Category Archives: Life

You spin my head right round

Labyrinth is, of course, the 1986 fantasy film with David Bowie:

However, labyrinth also refers to the balance organ of the inner ear. The structure contains three orthogonal fluid-filled canals (hence “labyrinth”) that sense rotations, along with additional organs that sense linear accelerations. This combines with visual inputs to give us our sense of balance.
So while the word labyrinthitis could refer to an uncontrollable nostalgia-driven desire to revisit the aforementioned David Bowie flick, it is actually the name for a viral infection of the balance organ. The symptoms of this infection bring to mind another movie entirely:

The experience of labyrinthitis can be easily simulated by a healthy individual. First, get your alcoholic drink of choice. Then, consume it until it feels like the room is spinning. Now imagine that this sensation persists continuously for a week. I’ve been describing it as “like being drunk without the fun part.” Naturally it’s tempting to grab some booze and add the fun back in, but I suspect that this approach is contraindicated.
At one point this week I thought the vertigo had become so severe that it felt like I was in an earthquake. Then I realized it was an actual earthquake. The various natural disasters striking the East Coast this week are not helping my condition any, but maybe if Hurricane Irene is spinning in the same direction as my head I won’t even notice it.
Years ago, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, I contemplated in dinosaur comic form the possibility of being stuck with a constant spinning sensation. At the time I thought it merely a theological hypothesis, but now I know that labyrinthitis truly is… rotating hell.

Cycle of life

Today I decided to test the notion that you never forget how to ride a bicycle. In my case it had been about 20 years since I last rode a bike, so it seemed plausible that I might actually have forgotten. It turned out that while I was pretty inept when I got on the bike today, I was almost certainly better than I would have been had I never learned in the first place. It took intense concentration, but I managed to avoid falling over, colliding with anything, or ending up in the Hudson River (it turns out the trail has no guardrail between about 100th and 125th streets).
Some thoughts about the re-learning process:

  • Turning is harder than I remembered.

  • Actually, just going in a straight line is harder than I remembered.
  • Bicycle seats are uncomfortable.
  • Sharing the road with the New York City taxicab fleet is a somewhat terrifying prospect. Waiting until I got to the bike trail before I attempted to ride was a very good idea.
  • However, the riverside trail on a warm Saturday afternoon has its own hazards: hordes of pedestrians, some of whom are not very attentive.
  • Being an obviously incompetent cyclist in front of those hordes of people is embarrassing, but not as much as, say, walking through Times Square in a Starfleet uniform to see the new Star Trek film. Not that I have any experience with that.

I used a rented bike today, but I’m contemplating buying one. Anyone know a good bike shop in Manhattan?

Love is politics by other means

The most entertaining Valentine’s Day themed item I read yesterday came from Foreign Policy, in the form of a Stephen Walt blog post applying international relations theory to romance:

To begin with, any romantic partnership is essentially an alliance, and alliances are a core concept on international relations. Alliances bring many benefits to the members (or else why would we form them?) but as we also know, they sometimes reflect irrational passions and inevitably limit each member’s autonomy. Many IR theorists believe that institutionalizing an alliance makes it more effective and enduring, but that’s also why making a relationship more formal is a significant step that needs to be carefully considered.
Of course, IR theorists have also warned that allies face the twin dangers of abandonment and entrapment: the more we fear that our partners might leave us in the lurch (abandonment), the more likely we are to let them drag us into obligations that we didn’t originally foresee (entrapment). When you find yourself gamely attending your partner’s high school reunion or traveling to your in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner every single year, you’ll know what I mean.

There’s more at the link. I found this via Matt Yglesias, who remarks: “I bet Man, the State, and War could sell more copies if they [found] a way to reposition it as a dating advice book.” Indeed, I would go further and say that Stephen Walt should definitely write a book-length version of this post, offering cold-hard yet charmingly sassy relationship advice based on IR theory. There’s always demand for books in this vein, and with the IR angle it could even be pitched at men. “It’s He’s Just No That Into You… with nukes!”
In this interdisciplinary spirit, I wondered if finance has any similar lessons to teach, but I didn’t think of much. Relationships aren’t assets to be traded, after all, and you can’t short sell by breaking up with someone whom you weren’t actually dating. However, it does seem that online dating is countercyclical which at least suggests that one’s chances might improve during a recession.

The challenges of gift selection

It’s Christmas Eve, which means that once again I’ve been out shopping, and once again I’ve sworn not to do this next year. There are probably more crowded shopping days—the weekend after Thanksgiving and the weekend before Christmas come to mind—but it’s crowded enough, and that’s compounded with the stress of having to make decisions at the last minute.
Why do I do this every year? It’s not just that I’m an inveterate procrastinator: I was actually motivated this year to make several earlier shopping trips, and returned empty-handed from each of them. The problem is that I’m especially bad at shopping for gifts. After some contemplation (while sitting in mall traffic) I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple reasons for this.
One of them is that I’m just bad at shopping, period. Even when shopping for myself I tend to be very indecisive. Suppose I’m looking at a rack of shirts, and I don’t have strong preferences among the colors and styles available. Then, rationally, I should just be able to pick any one of them and it won’t matter much, right? But instead I feel compelled to try to divine some weak preferences I have that might decide the issue, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one I like best.
It seems a little crazy that I wouldn’t know my own preferences, even if they’re weak ones. But it’s worse than that. I don’t even know my own strong preferences, and thus I’m plagued with buyer’s remorse. I will frequently buy something (usually clothes) and shortly thereafter realize that I don’t like it at all. Why did I buy it then? Why, especially, did I buy it after such long consideration? Apparently I’m just Bad At Consumerism.
But there’s another aspect to gift-buying beyond just shopping. Giving a gift is a social interaction, and there are interpersonal skills that come into play even in gift selection. After all, in selecting a gift one is trying to guess at the preferences of someone else, and those who are good at doing this are people who are good at relating to and connecting to others. And on the other end of the spectrum, someone with my abysmal social skills is going to have a lot of trouble figuring out what someone else would like to have.
In some cultures it’s appropriate just to give cash, and this has a certain appeal. But despite the fact that I’m rarely successful at it, there is something nice about giving a well-selected gift. Not just something that is intrinsically valuable and that the recipient would like to have, but something that they wouldn’t have thought to buy themselves, something that is an expression of my relationship to them over and above “I hope you like this”.
If only I could get better at it. Anyone have any good heuristics for gift-shopping (or shopping in general)?

Tales from the Manhattan housing market

On Saturday the New York Times published an article entitled “Finding Your First Apartment in New York City”, about two weeks too late for me to actually make use of it. However, the advice in the article can mostly be found easily online, so I didn’t feel like I missed out. They emphasize not going into the search with unrealistic expectations—I actually had the opposite experience, where after years of hearing horror stories about Manhattan housing, I didn’t expect to be able to rent anything larger than a closet and was pleasantly surprised at what was actually available in my price range.
Anyway, the Manhattan rental market is quite different from most in a few ways. Obviously a lot of it’s driven by the fact that a Manhattan address is highly sought-after, leading to a very low vacancy rate (sometimes quoted as 0.5%, although I think it’s higher at the moment) and vastly higher rents than in other U.S. cities. I’d heard from several sources that competition for any given apartment can be fierce, and it’s best to apply for a unit on the spot if it looks good, since it may not be available later. However, right now (maybe due to the recession) this didn’t seem to be the case. There were a surprising number of vacancies, a number of landlords were offering “specials” with a discount of several hundred dollars per month, and I felt comfortable taking a couple days to consider my options without the units I liked being snapped up.
Another unusual feature of the New York market is that many apartments are only available through a broker. The typical New York apartment search involves hiring a broker to spend a day or two showing available units; when the lease is signed the broker collects a substantial fee from the renter, typically 15% of the annual rent.
The broker is definitely the easiest way to go if you’re on a tight schedule, but my take is that if you’ve got time to do the research, there’s no need to go through a broker: there are a number of landlords who will rent apartments directly. The trick is finding them, but luckily we have the internet. Craigslist has a separate listing for no-fee apartments, and one can find recommendations of no-fee management companies around the web (here for example). There’s also a book that I found extremely useful called The Nouveau Native’s No Fee New York: it has not only general advice for apartment hunting in New York, but also a very comprehensive list of landlords offering no-fee rentals. Many of these landlords list availabilities on their websites, which made it very easy to put together a shortlist before I even got to New York.
From that point it was just like searching for an apartment anywhere else, only with much, much higher rents. Landlords in New York tend to require a lot of documentation to prove that you’ll be able to pay: at least a letter of employment and usually also bank statements and pay stubs, and sometimes tax returns and W-2s. If you’re coming from out of town, it’s a good idea to take this stuff with you so you can apply on the spot.
I ended up renting from a management company called Archstone, and it was such a good experience that I want to mention them here. I was able to walk into two of their buildings without an appointment and get full tours from very helpful leasing agents; on top of that the website has a lot of information, and even lets you apply online. They have properties all over the country so it’s worth checking out if you’re in the market somewhere other than Manhattan.
Anyway, the housing search turned out to be surprisingly easy given all the tales of woe I’d heard about the Manhattan rental market. Now I’m working on the next challenge: getting all my stuff across the country and into the new apartment.

Arcane Gazebo sells out

I haven’t been blogging much lately, due to a combination of travel, job interviews, visitors, generally being away from the internet, and the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. However, now that my job search has reached a conclusion, I felt an announcement was in order. I’ve just accepted an offer from Morgan Stanley, where I’ll be working in the Process Driven Trading group as a Quantitative Research Associate.
This is obviously a major career change for me. Those who have followed my posts related to career issues and academia know that I have been dissatisfied with the usual academic physicist career track for a while now, but I only started to seriously consider finance as an alternative about a year ago. There’s a commonly-held belief in the physics community that finance is where you end up if you don’t make the cut in physics, and that the work in that field, while lucrative, is just not very interesting; this led me to rule out the option for a long time without really looking into it. However, in talking to people who work in finance I came to realize that there are intellectual rewards to be found there, and that it was a worthwhile option to investigate. And finance contains the type of problems I enjoy working on in experimental physics—mainly related to working with data and optimizing experimental parameters—without involving hardware-related issues that I won’t miss (such as soldering and handling cryogens), and bringing in some (mainly game-theoretic) topics I’ve long been interested in but haven’t had a chance to pursue seriously.
Over the course of my job search I did find many positions that were ultimately unappealing, either because of the role or the personalities of the people I met. PDT on the other hand combined an intellectually interesting position with an attractive work environment and a group of people I will enjoy working with. Throughout my job search I have considered those factors to be more important than which field I end up in, and it’s the main reason I ended up accepting their offer. An additional advantage is the location; while I’ll very much miss California, I’m excited to have the opportunity to live in New York City. (The photo at the top of this post is misleading, as I’ll be working at Morgan Stanley’s headquarters in Times Square rather than downtown—Wall Street in the metonymic sense, not the literal one.)
One thing I will miss in leaving physics is the sense of working on something fundamental, of learning something profound about how the universe works. This does have real value, and while markets are interesting systems, studying them won’t be quite the same from that perspective. On the other hand, they say that to find your ideal job, you should look at what you like to do in your spare time. And as many of you know, what I do outside the lab is play games, on the tabletop or the TV screen. I love planning strategies and the distinct pleasures of a successful play. The finance industry is the biggest game in the world, and I’m excited to be joining in.

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…

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).

Sleep hacking

Since I’m living a very unscheduled life these days, it’s an ideal time for me to experiment with my sleeping habits. I haven’t yet found a sleeping schedule that’s a stable equilibirium: either I build up a sleep debt until it becomes unsustainable, or I get enough sleep that I’m too energetic in the evenings to fall asleep again at a regular hour. In the latter case, I’ll either not get enough sleep the next night, or I’ll sleep even later the next morning, and my schedule starts to creep forward by 30–60 minutes each day. (In my current situation this makes the 28-hour day schedule, explained in this xkcd strip, somewhat appealing. The downside is that I like to be up during the day, as sunlight tends to improve my mood, and if I sleep through the day and then am awake through the night I generally feel a little depressed.)
Lifehacker occasionally posts links to sleeping tips, and the latest, from the Four Hour Work Week blog, contains several I’ve never seen before and might try. One that was familiar was the point about 90-minute ultradian cycles; this is something I’ve paid some attention to for the past few months, trying to allocate my sleeping time in multiples of 90 minutes, plus an hour for sleep latency. However, my sleep latency is actually highly variable, and this plus the accumulated phase error (since the cycles aren’t exactly 90 minutes) leads me to be awakened at any point in the cycle anyway. I think the key here is that if I set my alarm for 8 am, but then happen to wake up naturally at (say) 7:15, I should just get up even if I’m still sleepy. But this has proved difficult.
A cold environment is definitely important for me to fall asleep, and when I do get insomnia it comes with a sense of being too hot (it’s not obvious if one causes the other). The ice baths mentioned in the linked post, however, sound both painful and a lot of work. Since it’s winter, and my heating system is on a timer for energy conservation purposes, I can experiment with the room temperature instead: allowing the bedroom to cool before I go to bed, and warm up in the morning to help wake me up.
That post also recommends reading fiction (and avoiding non-fiction) before bed. I frequently do this, but it can have the opposite effect: if I get to within about 150 pages of the end, and it’s a halfway decent book, I’ll frequently be compelled to read on through, thereby massively overshooting my target bedtime. And then I’ll lay awake thinking about how it ended, especially if there was a big reveal or twist.
Post your favorite sleep hacks in the comments…