Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Put your baby down while still awake." Good luck with that.

This one falls into the category of "pet peeve", I'm afraid, but it's been on my mind of late.

Here's my complaint: long ago, during the early days of kid #1, someone (birth class instructor? one of he midwives? some blog? I want to say it was something I heard in person rather than read, but I can't be certain) said this about helping babies sleep: "You should put them down when they're ready to fall asleep but still awake, so they learn to fall asleep by themselves. Studies show that babies who are put down while still awake sleep better and wake less than ones who are rocked or nursed to sleep and transferred."

That's not an actual quote, obviously, since I can't even remember if it was a person or a web site that said it. But it stuck with me, because it sounded like a study in which the causal arrow is not in the place or pointing in the direction that the authors want to claim it is.

At the time, we had a baby who was almost never content to be still.  At best, she would sit in a chair so long as that chair was vibrating.  When she was tired, you had better be walking.  Nice soothing glider chair motion?  Nope.  Not the same.  On your feet.  Putting her down awake was not going to happen.  If she was insufficiently asleep or you flubbed the transfer, she would wind herself up very quickly to a state that required another 10-20 minutes of pacing to calm down from.

We didn't put her down awake because we couldn't.  And how did we know we couldn't?  Because we had become experts at tracking and interpreting the minute details of her needs and habits, and we had fine tuned, through hundreds of trials, the art of putting her down just as soon as we could, so that we could finally go eat or sleep or get something done, but no sooner.

So my reaction to that description of "studies" was "Of course babies that get put down awake sleep well.  That's because they're calm babies!  Every one of those parents is putting the kid down as soon as they possibly can."

The problem with this interpretation is that I haven't been able to find the study or studies that are supposed to show this, so I don't know whether any were randomized and controlled.  As it was described to me, it sounded like an observational study, but that could have been a mistake.

Anyway, the good news is that baby #2 doesn't require nearly as much motion as the first did.  Just occasional mild pacing, but mostly she does well in the glider.  The bad news is that there's still no putting her down awake, and in fact she's become harder to transfer and generally worse at sleeping than her big sister ever was.  At least as far as we can remember.  The mind has a way of letting go of the particularly rough patches (especially when they cause sleep deprivation and mental deterioration).

Friday, February 7, 2014

Life is a gift, hell is regret

So here's how I think about the meaning of life and the nature of the afterlife. It centers on a simple principle: Life is a gift.

To elaborate, this means that life is not:
  • a misfortune to be endured. There are plenty of traditions that treat it that way. Unfortunately including, or perhaps mainly, Christian traditions.
  • a prelude to the afterlife, unimportant except insofar as it affects the circumstances of what comes after. This is related to the above, but I think much more common. Like extremely widespread, possibly dominant across Christian traditions.
My main problem with both of those is that this is the life we were created for, and that God called "very good". And if the fall meant that no more good would come of it, I would think that would have been the time to burn it all down and call it a failed experiment. Yet here we are.

It also means that life is not: meaningless or valueless. There are a lot of ways to reach that conclusion, from the very simple but not universally appealing ("God said so") to the fairly direct (phenomenological experience of meaningfulness) to the more roundabout (the existentialist maneuver).

And life is: good. As Leibniz and Pangloss knew, it has to be, because why would God give us a crappy gift? *

So that's life. What about the afterlife? Well, first things first: I don't really know that there is one. I think there is, and I hope there is, but I don't have any good arguments to offer someone who's not inclined to believe in it. Even someone who would accept biblical arguments--my understanding is that the Bible isn't particularly clear on this matter.

So my idea of the afterlife is one that's consistent with the little guidance I have but mostly based on what I want it to look like: continuation of consciousness and identity, basically still myself and human, but better, and with a much better grasp of life, the universe, and everything.

And now, the last important piece of the picture: judgement and punishment. I just can't get there. Here's one story: I follow Humans of New York on Facebook. Very often, one of the top-rated comments will be something to the effect that we should be good to the people we meet because you never know what their story is or what they're going through. Here's another story: my wife is a nurse working with long-term homeless adults, and she loves her clients, even (especially?) the ones who miss 80% of their appointments and aren't at all interested in reducing their crack consumption.

I just don't see how a God who loves us and understands us would be at all interested in making us suffer. And I don't see how it could be a necessary logical consequence, since "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy" seems like a pretty effective way to break out of any logical traps.

So: hell is regret. What suffering there is in the afterlife comes from looking back on the life just lived with:
  1. A fuller appreciation of what a great gift earthly life is.
  2. A clear understanding of what that means for how life should be lived, and how your actions and outlook differed from that ideal.
I end up with something sort of like purgatory--you suffer for as long as it takes you to forgive yourself for the wasted opportunities you now perceive, but eventually you get over it. Or maybe not everyone does. Or maybe it's actually really easy to adopt a very loving and forgiving perspective even towards your own past self, and it's only a fleeting pang.

Anyway, aside from generally fitting in well with what I believe, the thing I like best about this idea is that I find it useful in everyday life. Regret is a very powerful negative emotion**, so the question "Am I living my life in a way that reflects what a great gift it is, or are there things I can recognize now that I expect I'll regret?" has some emotional bite.

And finally, unlike in the "prelude to the afterlife" view, this one has the advantage that, if it turns out the afterlife is not all it's cracked up to be and consciousness goes out like a candle flame at death... well, you won't be around to care. But you won't have traded the good things of this life for a broken promise. You will have spent your life doing the best you could to live well.

* I have thoughts on theodicy, too, which I hope to write up at some point. Teaser: mostly Plantiganian. Woo free will! Natural evil? I don't think it exists. Actually maybe that covers it and I don't need another post.

** Could it be more so for me than for the average person? There are some ideas that I suspect I hold to because they fit my personality or preferences well, but I don't know if this is one. My impression is that regret is pretty strong for most people.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host...

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all, on whom God's favor rests."*

That might be my favorite verse in the Christmas story, because of what I think is going on there.  (As with many of the thoughts I've written and will write down, I have every confidence that it's been said before, but I don't know where and I don't believe I've heard anyone else express it.)

Somehow the following is in my head:
1) That there are pretty strict regulations governing the behavior of angels, such that they're pretty much forbidden from doing things in the world that would make their presence evident.**  Except on assignment, and assignments are very rare.
2) That I got that idea from Madeleine L'Engle. I read books by her so long ago that I wouldn't know how to begin to track it down (besides re-reading everything I think I once read), but that's how I think of it: there are rules, like Madeleine L'Engle says.

So here's what I think is going on in the fields by night: a judgement was made that some shepherds would be a good group to announce the incarnation to, in keeping with the overall mission of bringing good news to the meek and lowly, and an angel was dispatched to do deliver the message. That angel was So. Excited. to be picked. The other angels, to the extent possible, were bummed not to be. But also So. Excited. because, you know, the incarnation. The biggest deal in ever (to date).

So they tagged along just to watch. The designated emissary made the announcement, complete with standard attempt to calm the highly freaked out audience, and then somebody slipped. Maybe the angelic equivalent of an involuntary squeal of excitement. Probably that. Probably not an actual decision to talk out of turn. But once the silence was broken, nobody could hold back. Total angelic pandemonium as everybody gave voice to their overwhelming excitement about what was going on.

Hopefully nobody got in trouble. Seems like it would be hard to get too angry about something like that, under the circumstances.

*That's Luke 2:13-14. Pretty presumptuous of me to decide, after looking at a few different translations, to start from the NIV but tweak it to my liking. But that's what I did.

**Obviously that implies that I believe in angels. I don't have any particularly strong thoughts on that question, actually. They can each claim their own pin, or they can all dance on one pinhead at once if they don't feel it cramps their style. Though now that I've said that, I guess aside from generally being fine with the traditional portrayal, I think of angels as having less agency and possibly less psychological depth than humans.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A debate I recently had in my head, highly condensed

Question: Better to be locked-in, or dead?

Point: What?  Are you insane?  Dead!

Counterpoint: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." [1] 

  1. From a risk-assessment perspective, the case for life is harder to make.  The person busy finding joy in the absurdity of being alive but so far divorced from the world probably wouldn't be too bothered by the idea of moving on to the next thing, but someone who arrived at a different outlook on the whole experience might be extremely upset not to.
  2. I'd be curious to know how answers to this question line up with those to the question of afterlife.  I feel like all four combinations make sense to me, though the "I believe in an afterlife but I'll stick around, thanks" camp might be a lonely place.  But I guess if we're serious about our choice we'd better not be daunted by a little loneliness.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Annals of Obsession: Introduction, Trebuchet Design

Recently, finding myself glued to the computer too late at night reading Android developer forums and feeling unable to put the subject down and go to bed even though I knew sleep was way more valuable than what I was doing, I got to thinking about my obsessive streak. I don't think it's extreme, as obsessiveness goes, but it's certainly something that's part of my personality and has an impact on my life.

Then I got to thinking it might be fun to make a chronological list of the things I've gotten caught up in. And even more fun than just a list would be a little synopsis and post-mortem on each. This has been going on for a long time (like "spent most of freshman year of high school on a BBS playing a text MUD, going so far as to learn Basic so I could keep my character gaining experience by running scripts while I was at school"), but working backwards from today I only got as far as...

Trebuchet Design and Construction

Some time in the winter or spring of 2007, a coworker brought the mini trebuchet kit that someone had gotten him for Christmas into the office.  A largish contingent of the programmers proceeded to build it, tweak it, create innovative targets and projectiles for it, and generally have a fun time.  So fun, in fact, that more than one of us started talking about building on a bigger scale.  Since the Punkin Chunkers have made it extremely hard to break new ground on size or power, I was content to set myself the goal of making an effective and fairly elegant water-balloon-scale trebuchet.

After tons of thinking, drawing, and running finely differentiated simulations on trebuchet modeling software (it looks like there are a few more options now than there were then.  I went through one or two before finding one that had all the options I needed and was reasonably usable), I built!

Then I learned some more things, like that the stresses on the cable holding the counterweight were greater than I had expected, and that it's kind of hard to get water balloons to stay in a sling rather than squeeze out the side and burst when they're being whipped around in a really fast arc.

And finally, in the glorious conclusion of the project, at our family Thanksgiving gathering in western Pennsylvania, I learned that I'm not a good skeet shooter.  But between the handful of us, we got a few good hits.  I found it rather magical.

That's my dad pulling.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Time value of money, money value of time

"Well a rich man counts his time/like a poor man counts his money"

The money value of time comes up a lot in personal finance, such as in the thought "My time is worth $__/hour, so it's not worth it for me to spend hours mowing the lawn/cleaning the house/etc. I'll hire someone to do that." This is a potentially useful heuristic, but I think the obvious formulation of it is way wrong. Leaving aside the question of whether the wage used is adjusted for taxes, the fact is that most people are not in a position to get payed anything at all for the time they would be using to mow the lawn. If you have a salaried job and no side gigs, the marginal value of an hour of your time is $0.

So decisions about whether to spend time or money on a problem or need aren't really about which solution leaves you richer. Spending time always wins. The question is how much it's worth to you to not have to spend that time. One way to answer that question is to put a value on the time you would have to spend based on what you would actually do with it--if you'd be watching TV, probably the number will not be high, but if the cost is time spent with your kids or doing a hobby that you love, it might be quite high. Another way to approach the question is to convert the money back into time, i.e. figure the time value of your money.

I don't recall seeing much discussion of the time value of money in personal finance writing, but it seems to me like a very useful quantity when trying to make good financial decisions. Here's my formula:

(annual increase in net worth) / (workdays/year)

It's very simple, and the quantity it produces is the money value of a day of your life. For example, for someone who saves $12,000 per year (I include debt principal paid as part of savings) and works a regular full-time job with 10 holidays and 10 vacation days, the formula says:

$12,000 / 240 = $50 per day

So a $50 concert ticket costs that person a day of their life.

Note that this is a heuristic for evaluating marginal and discretionary spending. Housing, insurance, and any established spending habits are already built into the savings number. Those are obviously important, but they're not really areas where time and money valuation heuristics come into play. They're subject to baseline personal finance rule #1: Spend no more than you need to on the things you've chosen to spend money on*. As for how to arrive at a number for total annual savings, assuming you're not a Quicken or Mint or other tracking tool user, probably subtracting end-of-year statements makes sense. Or else get decent data for a few months and extrapolate. (I use Quicken, so I can tell you to the dollar.)

Note also that if your net worth is not increasing then you won't get a useful number from this formula. In that case you're either in a state of emergency or you don't expect to ever do better than scrape by**. The calculations for living in financial despair are quite different.

Armed with this quantity, you can go back and evaluate the amounts you want to spend on saving your leisure time. E.g. would you be spending 3 days' worth of money just to save one evening's worth of yard work?

*Baseline personal finance rule #2: Choose wisely what you spend money on, especially when it's recurring.

**Ok, yes, there's also the possibility that you're smoothing your consumption over time because you expect to make much more later. Which makes plenty of sense in some circumstances.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pithy aphorism time

If your business model doesn't work without externalizing massive harms, it's a bad business model. If a new regulation or a cultural shift is going to make it stop working, that's a feature, not a bug. (Thinking at the moment of business models built on exploitative labor practices like low minimum wage and unpaid internships. Obviously the fossil fuel industry is another among the many to which this idea could apply. And of course the worst part is that in a lot of cases the business model would actually still work fine, just with slightly lower margins.)