched:  both sides are right.

Academics are a highly selected set of people.  Many accidents have to happen to produce someone with the qualities and preferences leading them here.  The type of education you had must have matched perfectly the type of person you are for all of that to come together.  And since people come in different types, they require different styles of education to succeed.

This explains a lot when you look backwards through that process.  An American who survived the American public school system and wound up in academia is almost surely someone for whom that system works well.  And a European who succeeded did so precisely because he didn’t go to schools like that.  This is not saying that Europeans wouldn’t benefit from wishy-washy American schools, just that all of the Eurpoeans who would have didn’t get that and so they didn’t turn out as successful as the Europeans whose schools matched their type.

And so European parents look at American schools and rightly see that those schools would have been a disaster for them.  They extrapolate to their kids and conclude, rightly or wrongly, that their kids should avoid American public schools.    American parents, just as rightly, see the opposite.

(Trivia:  I am a product of public schools.  Here are some of my better-known classmates.  See if you can guess which one I got in a fight with in junior high.)

If you think about pain as an incentive mechanism to stop you from hurting yourself there are some properties that would follow from that.

When I was pierced by a stingray, the pain was outrageous. The puncture went deep into my foot and that of course hurts but the real pain came from the venom-laden sheath that is left behind when the barb is removed. Funny thing about the venom is that it is protein based and it can be neutralized by denaturing the protein, essentially changing its structure by “cooking” it as you would a raw egg.

How do you cook the venom when it is inside your foot? You don’t pee on it unless you are making a joke on a sitcom (and that’s a jellyfish anyway.) What you do is plunge your foot is scalding hot water raising the internal temperature enough to denature the venom inside. Here’s what happens when you do that. Immediately you feel dramatic relief from the pain. But not long after that you begin to notice that your foot is submerged in scalding hot water and that is bloody painful.

So you take it out. Then you feel the nerve-numbing pain from the venom return to the fore. Back in. Relief, burning hot water, back out. Etc. Over and over again until you have cooked all the venom and you are done. In all about 4 hours of soaking.

A good incentive scheme is reference-dependent. There’s no absolute zero. Zero is whatever baseline you are currently at and rewards/penalties incentivize improvement relative to the baseline. When the venom was the most dangerous thing, the scalding hot water was painless. Once the danger from the venom was reduced, the hot water became the focus of pain. And back and forth.

Second Observation.  After three weeks of surfing (minus a couple of days robbed by my stingray friend) I came away with a sore shoulder.  Rotator cuff injuries are common among surfers, especially over the hill surfers who don’t exercise enough the other 11 months of the year.  The interesting thing about a rotator cuff injury is that the pain is felt in the upper shoulder, not at the site of the injury which is more in the area of the shoulder blade.  It’s referred pain.

In a moral hazard framework the principal decides which signals to use to trigger rewards and penalties.  Direct signals of success or failure are not necessarily the optimal ones to use because success and failure can happen by accident too.  The optimal signal is the one that is most informative that the agent took the appropriate effort.  Referred pain must be based on a similar principle.  Rotator cuff injuries occur because of poor alignment in the shoulder resulting in an inefficient mix of muscles doing the work.  Even though its the rotator cuff that is injured, the use of the upper shoulder is a strong signal that you are going to worsen the injury.  It may be optimal to penalize that directly rather than associate the pain with the underlying injury.

(Drawing:  Scale Up Machine Fail, from

  1. Stingrays hurt.
  2. A lot.
  3. I could use a pedicure.

The weather in Chicago sucks but at least there are real seasons (there’s only one in SoCal where I am from.)  Here’s a thought about seasons.

Everything gets old after a while. No matter how much you love it at first, after a while you are bored. So you stop doing it.  But then after time passes and you haven’t done it for a while it gets some novelty back and you are willing to do it again.  So you tend to go through on-off phases with your hobbies and activities.

But some activities can only be fun if enough other people are doing it too. Say going to the park for a pickup soccer game.  There’s not going to be a game if nobody is there.

We could start with everyone doing it and that’s fun, but like everything else it starts to get old for some people and they cut back and before long its not much of a pickup game.

Now, unlike your solo hobbies, when the novelty comes back you go out to the field but nobody is there. This happens at random times for each person until we reach a state where everybody is keen for a regular pickup game again but there’s no game.  What’s needed is a coordination device to get everyone out on the field again.

Seasons are a coordination device.  At the beginning of summer everyone gets out and does that thing that they have been waiting since last year to do. Sure, by the end of the season it gets old but that’s ok summer is over.  The beginning of next summer is the coordination device that gets us all out doing it again.

Hume has been locked out of the room and he is not allowed to re-enter in the form of Parfit having a dialogue with Cho and Kreps.

That’s from Tyler’s review of a book called On What Matters Vol. I (a title, which in my opinion can be gainfully edited down to “SW Swell.”)

Barack Obama was not the first to wear flip flops in the Oval Office:

That and other flip flop trivia here.

I wore exclusively flip flops up until the time I moved to the Midwest.  My standby ride was the 99 cent pair found at the pharmacy checkout line. They would disintegrate in about a month but 12 bucks for a year of footwear is like Divine Grace. As a bonus, that day when the stem blows out and you wind up dragging the rubber carcass around is bound to attract some fun conversations.

My high water mark came in the 9th grade which saw the greatest innovation in flip flop history:  Cheap Charlie’s Sole Suckers. These are nothing more than slabs of polyurethane that you literally glue to the bottom of your feet.  No flipping, no flopping. (Also, it turns out no running, skateboarding, stepping in puddles, or being victimized by the dreaded flat tire else you destroy the fragile adhesive and spend the rest of the day barefoot and sticking to dirt, shag carpet, NoDoz, PeeChees, Djarums, NoSkote, bus fare, bottlecap rebuses, Rocky Horror rice, Galaga, duct tape, Space Shuttle debris, jacuzzi bubbles, and hall passes.)

I passed through the flojo phase, and now I am a shamelessly gentrified Reef-o-phile once the temperature rises above 60F which in Chicago is the day before it rises above 80F.

Porkpie plié:  Courtney Conklin Knapp.

The demographic changes that have swept the county reflect what is happening across the state and much of the nation. It has happened slowly but surely over the course of a generation, becoming increasingly apparent not only in a drive through the 34 cities that fill this sprawling 789-square-mile county south of Los Angeles, but also, most recently, in the results of a presidential election. In 2008,Barack Obama drew 48 percent of the vote here against Senator John McCain of Arizona. (By comparison, in 1980,Jimmy Carter received just 23 percent against Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero whose election as California governor in 1966 and 1970 was boosted in no small part by the affection for him here.)

The article focuses on changes in ethnic composition but my sense is that a lot has to do with generational differences as well.  During its rapid growth the people who lived there were the people who chose to move there, plus their kids.  Their kids didn’t make that choice and so they are more of a random sample.  Plus they naturally rebelled against the conservative culture that their parents created.

I thank Matt DeBeer for the pointer.

  1. They are presumably sitting on a mountain of internal research on the science of herding people efficiently. My favorite example was how they seat people for Captain EO.  One entire side of the theater opens up and people are naturally guided in lines that form parallel to the rows and eventually feed into them.  The whole process takes about 1 minute to seat about 500 people.  The host asks those in the front of the lines to go 2/3 of the way down.  They know that a request to go all the way to the edge would be ignored so they offer a compromise which is mostly honored.
  2. There is now a system called “fastpass” which allows you to reserve a time 1-2 hours later when you are able to bypass nearly all of the line.  The efficiency doesn’t come from allowing people to take more rides.  The easy way to see that is to note that each ride runs a fixed number of times in a day and if every ride has a line all day then the total number of rides taken is that fixed number.  Rather the efficiency comes from allowing patrons to spend less time in line (and more time in the gift shops.)
  3. The cars in Autopia must have been grandfathered by the California legislature because they still burn fossil fuels and would not pass California emissions standards.
  4. They are the residual claimant for just about anything that goes wrong for their patrons.  Not surprisingly we have never been to a restaurant anywhere near as knowledgeable and accommodating for my son’s food allergies.
  5. The debate about whether commercial developers provide the socially optimal level of public parking could be informed by comparing the number of restrooms per square foot on Main Street in Disneyland, to say Broadway.
  6. Some rides have lines that fork and you have to commit to one branch without full knowledge of the relative wait times.  Pick the side with the most shade.  Not just because shade is good, but also because people cluster in the shady sopts reducing the total density and making the wait time shorter per fixed line length.
  7. I got RSI from the Buzz Lightyear “ride.”

We planned to have a quick bite at the cafe before spending the afternoon at the California Academy of Sciences, an aquarium/science museum in Golden Gate Park.  But when we walked in we knew right away that we would be spending at least as much time in the cafe as in the museum.

Freshly prepared fast food from many cuisines.  It’s San Francisco on a plastic tray.  We had tofu and cauliflower curry with brown rice, an hierloom tomato salad, barbecued ribs, carnitas tacos, Pho, steamed pork buns, and blackberry agua fresca.  This fed 7 of us and cost about 70 bucks.  With more time we could have doubled that.

The stalls are organized by cooking style rather than cuisine.  “Steamed,” “Slow-Cooked,” etc.  Many of the stalls have cooks stationed behind who will prepare the food on the spot.  Here’s the guy making the tomato salad:

Be careful to skip the first cafe you see from the entrance to the building.  It’s inviting because it has terrace seating but your resistance is rewarded.  There is a sit-down restaurant downstairs which will be our dinner destination the next time we come (without kids.)

The museum?  Brilliant.  It has a rain forest.  The aquarium dominates Chicago’s Shedd despite being only 1/8 of the size.  We spent 3 hours there and didn’t even make it to the planetarium.  Next time.

In San Francisco no less

San Francisco has been working on making parking “smarter” for quite a while now, and it’s just recently taken another big step in that direction by starting to replace over 5,000 older parking meters with the snazzy new model pictured above. Those will not only let you pay with a credit or debit card (and soon a special SFMTA card), but automatically adjust parking rates based on supply and demand, which means you could pay anywhere from $0.25 to $6.00 an hour depending on how many free spaces there are. Those rates are determined with the aid of some sensors that keep a constant watch on parking spaces, which also means you’ll be able to check for free spaces in an area on your phone or your computer before you even leave the house.

fedora flip:  rob jefferson.

I went through a long showdown with tendonitis of the hamstring.  At its worst it was a constant source of discomfort that occupied at least a fraction of my attention at all times.  I knew that I had to heal before I would get back my to usual smiling happy self.  So I worked hard, stretching, walking, running: rehabilitating.

My hamstring doesn’t bother me much anymore.  But you know what?  Now that it no longer dominates the focus of my attention, I am reminded that my back hurts, as it always has.  But I had completely forgotten about that for the last year or so because during that time it didn’t hurt.

So I am not the content, distraction-free person I expected to be.  Now that I have solved the hamstring problem my current distractions draw my attention to the next health-related job:  keep my back strong, flexible, and pain-free.

This is a version of the focusing illusion.  People are motivated by expected psychological rewards that never come.  The classic story is moving to California.  People in Michigan declare that they would be much happier if they lived in California, but as it turns out people in California just about as miserable as people who still live in Michigan.

Pain and pleasure make up the compensation package in Nature’s incentive scheme.  Our attention is focused on what needs to be done using the lure of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.  And if it feels like she is repeatedly moving the goal posts, that may be all part of the plan according to a new paper by Arthur Robson and Larry Samuelson.

They model the way evolution shapes our preferences based on two constraints: a) there’s a limit to how happy or unhappy we can be and b) emotional states are noisy.  Emotions will evolve into an optimal mechanism for guiding us to the best decisions.  Following the pioneering research of Luis Rayo and Gary Becker,  they show that the most effective way to motivate us within these constraints is to use extreme rewards and penalties.  If we meet the target, even by just a little, we are maximally happy.  If we fall short, we are miserable.

This is the seed of a focussing illusion.  Because after I heal my hamstring Nature again needs the full range of emotions to motivate me to take care of my back.  So after the briefest period of relief, she quickly resets me back to zero, threatening once again misery if I don’t attend to the next item on the list. If I move to California, I enjoy a fleeting glimpse of my sought-after paradise before she re-calibrates my utility function, so that now I have to learn to surf before she’ll give me another taste.

Tyler (you can call him T, you can call him C, you can call him TC, you can call him Professor TC, you can call him Dr. Ty, you can call him Ty Cow, you can call him Tyce, you can call him T-Dice, you can call him Dr. T Dice Disco Dorang…) asks how California might redesign its constitution.

The underlying problem here is that California is simply a beautiful place to live.  It’s not just the climate, or the people, or the geography.  It’s that something floating around in the air that just makes you happy all the time you are there.  And then the second problem is that there is free entry.

So it really doesn’t matter what you do with the constitution.  You can fix the referendum system, you could change the budget process,  you could turn the government into Singapore.  But that only means that something else has to get hosed to bring the quality of life again back down to the level that maintains the zero-rent equilibrium condition with free entry.

Given that the question boils down to which part of California do you want to screw up in order to achieve that?  This is mostly a distributional question.  Bad state government saps rents in one way.  Give those back and bad local governments will do just fine to take up the slack.

Of course all that is really required for equilibrium is that the quality of life of the marginal resident (or resident-to-be) is sufficiently low.  This is completely consistent with high average quality of life but its not clear to me why a well-functioning government would be better at achieving such a distribution than the one they’ve got now.  That is, who but the marginal resident is more affected by high taxes and dysfunctional government?

(The cheapest way to target the marginal resident is to make it infinitely costly to enter.  But that gives huge rents to those lucky enough to live there already and the temptation to take those away would be too great for any government.)

As a SoCal transplant to the Midwest I have had two very different experiences with weather.  Growing up, I learned a few immutable climate axioms.

  1. If there is sunshine its going to be warm, if it is cloudy it is going to be cold.
  2. If there are clouds plus precipitation its going to be even colder.

The beauty of these principles is that you can look out your window and know how to dress.  The tragedy of these principles is that they are totally false.

In Chicago, sunshine means on average that it is going to be colder.  Especially in the winter.  Cloudy days are on average warmer than sunny days.  And precipitation, especially snow, means its going to be even warmer than if it was just cloudy.

Eventually I think I figured out why.  The true axioms of weather are instead

  1. How warm or cold it will be depends almost entirely on where the air is coming from.
  2. Whether there are clouds and how much precipitation there will be depends a lot on where the air is coming from.

#1 is obvious but would be completely lost on a SoCalian because the air pretty much comes from the same place all the time.  It blows in from over the Pacific.  This being constant, the only thing left to determine the tiny fluctuations in temperature is whether or not the Sun has yet to burn off the marine layer (essentially fog that comes along with water blowing over the ocean.)  Naturally therefore sunshine=warmer.

(A variation on this which still confounds the SoCalian is the occasional Santa Ana condition where the air is blowing offshore from the deserts.  This keeps the marine layer at bay (sunshine) and the desert air is of course warm.)

In Chicago, the air can be coming from just about anywhere Westish.  Air coming from Canada: cold.  Air coming from Missouri:  warmer.  Now, sunshine means that the excess moisture that would have been in the air to form clouds fell to the ground before the air arrived.  That is more likely to have happened if the air is coming from Canada because in Canada it is colder and that means the the air can hold less moisture.  Hence the correlation sunshine=cold.

Indeed, clouds indicate that the air has moved from some place warmer, where the air could hold moisture.  Finally, precipitation means that it was so warm wherever the air is coming from that there is so much moisture in the air that by the time it reaches cold Chicago, it has to fall out of the sky onto me.

File this one under Blogging Something I Know Nothing About, yes. But after the first few times I ran outside in shorts in January because the sky was crystal blue, I have come to depend heavily on this theory.  And its working pretty well, at least until I move to Hawaii.

I spent last week at UCSD where the weather was spectacular and academic life seems to consist of going for walks with everybody you know, in sequence.

I am recovering from hamstring tendonitis (the walks helped a lot, as did the weather and especially the company!) so I walk a little slower than usual.  I noticed something about how a small group deals with a slowpoke on a walk.  It starts out with everybody going at their usual pace and then noticing that I am falling behind.  Eventually everybody slows down to my pace, however I am always one or two steps behind.

Its not an equilibrium for the faster walkers to stay even with the slow poke, but it also not an equilibrium for them to walk at a faster speed and increase the gap beyond more than a few steps.  Its as if some minimum distance is necessary to remind them that they can’t walk at their natural speed.

I even found myself slightly out front of Joel Sobel when we went for our walk.  He has a broken leg.

When you learn to snowboard you make a commitment before you begin whether you will ride regular or “goofy.”  Goofy means you place your right foot in front.  As the name suggests, goofy footers are the minority.  Since snowboard bindings must be fixed in place for regular or goofy foot, somebody who doesn’t know whether they are goofy will more likely start out regular (because its the best guess and because most rental boards will be setup for regular foot.)  Even if they are naturally goofy, once they invested a day learning, they are unlikely to switch and try it out and so may never know.

A surfboard is foot-neutral.  Anybody can ride any given surfboard whether they are regular or goofy.  And jumping up on a surfboard for the first time happens so fast that you have no time to even think which foot is going forward.  So a surfer is very likely to find his natural footing early on, unless he learned to snowboard already in which case he will naturally jump to the footing he is used to.

We should be able to see the effect of this by comparing a regular-foot snowboarder who first learned to surf with a regular-foot surfer who first learned to snowboard.  The first guy is going to be better at snowboarding than the second guy is at surfing.

What will be the comparison for goofies?

Will…You…Play…Black Knight Again??

There is a reason I live in Winnetka and not in Evanston.  And it’s not because, as Sandeep would put it, I like to get up 30 minutes earlier than otherwise so that my daughters can put their hair up and dress like beautiful little dolls to match all the other dolls in their classes.  No, its because after all the dolls are asleep we get to go to their parents’ mansions for parties and there’s always at least one parent who makes a living doing something incredibly interesting.

Tonight I met the guy who once made a living designing the classic pinball machines.  And he designed the two pinball machines, Black Knight in 1980 and High Speed in 1986 that are bookends for a period when the most important stuff I was learning about life was learned within a few feet of at least one of these machines.

It turns out these were also major turning points in the history of pinball itself.  In 1980, pinball went digital, multi-ball, and multi-media starting with the game Black Knight.  Black Knight brought pinball to a new level, literally speaking because it was among the first games with ramps and elevated flippers, but even more importantly because it brought a new challenge that drew in and solidified a pinball crowd.  In doing so it also set the pinball market on a path that would eventually lead to its demise.

In 1986, Williams High Speed changed the economics of pinball forever.  Pinball developers began to see how they could take advantage of programmable software to monitor, incentivize, and ultimately exploit the players.  They had two instruments at their disposal:  the score required for a free game, and the match probability.  All pinball machines offer a replay to a player who beats some specified score.  Pre-1986, the replay score was hard wired into the game unless the operator manually re-programmed the software.  High Speed changed all that.  It was pre-loaded with an algorithm that adjusted the replay score according to the distribution of scores on the specified machine over a specific time interval.

The early versions of this algorithm were crude, essentially targeting a weighted moving average.  But later implementations were more sophisticated.  The goal was to ensure that a fixed percentage, say the top 5% of all scores would win a free game.  The score level that would implement this varies with the machine, location, and time.  The algorithm would compute a histogram of scores and set the replay threshold at the empirical cutoff of 5%.  Later designs would allow the threshold to rise quickly to combat the wizard-goes-to-the-cinema problem.  The WGTTC problem is where a machine has adjusted down to a low replay score because it is mostly played by novices.  Then anytime an above average player gets on the machine, he’s getting free games all day long.

The other tool is the match probability: you win a free game if the last two digits of your score match an apparently random draw.  While adjustments to the high-score threshold is textbook price theory, the adjustments to the match probability is pure behavioral economics.  Let’s clear this up right away. No, the match probability is not uniform and yes, it is strategically manipulated depending on who is playing and when.  For example, if the machine has been idle for more than three minutes, the match probability is boosted upward.  You will never match if you won a free game by high score.  And it gets more complicated than that.  Any time there are two or more players and they finish a game with no credits left, one player (but only one) is very likely to match.  Empirically, the other players will more often than not put in another quarter to play again.

(The tilt tolerance, by contrast has always been controlled by a physical device which is adjusted manually and rarely in response to user habits.)

Pinball attracted a different crowd than video games like Defender (my new pal designed Defender and Stargate too,) and this is the fundamental theorem of pinball economics.  Pinball skill is transferrable.  If you can pass, stall, nudge, and aim on one machine you can do it on any machine.  This is both a blessing and a curse for pinball developers.  The blessing is that pinball players were a captive market. The curse was that to keep the pinball players interested the games had to get more and more intricate and challenging.

Pinball developers struggled with this problem as pinball was slowly losing to video games.  Video games competed by adding levels of play with increasing difficulty.  Any new player could quickly get chops on a new game because the low levels were easy.  This ensured that new players were drawn in easily, but still they were continually challenged because the higher levels got harder and harder.  By contrast, the physical nature of pinball, its main attraction to hardcore players, meant that there was no way to have it both ways.

Eventually, to keep the pinballers playing, the games became so advanced that entry-level players faced an impossible barrier.  High-schoolers in 1986 were either dropouts or professionals in 1992 and without inflow of new players that year essentially marked the end of pinball.  In 1992 The Addams Family was the last machine to sell big. By this time, pinball machines used a free-game system called replay boost. After any replay, the score required was increased by some increment.  Apparently, only hardcore pinballers were left and this was the only way to prevent them playing indefinitely for free.

Today Williams owns Bally but they make slot machines and video poker.  There currently exists one botique manufacturer of pinball machines but its fair to say that innovation stopped in 1992.

My new best friend has a basement full of Black Knight, High Speed, Defender, Pac Man, Asteroids, and everything else you inserted quarters into when you were 16.  Now I just have to find a supplier of C45, Djarums, and gooney-birds and I’ll be ditching class to hear sirens and “Pull Over Buddy.”

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.


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:


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.


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:


What’s your album of the summer?

My mother tells me that where she lives there are cameras that will catch you if you don’t come to a complete stop at the octagonal sign.  Your license plates will be photographed and you will be sent a bill in the mail.  The fine is close to $500.  That’s a lot more than I remember it.

Quiz:  suppose the technology improves for detecting whether a violation has taken place.  Should the fine increase, decrease or stay constant?

Start when he is 13 months old:

(sorry for the low quality.  two years ago = ancient technology.)  Yes at that age a child can be taught to float.  In fact almost no teaching is required.  You place the child on his back, he floats.  He cries too, it turns out.  A lot.  That’s why its not me there teaching him to float.  Instead it is a highly trained swimming teacher and one of the most inspirational people I have ever known.  That year was our kids’ first year of swimming lessons with him and we have been spending the summer in La Jolla, CA every year since primarily because of him and these swimming lessons.  10 minute lessons, daily for four weeks.

Here is what he learned last year when he was 2. (rss readers probably need to click through to the blog to see the video.)

A 2 year, 2month old child can learn to kick with his face in the water, roll over onto his back when he needs to breathe, and then continue on.  And at this early age he learns something which is subtle but which is central to swimming at every level:  looking at the floor to point the top of your head in the direction you are swimming and getting a breath by rotating on that axis.  The hardest thing to teach the child is not to look where he is going.  Looking where you are going means tilting your head up and that pushes your body down and makes you sink. For a two-year-old that is a deal-breaker, but even among adults head orientation is what distinguishes good swimmers from the best swimmers.

Here is how you teach a two-year-old to look at the floor.

Many repetitions of placing the child in the water, putting your hand deep under water and tell him to swim and grab the hand.  He has to look down to find your hand.  The typical swimming teacher hold out his hands near the surface of the water which instead trains the child to look up, a disaster.  This tiny difference has an enourmous impact on how smoothly the child can learn to swim.

It also teaches the child to go slow.  Another subtlety with swimming is that moving your arms and legs faster usually makes you go slower.  Slowing down all of the movements teaches him how to move more efficiently through the water.

This summer, at age 3 years 2 months he reached the stage where he could swim by himself without an adult in the pool with him, keeping himself going with the swim-float-swim sequence.  Then he began to learn to swim with his arms.

Next summer:  how to tech a four-year-old to snorkel.

I grew up in southern California which means that everything I ever needed to know I learned on the 405.  Driving in traffic serves as a useful metaphor for a lot of life and it wasn’t until this morning that I made the connection and started to understand what Simon Johnson has been talking about all this time in blog posts like What Is Finance Really?

The parallels are clear between financial markets and driving in traffic.  Arbitrage is the controlling force.  For example, on the freeways arbitrage equalizes the traveling time across lanes, the commuters version of the efficient markets hypothesis.

You don’t have to have spent much time on the freeways to understand why arbitrage is not always efficient. An individual driver can get where he is going faster by changing lanes, but since there is a fixed capacity on the road this is always at the expense of somebody else.  In equilibrium the total distance traveled by all is the same as if everybody were required to stay in their lanes.  The arbitrage turns out to be a pure social loss due to the increased frequency of accidents.

Addendum: Calculated Exuberance has a nice take.

One of the best campus coffee shops I know is on the UCSD campus where I had the great fortune to spend a month this summer (much more on that coming soon.)  The place is called Perks.  Its not the coolest place to hang out.  It shares space with the campus bookstore, the lighting is industrial, and the furniture is not conducive to lingering.  But I don’t know of any other campus cafe so focused on the quality of the coffee.


The assistant manager’s name is Jason and he is a serious barista.  It is apparent that he has also trained most of the regular staff.  Their espresso roast is on the light side, a departure from the tendency toward over-roasting from Starbuck’s and Peets.  They make drinks one at a time: the baristas are not multi-taskers.  Listen to the sound as they steam milk.  You don’t hear the usual bubbles-through-a-straw sound that must untrained baristas learn as the quick and easy way to make glue foam.  And you see and taste the results.


The link I posted previously was somewhat outdated as it mentioned only that furloughs were under consideration.  As a part of the recent budget agreement, the UC furlough is now a done deal.  Here are some more recent stories.

I have heard that, system-wide, professors will take an 8% cut in pay.  The word “furlough” usually means something like a temporary layoff.  Here it means that workers will have shorter hours and commensurately lower pay.  For example, UC non-faculty staff will have a few days off each month.

What are the marginal hours where Professors will be furloughed?  Saturdays.  That is, no classes will be cut, all administrative duties remain intact, pay is cut 8%.  Presumably this means that my colleagues in UC system will be doing 8% more surfing the web when they are not in the classroom.

At Legoland, admission is discounted for two-year-olds. But a child must be at least three for most of the fun attractions.

At the ticket window the parents are asked how old the child is. But at the ride entrance the attendants ask the children directly.

The parents lie. The children tell the truth.

The Bagel Shack. There are two locations, the original in San Clemente and a second one in Mission Viejo off of El Toro.  The bagels are big, toothsome, and fresh (due to their fast turnover.)  I would go so far as to say that these are the best bagels I have ever had West of the Hudson River (and East of The Dead Sea.)  I like that the bagels are shelved so that you can grab your own and quickly pay for them if you are not having them toasted or with cream cheese.  Go for the jalapeño bagels.


Challenge: re-design speed bumps. They should still induce drivers to slow down, but without making them drive over a bump. How do you do it? Answer after the jump.
Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: