Thursday, December 18, 2014

In which we infer that the Oatmeal guy has neither faith nor kids

Why does The Oatmeal’s famous comic about religion bother me so much?  I’m not usually troubled by internet atheists [1].  At least, no more than by other varieties of internet ideologue, and often somewhat less, since they’re generally not pushing plans or policies that would be bad for the world.  They can be foolish and annoying, but they’re not my problem.

But I guess the thing that does tend to bother me about internet atheism [2] is particularly strong in that comic, namely the assumption that religious people are not serious, that we don’t actually believe what we’re saying.  Besides being a way of begging the question, it seems like a major failure to empathize with those on the other side of the position.  He sees religious claims as meaningless, so he assumes that anyone making them is just expressing team loyalty, and seems unable to imagine that someone would actually see such ideas as true.

They way I stated it there makes it seem a little different, but it reminds me of a phenomenon Paul Krugman occasionally talks about, whereby economists from other teams misunderstand Keynesian ideas or proposals in a way that makes them obviously stupid, then attack Keynesians for being so stupid.  His point is that they would do better to try to make sense of an idea by putting themselves in the position of a hypothetical intelligent Keynesian, because it makes them look foolish to fail so badly to understand the theory.  Though there, as here, it may be that the current approach works just fine with those economists’ target audience, so they’re not looking for advice from Krugman on how to sound smarter to him.

The part that has stuck in my head most from the comic is the panel where a kid asks what happens when we die and the hypothetical parent who’s doing it right says “I don’t know, sweetie, what do you think?”  So now he’s failing to empathize with both the believer and the kid.  The believer because he can’t imagine a person thinking seriously about the question and coming up with an answer besides his, and the kid because he’s treating what I would assume is a serious question as if it were an obviously fanciful one.  If the Wolverine asks me the name of the person she’s just added to a drawing, I might turn the question back like that (especially since she tends to have an answer in mind and reject all suggestions in those types of situations), but if she asks what happens when we die, I’m going to take her seriously and do my best.  (She has, of course.  Not an easy one, though not as tough as “What is God’s name?”)

Re-reading the comic today, I discovered something that had not stuck in my mind–that that exchange is part of a sequence in which he comes out and says that religious convictions are akin to favorite colors.  I.e. that they contain no truth claims and only the mildest subjective importance.  I’m surprised that didn’t stay with me, because it encapsulates the problem nicely.  So let me try to be clear as well: when I say something like “God loves you”, it has very little in common with saying “I like purple.”  I’m not making a statement about what seems aesthetically nice or where I observe my inclinations pointing more often than not, I’m saying that to the best of my ability to interpret the world, and according to how I understand truth and truth claims to work, it is the case that God loves you.


I kind of want to end there, but apparently the stronger part of me wants to talk more.  Which is pretty standard.  Specifically, I want to note that his notion of the evils of indoctrinating your children is just weird to me.  Where are kids supposed to learn things if not from the adults in their life?  Is he aware that after “keep them from becoming dead”, indoctrination is pretty much the primary goal of child rearing, because children left to their own devices will form value systems in which fairness and respect for others are way less prominent than we would like?

And yeah, the problem discussed above affects this, too.  Obviously he has a clear idea of what should be shared with the kiddos and what should not–teach your children true things, don’t indoctrinate them in falsehoods–but he’s forgetting that we’re not all working from the same list of which is which.


[1] I wasn’t sure if “internet atheist” was a standard term, but it seems like it is.  Obviously not all expressions of atheism on the internet would fall under it.  The word “troll” is not unrelated.  The first association for me would be with the Dawkinsian heroes who are always ready to share the gospel of What You See Is What You Get in the comments of any Humans of New York post that makes reference to anything religious.

[2] Aside from the smugness.  That is also exceptionally strong in this case, but smugness is more an intensifier than a problem in itself.  If something is unequivocally true, then stating it confidently is just normal.  Smugness happens when the tone reflects way more confidence than the substance of an argument supports, so it depends on what you think of the argument itself.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What’s good about money and freedom is how you spend them

Once again I find myself responding to ideas I’ve read but didn’t bookmark because I didn’t know until later that I might be actually writing something that responds to them.  Alas, you’ll have to take my word for it.  And maybe someday I’ll find the posts I’m thinking of or ones like them and add them here.

Anyway, what I’m responding to is the idea that money is freedom.  Specifically, I’ve read blog posts where people wax poetic about how wonderful it will be to be financially independent and cast off all constraints to swim in the boundless ocean of possibility.

Which sounds lovely, of course, but (and I wish I could find one so I could show rather than tell about this) it felt to me like they were misunderstanding the value of both money and freedom.  Because they were thinking only about having them, and the value comes from how you spend them.

This is pretty well understood in the case of money.  On the mild side, hoarding money can be merely overcautious and unimaginative--you put too much of your energy into thinking about negative contingencies and forget to live well and plan for the possibility of things turning out alright.  On the extreme side… well, there are plenty of angles and examples to choose from, each grotesque in its own special way.  But I think most people who have an unhealthy relationship to money would at least acknowledge in the abstract that it’s a means to an end, even if they’ve lost sight of that in practice.  

Freedom, though, people tend to view as an end in itself.  And it probably is, on some level.  But I think on a practical level there’s a pretty good analogy to money.  Hoarding freedom, for example, has its own forms of ugliness--fear of commitment would be a big one, whether to individual relationships or social ties.  Unwillingness to make a choice for fear of foreclosing other alternatives seems to fit as well.  And then there are extreme cases like the anti-government militia people, who are so focused on preserving their freedom that they lock it in a box, build a bunker around it, and never set eyes on it again.

So what’s the alternative?  Spend it.  One example I’ve thought about was inspired by my father-in-law, who retired a couple years ago.  He loves being retired, but has taken on enough regular volunteering that it kind of seems like a part-time job, complete with having to pre-arrange vacation time.  That kind of commitment is different from just helping out.  It costs more in freedom, because he’s allowed people to count on him showing up week after week, and it confers more benefit on the organization.

I should think of examples in between, but the other ones that are coming to mind are the really big ones: marriage, kids, being there for friends and family.  

Is there an analogy to investing as well?  Probably.  It would have to be something that you spend freedom on and end up with more freedom.  Education, perhaps.  And marriage might fit, in some cases and from some angles, at least.  Kids, for me, definitely don’t.  Copious freedom has been laid out (also money) and I don’t expect to see it again.  I feel it’s freedom well spent, though, at least so far.

Perhaps my half-remembered interlocutors would find this reasonable and totally compatible with their outlook, but as I half-remember them, they seemed to be imagining a glorious future of frolicking, Scrooge McDuck style, in their towers full of freedom.  So if I could find any of the posts, I might leave a comment along the lines of “Sounds lovely, but what are you going to actually do with it?”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Survival probability calculator

It’s calculator time again!  When I posted the last one, someone referred to it as depressing.  I hadn’t seen in that way, though I believe this was someone who pays New Jersey property taxes, so I guess any reminder of how much that costs would be a downer.

Anyway, probably everyone will agree that this one is depressing.  In fact, whereas I linked to the other one at the top, middle and bottom of the accompanying post, I’m going to save this one for the end of the post so people can decide whether or not to even use it.

So with that inspiring introduction, I present… a multi-person survival probability calculator!

The immediate idea came from a post at the Hull Financial Planning blog (I don’t follow it, though I’ve followed links to it several times and it seems good) about evaluating your need for life insurance.  Sensibly enough, that calculation requires knowing approximately what your chances of actually filing a claim are.  But also, I’ve long had a bookmark to the SSA’s Actuarial Life Tables and occasionally spent some time studying what they have to say.

What the calculator does is simple: given any number of people, with age and sex, and a number of years, it uses the SSA table to calculate each person’s cumulative probability of surviving for that long, plus the combined probability of everyone in the group making it.

What to do with this information?  

Here are some possibilities:

Ignore it

Don’t even run the calculator.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, right?  Let’s just go with the working hypothesis that we and our loved ones are immortal.

Figure out why it doesn’t apply to you

Plenty of fertile ground here.  For one thing, are you in better shape than the average of your peers?  And some of the people who die every year start the year knowing they have a potentially fatal condition.  So if that doesn’t apply to you, that must help the odds at least a bit.  Actually, you can do a little better than mere speculation on this one.  I recently came across a pair of web sites that ask you a bunch of questions then predict your personal life expectancy.  They’re called Living to 100 and Blue Zones.  (Note: unfortunately, both require an email address. But I think it might work to use a fake one.)

And then there’s another sobering statistic: for some age groups, suicide is the second leading cause of death.  That seems like one where you can have at least some idea of how big a risk factor it is for you personally.

Examine your priorities

The question, as I see it, is “If the moment comes when I discover that I’m going to get the bad side of this equation, what will I think about my choices?  Is there anything I could be doing to make that hypothetical future self feel better about my life, without messing things up for the other future self who’s living in the much more likely hypothetical world where everything turns out OK?”

Freak out

Plenty of directions to take this--extreme risk-aversion, frantically piling up experiences, depression, …  I’m sure there are others, and you could also bounce between them all.

Acceptance [1]

Maybe your priorities are in decent shape and you’re willing and able to take this in and see it as just one of the many uncertainties of life (“Anything can happen”).

I think I’ve done some of all of these.  Even the first one, since I spent a few days thinking “Yeah, I probably don’t need to do that” between thinking of the idea and figuring out my own number.  I haven’t freaked out much, but there have certainly been moments of internal panic.  I wasn’t expecting a double-digit number for my 20-year downside risk.

And finally... the calculator! [2]




[1] I realized partway through thinking about and writing down these responses that they map fairly well to the “stages of grief”, if you put anger and depression together under “freak out” and group “examine your priorities” in with acceptance (which makes sense, as a different form of acceptance, i.e. “This is real and it applies to me. What am I going to do about it?”).

[2] Note re data/privacy: this calculator operates entirely in your browser and doesn’t transmit anything.  I kind of wish I had made it at least tell me when it’s been clicked, because I’m curious how many people will actually run it, but I didn’t.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Do-It-Yourself Decision Calculus: Cheaper, Better, or Fun

File this under rules of thumb or guidelines that I formulated in my head at some point and refer to occasionally.  This one is probably 5-8 years old.

The rule: it's worth doing something yourself (vs. buying a product or hiring out a task) when it's some compelling combination of cheaper, better, or just plain fun to do.

A particular decision could be made on small contributions from each factor, or it could be based entirely on the strength of one of them, but it has to meet that test somehow.  (If you flip it around, it sounds pretty obvious: if you'd be suffering to do/make something that will cost more and turn out worse, obviously that's something you should buy or do without.)

My primary examples: beer and applesauce.

For example, that's Two Hearted on the right.

Beer


I've been asked before whether I brew beer, because it seems like something I'd be into.  But in fact I've never even really been tempted.  It certainly doesn't sound very fun—a bit of planning and cooking, a lot of waiting, and a lot of tedious sterilizing and processing—and while home-brewed beer is cheaper, my impression is that it's not way cheaper, and at the rate I drink beer (which I guess might increase a bit if I had larger quantities sitting around, but not drastically) it would take a long time to make up for the investment in gear.  But the biggest factor for me in this case is the "better".  There's so much really good beer out there, I just don't see myself managing to make something that would compete.

Applesauce

You can buy applesauce cheaply and you can buy pretty good applesauce (not cheaply), but can you get applesauce that's as good as our home-canned Fuji/Honeycrisp blend?  I'm not sure you can.  And can you get it for about $1.70 per quart?  No, you cannot.  I can't say it's particularly fun (as a small-scale activity with friends or family it might be, but the way we do it these days is I stay up late processing a bushel at a time with a hand-powered Foley mill), but it's totally worth it.

Other cases:

  • Knitting: it's not even close on price (decent yarn is expensive, manufactured goods with the same quality materials cost less), and I think in most cases there's no quality advantage.  So this is something you should do if you find it fun (of course the fun can be in wearing or giving away something you made, but it's probably best if you enjoy the activity itself at least somewhat).  I used to, but at some point it stopped being worth it for me.
  • Home/car/bike repairs: all about cost.  Though in some cases I think quality benefits, because you have the time and motivation to be as careful and do as good a job as you can, whereas someone else's main goal might be to finish and get paid as fast as possible.  Obviously quality can also suffer if you don't quite have the hang of what you're trying to do (solution: more YouTube videos!).  There can be a fun factor, too, if we stretch the definition of "fun" to include "sense of satisfaction at one's own increased competence and self-reliance."
  • Roasting coffee: I would like to get back to doing this.  The cost is roughly even, but I found it enjoyable.  And while there's no shortage of good coffee out there, I think in this case there's something to the claims that extreme freshness makes a noticeable difference.
  • Granola, hummus, yogurt: I've been making these three recently (yogurt very recently, and it might not stick, but the other two are part of my routine now).  I do like my versions, but there are plenty of store-bought versions that are excellent.  So this is purely a cost issue.  Not that we're actually saving money, I don't think, but we get to eat more granola and a lot more hummus than we would if we were paying store prices for them.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

A listicle: Dead things encountered on the bike path (plus some meta-blogging)

I'm guessing nobody had marked their calendar and was getting impatient, and I certainly haven't gotten any emails about it, but I'm behind schedule.  Which would be more understandable if I had set myself an ambitious schedule, like something tied to a day of the week.  In fact what I have is "monthly" (meaning "each post should be no more than 30 days after the last"), and I've still blown it.  I have an excuse, though, sort of: I really want to get the promised* theodicy post done, but so far I've found it daunting to even try, and difficult to carry out. That is, I've thought about it a lot, drafted a little, and not gotten all that far.

So in the meantime, some lighter fare...

Dead Things I've Encountered On The Bike Path


1. A fish
I'm pretty sure this was the first, and it might be the weirdest (or it might not. I kind of find #5 weirder).  When it rains enough, the Wissahickon Creek gets excited and rises fast, which means some sections of the bike path flood fairly easily.  One of the first times this happened after I started commuting, I made the mistake of hitting the first flooded section and thinking "well, I can pretty much lift my feet and coast through this."  A few more slightly larger water hazards later, I had gone too far to turn back and ended up pedaling through about 18 inches of muddy water for a quarter mile (and also running off the path at one point because I couldn't remember on which side of a particular tree it went).

That's all for illustration, because I think that time I learned my lesson and took another route the next day.  But after one of the first floods after I started commuting, on the way to work I was surprised to see a small (4- or 5-inch) fish in the middle of the path.

2. Goslings
Not at all surprising, really, since there are a lot of geese that live along the path year round, and in the spring they all get super pissy and aggressive in defense of their nests and then their cute little hatchlings.  Though the normal attitude of a bike commuter to geese is antipathy (due to (a) the aforementioned aggression, (b) during other seasons, the aimless wandering across the path, and (c) all the poop), it's still sad to see dead goslings.  But it happens, I assume from collisions with bikes.  I've seen maybe four total.

3. Mice
I've seen one or two before, and I just saw one the other day.  I feel like I've had more close calls with squirrels and chipmunks, but it's mice that I've actually seen dead on the path.  Maybe other rodents are sturdy enough to survive a hit from a bike, or at least run a ways before succumbing to their injuries.

4. A fox
Not actually on the path, but right next to it.  It was lying curled up in a fairly normal-looking pose, so I don't know whether it was hit by a bike or not.  I assumed not, actually, though I didn't have any good ideas about why it would have chosen that spot to die from something else. 

5. A deer
This was before I had a smartphone, or else I'd have a record of this one.  If I'm remembering right, it was a young buck with the beginnings of some antlers.  In any case, it was definitely a deer, looking like it had gone down face first, with a bit of blood coming from its mouth.  It was right below the regional rail bridge over the beginning of the trail along Lincoln Drive, so my best guess is that it was up on the tracks and either got actually hit by a train or was surprised by one with nowhere to go and ended up falling on its head down the pretty steep cliff.



6. Trees
So many downed trees, in all shapes and sizes.  Usually you have to climb over, occasionally under, and sometimes it's the top that falls across the path so you end up having to pick your way through among the leaves and branches.  Once there was a really big one that fell away from the path but was growing so close to it that it took a bug chunk out of the side of the path, leaving a sheer drop into an 8-foot hole.

7. A Pontiac
Ok, so cars aren't alive.  But it still works to talk about them as dead. Such as when they've been jammed beneath two bridge supports that are at least a foot too narrow.


* Sort of promised here, and actually promised in person to a friend.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cobain's Sarcoma

Why does the idea of heroin addiction affect me so strongly?  I don’t really know.  I mean, there are people in my family with cancer, too, but somehow that doesn’t get to me in the same way.

Possibly it’s because I have so much invested, philosophically and emotionally, in the idea of freedom, and heroin goes in and attacks the will like almost nothing else.  I tried a while ago to figure out whether “cancer of the will” was a phrase that people use to describe addiction.  It seemed like the answer was “yes, but not widely”, so I don’t know if I heard/read it or came up with it myself.  But it seems apt to me.  Heroin addiction isn’t an external force overpowering the will, but a malignancy of the will itself.  How do you fight something like that?

Fuck heroin.  It makes me so sad and so angry.


And now here are a few songs about heroin, some of which sometimes make me cry…





Friday, June 27, 2014

Annals of obsession: Bike commuting

In which, instead of writing another "first in a series" post, I actually add to a series! Though full disclosure: I outlined all the topics connected to cycling and bike commuting that I thought I might have something to say about, and the list was long. So there might be another series coming. But for now, I'm here to talk about the period during which bike commuting was a major obsession.

Getting started

Having lived in Mt. Airy and worked in Center City the whole time I've lived in Philly, I basically always wanted to be riding to work but never thought it was possible. It's about 11 miles each way, which seemed like too much. And that's not to mention the sweatiness issue.

I especially felt like I should have been able to make it work after starting my current job, with its nonexistent dress code and easy flexibility, but I never did. I thought about riding one way and taking transit the other, alternating direction each day, to make it not so hard, but I never did that. So what finally broke the pattern and got me to start? A coworker did it. A friend from work who lived nearby started, and behold, it turned out it could be done! The secret was to do it. We both started out riding a couple days a week and worked our way up, but it turned out the round trip wasn't as impossible as I had imagined it.

Getting hooked

Having finally gotten past the barrier of getting started, I dove in. Some items to illustrate the situation:
  • My first commute was on August 13, 2007. Some time in September, when I was still riding only 2 or 3 times per week, I started a spreadsheet to track my mileage and keep notes (the first entry was in honor of my first flat, after 396 total miles).
  • I set myself a rule that I had to do the ride the first time I faced some new set of conditions (e.g. heavy rain, cold, high winds). That way I would know what it was like and could choose to skip it the next time, but I couldn't be daunted by imagined hardship. This rule served me well, except on the first day it snowed. I went down twice, banging my knee pretty hard on the second one.
  • I geared up immediately. By the end of 2007, I had a variety of wacky synthetic clothing items, several lights, a few new tools, and neoprene shoe covers. (As mentioned in the previous bullet, snow and ice were a problem that first winter. So in late 2008, I got studded tires.)
  • I joined BikeForums.net on August 26, 2007, (i.e. less than two weeks after my first ride) and posted for the first time on September 13. Though the spreadsheet might be considered more extreme behavior, BikeForums was the center of what made this a major obsession. It's possible I kept up with the commuting forum for more than a year. Anyone who has spent significant time in active online forums will appreciate how shocking that is.
  • The spreadsheet started out fairly tame, but grew quickly to what I think would be considered a "maybe a little unbalanced" level of detail. Actually, I think it gets its own heading.

The Spreadsheet

At the beginning of 2008, I started taking notes on every ride (ride time and distance, weather conditions). It also tracks cumulative commuting and recreational mileage, skipped rides, maintenance, and spending.

Some factoids I know thanks to the spreadsheet, to illustrate how ridiculous it truly is:
  • As of today I've ridden 25,744 commuting and 5,790 recreational miles since my first commute.
  • Coldest ride (tie): 12 °F, February 11, 2008, and January 28, 2014.
  • Hottest ride: 102 °F, July 22, 2011.
  • Windiest ride: W 29 mph, gusting to 46, February 12, 2009. 
  • Total spending: $5,089.45. The most recent item was a new studded rear tire, since the old one lost its ability to stay on a rim. According to my somewhat-convoluted formula for calculating how much I would have spent commuting by other means, I'm only $105.72 away from breaking even (at last!). Unfortunately I need a new cassette at the moment, so that'll set me back a couple weeks.
  • In mid-August of last year, my current bike (pictured above. It's my ideal commuting bike, bought piecemeal and built in March 2011, to replace the circa-1990 Sirrus Sport that wouldn't take fenders) became my highest-mileage bike. It's now a month or so away from hitting 10,000.
  • The data I have isn't fantastic for the Wolverine's mileage, but she's right around 500 lifetime miles, mostly commuting (i.e. to and from daycare).
Ok, so that makes it sound like I'm still dangerously obsessed, since a lot of those items are recent, and clearly I'm still maintaining the spreadsheet.  However...

Calmer times

I still love commuting by bike. And I still love data. But I haven't read BikeForums in a few years, and I pretty much never end up down the rabbit hole on some question of gear or technique the way I used to do all the time. I have my habits and I maintain them, but they don't take up much time or attention. I figure the obsessive phase of this hobby wound down some time in 2009 (replaced by: endurance cycling! Not such a radical shift. In fact they overlapped. More on that when this series continues).

And finally, a note on what I like best about bike commuting. Is it the view of the Schuylkill instead of the one from the bus (mostly urban decay) and subway (darkness)? Is it being in shape, or the 20 pounds I lost pretty quickly after starting? Is it the double tailwind days (so rare!) or the quietly falling snow? Those are getting closer. It's the joy.