Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dancing in the marketplace

From a book I recently read*:
"It is easier to find employment as a data processor than as a dancer, even though being a dancer offers more venues for self-awareness and self-expression."
I won't dispute either assertion of this sentence, because I think they're both true. However, the author attributes this fact to a failing of society, or possibly a conspiracy to deprive mankind of its innate rights of self-expression. This I refuse to believe.

Instead, this is probably a result of immutable market forces (i.e., supply and demand).

First of all, demand for dancers is not exceptionally high. Even if everyone in the world craved dancing performances—and I have reasonable evidence that this is not the case—one dancer can entertain a whole bunch of people. Because of the ease of scaling here, one ballet theater goes a long way in a community.

Next, the supply of dancers is a bit larger. Why? Because of the very attributes of dancing cited above, viz., that it "offers more venues for self-awareness and self-expression." Honestly, if you could choose data processing for a living, or dancing for the same salary, which would you choose? I think for most folks, the added benefits of dancing would tip the balance.

Market forces have only one way to make up for this imbalance: money. By lowering the employment opportunities and money-making potential of dancers, the market reaches an equilibrium, in which just enough people leave dancing for data-processing jobs because the math doesn't add up.

The people who are left in dancing are generally, therefore, of two kinds:

1. Top-flight professional dancers who can make enough money to make it worth their while. This group is highly competitive, and so members sacrifice their entire lives to maintain their positions. There's just not much room at the top—after all, how many professional dancers does it take to entertain the world? (No, that's not a joke.)

2. Amateur dancers who "follow their hearts" and dance despite the lack of substantial remunerative emoluments. These people also sacrifice, but instead of sacrificing time and energy, they sacrifice money and material comforts.

Unfortunately, many performing arts have this imbalance. To be in the high-earning group, you need to be exceptional. To be in the amateur group, you need a day job.

The internet is disrupting this uneasy balance a little by providing the opportunity to perform to a smaller group and still be heard, but we're still a long way off from an "everyone dancing" utopia.

(* The Art of Effortless Living, by Ingrid Bacci, if you must know; but it wasn't really that great a book. )

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Bankrolled by Costco.
Potential fiasco.
A mí me da asco.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tinnitus and Me

Over the weekend, in the process of getting over a pretty nasty head cold, I experienced some temporary tinnitus: As I lay in bed, I could distinctly hear ringing in my left ear. Since it somewhat impeded my going to sleep, and since I'm curious about auditory matters, I took the time to examine and reflect on the phenomenon.

It turns out that my tinnitus (at least that temporary bout; it's gone as I write this) sounds like a hazy pitch somewhere around F# and G (both seemed to fit within it), accompanied by a more defined, though quick and irregular, 'beeping' at the just-lower E♭. (This last honestly sounded just like a telegraph; if I knew Morse code better, I might have got direct messages from my auditory cortex!)

Interestingly, the American Association of Audiology found that over a 195-patient sample, the average pitch was 4968 Hz, which sounds to me about the same as the E♭ I heard last night. (At A/440 concert pitch and equal temperament, that E♭ should technically be at 4978Hz. However, that discrepancy is probably outside the resolution of my pitch accuracy.)

It was way cool having temporary tinnitus, but I'll go to sleep quicker tonight.

Friday, October 28, 2011

From the annals of history...

I've been reading Vance Packard's prescient The Pyramid Climbers, published 1964. From page 108:
While executives may enjoy the kudos of high status..., to be successful in today's world, they also must be mindful of their role as goodwill ambassadors for the company. They must bear in mind that if they seem to drift too far from looking like and acting like the common man, radicals may arise, as they did in the thirties, with cries of "Down with the Economic Royalists!"
I think this may indeed be a catalyst for the current grumpiness toward big business, though I'm not quite sure who did the drifting: did company execs' lives (and bonuses) get worse at "acting like the common man", or is it that the "common man" isn't doing as well? Maybe a little of both.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stratego, Plugged

This week, I was at the local thrift store when I discovered an old friend: a functional copy of Electronic Stratego! (He was on sale for a buck.) In case you have forgotten how this lovely contraption looks, or if you've never met one, here's a brief sample: (Warning! 80's nostalgia ahead!)

Some of you may be asking, "What is that?!", to which I reply, "It's like Stratego! By Milton Bradley! A classic game of strategy and... um... 'go'? Look it up!"

So, now some of you are probably asking, "Right... so... how's it different than normal Stratego?" Well. Let me tell you how it's different from the vanilla edition.

To start off, the scale is a little different. It's got an 8x10 grid (instead of 10x10), and only 24 pieces (instead of the usual 40).

More importantly, the electronic aspect opens up a lot more functionality. There are three major variations in gameplay that result from having Electronic Stratego instead of "plain-ol'" Stratego:

One: Hidden bombs. The little compartments on either player's side of the board let players place bombs under their pieces, and they activate only when stepped on by enemy players. (Unless your board's malfunctioning, in which case your men might be fair game as well.) One wrong step, and KABLAAM!

Two: Piece identities remain secret. To engage in combat with an enemy piece, you merely push down on the attacking piece and then on the defending piece, and the computer informs you whether you won or not. And that's all it tells you. Did you kill a scout? A marshal? Who knows? It adds a lot of uncertainty to the game. (You don't have to play this way, but it is awesome; and to do this using a normal board, you'd need a third party just to compare pieces during attacks. Good luck finding anyone to volunteer for that.)

Three: Awesome sound effects. From the moment you turn it on, the thing emits a soundtrack worthy of an early Atari game. The interminable "drum roll"-esque sound (audible in the above snippet) accompanies your every move, and snippets of notable songs pepper the play. (The manual falls all over itself calling out each song; when attacking, you'll hear "a few bars of The William Tell Overture" instead of "heart-pumping attack music". Maybe it helped them corner the market of the culturally elite?)

Anyway, if you're in my General neck of the woods soon, Flag me down; I'll Scout out four AA batteries and we can Marshal our forces to engage in Major two-player electronic melee! (It'll be the Bomb!)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Playing Fair in the Free Markets

I recently bought ink for my fountain pen from a company called Noodler's Ink. This slogan of theirs made me stop and think:
Why is it called "Noodler's"? The ink with the catfish on the label symbolizes a southern sport that attempts to equalize the struggle between man and animal in the quest for a sense of fair play... and thus a fair price.
This bit of corporate PR jibes with their product: the glass bottles are industry standard (therefore cheap) and full to the brim with their high-quality ink, underselling their competitors by a ridiculous margin. They also "refuse" to make profit-heavy ink cartridges because of the ridiculously wasteful aspect of those devices.

Of course, they've gained something in return: my brand allegiance. Next time I need some ink, you can bet I'll be buying from them. In fact, it was such a good value for me that I probably won't even comparison shop. (Bonus: I'm sharing this on my blog, so maybe you'll buy ink there, too!)

Anyway, there's considerable discord as to exactly what "playing fair" means in a free market. (I'll focus specifically on supplier-consumer interaction, instead of competitive relationships among suppliers.) Examples:
  • Is it "fair play" to cultivate brand allegiance? It warps the free market somewhat and can be said to remove agency from consumers. (Then again, the company paid a fair price for that brand allegiance—right?)
  • Is it "fair play" to market to our baser needs? Several campaigns (arguably all modern ad blitzes) attempt to bypass consumers' rational minds and access the subconscious directly. This is especially apparent with, say, spray-on deodorant positioning itself to young men as the fast track to sex. Rational economic theory certainly doesn't account for this very well.
I hypothesize that the economic surplus of our consumer-culture market is heavily producer-skewed: Most consumers don't have the time, expertise, or inclination to fully assess the transactions they make (certainly not all the time). However, corporations, since they focus on a subset of products, spend the time and effort necessary to maximize the producer surplus (often via marketing strategies to inflate perceived value on the part of consumers, and via vertical differentiation and other forms of price discrimination). Therefore, most of the economic surplus in the consumer economy ends up in the hands of producers.

Whether corporations are "playing fair" or not, I think they're winning.

Optimistic note: Savvy consumers can negate this by learning to better estimate the value of a transaction to them, and by opting out of advertising where possible. In some situations, it's viable to leave the primary market entirely: Craigslist and other secondary markets are less heavily skewed in this manner.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Corporate amorality

It's easy to anthropomorphize corporations, and if I met someone who acted like a corporation ("life goal: maximize profits"), they sure would seem greedy! (That goes for *any* corp., not just the successful ones.)

The amoral nature of corporations comes largely from the fact that publicly-traded companies are owned by investors that are removed from the day-to-day tactics of the business; "the shareholders" want higher profits, and if management has to do something unethical to get there, well, the shareholders wanted it.

As a shareholder (there, I said it), I want the companies in which I'm invested to perform well (and pay me the money!). As a citizen, I want the companies in my economy to play fairly with their employees and with the environment.

This amorality is an interesting facet of the corporate world, and makes a good argument for not granting them the legal status of "persons", even though they're conglomerations of actual people. Also germane is the subject of government regulation to enforce ethics on these otherwise amoral creatures.

Amoral corporations interact suboptimally with the moral world, and people (moral creatures) wind up feeling the pain.

(re: @Peter)

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Inky, binky, bottle of ink..."

I like writing by hand sometimes. Yes, a good keyboard is still about the fastest way for me to write, but sometimes a good pen in hand is just what the doctor ordered. Six months ago, I decided to try something a little different in my writing toolbox: a fountain pen.

I believe in starting small when pursuing a new interest, so I worked to find the cheapest way into the fountain pen world. I settled on Pilot's Varsity pens (amazon), finding a three-pack at my local Staples for seven dollars.

Well, it turned out to be a lot of fun; I like the smooth feel of the writing and the fun of having an old-school fountain pen. But going on buying disposable fountain pens to feed the addiction? I'm not so keen on that idea. And my new fountain pens were running out of ink fast!

So I started looking at buying a more permanent fountain pen. But then I found something that made my (web-browsing) ears perk up: some folks had successfully refilled the "disposable" Varsity with new ink.

I bought a 3-ounce bottle of Noodler's black ink (amazon) and tried it out. It worked! And with the new ink, my writing was smoother than before!

So that's a win. But the money side of things is pretty sweet, too: Each refill of the pen takes about 2 cc's of ink. In my $12, 3 oz bottle of ink, there are 88 cc's, giving a price per refill of 44 cents! (Far cheaper than the $2/pen price of new ones.) Refilling takes only two minutes, including setup and teardown time, and I've refilled only once in the six months I've had the pen.

Plus, having a bottle of ink hanging around is pretty awesome.

Another example of how it makes good financial sense to "go reusable", even if the product is touted as disposable.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On what's worthwhile

I read a few blogs on personal finance. And I've read more than a few books on the matter. It seems to me that there are two schools of thought in the area: the "maximize net worth" group and the "maximize happiness" group. (To be fair, I think both groups are trying to maximize happiness, but these are the terms that came to mind.)

The great thing about the "maximize net worth group" is that it has one clear objective: maximize net worth! It's really easy (with a few assumptions) to figure out how to make your net worth grow more, and so things are really pretty clear. Writers subscribing to this view have such headlines/chapter titles as "Why not to pre-pay your mortgage" (because projected returns of stocks are greater than mortgage interest rates) and "The order in which to pay back your debts" (start with the highest interest rates first). Also, this group tends to be in agreement with itself.

The second group, the "maximize happiness" folks, take all sorts of paths. Some folks espouse borrowing a little while young, on the grounds that you'll have higher income later and having fun in your youth is priceless. Others argue for living lean and retiring early later in life. This group disagrees on such factors as when you're maximizing happiness (now or later?) and how to measure it (net worth? free time?). The "maximize happiness" group is closer along the lines of the way I think most people actually approach their lives, but due to its personal nature, it suffers from a lack of unity and a lack of universality.

I think both these groups have fuzzy definitions and even fuzzier membership lines; I myself tend to a "do what works for you, but run the numbers" school of thought.

Bonus: links!

Group 1 examples: Ramit Sethi, Consumerism Commentary

Group 2 examples: Get Rich Slowly, The Simple Dollar

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Banned Books

As part of its 2011 Banned Books Week, the American Library Association has posted their list of the Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2010. Interesting reading! (The list, not the books; I haven't read them all.)

Censorship, especially for kids, is a pretty complex issue; it seems from the ALA's information that a lot of the challenges occurred in schools, which I can understand (especially in mandatory English curricula). Parents face tough calls on how to best raise their kids, and I plan on talking with my kids' English teachers about their choices in reading lists. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on the books that I've read:

First, at #3, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World: Hasn't that book moved to "classic" status already? Also, I sincerely believe that this book is one of the great predictors of the problems of today's society (see Neil Postman's mind-warping Amusing Ourselves to Death). This one should be a fixture at libraries and has been around since 1931; are we really still fighting it?

Second, at #8, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed; this one is a prime example of "stunt journalism", wherein the author leaves her cushy writing job and takes three different minimum-wage-type jobs around the country, writing up her experiences along the way. I read this book not two months ago, and it was particularly good at showing how just being poor can make life more expensive. (Example: not having cash for an apartment deposit and having to live in a hotel room paid by the week.) Ehrenreich does victimize the poor a little too much for my taste, and her proposed policy changes are a little half-baked, but I think the perspective is a valuable one that many insulated middle-class folks (especially insulated middle-class Christians) would do well to seek out.

I'm glad to see, however, that Fahrenheit 451 isn't on the list; the irony would be too great.

(Honorable mention to The Hunger Games and Twilight; though I haven't read more than snippets of either, I confess I would think twice about giving them to my kids.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

BYU choral auditions coming soon!

I just saw this YouTube video about BYU's choral auditions, which start 25 Aug. If you are interested, check out the video, especially the last half that shows Sister Hall conducting auditions; that is EXACTLY what they're like! I got all nervous again just watching... :) Also, feel free to pass it along to any interested BYU friends.

In addition to the endorsements in the video, here's my BYU Choirs testimony: It is a singular experience to hold your head high, gratefully accept applause from the audience. and know, deep down, that after pouring your soul into that night, you've given them a world-class performance that is completely worthy of their gratitude and appreciation.

Pass the word along!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Facile Fuel

Up a hill on a bike, I break into a sweat;
When I get home, I clean out the larder.
Up a hill in a car, it's an easier bet:
I just mash on the gas pedal harder.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Smarter than the average..."

It is said (and I'm not sure where this started) that eighty (or seventy) percent of drivers rate themselves as "above average". This phenomenon is often ascribed to "cognitive bias"—that is, that people think they are better than they are. Psychologists explain that cognitive bias allows us to survive in the world which constantly tears down our self-esteem.

But what if that's not the case? Can 80% of drivers rate themselves above average... and be right?

Option 1: Different metrics

My interaction with other drivers shows that different drivers have different ideas of what "good driving" entails. I put myself with a group that equates good driving with courteous driving; that is, good driving doesn't frustrate (or even surprise) any fellow drivers and allows the driving system to function as efficiently as possible. After a really good drive, the driver is relaxed and confident.

A rival group of drivers believes that good driving gets you places as quickly as possible. Other drivers (especially slow ones) are obstacles to be dodged in pursuit of the quickest travel times possible. A good driver is an expert of handling and can fit in the tightest spots in freeway traffic to get there sooner. After a good drive, the driver is there quicker and is proud of his abilities.

Both groups agree that good driving results in fewer accidents. Nevertheless, they approach this goal differently. If you ask either group whether they are above average, they will compare themselves favorably to members of the other group and answer "yes". And are they wrong?

Option 2: Asymmetric distribution

Going back to the original statistic, it is claimed that 80% of drivers claim to be "above average" drivers. But this isn't necessarily even a problem. If 80% claimed to be above median drivers, we would have a problem, but this isn't the case.

Take the mean (average) national income, for instance. In 2004, it was around $60K/yr. However, the median national income was only $44K/yr. That is, 50% of the country made less than $44K, meaning far more than 50% of the country had "below-average" incomes. This makes sense; each year, some people in the United States are making millions of dollars. Since it is impossible to have a negative-million-dollar income to counter those outliers (zero is about as low as an income can go), the distribution is asymmetric, and the average is skewed.

Similarly, if we use a common driving metric of "number of accidents caused per year", some drivers are causing accidents, and may cause several. Those really bad drivers are outliers. But no matter how good a driver you are, you can't get any better than "zero accidents". With so many drivers who are at the premiere level of driving, and with such an asymmetric distribution, I don't think it's unreasonable at all for seventy or even eighty percent of drivers to be "above average".

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review: David Harriman's The Logical Leap

David Harriman makes some bold statements with this one. Yes, the book may seem to be about the history of science ("History and science? Yawn..."), but it's not. It's about the future of science.

The epistemological backdrop of the book unfortunately necessitates the frequent use of such soporifics as "epistemological".

Say what you will about the density of the content, though, Harriman doesn't hide behind it. On the contrary, he makes explicit his beef with the golden calves of contemporary theoretical physics, including quantum mechanics, the big bang, and string theory. And that takes cojones.

Harriman's argument against these theoretical darlings consists of two main thrusts: First, how do we know? Second, what does the knowledge get us?

The first question is one of evidence. Harriman insists that the validity of a theory rests upon the observational evidence used to construct it. Kinetics? Gravity? All based on the observed motion of planets. String theory? Well...

The second question references utility, or effects in the real world. A theory of science should allow us to make predictions about the world we live in; a useful theory allows us to predict things we couldn't predict before.

Elegance and symmetry are all very nice, but who's to say that the world works according to your elegant ideas? Harriman lambasts famous thinkers like Descartes over this issue. While Newton was using prisms and carefully devising experiments to determine the nature of white and colored light, Descartes published his own ideas on color: that the light particles had "spin" that determined their colors. An interesting idea, yes. A useful idea? Not so much.

If you're interested in science and where it's headed, give this a read and weigh the evidence on your own.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pennies from... heaven?

All right, I finally wrote a decent-sized story. Despite the fact that I'm posting it on the family blog (since it's in need of some non-baby material), I wanted the credit for writing something substantial, so I'll link to it here. Enjoy!