Friday, December 28, 2007

Cowards

I remember after the September 11th attacks six years ago all of the talking heads were tossing around the word "cowards" to describe the terrorists. I was first confused, and then a little annoyed. Yes, what they did was clearly malicious and ignorant, but were they cowards? The idea that they would sacrifice themselves for their cause struck me not as cowardly, but brave. Surely what they had accomplished was not easy.

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto yesterday, politicians are once again referring to an act of suicide as "cowardly." George Bush himself said so. But this time I'm beginning to understand what they mean.

Acts of suicide terrorism are cowardly because they allow the suicide bomber to opt out of the situation without having to do any actual work. They feel as if they have done something worthy for their cause. They can now retire to their afterlife (presumably a good one) in peace.

I am willing to acknowledge that the conditions in which many of these young men grow up must be horrible. I do not know the life details of the man who blew himself up yesterday, but I can imagine that he probably lived in fear of hunger and lacked proper medical care. When he was offered a way out of it all, a way that may have brought honor and money to his family, I can see why he might have been tempted.

But when he accepted that role as a suicide bomber, he did not care about how it would affect his community. He would never see the community again after his death. He was doing it for himself.

Bravery is taking action that will start a positive change in your community, regardless of how it might affect you. That is why bravery has often become associated with self-sacrifice. It is about putting others ahead of yourself.

Cowardice is making the easiest choice for yourself, regardless of how it might affect your community. Suicide bombing is a cowardly act. Today it is more clear than ever that the world needs more brave men, and fewer cowards.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Clarification

If some guy says that a picture of a group of people is good, what he means is that he himself looks good in it.

If some guy says that a picture of a group of people is bad, what he means is that he himself does not look good in it.

Fruit Bias

There's no doubt that monkeys have probably been on to something all along: bananas are good. Indeed, not only do they taste good, but they are part of a balanced meal. Most sweets, on the other hand, begin to drain your energy after a short term spike.

Unfortunately, most animals are quite poor at time-based learning. It is very difficult for us to establish a time-delayed contiguity between two stimuli. We may know that eating a slice of fudge will drain us of energy in an hour, but when we look at chocolate all we think of is the short term energy boost. My heart rate is speeding up right now from merely writing about chocolate.

When I think about a banana, I reach no such mental nirvana. Let me get this straight: I know that bananas taste good. Every time that I actually eat a banana, or some melon, or an apple, or most any fruit, I am surprised by how good it tastes.

But if presented with the choice between fruit and chocolate as a desert, I will almost always prefer the chocolate. This is counter intuitive to my long-term goals of maintaining good health, my short-term goals of having energy an hour later, and even my immediate goals: a good banana tastes no better nor worse than any type of candy. It is clear that I am biased against fruit. I offer three explanations:

a) Social cues make fruit seem less sexy. You bring an apple to your teacher, you don't steal one and eat it while no one is looking.

b) My aforementioned inability to see a time-delayed relationship, which makes sweets seem nicer than they really are.

c) The clean-up factor involved in most types of fruit. You have to deal with the banana peel, or the apple core, or the little part of the strawberry that nobody eats. Although it is sort of bad ass to throw an apple core on the side of the road, and have somebody look at you funny, only to respond that "it's biodegradable."

Anyway, I'm biased against fruit, and now that I realize that, hopefully I'll begin to work against it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

One the whole, I'm not that mad about it

While I was reading this story about a modern art museum robbery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, it struck me that an artist might be pleased to find out that his painting had been stolen in a major heist. I certainly would be smugly happy to know that my work had caused such a commotion. There's a little Helen of Troy in each of us.

It also strikes me that imitation is not the highest form of flattery. Theft is.

A suggestion for imdb.com that would be really money

Why not allow users to see how their friends have rated movies? Right now you can vote on movies, your votes can be added to the average score, and you can make your votes public. But there is no way to see how a particular individual has rated a particular movie without a substantial amount of effort.

What I'm suggesting is that each movie's page has a hyperlink right below the average score titled "your friend's scores" that leads you to a separate page. There you find a list of how highly each of your friends have rated the movie out of 10. And for people with no friends, there would be a simple way to add people whose opinions you respect onto the list. If you enjoy somebody's written review, you could "subscribe" to their rankings and their opinions on movies will be added to your list. Of course, not everybody will have seen every movie, but this option could tell you which movies your friends have seen and whether or not they liked them.

Note that people are already ranking tons of movies and that these rankings are already public, so this shouldn't be all that hard to configure. Make it happen, imdb! This probably could also work as a facebook application, although it would have to start from the ground up.

By the way, I've been on a tear of watching movies this break, here are my most recent scores:

Eastern Promises - 10/10
The Shining - 9/10
1408 - 6/10
National Treasure Part II - 5/10
No Country for Old Men - 9/10

Merry Christmas guys.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Diagram of a neuron, and why simple is often (always?) better

The Children's Hospital Boston has an instructive interactive diagram explaining some of the electrical and chemical processes in the neuron. Although it probably goes into slightly less detail, quite frankly it does a solid job of summarizing the information I learned about neurons in my physiological psychology class this semester.

It is strange, then, that it is advertised as "for children." What kind of children are they talking about? I didn't see any references to Digimon. This reminds me of Eliezer Yudkowsky's post about when he tried to explain Bayesian inference at the elementary school level. It ended up being wildly successful for college-level students. I have two conclusions:

1) Don't allow hubris to prevent you from reading things aimed for a lower level than you consider yourself. It will be easier to read and it will help you ground yourself on the basics.

2) If you are explaining something, it might be helpful to pretend that you are explaining it to somebody at a much lower technical level than you really are. You shouldn't admit it, of course (to avoid problem #1 altogether), but it will help the actual understanding of your readers tremendously.

Of course, this all assumes that you know what you're talking about. If you don't, you should probably go ahead and use as much technical jargon and as many acronyms as possible.

Link to the diagram of the neuron. (Hat tip: Mind Hacks)

Yes, I encourage you to start a blog

I am always enthusiastic when somebody mentions that they might want to start a blog. Wildly so, some might say. I'll offer to help you set it up (although it is absurdly intuitive), and throw out some ideas about what to write about.

Why do I do so? Aside from believing that their writing will be interesting to read, there is a tremendous advantage for me to have friends who blog. A few reasons:

a) Staying in touch: We all have tons of difficulty staying in touch with old friends. Keeping a blog makes it so simple to keep in touch with what people are doing, and what people are thinking. If you post a couple of paragraphs every day, they will automatically update to my RSS reader, and I can probably read everything you write in around 5 minutes a week. That's not a lot to be intimately connected to what somebody is thinking from anywhere in the world.

b) Other people who blog can't make fun of me behind my back for doing so.

c) Site ranking: As of now, the #1 goal of this blog is to remain the first choice when somebody searches for andy mckenzie in Google. Fooling the algorithms is not easy, so the simplest way to make sure that I maintain my spot at the top of the results is to have people that link to me. I link to you, you link to me; it's just a little quid pro quo between friends. And if there's mutual masturbation involved (and there generally is), that's just icing on the cake.

So when I tell you to start writing, I mean it. Your blog will not be a time drain, it will be a pleasure. Join us, and don't look back.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The top 5 all time home run leaders

1) Barry Bonds - 762
2) Hank Aaron - 755
3) Babe Ruth - 714
4) Willie Mays - 660
5) Sammy Sosa - 609

Truly incredible feats by each and every one of these players. Their efforts transcend sports.

(Follow-up to Updated AFC East Standings, Week 14)

The Conformity Theory

A couple of weeks ago our basketball team played in The Hudson Valley Shootout in Bard. The games were fun, but the most interesting part of the tournament was how many fans Bard had in their gym. My rough guess was 150 students (out of 1800 undergrads), but it could have been more. And they were rowdy. I heard a story that four years ago when we last played there the fans cut out a picture of our best player's head and stuck it on a poster with a picture of George Bush's body.

Those of you who don't know much about Bard probably assume that it is some sort of big jock school, a liberal arts version of USC or something. But anybody that has seen the student body knows otherwise. These kids are artsy. I saw more wool sweaters and tight jeans during two hours at Bard than I saw in four years of high school. They're too trendy to shop at H&M, too politically heterodox to vote Green. They're too fucking punk rock to listen to punk rock.

So why do they go in droves to watch their basketball team? Basketball, the mainstream sport that was started by a crotchety old guy from the YMCA? I think it's because they're so non-conformist that they conform.

If everybody starts out as conforming, some cool people will probably end up not conforming in order to stand out. But if all of the cool kids are doing it, then everybody else will too. Now most everybody is non-conforming. So the next generation of non-conformists are so-non-conformist that they refuse to conform with their fellow non-conformists, and they conform. Viola, watching Bard basketball is cool again. This diagram should help explain my point (click on the image to make it bigger):

The numbers refer to degrees of coolness. So 0 corresponds to your average Mathlete competitor, and 720 is reserved for Chris Brown driving down to Tijuana in a convertible smoking a blunt, with his arm around Jessica Alba. Moreover, the numbers can apply to both individual people and activities. In the example of Bard basketball, the coolness of the activity jumped from 180, where nobody went, to 360, where suddenly it was cool enough to go again. If this all seems complicated, good. Keeping up with the cool kids can't be easy, otherwise everybody would be cool.

My advice to sports teams at trendy liberal art schools that want to get more fans at their games? Go semi-underground and market the team as conformist or boring. Maybe write an article in the campus newspaper under a pen name about how traditional sports are washed up and irrelevant. Explain in layman's terms why nobody watches the games anymore. Then sit back and watch the crowd tip back in your favor.

Updated AFC East Standings, Week 14

New England Patriots (13-0)*
Bufallo Bills (7-6)
New York Jets (3-10)
Miami Dolphins (0-13)

* = the Patriots are huge cheaters.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Does embracing your narcissism mean that you have to feel superior than other people?

I just took an online psychology study for extra credit, and while I don't want to ruin the experimental integrity of the study (so if you are planning on taking it, don't read this post), one of the questions has stuck with me. The section asks you to rate which attitude you most agree with. So either you believe more strongly that,

a) I am not better or no worse than most people
or b) I think I am a special person.

There are some social cues working against the second answer, and overconfidence bias working against choosing the first answer. I suppose that this question aims to determine which of these forces is stronger, and hopefully illuminate how narcissistic you are.

Tyler Durden insists in Fight Club that you "are not a special, unique snowflake." But I think that for the purposes of positive psychology and pragmatism (ie, getting shit done) it is more useful to consider yourself as at least a little bit special. If you don't think of yourself as special, why should you even do anything? You might as well wait for somebody else to do it first. And as Victor Frankl describes in Man's Search for Meaning, a purposeful life is one of our core human needs. So there is plenty of reason to choose option b, and nobody can fault you for that.

But there may be reason to fault those who believe that they are better or worse than others. To not believe that you are "not better or worse than most people," or in essence to believe that you are intrinsically better than most other people at just life in general, is a scary thought. It's the idea that led Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment that it was forgivable to commit murder. So there is also very good reason to choose option a.

So here's the problem that this question poses us, and I would say that this question is indicative of our society's general view towards narcissism. Either we think of ourselves as special, and better than other people, or we think of ourselves as boring, but the same worth as everybody else. Do you have to feel superior to others in order to embrace your narcissism? Or, can you think of yourselves as special and still assign yourself the same value as you assign everybody else? Let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Self-Help Tips

"Ways to Improve Self-Esteem:

- Identify the people you feel intimidated by. Learn to be assertive with them.

- When you fail at something, say: "That's okay. I'll do better next time."

- When you're feeling blue, say "It's okay. I will be alright."

- If your day was rough, relax in the evening or as soon as you can.

- When you try something new and don't catch on right away, give yourself credit for trying."

These were taken from Vassar College's "Minding Your Mental Health" booklet. Does anyone else find them hilarious? I think that the reason why is probably because they totally ignore the context of the situation. I mean, this is all good advice, but there's no way that somebody is going to remember to give themselves credit for trying when they suck at badminton (or something) and everybody is laughing at them.

The bottom line? Naive people can be funny, especially when you have to hand it to them because they make some good points.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dropping out... all of the cool kids are doing it

Recently I've realized more and more that all of the sweet people that are associated with Vassar came but never graduated. It has all the trappings of a good theory, especially surprise. But without data, it was going nowhere. So I looked at Wikipedia's List of Vassar College People, which includes those who attended but did not graduate, and I did a quoted google search of each person's name. Here are the top results:

1) Meryl Streep - 2,520,000 results, graduated. Two-time Oscar winning actress.
2) Jane Fonda - 2,270,000 results, did not graduate. Two-time Oscar winning actress.
3) Anne Hathaway - 2,150,000 results, did not graduate. Actress, ironically starred alongside Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Gorgeous.
4) Lisa Kudrow - 1,530,000 results, graduated. "Pheobe" from friends.
5) Anthony Bourdain - 1,240,000 results, did not graduate. Famous chef, hosts a show on the Travel channel.
6) Justin Long - 1,040,000 results, graduated. Actor in Waiting, among others. My boy.
7) Jacqueline Kennedy - 626,000 results, did not graduate. Wife of Jack Kennedy.
8) Neil Strauss - 555,000 results, did not graduate. Author of "The Game."
9) Noah Baumbach - 544,000 results, graduated. Co-Wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson.
10) Hope Davis - 503,000 results, graduated. Actress, plays quasi-major role in many movies including About Schmidt.

All in all, I think that this was a solid experimental design. While the number of google search results is probably not the best way of determining popularity, it is blind to the nature of the study, and I would say that the top people on that list are probably the best known. The only problem with the google search is that it is hard to decide what is the most appropriate name to use. While Mike D could have been used instead of Michael Diamond, it may have given him too many results because "D" is so common compared to a normal last name. But he didn't graduate from Vassar, so if anything the results are skewed in the other way than I expected.

Either way, given that the Vassar College graduation rate after 6 years is 89% percent right now, the fact that 5 out of the top 10 most popular people did not graduate shows that there might be something in this dropping out business. Any thoughts?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Do you become happier as you age?

I somehow stumbled across this article about how happiness correlates with age, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. You should check it out. Money graf:

"In a study published in September in Psychological Science, Wood and her collaborator, neuroscientist Michael Kisley of the University of Colorado, recorded the brain activity of 63 adults, ranging in age, who were shown a series of negative and positive images, such as dead animals or a bowl of ice cream. Older adults were about 30% less reactive to the negative images compared with the younger adults."

Anyway, I figured that I could attempt to replicate this article's findings in my own life. I'm sending the article to myself using a 13-year time delay (I'll be 32!), reading it again, and deciding whether or not I agree with the results then.

Two key assumptions: 1) that I'll still have the same e-mail address and 2) that I'll still be alive. But as long as those two points are met, we could be in for some pretty sweet results. Bookmark this page, and come back in 2020.

Edit: By the way, the program I used to send myself the message in the future was called Time Cave. I've never seen a website with more incentive for people to donate.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Setting your own standards

On the basketball team here, our coach has set high consequences for tardiness to practice. If anybody is late, we have to do painfully taxing sprints for each minute that person is late. It has produced a culture where everybody is on-edge about showing up on time. This is undoubtedly a wise move by our coaches, as it stimulates efficiency and ensures that if somebody is late once, it is unlikely to happen again.

But on the individual level, one of the results of this strict policy is that every other situation of being late has lowered in priority. Lunch at the dining center? It wouldn't hurt anybody if I was late. Class? Nobody will care if I'm late. Work? At least if I'm late there, my boss won't make everybody else go out to the parking lot and do up-downs. If I am late anywhere else, the consequences pale in comparison to practice. The result is that I'm finding myself snoozing in the morning more and more, and arriving to commitments later and later.

In psychology this consequence for tardiness is known as positive punishment, because a stimulus (having to run) is added in order to deter team members from lateness. And it seems that when you remove that stimulus, the subject show up late more often, because the direct punishments for lateness have been removed. At least, that is what you would expect from a rat in an experimental design.

But if we as humans fancy ourselves on being more in control of our actions than rats, which I think that we do, we must overcome these outside forces. Other people may reward certain actions of ours, or punish certain other ones, but the true decision-maker will reject these outside stimuli. If you value being on time, then you should be on time for everything, regardless of the reward systems in place.

If you want to get something done, then you should set your own standards.

Dark meat is pretty much just as good for you as white meat

This quick article from the NYT is pretty relevant right now, given that Thanksgiving is right around the corner. While an ounce of dark meat has slightly more calories than white meat, 50 to 46, it's no reason to fret.

I would recommend telling this to people after dinner, unless you want the vultures to hawk even more of the dark meat the first go around. If you don't want anyone to know how much dark meat you've hoarded, smothering your turkey in stuffing and gravy has always worked for me.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blogging is literally blowing up

Seriously though, the blogosphere is more on fire at Vassar than Main building every year on Halloween . Here's some of the new blogs I've come across recently:

Blog Attempt #1 - My friend Joe, an alum from the basketball team, muses about books, sports, and his Will Bike for Food Organization, among other topics. His posts are astute yet poignant, a rare combination and almost certainly a result of his outstanding Vassar education.

Critical Flop - Vassar alum Aaron Terr writes articles in satirical onion-style form about celebrities, politicians, and anything else you can imagine. Very, very funny stuff.

Butterworth's Basketball Blog - My friend Brian, also from the basketball team, posts his thoughts about sports, especially from his perspective as a Bostonite (he is very Bostinian). Rather young blog, but you might as well jump on the bandwagon now before it fills up.

Mads Vassar
- Probably the most prolific blogger on the Vassar campus, Mads keeps you updated at a deafening pace of which parties were the most legit, and which speakers were worth listening to. Although it's run anonymously, we're pretty sure here at the bi-monthly that the author is a freshman and lives in Jewett. Beyond that, the mystery is a part of the appeal.

Just when you think that you're alone, you realize that there's people all around you. If you too would like to start a blog, please e-mail me at amckenz(at)gmail(dot)com, and I'll help you set one up.

Modern-Day Warfare

Excellent analysis of how terrorism will play out in the 21st century over at Robert Greene's blog. He references late 19th century Russia, which he claims spawned the first terrorist group, the Narodnaya Volia. Their goal was not to actually stage a coup but simply to cause strife and chaos in the country, in an effort to cause some sort of change in a desperate situation. While they were eventually disbanded by the government, the overreaction they caused was a contributing factor to the Russian revolutions in the 20th century.

Sound anything like today? Greene certainly seems to think so. Here's the money quote:
We have taken a situation that for us was manageable and stable, and have introduced tremendous insecurity and chaos into the region. The chances for conflict spilling over borders has been greatly increased. We might look back thirty years from now and see something similar to what had happened in Russia. In the end, if such were the case, the attack of 9/11 would have to be considered the most successful military ventures in all of history--based on the size of the attackers and the effects of their action.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The psychology of hating the referee

Any serious athlete or fan has had multiple experiences dealing with referees (or umpires, or whatever) that they thought had a vendetta against their team. In fact, you probably have dealt with a couple of refs whose faces you've have memorized in case you see them in a dark alley 10 years from now. We've all been there.

Having been on both sides of the equation, as a soccer referee, I can attest that it's not as easy as it looks. You have so many different things to keep track of--was that offsides, does that slide tackle warrant a yellow card, is that cute older sister in the stands talking to her boyfriend or just some dude, and all the while you just want the game to be over with so you can get paid.

Unfortunately, nobody takes any of that into account. I had parents--of 9 year olds!--yell at me from across the field well after the game, when they were walking back to their cars. One minute its, "here, Johnny, have a couple of orange slices, make sure you stay hydrated slugger," and the next its, "hey ref, you suck, take out your whistle next time, you blew the game!" It's crazy. But what you learn to realize as a ref is that everybody loves to vent some anger by getting out of control now and then. Reason #45357 why an iPod is the best money you've ever spent.

Anyway, I've come up with a few biases to try to explain why people get so angry at the refs at sporting events (all definitions from Wikipedia, the premiere source for information, whether broad academia is willing to admit it or not):

"Illusion of control — the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they clearly cannot."

This is a big one in sports, where people at home and in the stands believe that they have an impact on what happens in the games based on their cheering, whether or not they watched a given play, or whatever. While it's fun to feel like part of the team, it probably means that you take any referee errors a little bit too personally.

"Impact bias — the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of the impact of future feeling states."

When a referee makes a questionable decision in the game, people have the right to feel a little bit upset. Bill Simmons has a famous Levels of Losing column in which he pretty much talks about how awful it is to lose, and he's right. But generally nobody seems willing to admit that there will be another play, and another game. If they were, they might not care about a couple of bad calls, even if the ref does clearly need LASIK eye surgery.

"Actor-observer bias -- the tendency to attribute their own behavior to their circumstances, but tend to attribute other people's behaviors to their dispositions."

When a ref makes a call, we automatically assume that it must be their fault--they weren't paying attention or they are racist, even when it's just as likely that the ref had a tough angle or was forced to make the decision on the move in a split second.

Any other reasons why we chastise referees so much?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Your nice quick 2 hour depression-inducing read of the day

This long survey from the Economist on religion across the globe has blown up in the blogosphere, for good reason. It tackles important issues that every human has a vested interest in. One of the major themes seems to be an unfortunate lack of knowledge on all sides. Describing the Isreal-Palestine conflict, the Brits chide that,

Ignorance rules on all sides. Most Muslims seem totally unaware that Arabs can vote in Israel. Many Jews, even in Israel, are separated from the routine miseries of Palestinian life. American evangelicals are shocked to discover that some Palestinians are Christians.

Despite the plethora of reasons to despair, I am slightly more optimistic than I probably should be, for one reason: the internet. While knowledge is dead, access to information remains paramount, and my gut tells me that even the most enthusiastic proselytizers will not be able to lead people to violence in the face of cold, hard facts. My friend Jeremy co-founded a blog called Jews, Muslims and Dialogue that has attempted to bring together Jews and Muslims at Yale to have open discussion. Each one of their posts is a step towards peace. And there's no such thing as a small step in that direction.

The article is long, but it might be the most important thing you will read all month. You can't pass that opportunity up, even if you do have a statistics test you should be studying for.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Scott, American Gangster

This is undoubtedly a noteworthy flick, full of the requisite shotguns and sledgehammers that we expected. The ending was solid, as is the tendency for movies based on true stories, probably because there's nothing "unrealistic" for you to complain about if the events actually happened. Russell Crowe has swagger for weeks as the tough Jewish cop that can't be bought, and Denzel brings it as a entrepreneurial gangster that works the supply side to undercut the competition in true OG fashion.

However, this movie is not another mob classic, mainly because the rest of the characters were afterthoughts. Also, some of the side story lines, especially those with Crowe's character, were too predictable. They came off as reaching to develop the character instead of just telling the story. This would be OK if the movie was under two hours, but any time a movie is 2 and a half hours plus, every scene needs to be critical, and every second of screen time needs to be scrutinized.

Nevertheless, you definitely ought see this movie for two reasons:

1) The rapper TI plays Denzel's nephew, a pitching phenom who lacks direction. It's ironic to see TI in a movie about gangsters because he was just arrested for buying illegal assault weapons. He's not a bad actor considering his primary profession of rapping, but seeing him on screen gave me a chuckle every time.

2) It reaffirms one of Hollywood's biggest moral values these days: you cannot kill animals. Killing human beings seems to be OK, especially if they've talked behind your back or called you names, but shooting an animal is a grave error. I don't want to give anything away, but one of the characters ends up shooting a dog towards the end of the movie, and let's just say that he gets his just deserts.

Rated 8/10 on imdb.com (you also can check out my vote history if you'd like).

Not everything good is bad for you

We all start out our lives as children believing that anything that is said to be "good" for you, or more likely just what our parents want us to eat, will taste bad. The classic example of this phenomenon is broccoli, which has been shoved down the throat of children or used as a prerequisite for desert since Martin Luther posted his 99 theses.

However, as we get older, we begin to realize that broccoli is really not so bad tasting after all. Indeed, if cooked and tossed with a touch of Parmesan, it can be quite appetizing. Nevertheless, the thought process remains intact, seemingly disregarding a few solid counterexamples. For a long time now, if something is said to be good for me, my first presupposition is that I will find it impetuously disgusting.

Now that all of that nonsense is aside, I can describe to you the best possible test for proving this theory false once and for all. Anybody that has ever bought a multi-pack of Clif Bars knows that you are lukewarm to the Peanut Butter ones, you worship the Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch ones, and you learn to despise Oatmeal Raisin ones faster than you learn to hate Chris Wilton from Match Point.

So with such a healthy hatred of Oatmeal Raisin, and with such a longing for Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch, one would naturally assume that the latter must be substantially less healthy for you. After all, if it tastes better, it must be worse for you. But this is when you compare the nutritional facts and learn one of the greatest life lessons you will ever learn.

Spoiler alert, dear readers. The nutritional facts for these two bars, which differ so tremendously in taste, are exactly the same. The consequences here are broad-reaching, and are probably beyond the scope of this blog to explore fully. So instead I will leave you with a simple forewarning. In the course of your adventures, gustatory or otherwise, do not assume that everything that good is bad for you. We'll all be better off for it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Knowledge is Dead

My buddy Andrew, one of the many bright young minds attending Claremont McKenna College, poses a fantastic question in his comment to my previous post. Among other things, he writes that,

"Most blogs talk about current events or future events. I haven't seen many blogs on the history of French republics or blogs on the Fed. Papers. It seems history might be hard to chase down in the blogging world."

So the question is, can and will you learn the relevant history of a particular subject just from reading a blog on it? Or, must you take a class in order to read a wide range of information on the subject and have a teacher evaluate your knowledge?

My response would be that blogs once again will trump traditional methods of learning here. While traditional learning tells you to read up so that you can have general knowledge that may or may not be helpful in the future (and so you can get a good grade, ugh), reading up on current happenings demands that you be literate in past events so that you can understand what is going on now.

The difference is one of incentives. Classroom learning posits a long-range reward of understanding French history with the rationale that eventually it will be useful. The current events that you read about in blogs, on the other hand, give you immediate incentive to search for an article about the Marshall Plan on Wikipedia to understand how our foreign intervention policies have morphed into what is going on in Iraq. There's no grading system that rewards cramming online, just your desire to understand the world around you.

In a world where information is so liquid with Google Scholar and Wikipedia at each of our fingertips, and Amazon able to drop any book on your doorstep within two days, I would expect that mass stores of prior knowledge would be even less helpful.

Nevertheless, I'm not about to drop out of Vassar next semester and I intend to finish my stay here, for two main reasons:

a) The social scene, including but not limited to being around a bunch of smart and funny guys on the basketball team, is incredible and probably couldn't be replicated anywhere else.

b) There's little economic incentive to blog and read blogs, because our mainstream society is nowhere near to accepting this form of knowledge. If I want recognition for my studies, which isn't necessary but undoubtedly provides a sense of security, I must grind out the process and receive a formal degree.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Models of Learning

OK, this is an incredibly subjective question, but I'm going to pose it anyway.

What would make you more intelligent, attending the classes of a rigorous four-year college for a semester or reading some of the top influential blogs on a daily basis and blogging your responses for four months? I think that many in the "real world" (ie, people who probably definitely wouldn't read this blog anyway), would knee-jerkily respond that college is the obvious choice here.

But hear me out here. Reading many of the top economics, science, and political blogs over the past four to five months has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Freakonomics and Marginal Revolution have taught me a love for data. Cognitive Daily and Mind Hacks help to reaffirm my belief in the importance of raw, experimental science. And reading David Brooks and Kevin Drum have kept me far more informed on the political scene than I ever was when I used to drone through CNN and the occasional Daily Show. All the while I'm actively learning, and reinforcing this learning by writing about these subjects on my own time.

Compare this experience with college. While Vassar is probably one of the most challenging schools in the country and I have had to engage in each of my classes to keep up, most of the talk among my fellow students is not about the issues, but instead about "beating the system." Respect in many cases comes not through understanding the material the best, but by getting the best grade while doing the least possible amount of work.

I'm sure that this sounds plenty pretentious, and rather rantish, by this point. But it's not meant to be. The point is, I succumb to this groupthink on a daily basis as well. It'd be remarkably difficult not to.

I'm usually not this forthright about the utility of blogging, and perhaps it is the stress of all of the work that is piling up on my shoulders that is forcing me into it. But the next time you fellow bloggers look down upon your writing as merely a hobby, consider the possibility that your supposed hobby might not be as trite as you assume.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mixing art and science

I was reading this recent article in Nature, which talks about how science could use the aesthetic process and take more risks in order to produce faster results. But I think the article could take it one step further.

What if a new wave of artists in this next century didn't work in oil or pastels but instead in genetic engineering? The next Picasso could engineer new plants that are blue and grow sideways, and display them at the MOMA in New York or San Francisco. Now that would be art that I could really appreciate, instead of this postmodern stuff that I could make in Microsoft Paint in 20 minutes on a whim.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Note to Self

Writer's block doesn't mean you don't have anything to say, it just means that you have too many individual ideas, and when compared to the whole they seem useless. Now, that's not simply to say that the first step is the hardest, in fact it probably isn't because you'll choose the easiest path, the most intuitive topic for your first step. What I'm saying is that writer's block can be a good thing. How else would you form all of your nascent ideas but to let them simmer and heat up in your brain?

So, blog readers, there is no reason to shun a break in the action now and then. As long you aren't a paid writer, taking a week or two off from writing could be quite helpful. It's like Obi-Wan in the first Star Wars. Strike me down now, Darth, and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Tic Tac Toe

Somebody offered to play me in tic-tac-toe for the first time in a long time when we were stuck in class the other day. While I was more than down to blow off some steam, I had to say no, and vehemently. I refuse to play that game ever again. There's two quick reasons why:

A) It gives a bigger advantage to the player that goes first than any game I have ever seen in my life. You might as well just try to play a game of backyard football and let Bill Belichick coach the other team and use a cell phone with video and picture messaging. Just like there's no way you can win if you go second in tic tac toe, there's no way you can win against huge cheaters like the Patriots.

B) You know how the worst punishments the Greeks could think of was pushing a boulder up a hill all day? Well, that's because they had never seen tic tac toe. Most people are bored of this game by the second grade, when they get sick of spinning those big blocks on the play structure and would rather go hang on the monkey bars instead. If you know how to play right (and it's not hard), you'll tie every time. I can't imagine a worse possible premise for a game.

Can't we do better, America? Don't we want our children to grow up in a better world than we grew up in? If we care so much about global warming, then we should care about getting rid of things like tic tac toe. Hangman or paper ro-sham-bo would both be much better. Hell, get creative, and make your own minesweeper field for somebody to decipher. Do anything, just no more tic tac toe. I don't want to see it ever again.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Nobody tucks in their chairs anymore

Remember those days back in kindergarten where everybody used to tuck in their chairs before they could line up and go play tether ball? Well, those days are gone, replaced by a new cavalier attitude, where people walk around with huge head phones over their ears and duct tape their eyes to their mobile texters.

It's a strange new world, and I know I can't be the only one that wishes we would just slow down and put a napkin over our laps before we start eating.

Post-Script Note: I don't really wish that, I just wanted to make the point about people tucking in their chairs. I mean, it's a fire hazard. Come on.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Quote of the Day -- Computer Ineptitude Edition

"Here's the concern -- in our society now, so many things come up on Web sites and Internet," Edwards said. "First of all, I don't even have the Internet. I wouldn't even know how to use it."

That's Herm Edwards, head coach of the Kansas city chiefs, and here's the link. I'm not even going to make fun of him, because honestly I'm impressed.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Inspirational quote of the day

"We the only two people up. Me, you and Michael Jordan. That's the only people. Everybody else in the world is asleep. What you think Jordan doing right now? He lifting weights right now." -- Denzel Washington, He Got Game.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

What I'm Reading

Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl -- I can't imagine how you wouldn't be moved by the description Frankl presents of his time in concentration camps during WWII. He manages to make a multitude of pointed and thoughtful remarks on human nature along the way. One of the few books (as far as I can tell) that is easy to read and interesting, yet still highly regarded as a work of science.

Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior by Phil Jackson and some other guy that co-wrote it but is shirked to the side most of the time and nowhere to be found on amazon (Hugh Delehanty) -- A fun one, especially for somebody who plays basketball, and especially for a basketball player that is especially interested in the Zen and Native American traditions that the book discusses. The thoughts on finding a way for one competitor to win while respecting the humanity of both sides was particularly poignant. Also gets points for funny lines such as, "If you meet Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball."

The Firm by John Grishman -- Thrilling ride that centers on a young lawyer that joins a firm that pays well but is very small. Something seems to be wrong, and when the FBI gets involved, it hits the fan. An excellent travel book. Perhaps the scariest part the novel was that a part of me didn't want him to find out anything about his firm, I just wanted him to keep making money and driving his BMW and spending quality time with his apparently beautiful wife.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway -- I can see why some people might like this book, including the intricate detail it provides over a three day period, but it just wasn't for me. I spent much of the summer toiling over this book, stuck around page 350. While I eventually finished it, I need to accept that sometimes the right call is just putting the book down. Hemingway was a giant, but read this one at your own peril.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Quick thoughts and updates

1) "What kind of classes are you taking?" is a 500 times better class than "what classes are you taking?" Nobody cares about what actual classes people are in unless they are very close and are likely to forget anyway. My parents asked me 189203 times this summer what classes I was taking, and I'm sure they still don't know. Not only that, but most students hate to answer this question because they get asked all the time. I would say it'd be better just to find out generally what type of stuff they're interested in, if anything.

2) I couldn't be more excited for this upcoming year.

3) By the end of last year, I had stopped saying "hella." When I realized this, I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror for three days, I was so ashamed. When you don't say hella, you let the whole bay area down. I pledge to continue saying hella all year this time, and hopefully my whole life. It could be cool to try to work it into writing too. Any thoughts on this? Is it too colloquial?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Book Review: Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek

Tim Ferriss does a lot of things right in his first serious foray into the writing world. He crammed his book full of very useful life-hacking tips, including actual websites where these ideas could be followed up on. He included tons of interesting tidbits about his life and how he has seen angles that others haven't been able to. And perhaps most importantly, he emphasizes that each of us can be just as successful if we put our mind to it and maintain the right attitude. This book doesn't lack details, which separates it from many of the other self-help books I have read and is probably one of the key reasons that it has been so high-grossing.

Nevertheless, his book wasn't flawless. One of the main gripes I had with Ferriss's style was his attitude that the world should be working for you. He suggests that everything be outsourced, from checking your mail to researching column topics, so that you can pursue the things that you ought to care about. This is a cute idea, but there are two problems it doesn't account for:

a) You can't take an order or check a pulse while you're halfway around the world. Doing your business mobile works for some industries, but certainly not all of them.

b) It totally disregards the notion that your occupation is at least partially about doing some good in the world. If you want to be an activist, Ferriss encourages you to streamline your main occupation and commit yourself to volunteering. But what about organizations that provide valuable services or perform research critical to solving novel diseases? Maybe I'm young and idealistic, but I think that some professions might be worth not quitting.

Ferriss writes funny, quick, and interesting. You have to respect the way he has reinvented his own life. But keep in mind that while forging your own path in life is admirable, the way he specifically did it may not be for everybody.

Friday, August 24, 2007

J.K. Rowling's Last Metaphor

One of the reasons that the Harry Potter series has been so successful is Rowling's ability to illuminate problems with her society by portraying slightly altered versions of the same issues in the her fantastical wizarding world. For example, wizards who are not direct descendants of other wizards are considered "half-bloods" if one of their parents is a Muggle (the wizard term for a non-wizard) or, worse yet, "mudbloods" if both their parents were Muggles. This problem is absurd to the reader, which is partly Rowling's point because such name calling is shockingly similar to much of the racism that occurs in our real world. Countless other such metaphors are found in the series, exploring the issues that she finds important in her life through the fictional lives of Harry and friends.

While most of these metaphors make a lot of sense, the one thing that I have never understood is the reason why many in the wizarding world are unwilling to call Voldemort, the main "bad guy," by his real name. They prefer to call him "You-Know-Who," or if they are very serious about the whole thing, "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." Harry never believed in this taboo about Voldermort's name, prefering instead to follow Dumbledore's advice that "fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself." Rowling obviously included this phenomenon for a reason, for yet another social commentary, but I had up until now not been able to figure out why.

It took the death of an old classmate of mine about two weeks ago to enlighten me. While pondering how sad it is that he died, I've reflected upon how we as a society don't really discuss death until it affects us immediately. I've been lucky in that I haven't had to experience much death in my young life, but this classmate was one of the first people my age who I had known for a long time, whose house I had been over to, and who had made an impact upon my life. I think there are many reasons why death is such a hushed topic, one of which must be a fear that it will lead to unnecessary melancholy.

Through this reflection I believe I understand Rowling's last metaphor, the most convoluted yet one of the most powerful points in her series. Fear of a "name," or fear of talking about something, will only increase fear of the thing itself. The less we talk about death publicly, the more we will fear it privately. Do you agree?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

No regrets

It's easy to say no regrets when everything is going good, but when you turn down a chance to go to the Giants game where Barry Bonds hits his 756th home run, suddenly it's not so easy.

I was even going to write a line here about my excuse for why I didn't go to the game, but I don't even care. No excuses, no regrets. (Just a blog post.)

Reviews, reviewers, and the yahoos that refuse to believe in a collective rating system

One of my teachers in middle school once assigned us for homework to flip a coin 100 times and record the results of each toss. Pretty easy, we thought, especially since it would be so easy to fabricate. A couple of heads here, a couple of tails there, make sure it’s all even, and viola. Easier than cheating at monopoly when you’re the banker.

The next day, we whipped out our papers for our teacher to inspect. Some of us had made the numbers up and some of us had actually flipped the coins. Our instructor began to walk around the room, checking each paper, and declaring which of had told the truth and which of us were compulsively lying little bastards.

Apparently he was able to tell which ones were forgeries because these wasn't very much statistical variance. Real sheets will have some sequences with many of one result in a row or in a clump. The kids who faked it generally just wrote “heads, tails, heads, tails,” with maybe an occasional “tails, tails, heads.”

What on earth does this have to do with reviews? I’ll tell you what. After reviewers claim that one selection is excellent, they feel obligated, much like the nefarious students, to reverse the claim for their next review. Even if this phenomenon doesn’t operate on a conscious level, I would argue that they feel at least a subconscious pull against the current movie if they enjoyed their previous one.

For the record, they are certainly justified in their self-consciousness about how many movies in a row they give the thumps up or down. If a critic gives the old “two thumbs way up” to everything, then how much weight will his endorsement begin to hold? So I’m not blaming any movie critic in particular for falling victim to this. It’s human nature, so hate the game not the player, right?

But while I’m not attacking their persona, I am attacking their livelihood. Give it up, people, and embrace the collective rating system that is IMDB. You love it, you just don’t know it yet.

Editor’s Note: I still retain the right to become a movie reviewer at some point in my life, in which case this post will be deleted and anyone that may have seen it will be exterminated. Consider yourself duly warned.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Movie Review: The Simpsons

We all love movies that start with a bang, and The Simpsons movie definitely delivers, with a quick itchy and scratchy sketch leading right into a nice ironic segue making fun of the audience for paying for something that they could conceivably "watch for free on TV!"

But for many of the old time fans who watched the Simpsons in the early and middle nineties every Sunday night at 8:00, begging their parents to stay up "just to watch one show," we know that we can't get the real Simpsons on TV anymore. The TV show has grown stale, too Homer-centric and too played out.

So have they been saving all of the good jokes for the past 6 years for this movie? Color me lukewarm. I think that most of the good press they've been getting is due to some lowered expectations because most TV to movie flicks flop and the benefit of the doubt because of all the goodwill they've built up over the last 17 years.

Then again, it wasn't at all bad, and we probably owe the writers and creators of the show our $10, considering all the good they've brought into our lives. So if you are a fan, or if you ever were, go pay your respects at the box office and join the phenomenon. Who knows, you'll probably even chuckle a couple of times along the way.

Rated 7/10 on imdb.com.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Best of Andy

If you're new to this blog and don't want to spend too much time snooping around all of the middling posts, you've come to the right place. Here are some of my best posts by category:

Psychology
Iterating Towards Thinking Less

Bad Experiences and Great Stories
The Cognitive Dissonance of Long Books
On Jealousy
The Conformity Theory
Ways to Offset the Fear of Death

Statistics
Why Have Free Throw Percentages Remained Constant?
How to Lie With Anecdotes
Prediction Markets Suck?
Tuesday Statisticz: Music That Makes Countries Rich
Does Correlation Equal Causation?
Tuesday Statisticz: The Dude Would Have Voted Libertarian
Tuesday Statisticz: Calculating The Buddha's Caloric Intake
Is the Internet an Echo Chamber?


Philosophy
Envision Victims But Not Villians
Counter Examples in Real Life
On Boredom
Notes from the Buddha
Cranky Altruism
Making You Think

Rating Systems
The Myth of the Rational Movie Rater
Rating Incompleteness Theorem
Book Ratings

How imdb Determines the Top 250

Sports
Focal Foul Calls in Biased Refereeing
Why Aren't There More Knuckleballers?
The Golden State Warriors and Iraq
Is ESPN Going the Way of MTV?
My Contribution to Humanity
Kobe and the Self Serving Bias

Random Musings
Updated Thoughts on Climate Change
Why Some Ideas Fail
Grand Theft Cinema
Cultural Variance in Saying Good-Bye
Andy Sets a New World Record
Chess Misdiagnosed as a Game of Intellect
Peanut Butter and Jelly
The Top 10 Christ Figures

If you'd like to get in touch with me, you can either leave a comment on one of the posts or send me an e-mail at amckenz(at)gmail(dot)com. I would love to talk to you about writing, blogging, science, or whatever. I respond to e-mail religiously.

If you are feeling vindictive, you can check out the Worst of Andy as well, an aggregation of my most terrible posts.

The Stress/Creativity Model

I used to think that I couldn't accomplish anything productive unless I was stressed, because naturally stress forces one into action. But not I'm thinking that it's really more that I'm unable to accomplish anything creative, original, or worthwhile without annoying my friends about how much work I have. I think most people will agree with me that it's not hard to do something menial like math homework, but if you have to compose a piece or write an essay, it's hard to do anything good unless you're really stressed out while you're doing it. Here's the model that sums up this phenomenon (if the text is blurry blame Microsoft paint for being so bootleg--click on the image to enlarge): My original game plan was to try to ignore this relationship and do my assignments and such early. It was a great idea, but unforunately only worked zero times. So I needed something new.

Then I heard about Dostoesvky, famous Russian author, who you if you don't know, you should probably find out. I've read some of his stuff and let me tell you that on the whole the hype is for real. Anyway, the story about him is that after he would have money from the relative success of one of his former books, he would go to the casino and gamble it all away until he was broke again, apparently because he thought that unless he was hungry, he wouldn't be able to write.

My first thoughts upon hearing this story were that it is pretty legit to gamble away all of your money and not even pretend to try to win, and that all Russians remain crazy in my eyes. But then his ideas got me thinking, and I realized that he had totally the same problem that I have, only 150 years ago. However, instead of trying the ignore strategy, which legitimately doesn't work at all, he embraced his problems head on and went about finding ways to make himself more stressed. Well, why don't I do that too? My initial thoughts of ways to make myself more stressed, and thus give a much needed early boost to the creative process, are to e-mail my teacher beforehand and tell him that my paper is really nice, thus enhancing the pressure on me to write a really nice paper, or have somebody make me drink lot of hot sauce if they don't like what I've done.

But those ideas are kind of lame. Does anybody have any others? My gpa and coolness are in the hands of you, the loyal reader. Don't let me down.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Failed Blog Post Series, Part II

Failed Blog Post -- "Having a "calling" in life." I was going to write about how I think having a calling in life is a entirely ridiculous and patently absurd concept, but then I decided that just because I don't have one doesn't mean that I can't let others have their fun. I'll just stand and mock from a comfortable distance.

Failed Blog Post -- "The Platform Phenomenon." This was an idea I had while following the upcoming election a little bit and stumbled across some criticism of Barack Obama for his lack of a distinct platform. I would argue that being an effective leader is more about reacting to what's happening around you and working with others more than having good ideas yourself. Part of people's fallacy in overrating the importance of the head in any organization is that the people below him would be making a lot of the decisions. Obviously ideas are important, but a platform is an oversimplification of ideas so that it can be marketed. This post failed because it has blatant contradictions all over it and it's only effective selling point is the alliteration in the title.

Failed Blog Post -- "The Switch." This post was talking about how I was considering changing my name when I introduce myself from Andy to Andrew. It was mainly in response to everybody questioning "Eddy?" after I say Andy, ostensibly because they have issues with their ears. Andrew would reduce this confusion. I'm still definitely throwing this idea around, but somehow I feel like I would be selling out if I did so, and as you guys know, I am 100% about keeping it real around here.

Failed Blog Post -- "The Sports/Life Analogy." I wrote this one in the thick of basketball season when people were beginning to explain to me how sports were so similar to life. I am reticent to agree, because I think in many situations sports value things that might not always be valued outside of sports. Arrogance often trumps all in sports, as can a form of mindlessness, what is sometimes termed in basketball as a player who "has no conscience." But I think that we would all agree that, especially in our evolving ever-neoteric society, these qualities are not exactly fresh to death. Indeed, there are lots of reasons why making blanket statements about sport teaching lessons for life may be misguided. But ultimately, I realized that the better my post and the more well worded my explanations, the more of my own nose I would be cutting off to spite my face.

Editor's Note: These got way too long. Part III will attempt to keep them shorter. You're probably thinking, "What's that you say, there's going to be a part three? Awesome!!" Well, yes, but don't get your hopes up for soon. I've got to come up with some more post ideas and then fail at them. Wish me bad luck!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

This post may contain spoilers, but to be honest if you haven't finished reading the book you probably shouldn't even be on the internet anyway.

I'm really too mentally exhausted to write anything beyond a few simple sentences about J.K. Rowling's last installment, but I felt an obligation to my fans to give a couple of remarks about the finish to probably the greatest book series ever.

The book is very ambitious in it explorations of death, examining what may happen after you die, the way people react to the death of others, and the apparent honor in overcoming one's fear of death. It uses a lot of the surreal elements that her world allows to allow for some pretty creative angles. It works because she's built up each of these characters so much throughout the series and because we care so much when each of the characters dies. But as a stand-alone book I don't think it would be that effective, because it didn't have any of the fun side-plot like the Triwizard tournament or Harry's various love affairs that the other books had to help advance the plot. Reading the last 200 pages is a draining process; an absolute emotional roller coaster ride.

That said, I loved it, and (serious spoiler alert!) I'm really happy that she didn't kill off Harry at the end. There was a moment there when you had to be pretty sure that he was going to die, but then Rowling pulled off a cool effect where everyone thought he was dead and he sort of got to visit his own funeral, which I think is sort of a weird dream that lots of people have. That and the stuff about Dumbledore imperfect character were the strongest parts of the book. I also liked the epilogue if only because it effectively prevented anybody from making a sequel. All in all a strong finish, and I don't have to recommend the book to anybody, because if you're not a dweeb you'll read it anyway.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Failed Blog Post Series, Part I

Failed blog posts are like mistakes that you sort of regret the next day. You aren't exactly happy about it, and you tell yourself you wouldn't do it again, but you don't tell anyone about them, and subconsciously save them for a future lazy Sunday afternoon when you can't think of anything else to write about.

Of course, you forget that your Sundays are generally pretty busy after all, and before you know it you have tons and tons of old blog posts that you have no use for. So that's where this series is coming in: I'm going to briefly list the general scheme of these posts for your viewing pleasure, and them delete them from my drafts folder so I never have to see them again.

Failed Blog Post: "I Hate Political Parties." This was an old idea I had that mixes up a serving size of unrealistic idealism with a helping of ignorance, tossed with some sprinkles of teen angst. Then again, I still don't like the idea of political parties, I just don't see how not voting is going to help anything.

Failed Blog Post: "Scientific Articles Aren't Really as Complicated as they Appear." I thought this could be an awesome post until I realized that it was just a thinly veiled attempt to brag about something that really wasn't worth boasting about in the first place. It's been in my draft folder for over 6 months now.

Failed Blog Post: "In Defense of Normal People." This was supposed to be a post wondering aloud why the weird was valued so much more highly than the normal in our society. Then I remembered that this didn't apply in our society at all, just in the bubble that is Vassar. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

Failed Blog Post: "Never Question Enthusiasm." This post was inspired by how annoying it is when somebody is really into something and then somebody else is like, "dude, why do you care so much?," and the first person just feels stupid. I decided not to post it because I thought it might hit too close to home.

Well, that's it for now! Part II will probably be coming up soon though, because this feels like spring cleaning all over again, only with ideas instead of dust, and a keyboard instead of Windex.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Palindromaholics Anonymous

Do you ever find yourself looking for palindromes on the digital clock on your DVD player more often than you actually watch the movie? Do you make a wish whenever you see a palindrome like 12:21 or 6:46 on your computer? Do you certainly not condone, but can see why a cult would agree to a mass suicide on a day, and at a time, that is a palindrome? Do you think that today is hands down the most legit day of the year?

If so, then palindromaholics anonymous is the place for you. Welcome, you're one of us now.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Once someone has great talent, we assume that they must have great taste

I was listening to KDFC, classical radio at 102.1, on my way back from the gym today when I heard that the next song they were to play was composed by "Beethoven's favorite contemporary musician." I think it was they said his name was Cherubini or something. Anyway, when I heard that he was one of Beethoven's favorites, I perked up. I don't know much about classical music, but I do know that Beethoven was really nice, and if he thought this Cherubini cat was all right, then I should probably listen up. Right?

The more I thought about it (and the more I thought the piece was boring), the more I realized that this we go through this sort of thought process all of the time. If somebody excels in their field, then we assume that they must be apt at deciphering who else is talented in their field. For the most part, I think that we are correct in reserving talent analysis to those that have had success in their field. Certainly a soccer pro would be better at determining talent among a high school team than one of the parents. But I think that it is not always the case, and I have come up with two reasons to support my opposition:

a) If somebody is really skillful, it is possible that they will be focused too much on the details while everybody else cares more about the bigger picture. For example, a director or two might really appreciate a movie because there are some great angle and lighting shots, but the rest of the audience might think the movie sucks because there is little plot and no excitement (ahem, Rear Window, ahem). In this case a an experts opinion is clouded by his obsession for minutia, which is essential when working at the highest levels, but not always necessary for functioning in the more intermediate.

b) Experts in some fields may be more likely to support up-and-comers in which they see bits of themselves over the up-and-comer with the most overall talent. To continue with the soccer analogy, if a pro is known for his prowess in the air, he may overrate a young player with a penchant for heading, or even a player who excels at crossing the ball into the box, because that was his niche. In doing so, he may underrate the midfielder with good ball control or the striker with exceptional speed.

There you have it, simultaneously a theory about Beethoven's ability as a movie critic and concrete proof that Classical music promotes the creative thought process.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We all know that it's coming

So, I was thinking today about what terrible timing it would be if there was an earthquake while I was in the middle of doing squats at the gym. I think about good and bad times for earthquakes all the time; for example, it would be good during a really hard test, but bad during wisdom teeth surgery. But then it hit me: not everybody knows that we Californians/San Franciscans think about this stuff all the time. I had a flash in my head of news reports after an earthquake in the future, with reporters and analysts alike accepting it as fact that "nobody expected this to happen."

Well, let me set all of you people in the future straight. We realize that an earthquake will probably hit California soon, and hard. It will probably be bad timing for most but may be good timing for some. Either way, the important thing to remember is that we all know [knew] that it is [was] coming.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Buddhism Part II

There was some reaction to my previous post that Buddhism would be a hard religion for a working man to follow. You can read the post and the comments here. Dario and Ben had a pretty interesting idea of taking only the parts of eliminating worldly desire that you can, and keeping the desires that you have to have in order to maintain a business and social life.

The natural progression of this idea is to segregate worldly desires into "things that you can't control" and "things that you can control," and only care about the things you can control. This would be a great idea except that a) it's impossible and b) well, (a) pretty much sums it up.

Why? Because first of all, it's very easy to argue and truly believe that nearly everything which matters is in your life is conceivably either in your control, or not in your control. Most things that you care about you probably could have had more control over, if you could go back and change something you did, even if you didn't think you were didn't anything bad at the time.1 On the flip side, you could also say that you can't control much stuff, because your bosses may have previous experiences that predispose them to dislike people like you, or you may be really weak and skinny not because of a lack of power cleans and protein shakes, but because of bad genes. It's hard to say.

People's experiences and genes collide at a million miles each day, and most of the time that it happens I'm left reeling. I'm just trying to remember what the person's name was, much less what what we talked about, what type of person he is, or whether his influence made me do something, because perhaps I would have done it anyway.

It is much too confusing and time consuming to try to accurately determine which things you can control and should worry about and which things you can't and shouldn't. In fact, the successful completion of the task itself could be easily construed as a desire, meaning that by actually becoming a Buddhist, you are probably living a less Buddhist lifestyle.

Which leads me to the only way to make Buddhism really work. To make everything simpler, you define which parts of your life you think are most important to you, the things that you need to maintain your healthy professional and social life, and you invest all your desire in only those things. This idea works in theory, and is actually a very appealing notion, until you realize that you are now actually considering what is essentially a virtue ethics philosophy and are nearly as far away from Buddhism as you can possibly be.

So here I am, at the crossroads of deciding whether or not it is both possible and reasonable for me to be Buddhist in our society. I've come to the conclusion that my whole life I'm going to have this conundrum looming in the back of my mind and thriving in the periods of my stress. My whole life I'm going to struggle with this. And then the moment that I'm about to die, whenever it is, I'm going to be absolutely positively sure that I've have reached a state where I lack desire, what many would consider enlightenment. Maybe I'll even say something profound, or write a death poem. But then, I think I'm going to have to laugh, because I'll know it's all just bullocks anyways.

1: This phenomenon is known as regret. If you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask--I am the unofficial king of regret.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Stem Cell Debate

The stem cell debate has always struck me as slightly off-base because the two sides seem to be arguing separate problems. The opponents of it have been saying that it is morally wrong, while supporters argue two distinct issues, a) that the government shouldn't legislate morality issues that like, and b) even if the government did legislate morality, this should still be legal because it probably would save more lives at no real human cost.

Probably because it is simpler, the opponents to stem cell research actually have some credibility, although let's remember that these embryos for the stem cells were generally taken from failed fertility trials, which weren't going to lead to a pregnancy. The supporters of it, on the other hand, haven't been able to get their case straight. From my perspective, they really should give up trying to argue that the government can't legislate morality because they pretty much do; a lot of the laws in this country have been based on our moral code (what is equality if not a moral value?). The point they should be making is that stem cells could potentially lead to new discoveries which could help current people, and wouldn't stop anybody from having kids if they wanted them.

These are the issues I was thinking about when I saw the bill to allow stem cell research passed in congress, but which would soon be vetoed by the White House. Then, later today I saw this article from the NYT Science section pop up on my Google reader explaining this sweet new technique where you can essentially replicate all the effects you want from a stem cell in skin cells. The process has only been shown in rats, but then again stem cells themselves were still rather experimental. Pretty cool stuff, and it certainly could be the quickest end to this debate that I, at least, can imagine.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Is Buddhism only for the very rich and fairly poor?

I've wanted to be a Buddhist for pretty much as long as I've heard of it. The idea of ridding oneself of worldly desires, and the stress and worries that accompany the pursuit of it, really appeals to me.

But as I've become more serious about actual applying this lofty goal to my life, I've come to the realization that it would be pretty much impossible for me to accomplish without completely overhauling the structure of my life. If I completely rid myself of these desires, which is what I am told to do, then what reason would I have for ever going to a basketball practice that I don't want to at the moment, what reason would I have to write a tedious lab manuscript on soil, what reason would I even have to get a job over the summer? These are all things that I have to do in order to maintain a relatively "normal" life by society's standards, in order to pass my classes, have somewhat of a social life, and have enough money to do things like buy food. So, reasonably, there is no way that I can get rid of my desires because if I think it would be nearly impossible for me to have a normal life.

As the title of this post suggests, I think that there are two exceptions to this rule: the very rich, who have enough money to pretty much put every thing on auto pilot and not worry at all, and the fairly poor, who would be able to survive pretty much just on subsistence living and generally do their own thing. But for a normal person that wants to live a normal life in our current society, we have to have desire in order to have ambition, which you have to have in order to do really anything at all.

All of this leads us to the question, is Buddhism still a viable way of living even if you cannot completely follow its tenants? Is it an all or nothing thing, or can you follow most of the basic ideas while still having a little bit of ambition and still consider yourself a Buddhist?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Small conversations can have a large impact

About four years ago when I was a rising sophomore in high school I was a regular at the Presidio YMCA, where I try to throw up plates on the bench press while completely disregarding my form. Sometimes I would see a tall white guy on the basketball court who would threes from all over, while his trainer rebounded. Pretty soon word got around that his name was Dan Grunfeld and that he would be a junior at Stanford, where he got some playing time on the basketball team. At the time I thought it was pretty cool but I didn't really think twice about it. What did he have to do with me?

The winter changed all that. Both of us ended up with torn ACLs, me for the second time and he for the first time. I actually watched the game that when it happened, and I "called" that he had torn his ACL (I did that with every leg injury at the time, but that's besides the point). It was a somber moment for me when I saw a tough player who I had seen in person have his career ostensibly ruined just as my fledgling career was ostensibly ruined at the time.

That summer, we were both rehabbing at the YMCA. Of course, I knew why he was there, but he had really no idea why I was there. Finally, I mustered up the courage to tell him that I too had torn my ACL, that I knew how hard the process of recovery would be, and that I wished him the best of luck. From what I remember, he thanked me but seemed a little bit reserved.

The summer ended and I watched him on TV play out his senior year. He did much better than I expected him to, and as his rehab process went faster than mine did, I felt confident that I too would be able to get back after it.

Two years had passed until I saw him again in person today. It was rush hour at the gym, so only one hoop was available, next to the hoop he was shooting at. He was still bombing tres from deep and he still had the same trainer working him out.

Then all of a sudden after he missed a shot, he looked at me, said hi, and asked how my knee was doing. It really blew me away that he remembered me and even took an interest in me. We chatted for a while about what we were each doing with basketball. Apparently his knee is stronger than it has ever been and he's still working at and playing the game he loves. He seemed like an awesome guy, and was happy for me to be playing at a "great school" like Vassar.

I have no moral to draw from this story. While it might sound corny, it was really just one of those moments that made me feel happy to be alive. Sometimes a seemingly small interaction can have a large impact.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Chess misdiagnosed as a game of intellect

My brother and I were playing an intense game of chess this afternoon at a pretty sweet bar in downtown Denton, Texas, called the Jupiter. As my mom came back from antique shopping (she is an addict), she asked who was winning, adding the caveat that no matter who was winning, she would still consider us both very smart.

But while it was a kind gesture to make my brother feel better, her statement has no basis in reality. Chess is not about how book smart you are or how quickly you can do long division. It's about imposing your will on your opponent, and crushing him completely. While chess is a noble pursuit, don't make the mistake that my mom made in considering chess an intellectual game. It is a game of strength, mental fortitude, and willpower. So the next time that you beat somebody in chess and they try to give the excuse that you must have just been a little bit more alert that day, calmly explain to them that what you really did was enforce your will. That especially goes for you, Bingo.

Are you there God? It's me, LeBron.

In case you missed the pivotal game 5 of the Pistons -- Cavaliers series last night, the synopsis of the game went something like this: the Pistons were a better team, and they were playing at home, and they were probably about to win until near the end of the 4th quarter. Then LeBron James decided that his team was going to win. He scored the last 25--that's right, count 'em 25--points for the Cavs and they won in double overtime. If you remember back in the Warriors series, I posted a couple of photos of guys dunking over people that were trying to block them. James doesn't have any of those photos because nobody tries to block his dunks. Instead, they back away and cower in fear. He is on a whole other level right now. Last night he thanked God after the game for blessing him with his abilities, which I generally scoff at because clearly even if God exists he wouldn't care about a sporting event. But last night when James was talking about how he was given his abilities by God, I found myself nodding along. To quote David Blaine, if you watch the NBA playoffs, there's really no other explanation.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Modern Utilitarians

In philosophy this year we learned about utilitarianism, which is essentially the idea that every action is good if it is in the interest of producing the greatest amount of pleasure, or happiness, for the greatest number of people. Of course, this was an extremely difficult task, and as John Stuart Mill, a later utilitarian pointed out, it is difficult to tell because there are different types of pleasure or happiness for different people. Following on that problem, one of the main reasons that it has been generally disregarded as a philosophy is that its tenants are essentially impossible to propagate. Who can tell what produces the greatest amount of pleasure, or happiness, is for the greatest number of people?

Well, up until recently, the answer was nobody. But now that we are beginning to understand more about the brain, and can do very intricate brain-imaging surveys, we may literally be able to tell which activities and which emotions contribute to the greatest amount of pleasure and happiness for the average person. We could determine, based on the average life span, and the average amount of this activation expected to occur during a day, on average how much pleasure and happiness individuals will experience during their lifetimes. We could then intricately calculate the value, perhaps in terms of happiness but especially in terms of pleasure, of each individual's life. Eventually, we may even be able to figure out each decision that we make based on whether or not it was for the greatest good of society.

Now, I'm not saying that we should do this. I'm just saying that it could form the background for a sick science-fiction novel. You heard it here first.