Belief Versus Belief

Scientists like to think of ourselves as people who react to facts and only believe things that have concrete evidence.  We get very angry about people who ignore obvious facts and fight with the majority of the scientific community, like climate and vaccination deniers. Indeed, many scientists can’t even understand why people disagree, especially when faced with the mountain of evidence that exists that climate change is real and that vaccines help vastly more people than they hurt.  So, why does this happen?

Well, interestingly, it turns out that humans are somewhat complicated. Who knew?  It also turns out that scientists are definitely not immune to the phenomena of being on the wrong side of an argument either.

When a person has an idea about how something works, it is typically called a theory. As a scientist, the person probably would like to make sure that this theory is true.  So, they write a paper and show some evidence that supports their theory.  They might write a grant, and if they are really lucky (with funding rates at about 10%-15%, they have to get really, really, lucky), they get some funds to take their theory and try to prove that it is the law of the land.  To do this, they may try to do some statistical analysis or model runs or whatever.  If their results support the theory, they publish another paper or two and then try to do more. Some people spend their whole careers working on a single topic.

If the theory is interesting and/or important, other people will pick up on it. They will also try to prove that it is true or try to disprove it. They may take a completely separate approach to the problem, which is an incredibly good thing.

Now, at this point, we have a trap. If the scientists were robots, they would look at the evidence dispassionately, and be able to objectively evaluate the merits of the theory and the evidence for and against it. But, sadly, they are not.  Some scientists start to believe that their theories are true, and begin seeing truth in data.  One podcast that I listened to pointed out that an easy way to innocently do this is to add more events, one at a time, until it seems clear that the theory is the predominant mechanism.  (The example that they gave is that you believe that when you flip a coin, you will get heads more than tails. So, you flip the coin ten times and you get something like 6 heads and 4 tails.  You decide that you need more data, so you flip two more times, both of which are heads.  So, now you have 8 heads and 4 tails.  At this point, a proper statistical analysis will point out that this is not really significant, since you only have 12 events.  But, because you have sank a huge amount of time and energy into each coin flip, it is a good place to stop and declare victory. “Special coin gets 100% more heads than tails when flipped!”)

We, as humans who have sunk a lot of energy into our research, believe in our own theories.  We talk to people who back up our opinions.  We dig in.  We become stubborn and refuse to see any other view point, even if the preponderance of evidence starts to stack against us.  Our science becomes a belief – something that is not really based on fact anymore, but something that is based on a desire for it to be true.

A good scientist, when confronted with objective facts that disprove their theory, will withdraw their theory and state that it was not true.  This might not be a public event or anything, but they will probably stop publishing on that topic.  Not always, though. There are plenty of stories of researchers who held onto their beliefs long after the community has moved on.

On the opposite side, we can sometimes be stubborn to embrace things that are most likely true.  As a personal example, I really don’t like the idea of dark energy or dark matter.  Namely, cosmologists have noted that the expansion of the universe is happening at a different rate than can be explained by looking at the distribution of stuff.  They think that there needs to be more there.  So, they have come up with the idea of dark matter, which is a substance that exists in our universe but we can’t see it or interact with it in any real way.  Except that it is helping to pull apart the universe.  There are experiments were people try to detect the dark matter in some other way than the theories, but they can’t.  I look at this and think that it is crazy talk.  But I think that the majority of physicists believe that it is real.  And when I say “believe”, I mean that they look at the evidence for it and against it and pass a judgement.  They feel that the evidence supports dark energy existing.

In many ways, science is all about belief.  We believe that some things are true and some things are not true, based on evidence.  If we feel like the evidence is strong enough, then we believe it.  If we feel like the evidence is not strong enough, we don’t.

Sometimes it is in our own personal interest to believe something to be true or false.  For example, a lot of companies have a huge amount invested in an infrastructure that is oil-based. This leads them to not want to believe that they are leading the world into a horrifying future. It is definitely not in their interests to believe that they are the cause of climate change, which could ultimately displace more than a billion people from their homes when all of the ice melts, and put Florida under water. Who would want to believe that? It is much easier to deny that it is happening and look for any chinks in the theory.

It is very hard to fight this, since it is human nature to be invested in ideas and things that you have put a lot of energy into.  (You are telling me that my whole life is a lie???) We are irrational. We, as scientists, need to come up with some other way to communicate with other people besides just stating facts and arguing.  This doesn’t even work on other scientists most of the time.

One thing is for sure, though: making a movie about a world covered in water (staring Kevin Costner) won’t convince people that climate change is real.


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One of the most important differences between the United States of America and most other countries on the planet is our freedom to do all sorts of things, such as protest the government, worship whatever we want, drink, and carry guns. Over the last few years, this last freedom – the right to carry guns – has come into the spotlight, and has very much divided the nation.  This is because there have been many mass shootings (more than one a day), which very much frustrates a great number of people. A significant percentage of the country would like to have more gun regulation, but an extremely vocal percentage of the country, along with powerful lobbying groups, want to expand the right to bear arms.

I have to say right upfront that I do not own any guns, and can not, for the life of me, imagine why you would want to.  Sure, they are probably awesome to shoot, but why take the risk?  A friend of my father was showing a younger person how to shoot, and accidentally shot them in the leg, while reloading the gun. You could argue that he was not taking adequate precautions or whatever, but there is no question that if you have an accident with a gun, someone could be killed.  So, I am firmly in the camp of not understanding people’s fascinations with guns or desire to own guns.

Over the last few years there have been a lot of mass shooting in the USA. If we define a mass shooting as an event in which at least 4 people are killed or injured, then there have been more than one a day in 2015. According to shooting tracker, 462 people have been killed and 1312 people have been injured in 2015 (by December 6th). So, a lot of people have been killed senselessly.

Gun control people (of which, I am one) would argue that if we put tighter regulations on guns, these events would not happen.  While I would like to believe that this is true, I am not sure it is anymore.  There are a few reasons why I think this: (1) there are so many guns in this country that even if we made all guns illegal right now, they would still be in circulation for (hundreds of?) years to come; (2) people would still kill other people with smaller guns; and (3) did I mention all of the guns?

Quick google fact (by There are 270 million guns in the US. Of those, 0.3% are carried by the police.  Which is why you should arm yourself, since the police are obviously not armed enough. (Can you tell that I really hate guns?  Does my bias show?) There are typically about 30,000-35,000 gun related deaths each year. Most of these are from suicides, though.

I would like to pivot a little bit and talk about another freedom that we have: alcohol consumption.  I have never been a big drinker.  In the last few years, I have probably drank more than than the rest of my life combined.  I don’t really like the taste of beer or wine, so I am not really part of the main crowd (the fact that hard ciders are more available now, has probably contributed greatly to my drinking habits). If I never took another drink, I would be ok, but I will probably have a drink with dinner tonight.

Many people drink to be more social and to open up.  As a country, we drink at sporting events (before, during, after), parties, dinners, and, well, pretty much all of the time.  Drinking is completely, 95%+ socially accepted. Some fun facts about alcohol in 2013: about 70% of people drink at least once a year, while 56% drink at least once a month;  88,000 people died because of alcohol related causes; and 10,000 people died because of alcohol related driving incidents.  The same website states that 3.3 million people across the globe died in 2012 due to alcohol related issues. In 2006, alcohol misuse cost the US $223.5 billion (that is over 10x the budget of NASA!)

In 1920-1930 we made alcohol use illegal.  It was a complete and utter disaster. Why?  Because a significant portion of our population thought that having the freedom to drink is worth the death and destruction that it brings. People then, and people now, believe that the 88,000 lives that are destroyed by alcohol use in the US are an ok price to pay for the having the ability to drink in social situations.

Would you drink less if there was a counter on every news channel ticking off the number of people who have died due to alcohol?  I don’t think so. You are 200 times more likely to die because of alcohol than you are because of a mass shooting, but only about 3 times more likely if you count all alcohol- and gun-related deaths.  The odds are about equal for you dying in a car crash or being killed by a gun (well, 65 times more likely to die in a car crash than be shot in a mass shooting).  Should we make drinking illegal?  Or driving a car illegal? I don’t think that will happen.

We as a society have decided that gun violence is acceptable, due to the social enjoyment people get out of playing with guns.  Just like alcohol use is acceptable.  There are those of us who feel like all guns should just be destroyed and no one but the police should carry/own them, just like there are people who feel like no one should drink because the number of deaths are unacceptably high, and alcohol has no great benefits to society. But that isn’t true – alcohol has great benefits to society.  People love to drink.  They evidently love to shoot guns too.

88,000 alcohol deaths is a huge number.  But, half the country drinks and seems to get massive enjoyment out of it. Therefore, we accept it.

500 deaths in mass shooting are too many, and 33,000 gun-related deaths are way too many, but over half the population of the US believe that owning guns is worth the risk. It is very hard to argue against this, given our love of much more deadly pastimes.

While I don’t think that we should all arm ourselves (I am obviously, violently, against this), I do feel like we should do something about it.  I am just not sure what.  Legislation just won’t work.  Gun control advocates just have to accept this. (Just like republicans have to agree that drug control laws don’t really work.) Maybe a public awareness campaign. We could let people keep their guns, but maybe the NRA would have to sponsor some ads showing horrific things happening with guns.  If we make people aware of the bad things that could happen with guns, perhaps people will be less likely to want to buy them. We can always hope, right?


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Rise of the Machines

I love talking about robots. They are really the future of our society. They will also destroy us. Damn robots.

Robots are amazingly awesome. They assist us in all sort of things that we don’t even think about anymore. If we generalize the concept of “robot” to “machine”, then we probably can’t even imagine life without them.

For example, if we took away cars and busses and airplanes and pretty much any form of non-animal transportation, life would be radically different. I live about 15 miles away from work now. It takes me 20 minutes to get to work using my car. On my bike (still a machine), it takes me 60 minutes. If I were to use a horse, it would probably take a couple of hours. I could run there in maybe 2.5 hours (but wouldn’t be able to get home, and would have to sleep the rest of the day). This relatively simple invention has allowed us to spread out significantly, and has allowed us to have significantly higher productivity than even 100 years ago. On the downside of this, there are not too many stable hands around anymore to take care of our horses. Which is probably ok (unless you really wanted to be a stable hand!)

Let’s look at a couple more modern examples that are a bit more “robot-y”. I almost never interact with a human when I buy airplane tickets. I log into a website, search around for my perfect flight, then buy them using my credit card. I have tried calling into the airline phone number to buy tickets within the last couple of year, and they really try to dissuade this significantly. I think that most people like not having to wait on the phone, or interacting with another human (yuk!), and picking out “exactly” what you want. At the airport, you can check in at a kiosk (or over the web, again), and not have to interact with a person. This is a good thing, right? We win and the company wins. They don’t have to pay nearly as many people to interact with us customers (yuk!), so their profit margin goes up (and/or ticket prices go down). The only losers are the travel agents and people who worked at the airport and are no longer employed. But, they probably found jobs in other places, right?

One of the most obvious places to look for a more disruptive robot invasion is the auto industry. Robots have replaced humans left and right. They can work longer, put things together more precisely, and don’t complain at all. You don’t have to pay the robot retirement or health care. If you think about how much an auto company invests in a single worker over a 25-year work life, it is pretty amazing. Say the person made an average of $50K per year over the 25 years. If you add on social security, health care, vacation, sick leave, etc, then the cost to the company is probably closer to $100K per year. Over 25 years, this is $2.5M invested in them. Then when they retire at the ripe old age of 55, they may live at least 20 more years with a pension and health benefits. Let’s call that $50K per year. Over 20 years, that is another $1M. So, the employee costs the company $3.5M, and the company gets about 25 years of work (with vacations and sick days sprinkled throughout those years). A robot, on the other hand, is a huge one-time investment, plus maintenance costs. You can imagine that this might be significantly cheaper than the number of employees that it displaces. Further, if you have robots working, you can simply turn them off if demand for cars goes too low, or have them work more hours if the demand increases. You don’t need to layoff or hire people at every turn in the market. They have already been laid off and replaced by robots!

In this more obvious example, the winner is the car company and the consumer (again!). The company has more profit, and doesn’t have to worry as much about worker satisfaction, while the consumer gets cheaper cars that are more uniform in their build quality. You could make an argument that the worker is better off also, since they aren’t doing a horribly repetitive job that may be dangerous. But, of course, they don’t have a job. Which is a downside.

Another obvious example is the driverless car. While having a personal driverless car seems amazing, since we can all text and read e-mail on the way to work (another win for industry!), having driverless cars take over for truckers and taxi drivers is a pretty mixed bag. We, as consumers, would benefit greatly. The price would drop significantly, and we wouldn’t have to interact with any of those pesky humans. But, we would put something like 3,000,000 (1% of the US population) people out of work quite rapidly.

What is the problem here?

In the past, when new technologies have come on line, workers have been displaced and we have absorbed them into society. They have found new occupations. The amount of time that this takes is quite dependent on the number of people displaced. If it only a few people, then they can find jobs relatively easily. If it is a significant portion of the population, then there could be issues.

Further, robots typically replace relatively unskilled labor. These people need to be retrained to do other, more complicated, jobs. To do this, it takes time and money. Education costs are increasing dramatically, so it doesn’t seem hopeful that we will magically become a land in which education or retraining is free and routine. We therefore are taking jobs away from (some would argue) the most vulnerable people, and making it quite difficult for them to find jobs in similar sectors, since those jobs have been taken over by robots too.

In the last recession, we experienced this as a nation. The unemployment rate when way up, and took a very long time to come down. This is partially because companies replaced people with machines. Why would a company want to hire someone back when they could replacement with a robot? Then, industry has the upper hand, so they can hire real people for significantly reduced wages. Wages stagnate and profits at companies soar. The only losers in this game are the large swath of people who are underemployed, or have a paycheck that is too low for them to survive.

A large section of the media celebrate the coming of the robots. They argue that as robots take over more and more of the jobs in our economy, it will give people a large amount of leisure time in which they can do more creative things (never mind that robots can now paint and compose music). I call bullshit on this for two large reasons.

The first is that we in the United States of America do not value leisure time. If you have leisure time, then you are lazy and should not be paid. So, if no one is being paid for sitting around while a robot does his or her job, what is going to happen? Well, it is clear that the unemployment rate will either rise dramatically, causing people who are employed to pay huge taxes to provide “leisure time” for people who don’t have jobs, or people will be hired to do stupid (government) jobs for not much money, and we will have a “Player Piano” (Kurt Vonnegut) society (while people who make more money will still have to pay huge taxes).

The second thing that could possibly happen is the absolute best-case scenario. Let’s assume that one day all jobs are taken over by robots and we are free to do whatever we want. Interestingly, this is a horrible idea. Studies have shown that in countries in which the retirement age is lower, the happiness of the older population is less. This means people with a large amount of leisure time (retirees) don’t really enjoy their lives. They need some purpose in their life. Work is typically that purpose.

On a side note, I would like to point out how silly the idea is that we in the USA would all live in harmony with each other with no jobs. How could I beat my neighbor? How would I show the world what an awesome person I was if I was given a government provided car and a government provided house. Oh, you see where I am going here, right? We are talking about socialism! The ultimate, best-case-scenario endgame in our robot development is socialism! Which is the opposite of capitalism, obviously.

We as Americans believe that the robots are only going to take over other people’s jobs. We don’t think that they are coming for us. But, ultimately they are coming for us all. Even me, a college professor, will one day be gunned down by the robots. Ever hear of the Kahn Academy? Or massive on-line classes? With people screaming about rising costs of education, these options are coming. It may not be tomorrow or next year, but some day college professors will fall to the robot horde and the efficiency machine. Then what will I do? Learn to repair robots? Maybe in my leisure time.

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Safety in Numbers

The podcast Freakonomics is very good.  I would highly recommend listening to it.

One of the episodes that they did was on living your life like an economist would say that we should.  Basically, every decision should be to selfish.  You should look at every decision and see if you would personally benefit from it.  One of the more interesting discussions they had on this was on things that we as a society do collectively.  Which, as a selfish person, we should totally not participate in, but completely take advantage of.

Their first example of this was a street musician.  If you have ever enjoyed listening to a street musician and have not paid that person, you have taken advantage of someone else’s generosity.  If you have paid a street musician, you have enabled that person to perform for far more people than just you. And you would be, according to an economist, a sucker.

The tricky bit here is that if no one pays the street musician, then that person will not perform and will just go away.  There won’t be anymore music for random people to enjoy. But, not everyone contributes to the street musician.  Why is that?  Well, we all know that other people will contribute.  We don’t have to, because someone else will. So, we don’t. This is a simple example that we can extrapolate to other things, such as voting.

According to voting statistics, 57.5% of the eligible voters voted in the 2012 presidential election. In non-presidential elections, the voter turnout has been much lower. In other elections, it is even worse than 40%.  Why don’t more people vote?  Well, for one thing, people may think that their vote doesn’t count.  And, they would be correct.  Each vote is almost completely meaningless.  Unless, of course, enough people don’t vote, and then individual votes can count a lot.  It is just like the street musician – the majority of people believe that it doesn’t matter if they vote (or pay the musician); someone will get elected and the world will continue pretty much exactly the same as it has. Most people are pretty fed up with politics, but very few people actually have the gumption to do anything about it.

Another example is the power of collective bargaining.  One of the strengths of unions is that the unions don’t allow people to opt out.  You have to be a member.  Therefore, you have to pay dues. Because the union represents every single person, there is significant power there.  If the union strikes, everyone strikes. There is no choice. Even if you wanted to go to work, you couldn’t.  You have to negotiate with the union leadership to get them to stop the strike.

Conversely, if you make it illegal to force people to be part of a union, then people have a choice.  Choice, it turns out, can be bad.  People don’t always choose the thing that is best for them. Shocker, I know.  And collective bargaining is almost always better for worker’s wages and benefits than not having collective bargaining rights. (You can google this and find lots of information out there.)  If you take away that mechanism that forces people to be in unions, workers will choose to not be in the union, since they may not want to pay the union wage, or may have some other excuse.  It is just like voting and paying the street musician – someone else will do it, and everything will be fine.  Then, when the union goes to negotiate a raise or better benefits, they don’t have the same amount of power anymore, and the workers end up suffering.

Even in academic departments, this same phenomena exists.  People don’t volunteer to do different committees or teach certain classes or do whatever because someone else will do it.  And someone probably will.

You can choose whether you want to be a person who takes advantage of the system or a person who feeds the system and keeps it going.  Everyday we all have to make these little decisions, which probably don’t even register (speaking of which, I probably should donate to Freakonomics Radio). While we don’t all have to become super-humans and support everything (or even a fraction of everything) and vote in every election, it is good to appreciate the fact that others are supporting things that we take advantage of.  The realization that there are a huge number of people out there who are propping up our little self-centered universes is important.  And hopefully they realize that we are propping up theirs in a different way.

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Traveling Alone

I travel a lot. There are definitely people who travel more than I do, but not a large number. Typically, I travel on Delta, and I am often either Gold (50,000 miles) or Platinum (75,000 miles). I would estimate that about 10% of the people on the plane have this type of status (by simply watching people board), so I would estimate that I travel more than the average bear.

I often travel to some interesting locations too. For example, I got to go to the Canary Islands earlier this year. That was an interesting trip. I often get to go to places such as Washington DC, Boulder, CO, and San Antonio, TX. Not too exotic, but if you don’t go there often, then they are very nice places to visit. (Even if you go there often, some of them are great places to visit). I lived in Boulder for about 18 months, and San Antonio for three years. I very much like going to Boulder. San Antonio is a slightly different story, but we won’t dwell.

When I tell people that I am going on a trip, their reaction is often something like “Oh, that sound like a great trip! What will you be doing there?” Most of the time, I will be meeting with people. For example, in June of this year, I went to the CEDAR meeting in Seattle. At CEDAR, I had to be there almost every day by 8:00 in the morning, and finished with dinner at about 8:00 each night. Therefore, I didn’t get to do anything “fun”, except meet with a bunch of people who I consider my friends and collaborators. Even though I don’t get to do very much that is “fun” (i.e., hiking, biking, photography, etc.) at meets like CEDAR, I very much enjoy them. It is great to see people that I really like, and have lunch and dinner with them. This is true for many meetings that I attend – I don’t get to do anything “fun”, but do get to see a lot of people that I enjoy spending time with.

There are other meetings that I go to where there are not as many people that I know. These meetings are sometimes a struggle for me, for a few reasons.

The first reason is that I really like being with my family. I very much enjoy spending time with my wife and kids, and even though I might not do things that my kids want me to do (ok, my 14 year old), like playing video games, I enjoy just being around them. Therefore, being away from my family is a really drain on my energy.

(Actually, last night, while laying awake in a hotel room half way around the world, I realized that my 14 year old would leave home in four years, and we would not have any kids around the house anymore. This hit me hard.)

I often feel like I am two different people. I am one person around other people, and another person when I am alone. You can tell that I am an extrovert, since I feel like I gain energy when I am with other people. I like talking to people, and connecting with them. When I am alone, I sort of go into a cocoon, and just sort of survive until I am with other people.

Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy spending time by myself. Like, when it has been a long day of meeting with people and such, I am good with spending a couple of hours to myself. But, I much prefer to spend time with my wife and kids – even if it is just sitting next to them while we both do our own thing. I also like doing things like mowing the lawn, which is obviously something you do alone. But, I actually enjoy it more when I know that there are other people home, instead of everyone being away. Strange, eh?

When I go on travel by myself to some meeting that I know that I am not going to know many people, I get pretty depressed; even if it is to some exotic destination. Just knowing that I won’t be with my family, and will probably have to be by myself for long stretches of time, makes me somewhat sad. Therefore, I often don’t really enjoy travel.

My wife often asks me why I don’t take a couple of days before or after the meeting and go do things like take pictures at some tourist places. This is perfect for her, since she is more of an introvert, and doesn’t mind (actually enjoys) spending time alone. For me, I really don’t like doing this. I like the taking pictures part, and the going to tourist places part, but I don’t like the being alone part.

The final reason that I don’t really enjoy traveling much is because I feel like I am not getting things done when I am on travel. I am not writing proposals or papers or meeting with students or with others about whatever. Occasionally, when there is nice fast internet at a meeting, I do get a lot of things done, since I can remotely log into my computers and program or whatever. But often, the more exotic the location for a meeting, the worse the internet. It then just becomes very frustrating to try to work.

Because of these reasons, I often don’t really like traveling. I force myself to do it because it is part of my job, but I often don’t want to go and would much rather stay at home. (Can you tell that I am far away from home?)

I also feel like a total ass when I am going to travel to someplace that people express is very exotic to them and I just say something like, “yeah, I would much rather stay at home.” I have realized that this is not a good thing to say. I should say something more like, “yes, this will be an interesting trip!” and actually try to enjoy it.

But, that is not me.

The view from my hotel room in Shanghai. This really symbolized what I felt while there.


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My wife and I seem to be somewhat unusual for our age, in that we got married relatively young and we had kids relatively young.  By this, I mean that we have many friends (and family) who are similar in age to us and have pretty young kids right now, while we have one 17 year old and one 14 year old.  Spending time with these friends and family make me think a few things:

1. Having kids is hard.  Like, every age brings new challenges.  From the physical endurance test of a 2-3 year old kid to the incredible chess game that is a teenager.  Life just changes, and the challenges change with it.  Sometimes it gets easier, and sometimes it gets harder.  But, I think that you can count on it having hard parts throughout.

2. Having kids later is very different than having kids earlier.  When you have kids earlier in your career/life, you have never taken the time to just be yourself or enjoy time with your partner.  You have not done spontaneous vacations or moved to another state/country on a whim.  You end up having to plan a lot more and own a minivan at a young age.  On the other hand, if you have kids younger, you may have more physical endurance than your toddler. Well, maybe not.  But it may be a closer match.  A bonus of having kids earlier is that we will have both kids moved out of the house (maybe?) by the time we are 50 (one of us well before 50).  Which means that we can start traveling a lot more at a younger age. I am not sure that one is better than the other.  It is just different.

3. I very much like little kids, but I am not sure that I would want another one.  Now that we have had two kids and have raised them through toddlerhood (and into teenager-hood), we are probably pretty good at it (well, maybe – and we are only talking about toddlerhood to preteen here – the court is still out on teenager-hood), and could probably deal with most of the toddler-ness.  But, I am not sure that either of us could take the constant entertainment needs of a toddler.  It is a lot of fun for a couple of hours.  Then, wow, I can understand why we don’t have any more kids.  They are a lot of work.

NPR just did a show on kids, and one of the speakers talked about how kids today are being raised in a very different way than kids have ever really been raised.  For example, when I was a kid, we lived between a lake and a forest.  My parents used to just basically throw us outside and say, go play.  We would got to the lake and play or go to the woods and play.  I am not sure how often this was, since I was 8, but I definitely have memories of biking down to the lake and playing with friends, and walking through the forest with my sister.  When we moved to Ypsilanti and lived in a neighborhood, we would ride our bikes everywhere.  I had a paper route when I was maybe 10-12 years old that was about a mile away from the house.  I delivered papers everyday by myself.  I would collect money by myself (which, I admit was a bit freaky.)

Today, it seems like that is not done.  We let our kids run through the woods by themselves (or used to, when they were interested in that type of ~lame~ activity), but it is a struggle for us to let our 14 year old ride his bike to his friend’s house, which is about 1.5 miles away.  We say that the cars go too fast on the dirt roads.  Which is true.  But, at the same time, he is a responsible kid, who knows what to do.  So, we have started letting him venture on his own. But we worry.

When we lived in Ypsilanti a few years ago (I lived there as a kid and as an adult), we would never have let our kids just wonder around on their own.  There was a park half a block from our house, but we still would walk with them down there and play with them while they were there.  Probably because we know what ~could~ have happened.  We are a much better informed society than back in the mid-70s. With that knowledge, comes an understanding of the things that are possible.  And that is scary. Many people, including me, are trapped by this knowledge and possibly hold on a little too tightly.

The question is, will it actually affect our kids in a negative way?  Will they take less risks as grownups, and live their lives always wanting to be comfortable?  Or will they break out of their parent’s safety net and go out and start new companies and do risky things?  I guess we, as a society, will find out.

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The Way People Think – Round 2

In the Honor’s Seminar last semester, we took the DISC (dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance) test, which helps you see some of your personality traits. These tests are always fascinating, especially when taken with 50 other people.  This particular test categorizes you by your most dominant trait, which could be any of the four listed above.  Here is what wikipedia says about the personalities:

Dominance: Perceives oneself as more powerful than the environment, and perceives the environment as unfavorable.

Inducement: Perceives oneself as more powerful than the environment, and perceives the environment as favorable.

Submission: Perceives oneself as less powerful than the environment, and perceives the environment as unfavorable.

Compliance: Perceives oneself as less powerful than the environment, and perceives the environment as favorable.

Who can guess which I am? The answer is below!

Once everyone was categorized, we broke into groups and answered a few questions.  One of the people in the Honor’s office told us a few trends that we would see.  For example, the D group would finish first. I think that the others were that the S group would be the most organized with a bulletized list and that the C group should be put into another room because they would be loud.  All true.

I am a D.  Our group finished first. And we were super proud of that.  It was silly.  In fact, when I was in school I always wanted to be the first one done with tests.  It turns out that there are a whole bunch of people who are like that.  These people are goal oriented!

It probably won’t surprise you that there is a whole group that is not necessarily as goal oriented.  This group likes to talk about things and often wanders off into completely unrelated topics.  They have a hard time staying on topic.

If you are a very goal oriented person, such as I am, these people drive you insane.  When you are trying to accomplish something, you are supposed to be working on that thing and that thing only.  To discuss other things just distracts from the goal and is inefficient.  But, there are some good aspects to this that I don’t fully appreciate very often.  For example, by discussing other things and going off topic, new ideas are brought into the mix, so the solution that is being worked on may evolve with time.  These ideas and solutions may be much better than the original ideas.

If I can put my physics hat on for a minute, let me make an analogy.  Solutions to problems often look like potential wells for physicists.  Visualize a mountain valley with lots and lots of hills on the mountains.  You can think of different solutions to problems being like all of the little recesses in the hills and mountains:  some of those valleys are quite deep and are good solutions, while others are shallow and are not great solutions.  The optimized solution is the valley that is the absolute lowest of all of the valleys.  When you are walking around in this region of hills and valleys, you can’t tell if you are in the lowest valley until you go out of your valley and climb into another valley.  When you are solving a math problem numerically and you are trying to find that lowest valley, the way to do it is to perturb the system and see if it kicks you into a new valley, which hopefully is lower than the old valley.  When you first start out, you perturb the system a lot, since you want to just check out all of the valleys if you can.  But, as time goes on, the perturbations become smaller and smaller and it is harder to climb out of the valleys, and your solution begins to solidify on one answer.  Hopefully it is the best, but it may very well not be the best.

People like me tend to constrain our solutions very quickly, being happy to be in some (any relatively deep) valley.  As long as we get there quickly, we are happy.  Other people tend to wander around for a long time, looking for valleys.  These people drive people like me insane.  But, they take their time and find really deep valleys.  They also point out all of the birds and deer and bears and etc along the way.

Having a group with all driven people is horrible, since you will arrive at a solution very fast, but it might not be the best solution.  Having a group of people who wander is also horrible, since you will most likely end up with no solution at all, but lots of extremely interesting ideas.  The perfect group has some of each type of person, with the driven people going towards solutions, and the wanderers perturbing the system to find new, possibly much better, solutions.  Once again, diversity is a very good thing.

Finally, it has always driven me insane to see people taking a break from work to chat.  For example, our department has Tea and Coffee every day (every day!) at 3:00.  People gather and chat for 30+ minutes.  (Who has that much time to waste on chatting?)  Well that is clearly the D in me talking, since these people are probably making all sorts of connections and new solutions that I am not coming up with since I am in my office working on whatever.  Intellectually, I see that chatting can be quite valuable.  But, I still sit (well, stand) in my office working on project X, Y or Z, while others chat about A, B or C.  It will probably take me a while to overcome my personality and go chat with others.

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