Thursday, January 30, 2014

Living the Dream!

It seems to me to be a stark reality about human nature that very few (if any) people's lives are actually 'living the dream' when viewed from the inside. The funniest* encapsulation of this sentiment that I remember was on a college t-shirt advertising a boys night out dubbed 'Escape From Reality'. On the back, was the heading in large letters 'Reality', with a picture of Carmen Electra. Underneath it was written 'No matter how good she looks right now, somewhere some guy is sick of putting up with her $#**.'

Salience being what it is, everyone reflects on the problems they have and not the problems that they don't. Are you in poor health? Missing a limb? Do you dislike your family? Are you short of money? Do you have lots of money but hate the job you're in? And if everything else seems pretty much okay, do you still feel a vague sense of purposelessness and ennui?

That's life, my friends. That's everyone's life. Because we live in an age of rampant hedonism and shallowness, the modern ideal of a life well lived is that of movie stars. People ask themselves the question 'would it be fun to change places with Brad Pitt for a while?' The answer is most likely 'Sure!'. But that's a very different proposition from the one that if you had to live like Brad Pitt forever, you wouldn't get sick of it pretty quickly. If you ask Dan Gilbert, it probably would only take you three months to get back to the same level of happiness you were at before. Do you really think that celebrities have no problems in their life that make them miserable? Really? None at all?

There is a certain type of person that goes on dating websites to broadcast how much they LOVE LOVE LOVE their life, their friends, their family, their career! I am always suspicious of these people. I mean, if I thought they were actually this happy, I would be most pleased - there's no resentment going on here. But the first giveaway that something is awry is the forum for this paean - let's just say that the platonic conception of someone whose life is already perfectly arranged probably doesn't include being on a dating website (even if you're just single cruising to meet new people to date - the ideal of that is having lots of friends of friends and meeting them at trendy parties and events).

Rather, it seems like the cult of self-esteem is colliding with the dreary reality of things being not quite right. The message, quite obviously, has nothing to do with the importance of convincing the rest of the dating world that one's life is already perfect (as if that were possible, or even desirable), but much more to do with trying to convince oneself. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, the awful prospect that maybe you made some bad choices has to be blasted away with denial, combined perhaps (in the case of the more introspective) with the sense of putting on a good face.

Personally, I'd be much more convinced by a dating profile with realistic descriptions of one's existence. I sure am REASONABLY HAPPY with the choices I've made so far! My life is quite okay most of the time, other than perhaps one or two respects.

Of course, if people actually started acting this way, facebook would be out of business overnight, as the number of people ritually blasting all and sundry with pictures bigging up their latest trip, party out, or academic year at Oxford would dry up immediately. If you're engaged in 'the dream' and you have a lingering uncertainty that it might not be all you'd hoped, better try to convince everyone else around you that at least you're much happier than they are.

*I say 'funniest' and not 'best' - that title of course belongs to the Great Sage.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Strangely Addictive

'Random Street View'. All these places I've never been and never will go. Also, it reminds you how despite the fact that if you take a randomly chosen person they're probably in a city, if you take a randomly chosen road, it's probably in the country.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Conversational Centres of Gravity

Have you noticed that when sitting at a dinner table, conversations have centres of gravity? Not as in metaphorical centres of gravity about subject matters, but as in physical locations. The centre of the conversation is an actual point in space, usually somewhere on the table.

To find out where, the procedure is simple. Look at where everyone's head is facing as discussion proceeds, and then draw a line out from their eyes, perpendicular to their face. Do this for everyone in the group. The spot closest to where the most lines intersect is the centre of gravity.

Here's an example to show you that you don't need to hear any words to know exactly who has what role in the conversation from body language alone:

The centre of gravity is not actually in the middle of the table - instead, it's slightly in front of and to the right of the girl in the brown top.

Once you realise that conversation has an actual locus, it's easy to see that the guy in the red shirt is at risk of being excluded. In a loud room, he would likely be at the periphery of the discussion, sitting there looking inwards trying to stay involved. He's already leaning in quite a way, whereas the girl in pink (equi-distant from the physical centre of the table, but closer to the centre of gravity) looks far more relaxed. Generally, I've found that anything more than 1m away from the centre means you're effectively shut out.

It's hard to see in an example like this, but another sure-fire way to almost guarantee exclusion is if the line of sight from your eyes to the centre of gravity has to pass through part of another person's body. The guy in the grey is physically closer to the centre than the guy in the red, but the fact that the girl in brown is leaning forward with her arms out means he's almost shut out. If the girl in brown turned her left shoulder slightly towards the girl in pink, he'd likely be shut out altogether. Even in the current setup, he looks disconnected from the discussion.

I find that when I can see that the nature of the seating arrangement and the dominance of the various personalities means that I'm going to be excluded, I'll often give up early and try to strike up conversation with the person next to me instead. You can only fight gravity with gravity, and try to create another centre that draws in others when their conversation falters. Usually on a long table there'll be multiple centres of gravity, and one or two guys inevitably in no-mans land. The only hope for them is that the other unaligned powers have something insightful to say. Usually, unfortunately, they don't. In the example above, the centre is significantly determined by layout. As the table gets sufficiently long, the focal point all comes down to who's the most interesting or conversationally dominant (either by being bombastic and loud, or being of higher social status).

In case it wasn't obvious, this theory was honed over various accumulated hours of being shut out of discussions by geography and trying to figure out why.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Comedy gold

Oh you dear neglected weblog, I have been most remiss in feeding you of late.

As the blog equivalent of a tasty but not very nutritious chocolate bar, here's some radical videos I saw recently.

First, a British guy giving hilarious uninformed commentary on baseball and football games.

The jokes are even better if you understand both the Commonwealth interpretation and the actual Yank events. Classic stuff.

(via Kottke)

Also, check out this awesome Ikea ad that Spike Jonze did back in the day:

Try doing the Swedish accent at the end, it's highly addictive.

(via Steve Sailer).

Free Startup Ideas – Traffic Predictions and Alarm Clocks Done Right

Here’s an idea for some enterprising engineer (most likely at Google or somewhere else with access to good traffic data) that I’m almost certainly not the first to have thought of.

A good traffic prediction algorithm would let you specify a time of day you need to arrive at a particular destination, a starting point, and tell you when you need to leave. Google Now already does a crude version of this. If you have flight details in your gmail account, it will sent you an alert when you need to leave in order to get to the airport an hour before your flight. But there’s a lot more cool stuff you could do with this.

For instance, it would be great to be able to take the directions in Google Maps and specify a day of the week and time (or day of the year) and see an estimate for how long the trip would take at that particular point in time. Since google has oodles of historical traffic data, they’d be able to get a pretty good estimate based just on historical traffic conditions. Ideally, you’d be able to take the same route and plot out how the expected length of journey varies with the starting time.

This would tell you what times of the day and night to avoid, letting you figure out how to adjust your work schedule to avoid traffic. It would also tell you about a fascinating quantity – the elasticity of time arrived to time left. There are times of the day, such as peak hour, where leaving 10 minutes later might cause you to arrive 15 minutes later (an elasticity of 1.5, suggesting that wasting those minutes is very costly), or at the back end when you can leave 10 minutes later and only arrive 8 minutes later (making those minutes subsidised).

Notably, everything I’ve described (like Google Now in its current form) only speaks of a point estimate of how long things will take, presumably either the mean or median. In reality, there’s much more interesting stuff you can do with the whole distribution.

For instance, lots of unexpected things happen with traffic – accidents, weather, what have you. So for a trip that leaves at 8am on a Monday, there’s actually a distribution of possible arrival times. For someone who knows what a distribution actually means, it would be very useful to be able to specify an acceptable percentage of the time that you would be late (or more than X minutes late), and have the algorithm give you a time that you needed to leave your house in order to get there on time with that probability.
If this were done, you could just subtract the number of minutes you need to get ready each morning, and that’s when you need to set your alarm.

Even more interesting would be to improve these predictions from unconditional to conditional by making use of both current traffic and weather conditions. The overall distribution of, say, Mondays in January, would give you the unconditional distribution of the chances of arriving on time. But you could definitely do better by generating conditional distributions that morning that relied on the local weather conditions and the current traffic conditions relative to the historical distribution. In other words, if you normally need to leave home at 8am, the app could use the fact that traffic at 6:30am is heavier than normal to estimate that you may need to wake up earlier than normal as well.

Done properly, I’d gladly pay $20 for this kind of app. If it really worked, I’d probably value it at much more than that, notwithstanding that an irrational cheapskate instinct kicks in regarding the prospect of paying more than a few bucks for an online app.

As with all Shylock ideas, should the app succeed I insist on receiving either fat royalties or a free t-shirt that says ‘I came up with the idea for [Traffick-ator] and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’. Medium please.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How to make Canadian Football Awesome

When I was in Toronto about a month ago, a friend of mine who lives there told me how there's some suggestion that the Buffalo Bills NFL team may be planning to move to Toronto.

While I don't care a whit about the NFL, there's one surefire way to bolster local support immediately. If the team moves to Toronto, immediately rename them as the Toronto Loyalists.

Firstly, Canadians resolutely love clinging to anything that separates them from America, no matter how anachronistic (the Queen is one thing, but Quebec? Really? They're like a permanent grievance lobby designed to extract rents from the functioning rest of the country. De-annex them, I say). Stoking up vague anti-American sentiment, but in the politest of historical contexts, would be a surefire crowd pleaser.

Secondly, it would immediately create a super popular grudge match whenever they played the Patriots. And since the Patriots tend to be rather good, Americans would love it too because they'd still get to win, just like last time.

When this genius proposal is implemented, I expect fat royalty cheques to be forthcoming. Or a free Toronto Loyalists jersey, which I'd settle for as well.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

All the world's a little peer influenced, except for thee and me...


Why do you do the things you do?

If you're ever in some trendy cocktail lounge or bar, chances are you'll see somebody drinking an Old-Fashioned. Muddle sugar with bitters (or use simple syrup and bitters), add whisky and a twist of citrus rind (wiped around the edge of the glass, and set on fire with a lighter if the place is fancy), and there you go. I'm not a drinker, but people tell me it's tasty.

Why do they drink it, as opposed to some other cocktail? 

Easy - they like the taste.

Okay, sure, but why did they try it in the first place to find out that they liked it? There's zillions of cocktails, and most people haven't tried most of them.

Probably their friend ordered them one once, or they saw someone drinking one and it looked interesting. 

Okay, so why did that friend order one?

Well now we're into the question of how social trends start. Usually we just have to throw up our hands and say 'peer effects' or 'opinion leaders' or 'fashion' or some equally unsatisfying explanation.

But in this case, we actually have a very definite answer of why you drink Old-Fashioneds.

You drink them because some time in 2006, a writer for the show Mad Men decided that Don Draper, the charismatic man's man main character in the show, would drink them as his drink of choice. The show became a hit, people started asking for them, and a heretofore archaic cocktail was suddenly restored to newfound celebrity.

I would wager that out of the people who drink them, at least 98% of them would swear on a stack of bibles that they drink them only because they like the taste, and not because of a desire to appear trendy.

And yet we reach a very stark conclusion. If that writer had decided that Don Draper would drink Mint Juleps instead, there's probably a high likelihood that you'd be drinking that right now, swearing equally that you just liked them for the taste.

The alternative is that some time around 1960, people's taste buds suddenly changed such that a previously tasty drink became unpleasant, and some time around 2007 they magically reverted back to enjoying them. Want to wager on that one?

Nobody likes to think that their personal tastes are actually fashions dictated by people whom they never met. But, more than we'd like to admit, they are.