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Boredom is wasted on the bored


I coach my daughter’s U12 travel soccer team. An important skill that a player of this age should be picking up is the instinct to keep her head up when receiving a pass, survey the landscape and plan what to do with the ball before it gets to her feet.  The game has just gotten fast enough that if she tries to do all that after the ball has already arrived she will be smothered before there is a chance.

Many drills are designed to train this instinct and today I invented a little drill that we worked on in the warmups before our game against our rivals from Deerfield, Illinois. The drill makes novel use of a trick from game theory called a jointly controlled lottery.

Imagine I am standing at midfield with a bunch of soccer balls and the players are in a single-file line facing me just outside of the penatly area.  I want to feed them the ball and have them decide as the ball approaches whether they are going to clear it to my left or to my right. In a game situation, that decision is going to be dictated by the position of their teammates and opponents on the field. But since this is just a pre-game warmup we don’t have that.  I could try to emulate it if I had some kind of signaling device on either flank and a system for randomly illuminating one of the signals just after I delivered the feed.  The player would clear to the side with the signal on.

But I don’t have that either and anyway that’s too easy and quick to read to be a good simulation of the kind of decision a player makes in a game.  So here’s where the jointly controlled lottery comes in.  I have two players volunteer to stand on either side of me to receive the clearing pass.  Just as I deliver the ball to the player in line the two girls simultaneously and randomly raise either one hand or two.  The player receiving the feed must add up the total number of hands raised and if that number is odd clear the ball to the player on my left and if it is even clear to the player on my right.

The two girls are jointly controlling a randomization device.  The parity of the number of hands is not under the control of either player.  And if each player knows that the other is choosing one or two hands with 50-50 probability, then each player knows that the parity of the total will be uniformly distributed no matter how that individual player decides to randomize her own hands.

And the nice thing about the jointly controlled lottery in this application is that the player receiving the feed must look left, look right, and think before the ball reaches her in order to be able to make the right decision as soon as it reaches her feet.

We beat Deerfield 3-0.


Imagine that the President convenes his top economic advisors to get a recommendation on a pressing policy issue. They say unequivocally “do X.” The President asks why and they say “its complicated. Do X.” The President, not happy with that, decides he is going to read the economic literature on the pros and cons of doing X. After a thorough study he comes back to his advisors and says “You economists don’t understand your own science. I read the literature and I should do Y.”

I think we would agree that’s a bad outcome. For probably exactly the same reason that Doctors don’t seem to be happy with economist Emily Oster’s apparent advice to pregnant women to drink alcohol “like a European adult.”

But let’s assume that Emily truly can interpret the published statistical literature better than her Obstetrician. There is another reason to question her recommendations.

An advisor’s job is to advise on the risks of an activity. Because the advisor is the expert on that. The decision-maker is the expert on her own preferences. The correct decision is based on weighing both of these.

A recommendation to have up to a glass of wine per day while pregnant confounds the two sides. What it really means is “I like wine a lot.  I also read about the risks and decided that my taste for wine was strong enough that I am willing to live with the risks.” Thus her recommendation amounts to “If you like wine as much as I do you should drink up to a glass per day when you are pregnant.”

When I asked my doctor about drinking wine, she said that one or two glasses a week was “probably fine.” But “probably fine” isn’t a number.

The problem is that there is no way to quantify how much she likes wine and so no way for her readers to know whether they like wine as much as she does. Likewise it is too much for Emily to demand her doctors to say much more than “probably fine.”

The doctors’ advice is based on some assumption about the patient’s taste for wine weighed against the risks. Emily’s advice is based on a different assumption. As for the risks, when Emily reads the literature and concludes that the evidence is weak of the danger of drinking alcohol she then jumps to the conclusion that it is weaker than what the doctors thought. She makes the identifying assumption that their recommendation was conservative because they overestimated the risks and not because they underestimated her taste for wine. But there does not seem to be any basis for that assumption because her doctors never told her what they believed the risks to be and they never asked her how much she likes wine.

I haven’t decided yet and I can’t figure out which side this is evidence for:

Me:  Oh I have to remember to set up your desk today because I promised that I would and that if I didn’t I would give you $2.

7 year old:  I was hoping you would forget.

Me:  Are you saying you would rather have $2 than your desk?

7yo:  No, I am saying I would rather have $2 today and my desk tomorrow.

Me:  Hold on, what would you rather have:  $2 today and your desk tomorrow or $2 today, another $2 tomorrow and then your desk the next day?

7yo:   $2 today, another $2 tomorrow and then my desk the next day.

Me:  $2 today, $2 tomorrow, $2 the next day, and then your desk the day after that?

7yo:  Yep.

Me:  And what is the number of days you would like to have $2 before you finally get your desk?

7yo:  Infinity.

When you over-inflate a kid’s self-esteem you achieve a short-run gain (boost in confidence) at the expense of a long-run cost (jaded kids who learn that praise is just noise.) For that reason, emphasis on managing self-esteem gets a lot of scorn.

But what is the cost of jaded kids? They learn to see through your lies. All that means is that their credence is a scarce resource that parents must manage. In a first-best world you are honest with your kids right up until the stage in their lives when a false boost of self-confidence has maximal payoff. Probably when they are taking the SAT.

Unfortunately it’s not a first-best world: even if you don’t lie to them, other people will and eventually they will learn to be appropriately skeptical. Which means that a child’s trust is an exogenously depreciating resource. It’s just a matter of time before they are relieved of it.

Given the inevitability of that process you have two alternatives. Deplete their credence yourself and choose what lies they get told in the process, or be always truthful and allow their trust to be violated by outside forces.

Doing it yourself at least gives them the admittedly transient benefit that comes from an artificial boost of self-confidence.  And the sooner the better.

Spouse A (henceforth “she”, the driver) prefers the air inside the vehicle to be a little warmer than the preferred temperature of Spouse B (“he”, the navigator, not because he is a worse driver –quite the contrary– but because he is an even better passenger.) In their regular confrontation with this dilemma they are seemingly blessed with the optional dual-zone climate control in their decked out Volvo SUV.

And indeed there is an equilibrium of the dual climate-zone game in which each spouse enjoys his/her temperature bliss point. This equilibrium is unfortunately highly unstable. Because of the exchange of heat across the thermal gradient the only way each can maintain the constant target temperature is to adjust their controllers so that the air blown out their respective vents deviates slightly from that target further in the direction of the extreme. Hers must be set somewhat warmer and his somewhat cooler.

Now from that starting point, the slightest perturbation upsets the delicate balance and can set off a dangerous chain reaction. Consider for example what happens when, due to random alterations in air flow she begins to feel a bit on the cool side of her comfort zone. Her response is to adjust her controller one peg toward the red. This restores her comfort level but very soon as a result he will begin to feel the discomfort of unexpectedly hot and dry air blowing into his zone and he will react by moving his controller one peg toward the blue.

This is not likely to end well.

I miss you like this title misses the point

Look at married female academics and whether or not they use their maiden name. See how this depends on

1. Which of the two names comes earlier in the alphabet.

2. Whether their field uses the lexicographic convention of ordering authors names.

Have you seen Dragon Box?  Once you do, you will be a believer in the power of technology for learning.  I wasn’t before, I am now. My son is 6 and after about 4 hours of fun he can solve simple one-variable equations.  Here’s how it works.

In the first level of Dragon Box you see a screen with two halves, “This side” and “That side.” There is a box on one side and some cards with random pictures on them.  Your job is to isolate the box on one side, i.e. remove all the cards from the same side of the box.

This is very simple at the beginning because the only cards on that side are these funky vortex cards and all you have to do is touch them and they disappear. Vortex cards represent zero, but only you know that.

Later, other cards start appearing on the box’s side but then you learn something new:  every card has a “night card” which graphically is represented by a card with the same picture but in negative exposure.  Negative.  If you slide a card onto its night card (or vice versa) the card turns into a vortex which you then dispatch with a subsequent tap.

Later again it happens that cards appear on the same side of the box but with no night card.  But then you learn something new. You have cards in your deck and you can drag them onto either side of the screen.  A card in your deck can be turned into its “night” version by tapping.  Thus, you can eliminate a card on the box’s side by taking the same card from the deck, “nighting” it and then using it to vortex the offending card.

But any card you drag from the deck to one side of the screen you must drag to the other side also.  This represents adding or subtracting a constant from both sides of an equation.  After you have isolated the box on one side you have shown that the box equals the sum of all the cards remaining on the other side.  But only you know these things.

Later still, cards appear with “partners,” i.e. another card right up next to it with an inexplicable dot connecting them.  If the box has a partner you can eliminate the partner by dragging the corresponding card from your deck below a line which magically appears below the partners as you drag.

Dragon Box requires that whenever you drag a card from the deck below the line of any card, you must drag the same card below the lines of all card-groups on both sides of the screen. Once you have done that you can drag the card that is below the line onto its duplicate above the line and they together turn into a card with looks like a die with one pip showing.  Such a card can then be dragged onto the box leaving only the box.

Here’s a demonstration (by me of an early level.)


The partners represent multiplication, the line represents division, the die with one pip represents the number 1 (i.e. the identity) and 1 times the box is just the box. After you have isolated the box you have shown that the box equals the sum and/or products of cards that appear on the other side.  But only you know this.

Finally, the box mysteriously becomes the letter x.  The cards lose their pretty pictures and become numbers and other constants.  Night cards are now negative numbers. The vortex becomes zero and the die becomes the number 1.  In the dividing zone between the two sides of the screen eventually appears an equals sign, and all the operations the child has learned now take their more familiar form and by pure sleight of hand he has been tricked into porting the very very simple logic of combining symbolic operations into the otherwise tedious world of “solve for x.”

I personally am astounded.


A few final thoughts.

  1. The reason a six-year-old can learn algebra with Dragon Box but could not before is that Dragon Box unbundles algebra from arithmetic.  You don’t have to know what crazy-frog times lizard-fish equals to know that Box = CF times LF.  Simplifying the right-hand-side is beside the point.  Conventionally algebra comes after arithmetic because you need arithmetic to simplify the right-hand side.  
  2. Actually what you learn from this is that algebra is far more elementary than arithmetic.  My son can add numbers (up to one digit plus two digit) but just barely grasps the concept of multiplication.  He has no idea what division is.
  3. Someone who already knows arithmetic can still learn algebra faster (and have more fun in the process) because Dragon Box shows how all the arithmetic can essentially be saved for the very end, modularizing the learning.
  4. Dragon box also rewards you if you solve the equation with the precise number of operations recommended.  (This is usually the minimum number but not always.)  This is a clever addition to the game because all of my kids refused out of pure pride to move on until they had solved each one in the right number of moves.  Imagine asking a kid learning algebra to do that.

My daughter was learning about prime numbers and she had an exercise to identify all the prime numbers less than 100.  I made a little game out of it with her by offering her 10 cents for each number correctly categorized as prime or composite within a fixed total time.

As she progressed through the numbers I noticed a pattern.  It took her less time to guess that a number was composite than it took her to guess that it was prime. And of course there is a simple reason:  you know that a number is composite once you find a proper factor, you know that a number is prime only when you are convinced that a proper factor does not exist.

But this was a timed-constrained task and waiting until she knows for sure that the number is prime is not an optimal strategy.  She should guess that the number is prime once she thinks it is sufficiently likely that she won’t find any proper factor. And how long that will take depends on the average time it takes to find a proper factor.

In particular, if the average time before she guesses prime is larger than the average time before she guesses composite then she is not optimizing.  Because if that were the case she should infer that the number is likely to be prime simply from the fact that she has spent more than the average time looking for a proper factor.  At an optimum, any such introspective inference should be arbitraged away.

  1. Its socially valuable for the University of Michigan measure consumer confidence and announce it even if that is an irrelevant statistic.  Because otherwise somebody with less neutral motives would invent it, manipulate it, and publicize it.
  2. Kids are not purely selfish.  They like it when they get better stuff than their siblings.  To such an extent that they often feel mistreated when they see a sibling get some goodies.
  3. Someone should develop a behavioral theory of how people play Rock, Scissors, Paper when its common knowledge that humans can’t generate random sequences.
  4. The shoulder is the kludgiest joint because there are infinitely many ways to do any one movement.  Almost surely you have settled into a sub-optimal way.
  5. I go to a million different places for lunch but at each one I always order one dish.

If you got out a pencil and graphed my kids’ time outside, with the date on the horizontal axis and the number of hours spent outside (and not fraying their parents nerves alternately bickering with one another and submitting requests to play on the iPad or watch TV) on the vertical, you would find a dramatic and sustained upward spike beginning right after Labor Day.

What is the underlying structural change that explains this?  School has begun.  Indeed, just as the school year begins and forces them to stay inside half the day (thankfully under the care of somebody else), suddenly going outside and playing with their friends becomes their favorite way to pass the time.

It’s not because time outside has suddenly become more precious.  On any August day when they have already wasted half of it sitting around inside, the time has become equally scarce.  And it’s not because time outside is a way to escape homework because that doesn’t really start until the second or third week of school.

I think the reason is coordination failure.  Playing outside by yourself is not very much fun, you only want to go outside when everyone else is outside.  But when you have the luxury of the entire day, it becomes difficult to predict the precise time of day when all the neighborhood kids are going to be outside.  And since they all have the same problem there in fact is no time of the day when all the neighborhood kids are outside and therefore no time of day when any of the neighborhood kids are outside.

Uniformly robbing all children in the neighborhood of 6 hours of prime playtime leaves them with only a few hours left in the day in which to coordinate.  And releasing them all from captivity at exactly the same time synchronizes them and creates an ideal focal point.  You find your friends outside immediately after school is out.

Unfortunately, in September in Chicago the sun is going to set not long after that, the weather is getting cool, and we really have only a month or so before playing outside is not going to be feasible anymore.  And that’s why “Summer Vacation” is a badly misguided convention.  School should be in session through the entire summer so that kids can make the most out of its coordination benefits.  There would be no more “summer time blues.”

Since kids spend their vacation indoors anyway, the vacation should be in the Winter when going outside isn’t an option.  Then we can really put Winter Vacation to good use:  they can catch up on all of the homework they avoided during the Summer School year when they were instead outside playing.

I have a theory that your siblings determine how tidy you are in your adult life, but I am not exactly sure how it all works out.

My theory is based on public goods and free-riding.  If as a kid you shared a room then you and your sibling didn’t internalize the full marginal social value of your efforts at tidying up and as a consequence your room was probably a mess.  At least messier than it would have been if you had the room to yourself.

This would suggest that if you want to know whether your girlfriend is going to be a tidy roommate when you shack up one easy clue is whether she has a sister.  If not then she probably had a room to herself and she is probably accustomed to tidiness.

But here is where I start to think it can go the other way. A kid who shares a room needs to adapt to the free-rider problem. It pays off if she can develop a tit-for-tat strategy with her sibling to maintain incentives for mutual tidiness. This kind of behavioral response is most credible when it stems from an innate preference for cleanliness. Bottom line, it can be optimal for a room-sharing sibling to become more fussy about a clean room.

As I said I am not sure how it all balances out. But I have a few data points. I have two brothers and we were all slobs as kids but now I am very tidy. My wife has no sisters and if I put enough negatives in this sentence then when she reads this it will be hard for her to figure out how untidy I am herein denying she never fails not to be.

Her brothers also cannot be accused of coming dangerously close to godliness either but I don’t think they shared a room much as kids. One of them now lives in an enviably tidy home but I credit that to his wife who I believe grew up with two sisters.

My son has his own room and at age 5 he is already the cleanest person in our house. He is also the best dressed so there may be something more going on there. My two daughters have been known to occasionally tunnel through the pile of laundry on their (shared) floor just to remind themselves of the color of their carpet.

I have a cousin whom I once predicted would eventually check herself into a padded cell mainly because those things are impeccably tidy. She always had her own room as a kid. Sandeep is an interesting case because as far as I know he has no brothers and while his home sparkles (at least whenever they are having guests) his office is appalling.

For a much-needed Spring Break holiday, we faced the Naples FL vs “somewhere exotic yet family friendly” trip dilemma. I was firmly in the Naples FL camp but was outvoted so we ended up in Andalucia. Here are my tips for a trip with young kids.

First, do not fly Iberia across the Atlantic. They are on strike a lot of the time. Our flight out got cancelled because of a strike and we have (so far!) narrowly escaped a cancellation of our return trip. For local trips, you are stuck with Iberia or Spanish trains which can also go on strike (or you can drive).

Since we actually got here, things have gone pretty smoothly.


If you are driving in, you can avoid the city by using the ring road and access the Alhambra parking lots and deposit yourself there. You can walk down via the pedestrian walkway just outside the Alhambra walls. This walk is wonderful in itself.

Book ahead for the Alhambra and get your tickets from the machines near the entrance hall. Tickets sell out quickly each morning and people start lining up at 6 am if they forget to book ahead. I can’t do justice to the Alhambra in this brief post but can confirm that there is enough interest to satisfy young boys – the castle watchtowers are fun, all the water canals that feed the gardens are fascinating and this is enough to sustain them on the walk through the Nasrid Palace. BTW, you have to arrive at the Palace at the specific time on your ticket.

The main other activity I enjoyed was the walk up the Albayzin hill, the old Moorish quarter. You are transported to an earlier time and you traipse up winding, narrow streets up the hill to the Mirador de San Nicholas for a spectacular view of the Alhambra

We did not have a good meal. The recommended place in the guidebooks is Bodegas Castenada. We had a passable meal and had to send the bill back when we noticed that it had many items added on. We loved the gelato at Los Italianos near the cathedral.

Our trip was shortened by the cancellation of our flight so we actually ended up not staying in Granada but in the countryside at El Amparo, a kind of B&B run by a British couple, Jeff and Sally Webb. It was extremely good value and we got a two bedroom. There were many other families staying. We all loved it even thought he swimming pool was not open as the weather was pretty cold. It is a bit isolated so you can’t just pop out to pick up provisions. But Jeff was great. He is a great cook and is happy to lay on toasted sandwiches for those with tapas ennui. El Amparo is a ten minute drive to Alhama de Granada which has many nice restaurants and is spectacularly located on a gorge. We had several short hikes including ones to a Roman bridge and Moorish dungeons.


The main attraction is the Mezquita, the former church, then Moorish mosque, now Christian Cathedral. The majority of the interior is made up of symmetrical arches designed to resemble date trees. These are simple and starkly beautiful. In one corner, the mihrab has ornate designs but non-traditionally does not point directly towards Mecca. And yet the decorations are appropriate and do not go over the top into kitsch. It is easy to imagine the devotion the architecture might have inspired. The cathedral is plonked right in the middle and could not be more different in style. No communication between religions.

The Jewish quarter is right outside the Mezquita. We mainly encountered the tourist shops before kid tiredness drove us home.


A real city. And we arrived here in Easter Week, Semana Santa. Each church has its own procession, many in the middle of the night. We woke many times. Navigating the town was hard with processions and crowds preventing any easy route from A to B from ever being fully completed. On Easter Sunday we latched onto a procession. The drummers announced the arrival of the main float. Cloaked and hatted devotees tossed candies to kids. A band followed the float. At many points we stopped so the men carrying the float could be swapped out. Their fervor and effort signaled the strength of their belief.

The Moorish Alcazar took us back to the pre-Christian era. I must admit to the notion that I actually prefer it to the Alhambra. Less hectic, the palace being equally beautiful and the gardens magnificent. Or it could be that we had good weather in Seville finally and it rained while were in the Alhambra. Try out the simple maze and play hide and seek in the peacock-filled gardens.

We finally had a meal without fried calamari, patatas bravas or tortilla. Pacador near the Alameda de Hercules displayed a level of sophistication we had not encountered so far on our trip, at least at the tapas level. As usual, they padded the bill but we noticed despite the vino tinto we had imbibed.

Now we have a kid with the flu so we are just resting in our overpriced and under-maintained apartment. We will skip the cathedral.

I have loved the trip and we could easily spend another week in Andalucia and enjoy it more. But in Naples FL I know where the CVS is when I need ibuprofen for kids.

Wealthy kids are usually wealthy because their wealthy parents left them a lot of money.  You might think that’s because parents are altruistic towards their kids.  Indeed every dollar bequeathed is a dollar less of consumption for the parent.  But think about this:  if parents are so generous towards their kids why do they wait until they die to give them all that money?  For a truly altruistic parent, the sooner the gift, the better.  By definition, a parent never lives to see the warm glow of an inheritance.

A better theory of bequests is that they incentivize the children to call, visit, and take care of the parents in their old age.  An inheritance is a carrot that awaits a child who is good to the parent until the very end.  That’s the theory of strategic bequests in Bernheim, Shleiffer and Summers.

But even with that motivation you have to ask why bequests are the best way to motivate kids.  Why not just pay them a piece rate?  Every time they come to visit they get a check.  If the parent is even slightly altruistic this is a better system since the rewards come sooner.

To round out the theory of strategic bequests we need to bring in the compound value of lump-sum incentives.  Suppose you are nearing the bitter end and its likely you are not going to live more than another year.  You want your kids to visit you once a month in your last year and that’s going to cost you 12*c where c is your kid’s opportunity cost per weekly visit.  You could either implement this by piece-rate, paying them c every time they come, or in a lump sum by leaving them 12c in your will if they keep it up the whole time.

But now what happens if, as luck would have it, you actually survive for another year?  With the piece rate you are out 12c and still have to cough up another 12c if you want to see your kids again before you die.  But a bequest can be re-used.  You just restart the incentives, and you get another year’s worth of visits at zero additional cost.

Is it credible?  All you need is to commit to a policy that depends only on their devotion in the last year of your life.  Since you are old your kids know you can’t remember what happened earlier than that anyway so yes, it’s perfectly credible.

(Idea suggested by Mike Whinston.)

Spake Kim:

“I got caught up with the hoopla and the filming of the TV show that when I probably should have ended my relationship, I didn’t know how to and didn’t want to disappoint a lot of people,” the post said.

That explains it.

The Mexico City Assembly is considering a measure which would enable marrying couples to specify a fixed, finite duration for the marriage contract.

The minimum marriage contract would be for two years and could be renewed if the couple stays happy. The contracts would include provisions on how children and property would be handled if the couple splits.

“The proposal is, when the two-year period is up, if the relationship is not stable or harmonious, the contract simply ends,” said Leonel Luna, the Mexico City assemblyman who co-authored the bill.

I wonder if they considered the various other margins along which to move to an interior solution.  We could be married forever but only on Thursdays.  Or if you are not yet ready to marry my I can still incentivize you to invest in me by writing you an option to marry me in the future.  Or I can go public, issuing matrimony shares.  My commitment to you is proportional to your ownership stake.

All uncles are weird. But being an uncle is an exogenous event independent of any quality you have, weirdness or otherwise. So statistically it looks like a monumental fluke that all the weird people turn out to be uncles.

In reality it’s the uncleness that causes the weirdness. And more than that: even totally normal people who happen also to be uncles turn onto weirdos precisely when they are around their nieces and nephews and here’s why.

An uncle is basically an anti-parent. Not anti- in the sense of anti-aircraft or anti-American. More like antimatter. Because an uncle looks at his brother or sister’s family and basically sees everything that his own family is not. Good or bad. Especially in terms of the children.

And just like boys socialize by playing up and exaggerating differences as a mechanism for toughening up each others’ weak spots, the uncle can’t help but play that same role with the nieces and their parents. Niece is too sensitive because she is too sheltered, uncle brings the missing risk to the party. Nephew thinks he’s tough because he can push around his younger sisters, uncle gives him a taste of his own medicine.

Then there’s spy mode.  Uncle wants the inside scoop on his brother/sister and spouse so he asks neice/nephew strange leading questions.  Your uncle is an outsider who has just enough of an inside track to feel comfortable poking around where he doesn’t belong.

But whatever mischief the uncle is up to,  the actual effect is that he comes across as a weirdo to his neices and nephews.

I went out for a run and left some instructions for my daughter.

By the way, running is the suckiest form of exercise there is.  The only thing worse than my jog up and down the street is running on a treadmill, if only for the change of scenery.  Very slow change of scenery.  But I will admit that the boredom involved adds a dimension that you don’t get from actual, useful exercise like playing sports.  I can run around on a tennis court for hours but I am embarrassed to tell you that after about a year of regular running I can’t comfortably run more than a mile.  There being no assistance whatsoever from competitive spirit or just plain old enjoyment, running is a pure exercise of the will to prolong immediate suffering and boredom in return for some abstract, delayed benefit.

And that mile takes me more than 10 minutes.  I think.  I am too ashamed to time myself.

But nevertheless not so long as to make me feel uncomfortable leaving my 10 year old at home for the duration (I actually don’t know what the law is, I hope I am not incriminating myself.)  And she had an assignment that she needed to finish so I suggested that she work on it while I was out.

Now there were also some other things that needed to be done.   And you never know what’s going to happen when she sits down to do her assignement.  Does she have all the stuff she needs, is she going to need some help? etc.  So ideally I would give her a contingency plan.  If for whatever reason you can’t do the assignment, do the other thing in the meantime.

But this is not always a good idea.  Just mentioning the contingency turns a clearly defined instruction into one which invites subjective interpretation, and wiggle room at the margin of acceptable contingincies.  “You said I should do the other thing so I did.”

Of course there is a tradeoff.  First of all, there’s the basic second-best trade-off. Without a plan B, when it turns out to be truly impossible to do plan A, you come home to find her on plan Wii.

But more importantly, she’s gotta learn how to judge the contingencies on her own, eventually.  The thing is, rightly or wrongly I think parents instinctively believe that in the early stages of that process kids read a lot, indeed too much, into the items put into the menu of options.  There is an excessive distinction between an unmentioned, and hence implicitly disallowed option and one which is mentioned but discouraged.

Unlearning that kind of inference, clearly a necessary step in the long run, can be tricky in the short run.

Heh, short run.

I spent the weekend in bed with the flu.  Sunday morning, on the tail end of it, I popped a few Advil to bring the fever down so I could semi-enjoy Father’s Day. Was I making a mistake?

As I understand it, my body elevates its temperature as a defense mechanism. Evolution has been operating long enough to have a pretty well-calibrated trade-off between the losses of reduced activity from the fever versus the speed and probability of a successful recovery.  Is my intervention distorting away from the optimum?

  1. Arguably I have private information about idiosyncratic conditions and Nature is calibrated only to the average state.  Note that while this hypothesis justifies my use of Advil on Father’s Day, it also implies that I should go short on Advil on other days.
  2. And anyway Nature has given me the infrastructure to condition physiology on my knowledge of immediate environmental conditions.  For example when I know that I am in danger, the body re-allocates resources to help me escape.  What makes this any different?
  3. My objective is probably different.  In Mother Nature’s eyes I am just a vessel from which offspring should spring forth.  She could care less whether I get to practice Pink Floyd’s San Tropez on the piano with my daughters.  So Nature’s revealed preference for activity is necessarily weaker than mine.
  4. But wait, my personal preference for non-reproductive activity is also something that Nature shaped.  So what would explain the wedge?
  5. If I am making the wrong decision by taking Advil it’s not because I have the wrong preferences but because Advil is something Nature never expected.  She has me well-trained when it comes to the fundamentals but she hasn’t had time to design my direct preference for the intermediate good Advil. She must leave it up to me to do the calculation of its implied tradeoffs in terms of the fundamentals. It’s only because of my miscalculation that I am making a mistake.
  1. Among the males in my family tree, underwear preference alternates generations:  briefs then boxers then briefs…
  2. Smoking guns for this theory.  Italians who pronounce the hard b in the word “subtle”, and pronounce “differ” as in “diffAIR”  (they have no trouble with water, later, etc.)  Also, the hard p in “psychology.”
  3. Here’s the best way to get your wife to agree to a parenting strategy X:  “My mother tried not-X and that didn’t work.”
  4. I want to play a negative drum:  it makes a sound except when I hit it.
  5. What is the effect on equilibrium search models and assortative matching when once-matched, husbands can use headscarves to hide the quality of their mate from potential poachers?

It’s great, but what’s even greaterer is that they made a transcript of the whole thing and so what would take you an hour to listen to you can read in about 5 minutes.  I read it from start to finish.  Featuring appearances by Josh Gans, Valerie Ramey, Betsey Stevenson, Justin Wolfers and others.

The transcript is here.

Clearly the reason that sex is so pleasurable is because that motivates us to have a lot of it.  It is evolutionarily advantageous to desire the things that make us more fit. Sex feels good, we seek that feeling, we have a lot of sex, we reproduce more.

But that is not the only way to get motivated.  It is also advantageous to derive pleasure directly from having children.  We see children, we sense the joy we would derive from our own children and we are motivated to do what’s necessary to produce them, even if we had no particular desire for the intermediate act of sex.

And certainly both sources of motivation operate on us, but in different proportions. So it is interesting to ask what determines the optimal mix of these incentives. One alternative is to reward an intermediate act which has no direct effect on fitness but can, subject to idiosyncratic conditions together with randomness, produce a successful outcome which directly increases fitness.   Sex is such an act. The other alternative is to confer rewards upon a successful outcome (or penalties for a failure.)  That would mean programming us with a desire and love for children.

The tradeoff can be understood using standard intuitions from incentive theory. The rewards are designed to motivate us to take the right action at the right time. The drawback of rewarding only the final outcome is that it may be too noisy a signal of whether he acted.  For example, not every encounter results in offspring. If so, then a more efficient use of rewards to motivate an act of sex is to make sex directly pleasurable. But the drawback of rewarding sex directly is that whether it is desirable to have sex right now depends on how likely it is to produce valuable offspring.  If we are made to care only about the (value of) offspring we are more likely to make the right decision under the right circumstances.

Now these balance out differently for males than for females. Because when the female becomes pregnant and gives birth that is a very strong signal that she had sex at an opportune time but conveys noisier information about him.That is because, of course, this child could belong to any one of her (potentially numerous) mates. Instilling a love for children is therefore a relatively more effective incentive instrument for her than for him.

As for love of sex, note that the evolutionary value of offspring is different for males than for females because females have a significant opportunity cost given that they get pregnant with one mate at a time. This means that the circumstances are nearly always right for males to have sex, but much more rarely so for females. It is therefore efficient for males to derive greater pleasure from sex.

(It is a testament to my steadfastness as a theorist that I stand firmly by the logic of this argument despite the fact that, at least in my personal experience, females derive immense pleasure from sex.)

Drawing:  Misread Trajectory from

She wrote this convincing essay on happiness and parenting.  Parents seem to be less happy but we shouldn’t read too much into that.  She brings together all kinds of economic theory and data and along the way she cites a paper I like very much by Luis Rayo and Gary Becker:

Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker, writing with Luis Rayo, has argued this contrary position. In their view, while “happiness and life satisfaction may be related to utility, they are no more measures of utility than are other dimensions of well-being, such as health or consumption of material goods.”[5] Or having kids. Children may make you less happy, but still raise your utility. Devout neoclassical reasoning leads Becker and Rayo to infer from the fact that we are having kids that they raise your utility (or at least they raise the utility of those who make this choice).

Rayo and Becker argued that happiness should be thought of as the carrot that gets us to make good decisions.  But happiness is a scarce resource.  There’s a limit to how happy you can be.  So it has to be used in the most economical way.  In their theory the most economical way to use happiness is to give an immediate, and completely transitory boost of happiness to reward good outcomes.  You have sex, you get rewarded.  It results in conception, that’s another reward.  But then you are back to the baseline so as to maximize the range available for further rewards (and penalties) motivating behavior going forward.  Bygones are bygones.

With that theory it makes no sense to look at a cross section of the population, compare how happy are people who did X relative to people who didn’t do X, and conclude on the basis of that whether its good to do X.

And by the way, if there is anything we can expect evolutionary incentives to have a good handle on, its whether or not to have kids.  That’s the whole ballgame.  If happiness is there to motivate us to succeed evolutionarily then you better have  a good argument why Nature got it wrong.  One place to look might be on the quantity/quality tradeoff.  Perhaps the relative price of quality versus quantity has declined in modern times and Nature’s mechanism is tuned to an obsolete tradeoff. If so, then people feel a motivation to have more kids than they should.  The prescription then would be to resist the temptation you feel to have another kid and instead invest more in the ones you have.  Unless you want to be happy.

Analogous to “doctor shopping,” children practice parent shopping.  My son comes to me and asks if he can play his computer game.  When I say no, he goes and asks his mother.  That is, assuming he hasn’t already asked her.  After all how can I know that I’m not his second chance?

Indeed, if she is in another room and I have to make an immediate decision I should assume a certain positive probability that he has already approached her and she said no.  Assuming that my wife had good reason to say no that inference alone gives me a stronger reason to say no than I already had.  How much stronger?

If its an activity where he has learned from past experience that I am less willing to agree to, then for sure he asked his mother first and she said no.  It’s no wonder I am the tough guy when it comes to those activities.

If its an activity where I am more lenient he’s going to come to me first for sure. But his strategic behavior still influences my answer.  I know that if I say no, he’s going to her next and she’s going to reason exactly as in the previous paragraph. So she’s going to be tougher.  Now sometimes I say no because I am really close to being on the fence and it makes sense to defer the decision to his Mother. Saying no effectively defers that decision because I know he’s going to ask her next.  But now that his Mother is tougher than she would be in the first-best world, I must become a bit more lenient in these marginal cases.


(Addendum:  If you want to know how to combat these ploys, go ask Josh Gans.)

If your parents are not intellectuals then they don’t spend as much time trying to get you interested in ideas when you are a kid.  So you are first exposed to them as an adult when you can appreciate the feeling of discovering ideas on your own. You are probably in college so you associate discovery with independence and counterculture.

If your parents are intellectuals they bore you to death as a kid with their lame ideas.  By the time you are an adult and you can potentially appreciate them you are deprived of the chance to discover them for yourself.  And anyway it all just reminds you of your parents.

Verifying this is our Thanksgiving Social Science project while surrounded by grandparents and their children and grandchildren.  (Of course you can probably substitute “discovery of ideas” with just about anything and the logic is undisturbed.  But on top of “Gardening is for losers because my loser Dad was always talking about his lame garden” there’s something extra having to do with the complementarity between the act of discovering the ideas and the ideas themselves.)

I am partial to RJ’s Black Soft Licorice. In moderation, like cocaine (I imagine!), it does no harm. But like cocaine (I imagine!), one is tempted to consume it in excess, a bag at a time.

How can I just eat a reasonable amount?  I could joint Licorice Lovers Anonymous (LLA) and complete a ten step program to kick my habit entirely. I am sure there are many fellow sufferers out there, who love RJ’s not too little but too much.   Just a few tweets would allow us to coördinate and set up weekly meetings.  Seems like overkill.  And anyway, I don’t want to kick the habit entirely, just control it.

I see my five-year old wandering around, causing trouble and a simple solution appears magically in my mind.  I ask him to hide the licorice.  He is very good at hiding things that do not belong to him – remote controls, his brother’s toys, my watch etc. etc. He’ll love to hide the licorice.  There are a couple of problems.  It is my intention to ask him to bring the licorice back every day so I can have a few pieces.  But there is s significant chance that he’ll forget where he hid the bag.  So what?  Then, we’ll lose the bag and the licorice. But this is not any worse than the LLA solution of cutting out the addiction completely.

There is a second and quite famous problem from incentive theory: Who will monitor the monitor?  In other words, perhaps your police-kid will eat the licorice himself.  For this problem I have an answer.  My five-year old will consume strawberry Twizzlers by the cartful, but black, spicy licorice, I think not.  I am proved right.  One piece of licorice is chewed but the rest are intact.

Thinking about it, I realize that I have used a variation of an old idea of Oliver Wlliamson’s, “Credible Commitments: Using Hostages to Support Exchange” (jstor gated version). In his analysis, a contracting party A voluntarily hands over an “ugly princess” to party B to give party A the incentive to perform some costly investment.  Party B does not value the princess and hands her over once the investment is sunk.  In my argument, the ugly princess is the licorice and instead of specific investment, I want to commit to avoid over-consumption of an addictive good.

This pretty much gives you principles under which this mechanism works: Consumption of good that is addictive for party A but has no value for party B can be controlled by allowing party B to control the use of the good.  Party A might return the favor for party B (e.g. by rationing computer game time).  Only, my party B would never agree to this voluntarily and would see as a violation of civil liberties rather than as a favor.  This level of addiction I have no solution for….

Whether it is desirable to have your kid fall asleep in the car goes through cycles as they age. It’s lovely to have your infant fall asleep in the snap-out car carriers. Just move inside and the nap continues undisturbed. By the time they are toddlers and you are trying to keep a schedule, the car nap only messes things up. Eventually though, getting them to fall asleep in the car is a free lunch:  sleep they wouldn’t otherwise get, a moment of peace you wouldn’t otherwise get. Best of all at the end of a long day if you can carry them into bed you skip out on the usual nighttime madness.

Our kids are all at that age and so its a regular family joke in the car ride home that the first to fall asleep gets a prize. It sometimes even works. But I learned something on our vacation last month we went on a couple of longer then usual car trips. Someone will fall asleep first, and once that happens the contest is over. The other two have no incentives. Also, in the first-to-fall game, each child has an incentive to keep the others awake. Not good for the parents. (And this second problem persists even if you try to remedy the first by adding runner-up prizes.)

So the new game in town is last-to-sleep gets a prize. You would think that this keeps them up too long but it actually has some nice properties. Optimal play in this game has each child pretending to sleep, thereby tricking the others into thinking they can fall asleep and be the last. So there’s lots of quiet even before they fall asleep. And there’s no better way to get a tired kid to fall asleep than to have him sit still, as if sleeping, in a quiet car.

Subjects in an experiment were shown pictures of people of the opposite sex and were asked to rate their attractiveness.  Some subjects were first subliminally flashed pictures of their opposite-sex parent.  For other subjects the pictures they were rating were actually a composite image made from pictures of the subject himself.  Both of these induced higher attractiveness ratings.

Finally, in a third treatment the subjects were falsely (!) told that the images they were seeing were partly morphed from pictures of themselves.  This reduced the attractiveness ratings.

Here is a link to the paper.

How to allocate an indivisible object to one of three children, it’s a parent’s daily mechanism design problem. Today I used the first-response mechanism.  “Who wants X?”  And whoever says “me!” first gets it.

This dimension of screening, response time,  is absent from most theoretical treatments.  While in principle it can be modeled, it won’t arise in conventional models because “rational” agents take no time to decide what they want.

But the idea behind using it in practice is that the quicker you can commit yourself the more likely it is you value it a lot.  Of course it doesn’t work with “who wants ice cream?”   But it does make sense when its “We’ve got 3 popsicles, who wants the blue one?”  We are aiming at efficiency here since fairness is either moot (because any allocation is going to leave two out in the cold) or a part of a long-run scheme whereby each child wins with equal frequency asymptotically.

It’s not without its problems.

  1. Free disposal is hard to prevent.  Eventually the precocious child figures out to shout first and think later, reneging if she realizes she doesn’t want it.
  2. There’s also ex-post negotiation.  You might think that this can only lead to Pareto improvements but not so fast.  Child #1 can “strongly encourage” child #2 to hand over the goodies.  A trade of goods for “security” is not necessarily Pareto improving when the incentives are fully accounted for.
  3. It prevents efficient combinatorial allocation when there are externalities and/or complementarities.  Such as, “who’s going in Mommy’s car?”  A too-quick “me!” invites a version of the exposure problem if child #3 follows suit.

Still, it has its place in a parent’s repertoire of mechanisms.

An eternal puzzle is how a husband/father handles visits by his mother without agonizing conflict between the wife and her mother-in-law.  Here is my Machiavellian solution.  The husband should engineer a conflict with his mother that puts him in the wrong.  Then the wife and her mother-in-law will naturally bond in the face of a mutual enemy.  Don’t forget the key condition that the crime has to be egregious enough so the wife does not come to your defense.  This is why the conflict should not be with the wife:  your mother, being your mother,  is naturally more inclined to side with you.  Added bonus:  husband is conveniently ostracized!

A hot day in Boston.  What could be better than a trip to the leafy sculpture garden at the DeCordova Museum?   Try to help the red man climb out of the Earth.  Build dams in the stream in the Rain Gates.  Tap on the Two Black Hearts to see if they hollow.  Try to take out the stovetop espresso maker embedded in one of the hearts.There is a lot more to see and do in the garden.  The Museum itself is in a lovely building. You can see the faux château roofs as you walk around the garden.  It has interesting exhibits and a little café that serves pre-made sandwiches and salads.  But the Museum is not the reason to go to the DeCordova.  It is the sculpture garden that makes it worth the trip.

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