Saturday, March 29, 2008

On Jealousy

"What we have here is a failure... to communicate." - Cool Hand Luke

This is going to be a brutally honest post.

I have some friends that do incredible things. My friend Jeremy has been to Isreal twice and is actively involved in starting an organization to stimulate discussion between real people from both countries. My friend Austin has seemingly traveled everywhere in Europe and speaks, at my last count, 5 languages. My friend Ben (I believe) is planning a trip to Japan on a tour for his book, which he published two years ago. The list goes on. If there was a facebook map that aggregated where your friends have been, instead of just showing where you yourself have been, mine would probably cover most of the world. And their achievements would likewise be outstanding.

There's a part of my brain that admires each of my friends for their accomplishments, and wishes them future success. But I have to admit that there's also a part of my brain that is intensely, viscerally jealous of other people's successes and future plans. Some higher, more cognitive part of my brain recognizes that it comes from our human need to compare ourselves to others, but the base feeling remains nonetheless.

Take this real estate venture that three of my best friends from college are about to undertake. They're going to buy a house (that already has tenants), fix it up a little bit through painting and landscaping, and begin renting it out for a profit. Some of the numbers that they're throwing around are pretty high, and what's more is that after a while they'll actually own the property themselves, at which point the returns will be even higher. And (here's one of the brutally honest parts) one of the main reasons that they are able to do it is because one of their financially successful dads is cosigning the lease.

The whole thing has made me rather jealous in a totally irrational way. First of all, I wish I was fucking involved. Of course, since they all live in Maine and the property is also going to be there, this is impossible. Plus, it's not like I have necessarily anything to offer them. Secondly, the fact that his dad is cosigning the lease seems unfair, but really ought to be irrelevant. Stuff like that happens all the time and my proximity to the situation doesn't change anything. I can't blame either of the parties involved; in fact, it seems like a good idea from both perspectives. My friend is using the resources he has available in the best way he can, and his dad is not simply giving him money. Instead, he is giving his son the opportunity to earn it in the open market.

Nevertheless, I AM STILL JEALOUS. There is a part of my brain that refuses to let this jealousy fade away.

But I think the best way to deal with the jealousy is to channel it as inspiration. You're going to do something awesome? I'm going to do something awesome too. That's another reason for me to encourage my friends to have success in whatever they do. That way, maybe it will encourage me to go out and do cool stuff, too. Any thoughts?

Empty Promises and Broken Dreams

I'm getting closer and closer to my goal of watching imdb's top 250. After watching Paths of Glory last night, I have 99 movies left to go. When I reported this happy news to a few friends of mine at breakfast, their response was "what are you going to do when you finish watching them?" They believe that my life will be empty.

You know the saying that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? My response is sort of along those lines. I would argue that their lives are empty now, and they will continue to be empty later. True, my life might lose some sense of purpose once I finish them all. But as for now, it's all glory. And I'd rather get an offensive foul going in strong than pull up for a fade-away any day.

Let other people use your computer!

Some folks I've run across these past few years have been reticent to let other people use their computers. Along with wondering exactly what they are hiding on their desktop, this decision has always dismayed me. If this was the late 60s, there would be a movement towards open-source computer sharing. Bring your laptop to the quad! Free wireless, baby!

But one of the best reasons I've found to let other people use your computers is that they can give you hints on how to best optimize your experience. The other day I let my friend Joey use my computer and he showed me the useful hack about how to best organize my bookmarks on firefox, which has allowed me to waste my time on shelfari and imdb more efficiently. So, let other people use your computer.

The Top 10 Christ Figures

10) Littlefoot from A Land Before Time. Let's examine the Christ-like characteristics. When his mother dies in the earthquake, the fact that he survives at all is an absolute miracle. The three baby dinosaurs who join him in his quest could be seen as apostles, drawn in by his kind nature. Finally, he ends the movie leading his friends to the "promised land." I guess that makes him more like Moses than Jesus, but I'll give it to him because he's so cute and because I cry every time I watch this movie.

9) Simon from The Lord of the Flies. The only character who has any sort of innate moral compass and doesn't become homicidal on the island. He loses points for providing no miracles, but his conversations with the pig's head are downright biblical: they are weird, hard to understand, and highly symbolic. Those conversations plus his martyrdom at the hands of the crazed boys add up to a convincing case.

8) Hurley from Lost. This is mainly speculation at this point, because the series is not close to over, but Hurley already has a few things going for him. First of all, he's clearly the nicest guy on the island, and he's all about making sure everybody has a good time by organizing golfing outings and such. Secondly, the fact that he hasn't lost any weight while he's been on the island is a veritable miracle.And although he hasn't done anything yet, the series keeps alluding to him having to make a sacrifice. If he does so, and especially if he dies, he will gain some serious ground. Stay tuned.

7) Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five. From his last name, it's clear that Vonnegut intended Billy's journeys to be viewed as somewhat of a religious pilgrimage. While it's not clear whether he is supposed to be Christ himself, his innocence and ability to time travel suggests that he has risen above the realm of mere mortals. The main thing holding him back is his lack of miracles, which is the obvious constraint of a postmodern novel.

6) Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I think I wrote a paper on this in 8th grade, and I forget most of the details, but the general point is that compared to the rest of the characters of the book, Jim is a saint. He cooks for Huck, nurses Tom to health, and seems to be the only one that cares about the boys. He also gets points for operating within a white society that outcasts him despite his kind nature.

5) Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. He gets serious points for being one of the only characters on this list to die and come back to life. He also gets points for saving his crew from the Orcs, and for being super nice to everybody, even the lowly hobbits. However, he loses points for being a sorcerer, which is seemingly the easiest way to anger the church establishment. In fact, I'm pretty sure that even making this comparison would be blasphemy in certain churches. Please forgive me.

4) Joe Christmas from A Light in August. I wrote a paper on this case in 11th grade, and the case is pretty cut-and-dry. He shows up abandoned in front of the orphanage on Christmas day, he questions his racial background, and his initials are JC. But it's his death that really seals the deal: he dies at the age of 33, and Faulkner describes the bullets that hit him arms as like "nails through a cross." Literally those words. Come on, that's too easy.

3) Neo from The Matrix. First of all, Keanu Reeves is the perfect cast for a Christ figure, because he's the only actor in Hollywood who wouldn't realize whats going on and ruin it. And Neo has some pretty serious things going for him. He is able to see the green lines of code in the matrix, which suggests that he has a close connection to the "creator." He is constantly referred to as "the One," and although people sometimes call me that on the basketball court, in this context they mean he is the messiah. Finally, he dies, rises from the dead, and returns to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity. You might not like it, but you have to admit that is pretty Christ-like.

2) Jesus from The New Testament. The holotype. You've got to give it up for the big guy JC. Why isn't he number one? Mainly because of expectations. When you read the New Testament, you expect him to be Christ-figure like on literally every page, which is simply not possibly for anybody to do. Sometimes he has to deal with normal stuff like everybody else does, like walking around, settling disputes, and eating supper. So while he is a pretty good Christ figure, he loses out the top stop to...

1) The Master Chief from Halo. This is mainly assuming that the "legendary" ending in Halo 3 never happened and that the series ends at three, where it rightfully should. If so, the Master Chief has a pretty compelling futuristic-Christ case. He is the only remaining "child" of the SPARTAN-II program that created him. Plus, his performance of miracles is pretty outstanding: he saves all sentient life in the universe in Halos 1, 2, and 3. The third one is especially important, as much of it is set on Earth, but he manages to save the world regardless. Along with his martyrdom at the end of Halo 3, this is a remarkably impressive record. Good enough for tops on this list, anyways.

Friday, March 28, 2008

I love other people's dogs

Whenever I go over to other people's houses, I am amazed by how much I love their dogs. They're invariably playful, soft, loud, and happy. They want unconditional attention, and they return it with unconditional tail wagging. You don't have to take them for walks, you don't have to feed them or change their water bowl, and you don't have to wipe their hairs off your clothing every morning. Having a dog is a public service, sacrificing your time to deal with the troubles, so that your friends can enjoy themselves by playing with the dog every day. Some people like to get in arguments like, "my dog is better than yours," but I assure everybody that their dog is indeed much better than mine. My dog can be annoying. Other people's dogs are surely much better.

Monday, March 24, 2008

National News

One of the reasons I hate politics and most political discussion is how the pundits hardly ever discuss their actual opinions. They merely discuss how they think the public will react to a given piece of news. This is trumpeted as a more objective manner of doing things, but of course it is just as biased.

What we end up with is a bunch of pundits talking about how Eliot Spitzer's scandal will affect public opinion of the democrats. I think they're missing the point. Luckily, we still have PhilaLawyer to tell it like it is.

More nuggets to come as I struggle through the 1000 plus items in my RSS reader. This is worse than the national subprime crisis. School? What's that.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The end of an era

With our basketball team's loss yesterday, our season is now over. Danny Forcella, a senior captain of the team, has a great comprehensive look at his long career in basketball. He looks at the picture through the lens of the best other players he has played with. The post is here.

I can't think of a more detailed or humble way of looking back at his own career than by highlighting the achievements of other people. And if I were to make a similar list, my choice at#1 would be the same.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Tuesday Statitsticz: Rethinking Multiple Choice

As I was taking my psychology midterm today (it was a doozie), I faced a quandary on a multiple choice test. Through process of elimination, I parsed the possible answers down to two, but I could not choose decide which was the best option between c and d. (Obviously, I chose c).

But I got to thinking about how we could improve this situation. I'm not the kid in the class that always moans about multiple choice, as I'd much rather circle some letters than write an essay, but I do think that multiple choice could be improved. From my perspective, it will be essentially luck as to whether c or d was the right answer, and luck should play as little a role as possible on tests.

My solution is for students to be allowed to assign a numerical probability to each of the possible answers. Then, they would be awarded the total worth of the question divided by the probability that they assigned to that answer. Now, before you say "this isn't fair for the students that actually know the correct answer!", let me tell you that you are wrong. This where statistics enter the picture.

The expected value of each answer will remain exactly the same. For example, if there are four options, and you have no idea what the answer is, you might answer "b" on a whim. Assuming that you receive one point for a correct answer, the expected value of this choice is:

1 point if answer "b" is correct, times a .25% chance it will be correct = .25 points

If you follow my strategy, then you'd receive the same expected value:

.25 points if answer "a" is correct times a .25% chance = .0625 points
.25 points if answer "b" is correct times a .25% chance = .0625 points
.25 points if answer "c" is correct times a .25% chance = .0625 points
.25 points if answer "d" is correct times a .25% chance = .0625 points
Total = .25 points

If this was my math homework, I'd box it and move on the next question. But it's not homework.

Why is this practice not commonplace? It certainly would have been nice today, when I couldn't decide between c and d. I would have assigned a 50 percent probability to both option c and d, and been on with it. I can't see too many cons to this approach, except that it would take a little bit more time to answer questions.

Of course, a real probability theorist might scoff at this post and claim that over time your guesses will eventually equal out to the same probabilities as you'd assign anyway. But tell that to the student that guesses 50/50 on 5 multiple choice questions in a final and gets them all wrong. Or the student who knew the answers, but for whom the curve was lowered because other students blindly guessed and got lucky. On a test to test basis, this strategy would make multiple choice more fair. Isn't that what it's supposed to be all about?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Introspection supported via laboratory results

Fruit bias on p.57 of Tim Harford's The Logic of Life:

"The experiments offered some subjects a snack: fruit or chocolate. Seven out of the ten subjects asked for chocolate. But when the experimenters offered other subjects a different choice, the answer was different too: 'I'll bring you a snack next week. What would you like then, fruit or chocolate?' Three-quarters of the subjects chose fruit."

This doesn't mean that my thoughts are any more likely to be "true" in the future, unfortunately.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The invasion of the white people

Chances are you've probably already seen Stuff White People Like, but if you haven't, stay away. At first I thought it was hilarious (because it is true), but now I realize that it is terrifying (because it is true).

My trepidations began when I overheard two students in the media cloisters discussing their love of sushi. When one mentioned that she could make her own sushi rolls, the other got so excited that I'm pretty sure they started making out. Then I realized how popular 80's night is at Vassar as evidenced by all of the discussion of it here. Finally I read this article by my personal idol Bill Simmons:

"I just love the fact Roger Clemens' appearance at a pool party takes precedence over 41 years of professional basketball in Seattle by the people who run our country. Awesome. I'm moving to Canada soon."

Et tu, Bille? Reading that site is like opening a Pandora's box filled with dynamite and red ants. It's funny like a heart attack. You have been forewarned.