Saturday, February 27, 2010

Call me Thomas Jefferson?

I was listening to a thing on the radio about health care. They also mentioned the bank bailout. From what I understand, the bank bailout will go down in history as a big "huh?" because everyone did dumb reckless greedy things, got away with them, and then the government paid them a lot of money. Similarly with healthcare, some corporations are greedy with health things, a small (but not tiny) percent of the population gets quite screwed over, a larger percent of the population gets a bit screwed over, and a large percent of the population is doing okay, so for the most part we're saying "meh" and getting on with it.

I just got a card game called Dominion, where you buy cards with gold, and some cards do useful things, and some cards just give you "victory points". You keep drawing cards and you reshuffle your deck when it's empty, so it's worthwhile to get good cards, because you'll see them again a few times. At the end of the game, the person with the most victory points wins, but in the meantime, they don't do anything, so you don't want to buy them too early. Otherwise, it's possible to get into a state where you can never do anything because all you draw are these victory point cards that don't do anything.

It might be that bureaucracy increases too much when you try to govern 300 million people democratically. It might also be that different parts of the country want different things.

What if we were 50 countries instead? Arranged sort of like the EU, where a few administrative things (currency, passport control) were handled by a big governing body, but otherwise the states are free to go their separate ways?

The potential administrative benefits are huge. Stuff like health care is still tricky, but say, gay marriage? Apparently we as a country keep wasting time on that. Washington could quit messing around with "civil unions" or whatever, go ahead and all-out legalize it, and move on to more difficult questions. Utah could ban it and turn itself into a Mormonocracy. Whatever. (don't get me wrong; this would be terrible for Utah, and whatever gay people live in Utah. But I can't imagine things are all that pleasant for them now, right? And maybe pressure, trade agreements, etc from neighboring countries could convince them to give everyone equal rights, more than a weak bloated federal government...)

Instead of one country with a few mega-media corporations, we'd have more reasonable media focused on local issues. Wal-mart would have a bunch of new problems to deal with. We'd be able to develop our own local cultures more, instead of being one uniform McDonaldized lump. And we'd be a lot more fun to visit.

Also the states should be redistributed like this map because it's neat.

Today, I have more important things to do, like moving, so I should get to that. Point is, Dominion is a pretty sweet game. Also, while I'm here, the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is flat-out excellent. It's a crazy hodgepodge, plots and acting going everywhere, but visually stunning and incredibly enjoyable nonetheless, and maybe even the better for it. I like it the way I like Dresden Codak or Blueberry Boat. You'll like it if you like wonder.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I tracked my happiness.
You sign up, they send you a couple texts or emails (or twitters) every day, you record how happy you are and answer some other questions. After you've done 50, they stop, and you can look at your happiness report and see what makes you happy.

SUPER DISCLAIMERS: you can't actually find what makes you happy. At best you could find correlations. Also, 50 is a small amount of data points for some of these things (like "happiness by location"). And there's a little bit of sampling bias because you don't always respond exactly when you get the text (although you should).

All that said, here are some graphs I found not terribly surprising (the y-axis is always happiness):

Happiness by day of week:
I'm a little happier on weekends. And Thursdays.

Happiness vs. Productivity
Looks like a strong correlation! That sounds right, too. Whatever I'm doing, I like being productive.

Happiness vs. whether I want to and/or have to do what I'm doing:
Surprise! I like doing things I want to do. I don't like doing things I don't want to do. Whether I have to do it doesn't really make a difference.

Okay, those were not super exciting. Here are some that are interesting, though:

Happiness vs. focus
I would have thought that focus would make me happier, but I guess not! How do I explain this? Maybe I don't know what focus really is. When I think I'm focusing, I'm not reporting it right. I don't actually get into deep focus much.

Happiness vs. hours of sleep:
Doesn't seem to matter. (also apparently I slept for 20 hours one day. data entry!) However:

Happiness vs. sleep quality:
Seems to have a slight positive correlation. Although I could just be imagining things, or it's not statistically significant, or happiness causes good sleep instead of vice versa, or any number of things.

Anyway, this is the coolest thing I've seen on the internet in a while! I've often found myself wanting something like this, and luckily, Matt Killingsworth and Visnu Pitiyanuvath are making it happen! Thanks much to them.

Other things on the internet that have intrigued, annoyed, fascinated, elated, bothered, or bamboozled me:

Networking feels icky. It feels like you're using some mind games (like "people like you better if they meet you in person" or whatever) to get ahead. I don't want to think about "how this relationship will benefit me" with people. It just immediately feels slimy. Maybe there's nothing really wrong with it; we're all doing it at some level, even if it's just "this relationship will benefit me because I'll have a new friend." I'll withhold judgment for now, especially because networking is kinda fun when it works.

Amen. Give me real prices all day long. If poor people can't afford to live, we should fight poverty, not give everyone artificially cheap prices now at the expense of the future.

I dig Umair Haque. I dig Google. This is often difficult, because he takes time out of his column to give Google a light bashing every so often. His is one of the "Google used to be good but they're slacking" voices, which I disagree with, but I'm glad it's out there to keep up honest. Anyway, Google Buzz. I think I actually like it, because if I can start reading that instead of Twitter, then my life is a little simpler. I'm not sure though; it might be a complication. If I can read that instead of Facebook, my life is a lot simpler! And I do enjoy the map view.

Hot cha! I was going to blog this article about how travelers pick tomato juice more often, but it wasn't enough for a full post; soon enough, this article about how travelers pick ginger ale more often came along. The tomato juice is particularly uncanny: I used to do that myself, and I did notice other people picked it a lot too. Ginger ale was a close second. In my old age, I've switched to sparkling water. I like to drink something unusual; it makes the flight more of an occasion. Because no matter where I'm going, or how tired I am, or if the guy next to me asks to use my legroom to store his suitcase (true story), I'm still flying through the air. Incredibly.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy Lent!

I guess today is Ash Wednesday! Christian readers will note that this means today is the start of Lent, which is the season of 40 days (plus 6 sundays because they "don't count" or something; thus 46 days) before Easter.

Christian readers might also take this opportunity to give up something for Lent, as a bit of a sacrifice while we prepare to see Jesus Friggin' Christ rise from the friggin' dead! And also not eat meat on Fridays, although fish is okay because the pope said so once upon a time. Young Dan Tasse would take this opportunity to quite enjoy Fridays because it meant cheese pizza! (modern readers are urged not to miss the spirit of the law.)

Limburgers (and a lot of people worldwide) might take the opportunity to have a hangover today, as it's the day after five days (whoa) of Carnival. Take down the Mooswief n'at.

Modern lapsed Christians who are searching for the best life possible, however, might take this opportunity to do some life-hacking. The traditional Christian deal is to "give something up for Lent", which sometimes sounds like "sacrifice something and suffer for a while so God will smile upon you," but I offer you another viewpoint: you can make any one positive change in your life. 46 days is a perfect amount of time to start a habit. Whatever it is, start it now, and by Easter, it'll be second nature. Furthermore, you'll have a billion people worldwide starting their good habits with you.

But let's do this right! Lay down the law so you can follow it. For example, I'm giving up sweets. I must first define "sweets", or else I will cut corners everywhere... I'd like to say "no refined sugar", as one of my coworkers does (this is badass), but then I'd have to stop cooking Japanese, as everything has a little sugar or mirin or something. So how about this: no more than trace amounts of refined sugars. (okay, "trace" is still not defined, but let's not be too picky here.) And I'm going to say "no breaks", although sometimes Christians run the "you can have this thing you're giving up on Sundays because they don't count" rule. It's up to you: I know that I'll do better by just drawing a hard line, but if you know that you do better when you can allow yourself one sweet a week (or whatever), that's fine; do what works for you. Don't phrase it like "I'll cheat once a week" or "I'll break the rules once a week", though, as this terminology will make you feel like you're failing.

And keep it up after Easter! I'm not advocating temporary asceticism here, because that's temporary. Do something that you'll be proud to continue. I think after Easter I'll allow myself one sweet per week, because birthday cake and stuff.

Rock on, and start something new! Your habits are your life, make them good. I invite you to start one along with me; we can check in however often, if you'd like, and I'll keep you honest. (and please, do the same for me.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How much is your friendship worth?

I had a funny experience the other day when I was trying to buy a plane ticket to visit my friend Ram in Thailand. My friend Julie booked a ticket too, and we were going to be on the same flight, but then I found another one that was literally $500 cheaper. $500!

I hemmed and hawed. I had previously told her I'd book the same flight, but I wondered, would she mind if I took the $500? I'm going to spend a week in Thailand with her; surely there's nothing we could talk about in 20 hours on a plane that we couldn't catch up on in Thailand. Furthermore, we'd be taking different flights back anyway. And what do you do on a plane anyway, sleep?

But I'm sort of insensitive sometimes, so I didn't know if this was one of those cases where I was being totally a jerk for even considering it. I have money; isn't a good experience with a friend (or a so-so experience; we're on a plane after all) worth more than money? And, I don't know, landing in Thailand at midnight is undoubtedly bewildering and confusing (if landing in Delhi is any indication); would we be better off facing the madness together? If I asked her, would she be offended that I insinuated that our friendship maybe wasn't worth $500?

Of course our friendship is worth more than $500! I'd say $550. Maybe even $600. ^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H Of course our friendship is worth more than $500! A true friendship is priceless.

But there's the thing: it's priceless, but it's not infinitely valuable. If I had to spend $10000 extra to fly on the same flight as her, well, obviously I wouldn't. So does that mean 20 hours of friendship is worth less than $10k? Does my hemming and hawing mean 20 hours of friendship is worth less than $500? Maybe there's marginal utility: if I hadn't seen her in years, the first hour would be worth a lot, the second maybe a little less, and so on, until we're sick of each other and the next hour is worthless. But no, even then, you start putting prices on hours you spend with someone, and it just all feels wrong.

I guess it's just orthogonal. You can't make that judgment. It's like if someone said "you can have doubled smelling power if you agree to never say the letter "J"." It's incomputable. You can't hope to make the best choice in this case. Just make one and deal with it. (duh, right? guess I passed this voight-kampff test.)

Anyway, in this case, hilarious conclusion, I tried to book the cheaper flight, and it didn't exist. Curse you Travelocity/Expedia! So now we're on the same flight, and I almost didn't have to tell her that our friendship is worth less than $500. ... oops.

PS. oh by the way, did I mention I'm going to Thailand?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A talk by Shinzen Young, about which I am all jazzed

This guy Shinzen Young came to Google in California and gave a talk. I watched his talk on a video-conference. I have since begun meditating twice daily.

It was a talk about meditation. I encourage you to watch it online. But that's an hour, so if you'd rather, I took notes, I will try to make them into real sentences so you can read them here:

You try to meditate, to focus on the physical sense of your breath. You'll get distracted. What distracts you? Internal self-talk, external sounds, internal mental images, external sights, internal emotions and feelings (let's call this "feel"), external physical discomforts (call this "touch"). 6 aspects: internal and external, 3 main senses. (smell/taste are kind of different anyway, and you can blend them in with touch.)

If you meditate a lot, what happens?
- early on, you'll have a sobering event where you realize how distracted you really are.
- soon you get good at focusing on your breath. This is easily generalizable: you'll be good at focusing on anything.
- you get a taste of a highly concentrated state
- then this highly concentrated state expands: deeper (more powerful) and broader (into more parts of your life)

This is super magically incredible. This is an awesome state. Anything you do will be more subjectively fulfilling, and you'll be more objectively good at it. This state has names: Samadhi (Buddhism), Recollection (Christianity), Kavanah (???) (Judaism), Zikkur (???) (Islam).

Eventually, a figure/ground reversal happens. Before, there's your life, and meditation is a thing that you do. After, there's meditation, and your life is just this thing that you do. This is like that concentrated state all the time. You're never bored again, because you're always "in the zone." (or high, even) You get twice as much life, not because you live longer, but you live twice as concentrated/twice as big.

As your concentration grows, your senses expand, and you get some epiphanies. It's like looking through a microscope; you learn things deeper within you, and broader, about everyone.

You also notice suffering, and that physical discomfort and the experience of suffering due to that discomfort are not the same. Suffering = pain * your resistance to that pain. It's like electricity, even, V = I * R. Similarly with pleasure: you hold on to it and get attached to it, and in this way you have this "resistance" to pleasure as well. Fulfillment = pleasure / resistance (or attachment). The inverse of this resistance is called equanimity, and that grows along with concentration.

You'll also get increased sensory clarity, and a sense of how your identity comes into being moment by moment. You can monitor your internal talk/image/feel, just as you can right now monitor your external world. And you'll notice that when you have none of the three, you cease to exist. Noting these things and their change is a big deal in Buddhism.

So what about Buddhism, why Buddhism? Well, it's not a big distinction; most meditative traditions have these concepts of concentration and equanimity. Buddhism's focus in this sensory clarity and noticing your moment-by-moment existence is rather unique. It's also called "mindfulness". You realize that your "identity" is paradoxical; that it only exists sometimes, and that it's a home you can leave and come back to. Call this an elastic/paradoxical/enlightened identity.

Back to practicality. So you want to meditate: how should you do it? Well, most practices are roughly equally ineffective. They totally work, but they take years. So, go to it. Interestingly, Young's ideal is a world where meditation is obsolete. Technology and knowledge get us to a point where enlightenment becomes much more attainable for anyone, even without practicing for 50 years, so more people can get in on the spiritual path.

A closing paraphrase: "Take me or anyone who's meditated for 40 years and give them the following choice: a lifetime of ordinary pleasure, or one day with a meditator's consciousness. Any meditator will pick the latter."

End talk, and these are Dan's ideas again, not Shinzen's. Why did this get me so excited? Well, it sounds awesome, right? But it's not just that; anyone can promise you 72 virgins or eternity in Best Heaven or whatever. The thing is: this is all worldly, it's doable (half hour a day?), it offers incremental benefits as you progress, and most importantly, I believe it. I believe it because it's entirely reasonable and consistent with everything else I've heard about meditation.

Practical note: if you want to meditate, I think it's pretty simple: sit down and focus on your breath. On the feeling of it in your nose. Your consciousness will inevitably wander, each time just gently bring it back- no worries, you're not a bad meditator, just focus on your breath again. Set a timer, try 10 minutes at first, or even 5. If it stops being enjoyable, do it less. I like Mindfulness in Plain English if you want a book.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go meditate.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Flat hunting

I am doing this now. Hunting for an apartment of my own. This is fun and stressful!

Three big general points:
- it's the biggest chunk of money I have to spend. If you rent a place for $700/month for a year, that's $8400! A price difference of $50 is really a price difference of $600! I don't spend that kind of money often!

- it's a difficult decision. Most things these days are not decisions really. Most things you buy, like groceries, are just commodities; I figure out where I can get the best food (one simple decision with only a couple factors, and I've made it already), and then just go there. It's often a question of "can you afford it?" and then "how much do you want?" Like skiing: a lift ticket costs $60/day, take it or leave it, for as many days as you'd like. But apartment hunting has so many variables!

- there are a lot of variables, so a good first step is to divine the most important variables, and figure out how to make a decision in the face of so many of them.

Some variables usually don't change, but when they do, they're whoppers! Like bugs: if you have bugs I will not rent your place. But no places I'm looking at have bugs. These are easy variables to deal with, because they are just gates. It only gets tricky if they don't become gates: I'd like to have my own bathroom, but if sharing a bathroom meant I could have a super sweet place for cheap, would I share one? (this hasn't come up, just hypothetical.)

Some variables don't actually matter, like square feet. A place is as big as it feels, not as big as the number says. Still, it helps calibrate, because maybe one place feels bigger when you look at it, but then feels smaller later.

Some variables matter surprisingly a lot! What if you have a nice view and you can see far away? I don't remember where, but I read a study once where that is a big deal for your outlook on life.

And a lot of variables you probably wouldn't even think about until later. Blocks to a grocery store? (where they sell real food, not a mini mart.) Mine is 3, and it's awesome. If I need something, it's not a deal to go get it. What if that were 6? Well, instead of a 10-minute jaunt, now it's 20, which could mess with the timing of other things that were cooking.

Here are all the variables I have thought of:
How the place feels, guest policy, total price (incl utilities), bike storage, view, counter space, outdoor common areas, laundry on-site (24/7 access?), noise, bugs, whether the manager seems cool, dishwasher, garbage disposal.
It would be nice if I could set up a big equation to tell which apartment I should get. Alas, this doesn't scale; I only have to make this decision once a year at most, and my equation is different from everyone else's.
And what the heck. Throwing equations to the wind and making slightly emotional decisions keeps life interesting, anyway.

Finally, some specifics on my situation: I am liking to stay in my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, because it is a good distance from work, close to friends, relatively close to almost everything, and also full of weird people. I'm interested in group housing or some other idealistic thing, but haven't found many openings. So I think a studio is it. (unless you, dear reader, know an awesome flat or house somewhere...)
Also, pricing seems like a pretty normal distribution. (with pretty low kurtosis.) All things included, it seems a Capitol Hill studio will run you $700-800/month. Now you know.