Monthly Archives: February 2008

Commute time and happiness

Ezra Klein has a post on how people undervalue a short commute when deciding where to live. According to an article he links to,

A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Empirical Research in Economics.

That number doesn’t surprise me at all, but my personal optimization function places a high value on the amount of time I have outside work to pursue my other interests. Two hours a day sitting in my car would be a huge chunk taken out of that, and it would require a substantial compensation in quality of life for that tradeoff to be worthwhile. I’m always baffled by people who are willing to undertake even longer commutes when they don’t have to.
This will of course be an extremely relevant issue for me soon, once it’s time to relocate. Depending on where I end up working, it could be in competition with some of my other criteria, such as living in a walkable neighborhood. If I take a job in, say, Manhattan, short commute and neighborhood walkability pretty much coincide, but if it’s in an exurban office park somewhere I have to trade off one for the other. This in turn feeds back somewhat into my job decisions. In some ways I have it easy, though: being single, I only have one commute to worry about. The minimization problem for two-income households is certainly more complicated…

Quantum Construction



quantum construction, originally uploaded by arcanegazebo.

I spotted this sign while running in Berkeley this morning, and had to go back for a photo. From the slogan it looks like they’re promoting energy-efficient home design, which is commendable; thus they probably want “quantum” to indicate “technologically advanced”. But of course, “quantum” also brings to mind uncertainty, which maybe isn’t what a contractor wants to associate themselves with. At the very least, I would expect Quantum Construction to be able to give a precise time estimate, or a precise cost estimate, but not both.

However, I assume their creation operators are top-notch.

The Magnetic Fields, Distortion

I know lots of people who like them, but I never really got into the Magnetic Fields. However, taking a noise-pop turn is a good way to get my attention. The appropriately-titled Distortion is reportedly inspired by Jesus and Mary Chain, and runs the Fields’ pop songs through that sonic filter. I keep wanting to call them a synth-pop band, but the credits on the CD include the stern declaration “No synths”, so clearly that’s not right (even if it was two albums ago). (No synths?! Denied!)
The canonical length of a pop song is three minutes, and a look at the tracklist reveals that this band is very dedicated to that principle. The mean track length is 2:59, with a standard deviation of 6 seconds. (Steven Merritt has said that he was aiming for three-minute songs on this record.)
As for the actual music, it may be my preference for female vocalists but the songs where Shirley Simms sings (rather than Merritt) are definitely the best: “Drive On, Driver”, “The Nun’s Litany”, and “Till the Bitter End” in that order. The lyrics are clever and often amusing: the “Litany”, rather than being a religious song, is an exhibitionist fantasy, and the following track “Zombie Boy” is not speaking metaphorically, nor is the relationship with said zombie simply a platonic one based on brains alone.
There are a few skippable tracks on the CD: notably “Too Drunk to Dream”, and “Mr. Mistletoe”, which might be suffering from my bias against Christmas music (even if Christmas isn’t actually the focus of the song). Mostly, though, the quality of the songs stays pretty high.
They don’t seem to have posted any tracks for free download and I don’t see a good place to stream them (of course, there’s always MySpace), but I recommend sampling 30 seconds of “Drive On, Driver” or “The Nun’s Litany” at an online music store. It’s a fun album and worth checking out.

Automated links posts

Earlier this week I mentioned that I’ve revived my del.icio.us account. The links here are items that I found interesting but didn’t have enough extended commentary on to warrant a full blog post. They get a sentence or two of commentary plus tags. There’s about a week’s worth of recent links up now, plus some from a while back when I’d been using the account before.
There’s good reason to cross-post these links here: it adds more content for discussion (del.icio.us doesn’t have comments), and allows readers to get everything on one page rather than having to check my del.icio.us page separately. I used to collect items like these into periodic links posts; del.icio.us can do this automatically, which is the approach I’m thinking of using. Several blogs I read use this feature, for example Uncertain Principles. (Scroll down to see recent links posts.)
I’ll turn this on soon but I wanted to check first in case people secretly hate this sort of thing. If there are objections I’ll put it in the sidebar instead, possibly with periodically-renewed comment threads like I did for Project 365.

Singles aren’t looking

Valentine’s Day is about as personally relevant to me as is Passover or Guy Fawkes Day, and since I’m likely to move to a distant, undetermined location in the next month or two, dating is a very low priority for me. However, that will not stop this blog from making gratuitous holiday tie-in posts. Today we have (via Fark) a Pew Research finding that most American singles aren’t looking for a partner. Specifically:

Among all singles, just 16% say they are currently looking for a romantic partner. That amounts to 7% of the adult population. Some 55% of singles report no active interest in seeking a romantic partner. This is especially true for women, for those who have been widowed or divorced, and for older singles. Yet even among the youngest adults, the zest for romance is somewhat muted: 38% of singles ages 18-29 say they are not currently looking for a romantic partner, compared to 22% in that age cohort who are looking for partners. The rest say they are in committed relationships.

Here’s my Tyler Cowen-esque ordered list of possible explanations:

  1. Simple preference. Some people decide that, despite the dominant cultural paradigm, this kind of relationship just isn’t something they want.

  2. Dating sucks. The process of finding a partner is so unpleasant that some people give up, or wait for a more favorable environment.
  3. Small dating pool. This is the one the Pew survey actually investigates at some level, asking the people who are looking if there are good prospects in the community. Outside of urban areas they are not very optimistic about this.
  4. Practical issues. Some people have very full schedules and don’t have the time or the resources for dating. A variety of other personal circumstances don’t allow for entering a relationship (or make it quite difficult). Alternatively, they just prioritize other interests.
  5. Signaling. Actively looking for a partner is often interpreted as a sign of desperation, and can be counterproductive, so people say they aren’t to project more self-assurance. Maybe this effect extends to survey responses.
  6. Dating works. People looking for partners tend to find them sooner or later, removing them from the category of interest. The more efficient this process is, the more selection bias you get in this kind of survey: people for whom being in a relationship is important are underrepresented in the singles group, because they don’t stay in this category for long periods of time.

I think 6 is the largest effect, followed by 3 and 4. When I’m personally in the not-looking group it’s usually for a combination of 1 and 2, although currently it’s 4 (the impending relocation).

Today’s injustices: telecom immunity and show trials

As the results come in from today’s Potomac Primaries, I’m very happy to see Barack Obama continue to defeat Clinton by huge margins. Meanwhile, political news today brought reminders of why this stuff matters.
We had the Senate vote to grant retroactive immunity to telecoms who participated in the warrantless wiretapping program. The Dodd/Feingold amendment, which would have held the telecoms accountable for breaking the law, was soundly rejected by a 31-67 vote. It’s probably too much at this point to expect Republicans to stand up for the rule of law, but it’s shameful that so many Democrats voted nay here. Once again I wonder why the increasingly useless Dianne Feinstein is one of the senators from California. Meanwhile, Obama voted for the amendment, but Clinton didn’t bother to show up. I’ll give her some slack since the vote wasn’t close, but some leadership on this issue from her might have helped.
Meanwhile, the military is finally preparing to file charges against some of the Guantanamo detainees; they are seeking the death penalty. Parts of the article inadvertently highlight just how badly this system has gone wrong.

Col. Steven David, the chief military defense lawyer for the Guantánamo cases, who must provide detainees with military lawyers, said he did not have six lawyers available to take the cases, which the Pentagon described as a milestone in the war on terror.
In addition, he noted, a tangle of questions are unanswered in the military commission system, which has yet to begin a single trial. They include whether waterboarding constitutes torture, how statements obtained by coercion are to be handled, whether detainees may be so psychologically damaged that they may not be able to assist in their defense and exactly what the rules of the trials are to be.

The fact that any of these things are questions at all is appalling. Yes, waterboarding is torture. If this isn’t obvious from a simple description of the procedure (and it should be), it’s obvious from the fact that it has historically been used to torture people. No, statements obtained through torture should not be admissible as evidence. Historically, the primary use of torture has been to obtain false confessions, and there’s no reason whatsoever to think this information is reliable. It’s horrifying that any of this is even up for debate in this country.
Whether or not these men are guilty of the charges against them, executing them based on statements elicited through torture will not be just. That would make these military commissions no better than the show trials Stalin used against his political opponents. I can only hope that the military comes to its senses on this and gives these men a fair trial.
Meanwhile, as long as we’re charging people with war crimes, let’s do Donald Rumsfeld next: he personally approved the torture of these detainees.

The Yahoo/Microsoft thing

So, Yahoo rejected Microsoft’s buyout offer, but it is apparently still likely that Microsoft will devour Yahoo in the end. This raises several interesting questions, such as: How much is Yahoo really worth? Will a combined Microsoft/Yahoo be an anticompetitive force on the internet, as Google alleges? Or can we expect this to spur a new round of increased competition with Google, leading to new and better services from both sides?
Regarding these questions, I have no idea and can say very little. I’m more concerned about the one Yahoo service I actually use, Flickr, being assimilated into the Microsoft collective. I’ve always liked Flickr’s clean and simple page layout, and would rather not see it turn into MSN Flickr with a look more like this. Hopefully Microsoft will do what Yahoo did when they bought it and leave Flickr with some independence.
Actually, I use a second Yahoo service: del.icio.us. It’s true that I almost never posted there since I opened the account, but last week I revived it, and I’m contemplating cross-posting those links to the main blog. (More on this later.) However, del.icio.us has always been ugly, but at least it’s ugly in an uncluttered way, which is basically the opposite of Microsoft Ugly.
Anyway, here’s hoping Microsoft takes a hands-off approach to Yahoo’s Web 2.0 acquisitions.

Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals

It always happens: people post “Best of…” lists at the end of the year, which leads me to great records that I wish I’d known about earlier (so they could contribute to the annual mix CD). I came across this one a few weeks ago: All Hour Cymbals by Yeasayer.
How to describe it? According to Wikipedia their self-description is “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel,” which sort of captures it. They sounds a bit like TV on the Radio along certain dimensions. Apart from that, they don’t sound like anything else I can think of. Lots of unusual instruments, and a very unique texture—there’s definitely an exotic quality to it.
It’s one of those albums where the best tracks are stacked in front: “Sunrise”, “Wait for the Summer”, and “2080” are all terrific, so if you only download a few songs make it those three. (And two of them are freely available at the band’s website.) Here’s 30 seconds of “2080” (since unfortunately I can’t find a good source for embedding the full song):

Mitt’s parting shot

I had a moment of sadness when I heard Mitt Romney was dropping out, until I was helpfully reminded that I actually dislike him, just less so than the other candidates:

Romney is speaking before CPAC right now, explaining why he’s suspending his campaign, and according to advance excerpts given to the Associated Press, Romney will say:

“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”

Classy! It’s easy to get outrage fatigue with this crowd, but this kind of thing never fails to make me angry. Somehow Republicans keep getting away with labeling as “surrender” any counterterrorism approach that doesn’t involve (a) knocking over random Middle Eastern countries, (b) torturing innocent people in secret prisons, and (c) massive illegal domestic surveillance programs.
On the other hand, Romney’s attempt to spin his departure as a maneuver in the war on terror is actually pretty hilarious.

Wall Street rethinks coal

Via Stoat, the Wall Street Journal reports that some major investment banks are anticipating new regulations on carbon emissions:

Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley say they have concluded that the U.S. government will cap greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants sometime in the next few years. The banks will require utilities seeking financing for plants before then to prove the plants will be economically viable even under potentially stringent federal caps on carbon dioxide, the main man-made greenhouse gas.

I’d like to interpret this as an expectation of a Democratic victory in November, but if I remember right global warming is one of the policy areas where John McCain deviates from Republican orthodoxy. Thus it’s more likely driven by his success in the primaries, making this kind of regulation more likely no matter which party wins the presidency.
This decision is driven by the political situation but I’ve often wondered how much the scientific consensus on global warming impacts the investment world. After all, major climate change will cause a lot of economic damage and so it seems like there’s incentive for Wall Street to try to limit it. Probably, though, it’s a tragedy of the commons where the marginal coal power plant brings more short term profit than long-term costs to the individual investor. (And a lot of the fossil-fuel industry’s disinformation campaign on the issue is designed precisely to keep their stock prices up.)
Since I’m looking at some finance jobs, it would be nice to think that I could have a positive effect on this side of things, but in fact my skill-set seems more suited to high-frequency trading problems that don’t have this kind of look-ahead.