Thursday, April 29, 2010

In favor of pets

Since yesterday's thoughts on pets might have rubbed some people's fur the wrong way, let me clarify my position.

To be fair, pets probably have their uses. I know that in several households, pets are the only contact their owners have with another living being.

Some of our friends have had all their kids move out recently, and it seems that having a dog around to care for makes life easier or more comfortable. This I do not entirely understand, but I've seen it more than enough times to notice it.

Also, lots of folks are of the opinion that their kids need a pet, and who am I to refute them? I don't have kids, and having had no pets as a kid myself, I don't think I can say confidently that this is not true.

So, let me say for the record that even though I don't plan on having any pets around our house any time soon, I don't begrudge people with pets. Unless their pets are outside barking (or mooing, for that matter) at ungodly hours.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


"Conspicuous consumption" doesn't stop with buying physical products. The idea applies to pets, as well. Take, for example, chihuahuas. Why do Hollywood stars own them? Why not, say, a golden retriever? Because while a golden retriever might serve a useful purpose, a chihuahua exudes extravagance—it's pretty much unable to do a thing for itself, so the one owning it must be able to provide for it, without getting a thing in return!

Now, we live in an area where people regard dogs as part of the family. A local park even features a section for dogs to go off-leash and wander around, exploring and playing with other dogs. And there is certainly a real bond that people feel toward their pets. (Maybe this closeness with a pet is brought on by consistently picking up its defecation—a true labor of love.)

But viewed from a purely economic standpoint, this relationship makes little sense—you pay for the pet, its food, its vet appointments, and lavish it with attention, and in return, all it does is act happy when you're around? (For cats, maybe not even that.)

I can get behind a "pet" cow, or chickens—they provide some benefit to the household besides the ill-defined "companionship".

As for our family, well, I was raised in a pet-free household, and we are still free of them, with plans to stay that way for the foreseeable future. (Could you tell?)

As my wise grandfather once said, "Don't buy nothin' that eats."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Conspicuous Consumption

In a recent read of mine (Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class), the author takes on describing the wealthy of the world. Though he spends most of the book working up a theory on which to base this, here's the argument:

Society is full of people who like to have power. People used to possess power by being physically strong. However, people now equate power with money. Unfortunately, merely having money isn't enough to show other people, due to invisibility of assets and various cultural taboos. So instead, people show that they are rich by buying things. Things that they don't need, and probably that nobody needs. (I'm looking at you, Maserati.) Veblen terms this "conspicuous consumption".

Quick case study: a $10,000 purse. The value of a purse is quite understandable, but models costing ten grand? Why do they exist? Because people want to show how much power they wield. A $10,000 purse isn't just a purse—it's a declaration. ("I have so much money that I can drop $10,000 on a purse.") This defines much of the "luxury market".

When purchasing something, if I think about how it will "make a statement" to someone (even me!), a red flag pops up in my mind. There are more important things than making statements.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Knowing When You're Buying a Commodity

When aspirin first hit the market, it was exclusively produced by Bayer. Nowadays, it's available from a hundred different sources. And it's the same, no matter where you buy it. This transition from a "differentiated product" to a "commodity" happens in many arenas. Telling the difference is important.

Commodities are, by definition, the same no matter who supplies them, so the lowest price wins. Take, for example, baking soda. Arm and Hammer might be the most recognizable brand of baking soda, but what difference is there between A&H and a store brand? They're both the same chemical formula, so the only real difference is the box.

Oh, and the price.

On the other hand, there are lots of products that successfully differentiate themselves—if you're buying a new car, for example, choosing the cheapest one available might not be the best move. Careful evaluation of the benefits offered by each model is time well spent.

A lot of markets fall somewhere in between these two classifications. For example, garbage bags might look all the same, but while they all may serve the basic purpose of holding trash, thinner plastic might result in rips, tears (in the bag, not from you), and frustrating spills.

Soda pop is another iffy one. I don't drink soda, and I'm not very discriminating in my soda taste. So to me, if I needed a cola for some reason, I would be just as likely to pick a store brand (Shasta?) as name-brand Coke. Which would you pick? To me, a cola is a commodity, so the lowest price wins. If you perceive a difference in the value (taste) provided by different colas, you might decide differently.

But if you're buying baking soda, consider the possibility that paying more for a name brand is just that: paying for the brand.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Book Club

For years, my mother has been part of a regularly-meeting book club. She and a dedicated group of other women get together every couple of months to discuss a recent read.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing I would love to find for myself. I love to read, and I like branching out enough that I would be thrilled to read and discuss books picked by others.

Is it something I'm willing to work on? I think so. I have interest in growing the kinds of deep relationships that are fostered by discussion of important ideas. Here are some thoughts I've had reagarding this goal:

Finding a group of people with whom to read is difficult. First, there's the matter of finding other people interested in reading. (I've found a few of them, but they aren't exactly coming out of the woodwork.) Then there's the matter of personality jibing—can I find poeple that would make a good book group together?

A book group would blend well with a regular dinner night—having people over for dinner as part of the book club discussion would be a good combination. We love to entertain, so it wouldn't be too much of a hassle, even.

Demographics are somewhat against me in this regard. Most of the book groups I have encountered are directed toward middle-aged women. While this is not an insurmountable hurdle, it does incline me toward starting my own group rather than relying on finding an existing one.

Do you have any thoughts on finding or organizing a book group? I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Brain Troubles

As a recent fun read, I selected Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of brief stories about a neurologist's patients and the interesting things about them. I had read some of his other work previously, and found him to be a delightfully descriptive story-teller. So I embarked on this new book with high hopes.

First, let me point out that reading a book on neurological problems is not for the faint of heart, or the faint of confidence. After learning of all the woes faced by people with oddly-damaged brains, I found myself overanalyzing my thoughts, worrying about my own mental health—when I didn't clearly hear my wife, was that in fact a symptom of a mild aphasia?

Beyond the impact on my meta-thoughts, I did learn that the brain is awesome. It's stunning how much our brains do, and often it goes unrecognized until it is lost. Like prosopagnosia—the inability to recognize faces. Until reading Oliver Sacks's book, I had no idea what ramifications such a condition would entail. After reading it, I am grateful that my brain functions "normally"—mostly, anyway.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spare Time in the Family

Everyone in a family has needs. Some of these needs are time-specific. Whether it's kids that need to talk about what happened at school, or a spouse that needs help with a stressful parental moment, our family members sometimes have needs that can go unmet if we aren't available.

So how do we get available?

Note that while we need to be available for family at any time, we don't need to be available all the time. The key is flexibility. And the way to achieve that is, again, through keeping some spare time in the daily schedule.

That way, when junior needs to chat about the latest goings-on in his circle of friends, or when the wife needs to vent about the latest neighborhood gossip, you can easily make the time---just move your current task to some of your spare time.

Setting aside some spare time is good for developing good relationships with neighbors. But it's also part of forming solid family connections.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tail Recursion and Good Sentence Structure

As a guy who writes both prose and computer code, sometimes the similarities between the two media seem too great to ignore. They are surely different, and require largely different skill sets—nevertheless, there are patterns that bridge the gap. Here, I'll attempt to explain one such parallel:

Tail recursion is a sort of esoteric computer science concept, but let's give it a go. Let's assume we have a simple, recursive function describing a factorial:
f(x) = f(x - 1) * x
f(0) = 1
Let's evaluate this for x = 3:
f(3) = f(3 - 1) * 3 = f(2) * 2
f(2) = f(1) * 2
f(1) = f(0) * 1
f(0) = 1
f(1) = 1 * 1 = 1
f(2) = 1 * 2 = 2
f(3) = 2 * 3 = 6
Note that we had to go back through all the equations we had used earlier, substituting in our results back into each earlier step.

Now let's try a different method:
f2'(x, a) = f2'(x - 1, a * x)
f2'(0, a) = a
f2(x) = f2'(x, 1)
And, evaluating for x = 3:
f2(3) = f2'(3, 1)
f2'(3,1) = f2'(3 - 1, 1 * 3) = f2'(2, 3)
f2'(2,3) = f2'(1,6)
f2'(1,6) = f2'(0,6)
f2'(0,6) = 6
Interesting—it took an extra step because of the helper function, but once we had the answer to our final function, we were done! (Really, this sort of thing does make computer programmers happy.) *

Okay, we're done with the math, but hang with me for a second. This idea has a similarity in the written word. Let's talk about sentence structure. Specifically, about the use of modifying and qualifying clauses.

I don't know of a standard notation for this sort of thing, but let's mark up our sentences with parentheses to explicitly show a clause. Here's a sample sentence:

While Windows will let you switch keyboard layouts in software, my current work environment, (which involves dozens of different computers, including virtual machines), makes this a little difficult.

The parenthetical aside is all well and good, but try contrasting it with this rework of the sentence:

While Windows will let you switch keyboard layouts in software, this is a little difficult to manage in my current work environment, (which involves dozens of different computers, including virtual machines).

Moving a clause like this to the end of the sentence can make it easier to understand on anyone reading it.

* For a fuller explanation of tail recusion, here's an article with further information.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Holding On to Spare Time

As I mentioned, I think that an important part of putting together a community and making it stronger is generously offering what we have to friends and neighbors (who, with a little work, will likely be the same people).

I think an important part of this is the need to keep in one's life a bit of extra time and energy. Why not schedule ourselves to the hilt in worthy causes, like helping each other and serving in the Rotary club?

While those pursuits are indeed admirable, spare time gives us something that none of those things do: flexibility. Having a little time free of any obligation gives us the ability to repurpose that time for anything that calls our attention in the moment.

This flexibility is an asset that is irreplaceable. If a neighbor needs someone to watch their kids while they tend to an emergency, what they need is not someone with a lot of involvement in groups in the community. They don't need someone that is well-connected. They need someone with spare time.

In our neighborhood interactions, we have more than once been called upon to do something simple, like let a neighbor's dog out while they're away. That's the sort of thing that requires no special skills or training, but it nevertheless is valuable to a neighbor, because it is a service they cannot provide themselves (since they're out of town).

On the other hand, if you have filled your time with board meetings, soccer practice, and tae kwon leep, you can't help. if you have no spare time in your schedule, you're not in a position to take advantage of such opportunities.

Keep a little spare time around, and you might be able to put it to good uses in your community.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Building a Community

As we become more established in our neighborhood, I am finding more and more interactions that operate like those between me and my differently-talented friends. Time and time again, people help each other out. As a result, they both feel grateful and, to some degree, indebted to each other. As repeated acts of kindness cement relationships across the neighborhood, a great community evolves, where everyone has positive experiences helping and being helped.

Obviously, there are some people who mooch and never give back. There are probably also some people who always give and never need anyone else's help. But by an large, the happy community is one where people offer each other the valuable services they can provide.

I'm not just talking about expertise, either. Sometimes just being there is enough to make a valuable contribution. We have one neighbor who is diligent in keeping watch over our little part of the neighborhood. All the other neighbors I've talked with have been impressed by her watchfulness, and by being watchful when she is around, she makes a valuable contribution to everyone's quality of life.

Sometimes free time is a valuable commodity. When a neighbor is tending to a sick family member, or in the middle of a tough divorce, a friend can save the day with just enough spare time to make an extra serving of dinner (which isn't all that much time, really).

Generously offering your neighbors and friends whatever you have is a fabulous way to build strong relationships, on both a personal and a neighborhood-wide scale.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More Skill Bartering

After sharing my experience of swapping skills with a friend, I just had another such moment. Stephanie was stranded out on the road with a worrying car noise, and as I was getting to her (on the bus, of course), who should stop and offer to help but a friend of ours, and one who is proficient in cars, to boot. He was very gracious and told her that the worrying noise was not, in fact, car-threatening, and he even offered to fix it for her if she'd just leave the car out in front of her house.

His gift to us was not just one of expertise (his fantastic appraisal of the situation), but also of timing—he was there in the moment when we needed him, and it certainly made me breathe much easier knowing that my wife was safe and that the car was okay. The peace of mind that gave me was worth more to me than about anything else at the moment.

So, now the question is, how can I respond appropriately to this?

On some level, I can't repay my friend directly—I don't know that he will ever be in the same position in which I found myself

My current thoughts are along two lines: first, I can repay indirectly by showing that kind of kindness to another person, which would help the world run just .a bit more smoothly.

Second, I can offer what I can to him in return. (Specifically, my gratitude and maybe some homemade bread—yum!)

How would you repay someone who had been so serviceable to you?