Zemblanity

August 5th, 2013

I originally titled this post “Sad Serendipity” but it turns out that serendipity always relates to happy coincidences. “Zemblanity” was coined to represent the opposite.

I was reading through my Facebook wall and saw a post from a friend talking about Facebook’s “Other” folder.  I’d never heard of this folder so I opened the article and learned that Facebook directs messages to the “Other” folder when it determines that the message looks like spam. This folder can be accessed only through the browser interface (not the mobile app) so some users never find it.

The article went on to say that many users, having found “Other”, also found sad notices in the folder that were missed due to Facebook’s misclassification of the message. I immediately fired up my browser and looked in the folder. Sure enough, I had two messages. One was spam and the other – yes, a sad notice.

About a year and a half ago, Jeff Augenstein died at age 64 (see http://education.tmcnet.com/news/2012/02/16/6124026.htm).  An ex-colleague mine had sent me the link at the time, but I missed it, having been exiled to Other-ness.

More than anyone else, I credit Jeff (and his colleague, Ron Hosek) for my professional success.  Back in 1975, when I was 15 and attending Miami High School, I participated in the “Lab Research” program. This was a program for kids accelerated in math and science that gave them high-school credit while working for a scientist.  Jeff was my “scientist.”

Actually, Jeff was a surgical resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He and Ron were also very interested in “microcomputers” and their use in science and the medical industry.  My work for Jeff consisted of learning programming on a Scelbi 8H (one of the first kit computers) and writing code to automate a research project.

Later, Jeff and Ron became interested in hospital automation and bought two of the earliest Altair computers that had just come to market. I led a team of high-school kids writing code in BASIC to serve as a prototype for what they wanted to build.  This was my first leadership role and it laid the foundation for all the work that would follow in my career.

Although I consider myself a pretty good computer guy, I am a very bad friend. I am one of those Meyers-Briggs INT/J guys who seems like an extrovert but is content to be alone (as I am now, spending the weekend in the mountains while Sally travels). As a result, I’ve let many friends slip away due to negligence.

After I went off to college, I did not keep in touch with Jeff and Ron.  I still exchange Christmas cards with another team member but haven’t seen him in over 20 years. As I said, I am a bad friend.

So, today, I read about Jeff and what a wonderful, admired, man he was. I wasn’t aware of his accomplishments. I remembered his wife, Debbie, mentioned in the obituary.  They had been married 36 years.

I tried to find Ron about a year ago. I sent him a Facebook message (at least, I think it was the right Hosek).  It’s probably sitting in his Other folder.

 

Johnny (and Susie and Bob and Jane and …) Can’t Add

March 5th, 2013

If you’ve ever faced the “Monty Hall Problem“, you know how tricky math can be.  Seemingly obvious problems can turn out to be more complicated than they seem.

Even though my politics tend to lean left, I am frequently dismayed by the poor reasoning, naivete and, yes, bad math, expressed by my fellow liberals. Recently, there’s been a popular post on Facebook entitled “9 out of 10 Americans are Completely Wrong about this Mind-blowing Fact” (see article here). The general topic of the article is how the average American’s perception of their country’s distribution of wealth is wrong. The video presented in the article charts distributions of wealth and tries to compare “ideal”, respondents notions of “ideal”, respondents notions of “actual” and actual results.

Now, I am not 100% sure of what were the x and y axes in the presented charts, but they appeared to me to be “income” (x) and “wealth” (y).  I presume, too, that by “wealth” the video meant “net worth.”  I could be wrong, but I don’t think so – I looked at the source material from Mother Jones.  If I’m correct, the focus of the video could be restated as “what clusters of income should have what percentage of the wealth”. What percentage of the wealth should be owned by the people who are in the 20th percentile of income? What percentage should be owned by the top 20%?

The video briefly mentions equal ratios (20% income bracket=20% of the wealth) but dismisses this as something that would be derisively considered as “socialism.” The subtle subtext is that the derision is unwarranted and that there’s nothing wrong with this notion. Let me show you why this is even worse than socialism – it’s just plain nuts.

Let’s imagine a simple world with a population of 100 people. 20 of those people make $20,000/year, 60 of them make $40,000/year and 20 make $500,000/year. Now, let’s further state that the poor segment has a 100% propensity to consume. This is an economics term that means these people will spend all of their money on necessities. Likely, it’s worse – they’ll be in debt. Let’s imagine, too, that the middle 60% has a 95% propensity to consume – they save 5% of their income every year. This number is probably not far off from reality for the US middle class. Finally, let’s assume that the wealthy class has a 50% propensity to consume. The rich, having a lot more income, can buy lots of stuff and yet still save a lot.

Now, what happens after 1 year?  The poor have 0% of the wealth, of course! The middle class has collectively saved $120,000 (60*.05*40000). The rich have saved $5,000,000 (20*.5*500000). The collective wealth of our world is $5,040,000. The poor have 0% of the wealth, the middle class has .79% of the wealth and the rich have 99.21%!

The rich have more wealth because they make more money and, thus, can save more – lots more. The poor will never have any money if they can’t save at all. It’s simple math. Just like the Monty Python problem.

Now, you may complain that I’m cooking the numbers by choosing such a variation in incomes between the lower 20% and the upper 20%. The truth is that a factor of 25 (20k vs. 500k) is not that wacky even for socialist countries but let’s pick a smaller ratio and see what happens. Using ratios of 1:5:10 (e.g. $20k, $100k and $200k) but keeping the propensities to consume identical what happens after year?

Of course, the poor still have 0% of the wealth. The middle class have 13% and the rich have 87%. I suspect the video would still “disapprove”.

So what kind of system could possibly result in the poor having an equal proportion of the wealth as the rich? Socialism? Er, no. Tax cuts? Credits? Not if their propensity to consume remains at 100%.

Perhaps there ought to be a video, instead, about the distribution of income in the US, but that’s a whole other topic. If a worker at McDonald’s earns $18,000/year (they do here in WA!) how much should a brain surgeon earn? $180,000/year at least, but that 10x spread, we know, leads to 0:13:87 wealth distribution.

I’m not arguing that the distribution of wealth or income in the US is what it ought to be. In fact, I think it’s quite bad and that the increasing distance between the poor and the wealthy is a very bad thing. I think a lot of our political stability stems from the belief by the poor that they might be rich some day. If this dream turns out to be a delusion, we could see some scary politics over the next decade or two.  I just wish the people trying to raise awareness about the issue weren’t so unknowingly dumb or knowingly manipulative.

Maybe some day I’ll write a similar blog to address conservative complaints about how the rich pay such a large percentage of the taxes. I could pretty much swap all the nouns in this blog and it would serve the same purpose.

The Staged Life

February 19th, 2013

My wife and I are in the process of selling our house. Our kids are off to school and we thought it might be interesting to go live in a high-rise instead of a large, rambling, house. We’re moving from this to this.

These days, if you want to sell a house, especially a somewhat expensive one, you stage it. “Staging” here has its root in the theatrical stage; it’s the process of furnishing  (or, in many cases, de-furnishing) a house and decorating it to best show off its assets. In addition to the actual staging, it’s important to keep the house in shape should anyone call wanting to see it in short notice. In a sense, you not only need to have a staged house, you also need to lead a staged life avoiding your usual behavior to prevent the typical entropy that would mess up the house.

Leading a staged life sounds like a terrible thing; it’s certainly not my natural state of being. There is some comfort, however, in following rigid rituals with an easily understood objective. Don’t leave your wet towels in the bathroom; put them in the dryer after bathing. Don’t have knives visible in the kitchen; it’s bad feng shui.  Remove all personal knick-knacks from view; buyers want to see themselves in your house, not you.

It occurred to me that several key staging principles might be good living principles. Here are some to consider (taken from this excellent reference):

Remove all clutter – “Take a good look at what you have and ask what you can do without.”

What marvelous advice! Even before contemplating a 60% reduction in square footage, I was already aghast at the amount of stuff we had collected over the years. As we prepared to stage the house we went through all of our rooms and selected items to toss, to donate and to keep. It took two trips to Goodwill with a 17′ U-Haul truck to remove our in-good-shape-but-don’t-need-them-anymore belongings. It took another truck ride to take our discards (over 1,000 pounds) to the dump.

Removing clutter from a house makes it look larger, more sophisticated, and inviting. Removing clutter from your life makes you feel 20 pounds lighter (alas, I have another 20 to go).

Make your house serene and inviting – “Create a relaxing…setting with luxurious linens and soft colors that will make a potential home buyer want to hang out”

Who wants to hang out with people who are all conflict and drama? Don’t you want your friends to be people with whom you can relax and enjoy life? How do you achieve serenity? To paraphrase Billy Crystal  (pretending to be Ricardo Montalban), “If you look marvelous, you will feel marvelous.” Buy yourself a luxurious linen suit/dress in soft colors.

I mean this seriously. I believe that you can achieve serenity, happiness and even love by willing yourself to do it. Certainly, the opposite is clear: you will never achieve serenity, you will never achieve happiness and you will never love if you lead a life full of conflict, woe and hate. Be deliberate in your choice to be happy and your chance of achieving it will inevitably improve.

First impressions count – “Open stairways and foyers need to draw people up and in.”

In addition to wearing your soft pastel linens, your personality should also be open and inviting.  To be open to friendship, to draw people “up and in”, you need to be interesting and appealing. It is my experience that the best way to achieve this is to talk little about yourself and to be utterly fascinated with what others have to say. The best conversationalists tend to be the ones who say the least. Strive for two questions for every answer. Follow up. Ask details and nuance. Be interested not just in the “what” but the “why” and “how”, too. Ask about motivations, fears, and goals. If you must talk about yourself, do it only in response to a question. Answer with the minimum amount of detail that provokes interest but avoids all self-aggrandizement. When asked where I went to college, I generally answer “New Jersey.”

Accentuate the positive – “Clients usually know what they like best about their home. It’s usually what they saw that made them want to buy.”

I know many people who are more defined by the things that make them unhappy than by the things that bring them pleasure. Conversations with them are always about the things that have gone wrong in their lives. Now, I admit to occasionally reveling in schadenfreude but only in limited doses. I firmly believe that negative people attract negative experiences and vice-versa. Optimistic people get upgraded to first class; pessimistic people end up on the Carnival Triumph. Optimists on the Triumph value the great story they will be able to tell; pessimists will never cruise again.

For your sake and those of your prospective friends and lovers, concentrate on the aspects of yourself and your life that bring you the most joy.

There are some staging principles that apply better to real estate than to personal behavior. I would never recommend that anyone remove all personal references. While buyers want to visualize themselves in your house, prospective friends want to visualize you in theirs. Similarly I would not suggest that anyone put on a new face (“If you can’t get new cabinets, just get new doors and drawer fronts.”). In general, I don’t like plastic surgery.

Staging theory isn’t a perfect guideline for living but, nevertheless, I am always fascinated when principles of one domain seem to apply well to another. I loved Being There, especially Peter Sellers’s misappropriated quotes. As with gardening and economics, I think there are parallels between staging real estate and staged living.