Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Computer games, naps, and memory


Playing tetris can interfere with the encoding of long-term memories, so playing tetris right after something bad happens can reduce the post-traumatic stress disorder.

What's not mentioned here is that it follows that playing tetris right after doing something you want to remember might keep you from remembering it as well.

So if you need a study break, take instead of playing video games, take a nap instead, which has been found to help reinforce memories.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why I Use Female Protagonists

In my stories and scripts, I tend to use female protagonists, for a few reasons.

1) Most actors are female.
2) Most people reading scripts for theaters are female.
3) Most theater-goers are female.

I found another reason in Jordan and Wilner (2009):
"There's ample evidence that both award committee and the ticket buying public (by every estimate at least 60% female) find female characters extremely likable, whether written by men or women."


Wilner, S. & Jordan, J. (2009). Discrimination & the female playwright. The Dramatist Sept/Oct 46--51.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Meat Credits

According to an interesting book I read recently (Bittman, 2009), the rise of factory farming has made the lives of the animals we eat a "living hell." I'm not going to go into whether or not this is true in this entry; for purposes of this essay I'm going to assume it's true and discuss what to do about it. 

The way I see it there are two ways to combat the problem. 

1. Change laws so that animals are treated ethically.
Wouldn't this be great? Then we'd only have to deal with the other reasons not to eat meat.

2. Reduce demand.
Reducing the demand for meat reduces animal suffering simply because fewer animals are raised. Using the advice in Bittman (2009), I've been trying to be vegan before dinner, and I've reduced my intake of meat considerably. He argues that the demand must be reduced, because the world needs factory farming to supply the current (and rising) demand for meat. That is, even if we wanted to raise the animals ethically, we just don't have enough room and other resources to do it.

Now I'm feeling bad whenever I eat meat, which is a problem, because I adore it.

I had an idea yesterday: buying meat credits. Here's how it works:

There is some cost to eating meat, in terms of animal welfare, the environment, etc. Let's assume that you quantify this cost, given the type of meat you eat, where it comes from, and how much you eat. So, for example, (and I'm just making up these numbers here), a hamburger costs the world 20 points and a chicken wing costs the world 3.

Now, let's assume that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are out there reducing the problems associated with meat, through lobbying, public relations to reduce demand, etc. Let's assume that giving money to these organizations has some effect on the state of the world. Of course, some are more effective than others, and choosing is difficult, but let's hold off on how to choose for another blog post. Let's assume further that we can quantify how effective a given donated dollar is. For example, and I'm making up numbers again, but giving one dollar to NGO x helps the world out 1 point.

If we could somehow get these numbers, then you could potentially purchase meat-eating credits. Suppose the numbers I made up above are accurate. Then, if I wanted to eat a hamburger ethically, I would donate 21 dollars to an appropriate NGO and eat the burger. I understand that this is not the way people typically think about ethics, but the reasoning is sound-- if you are doing this, then every time you eat a burger you are improving animal welfare in the world.  I picture getting a piggy bank and putting money into it every time I eat meat, according to some table of how much each costs the world, and every once in a while I empty it, count it up, and write a check.

So even though you're hurting the world by eating the meat, you're having a net benefit through the donation. It's important that this donation is above and beyond your normal donation rate. See my previous blog post on this topic.

I anticipate a harsh reaction from vegetarians, who will probably say that you should donate and don't eat meat. Fine, yes, that would be better. But for those of us who are not ready to give up meat for whatever reason, this is better than doing nothing at all. And the more meat they eat under this system, the better the world gets. Not only that, paying extra to eat the meat (it's in addition to the monetary cost of the meat, of course) might prove to be a disincentive to eat meat, encouraging people to eat less of it, reducing demand.

And every rational person should agree to this for some set of numbers. For example, if Bill Gates vowed to give a million dollars to animal welfare NGOs every time he went to McDonald's, I should think the vegetarians would prefer him to go to McDonald's than be vegetarian.

I want these numbers. How do we get them?

It's a perfect job for economists, who are expert at quantification and making a common metric for the comparison of apples and oranges. If anyone knows of an analysis like this, I would love to know about it.

In the meantime, maybe I should just make up numbers, because now I'm donating nothing.

Pictured: pigs at a factory farm. Factory farms are cramped and stressful for animals, but have benefits of reducing fighting between them. See the wikipedia for the controversy. 


Bittman, M. (2009). Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Simon Schuster Paperbacks.New York.
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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Killing Time

I just read that children's author Robert Louis Stevenson once said that a person should be able to wait for a train for two or three hours with nothing to read and not be bored. Our own thoughts should be able to entertain us. I think that striving for this state is a noble goal.

I live in Canada, and I grew up in America. These have got to be two of the most convenient places on Earth. But we're humans, and if there's one thing humans do well it's habituate. As such, Americans get just as (or perhaps even more) frustrated with waiting than other cultures.

You can't always rely on the company of other people, electricity, or books. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I had to endure a three hour bus ride through Jamaica at night. There was no one to talk to; I had no book, and it was so dark outside I could not see a thing. I was stuck there, awake, in the dark, with nothing but my own thoughts.

I think it's good for people to develop strategies for dealing with waiting. I think you should make some for yourself. In the remainder of this entry I'll share some of mine.

1. Smart phones
A smart phone is great when you have to wait. On my phone, I can read novels (I always have at least one on there that I'm reading), play games*, listen to music, and write. The fact that the phone is always on me is a great comfort.Make sure some of the games you download are for two players (e.g., chess, connect four, trivial pursuit) for when you're with other bored people.
    However, cell phones lose power, get left places, and I tend to get motion sick on road vehicles, so I need other strategies.

2. Meditation
If I've got time to kill I'll often do a half an hour of meditation. See my previous post on this topic.

3. Mentally Simulating Things I Want To Know How To Do
I recently read Neil Strauss's book Emergency and it's very entertaining. It got me interested in survival skills. That book was good, a how-to book with pictures is better, and youtube videos are the best. Here are some good ones:
     How to Make a Fish Trap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAB7KljY-9E
     How to Make Shelter in the woods: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myghxFyf6e4
Anyway, sometimes when I am trying to get to sleep, or find myself with nothing to do, I mentally rehearse these activities. Though imagination cannot completely substitute for practicing the real thing, many studies show that it's often just as good. This has been shown for over 30 sports, for example.
     So if there's some skill that's important to you (exiting your house in a fire, martial arts forms, updating your webpage after a publication, tennis) you can mentally practice it.

4. Planning
Think about your goals. Think about the goals you have that are not active, and imagine what you would do to achieve them. This can be inspiring and productive work.

5. Reminiscing
Give yourself exercises to remember your past to entertain yourself. Here are some ideas:
    a) pick a trip you took, and try to recreate the events as best you can
    b) imagine as vividly as possible walking through places you've lived (inside the house and in the neighborhood)
    c) pick a long-time friend and try to choose your happiest memory of being with them.
You get the idea.

6. The Letter Game
Look at some object in your area. Name it. What is the first letter in the name? Choose another word that starts with that letter. Formulate your opinion on something to do with that word. When you've exhausted that, go to the next letter of the alphabet and repeat.
    For example: I am on my sofa, and I looked at a flower. That's "f." Another word that starts with F is flagellate. This reminds me of self-flagellation I saw in the movie The Fountain. It's metaphorical, for me, of how people feel guilty and feel the need to punish themselves. I know people who do this and it makes their lives worse.
    I could go on and on--- I could write a blog entry on that, and I picked it randomly. I developed this strategy from improv, in which we make scenes from random audience suggestions.
    I actually developed this for boring moments with my wife, who is not a boring person by anyone's standards. But no matter how great your relationship is, after a while you'll run out of things to talk about in some circumstances. We were bored at a bar together and I came up with this game. We'd take turns with letters, generate words, and share our opinions about them. We had fun and learned new things about each other. Think about what you could talk about with your friend or partner with a list of words you could generate, such as:
   Hot Air Balloon
   Junk Removal
   Omniscience, etc.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste. So is time. That is all.

PicturedTom, a resident in Vancouver's downtown eastside ghetto, passing the time in front of an unused storefront; Vancouver BC Canada.

* I'm very excited that you can purchase applications on android phones now in Canada. I bought "Devilry Huntress" and I love it.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Doing Good In This World (Using Money)

What's the meaning of life? In my opinion, each person has to decide what that is for themselves. For me, it's making the world a better place, and being happy doing it. 

I am lucky to have worked myself into a job where, day to day, I'm doing just this. Educating people and doing scientific research is good for the world, and I work hard at it. So in terms of time, I feel pretty good about my contribution.

Then there's money. Money can be used to help the world too. There are two questions that everyone should answer for themselves: how much of their money will they give and what will they do with it? 

Each person will have their own amount of money that they should give. I think it should be thought of in percentages-- the more money you make, the higher a percentage of your income should go toward charity. How much is that number? I have no idea, and most people I ask have no idea either.

The philosopher Peter Singer has a simple argument that relates to my previous post on the omission bias:
1. Suffering is a bad thing
2. Relieving suffering is a good thing
3. If you can relieve suffering and you don't, it's a bad thing.
4. You should relieve suffering.

It's hard to find fault with this argument. As for Peter Singer himself, he gives 25% of his income to Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help the world out. He considers spending money on luxuries to be wrong. I understand that most people in America and Canada will have an instinctive negative reaction to this idea. Before you react too strongly, please take a bit of time to consider it carefully, rationally. Our culture has an ethic that it's perfectly fine to spend the money you earn on yourself, which I think is a questionable value. 

Anyway, I'm making plenty of money. In our culture, studies show that happiness increases with income until you reach about 40k per year, and then it plateaus. That means you habituate to your lifestyle, whether that means being able to afford to eat out once in a while and go to movies or to fly to Paris for dinner in your private jet, after about a year you get used to it and return to the normal of level of happiness that you're used to. 

What this means to me is that everybody who's making over 40k should be donating some proportion of their income to charity. 

I love the book "All Your Worth." It's a simple money-management plan that's helped me enormously. The basic idea is to spend no more than 50% of your income on necessities, 30% for discretionary spending, and the remaining 20% for saving and investing. Conspicuously missing from this is charity. 

Perhaps 20% is excessive for savings. What my wife and I have decided to do is to spend 2% of our income on some charity. We will take it out of the savings each year. We actually save 18% of our income for savings, currently, so in the end we'll be saving 15% for investment, and giving 2% each year to charity. 

What percentage of your income to do you give to charity?
More importantly, what percentage of your income should you give to charity?
I'd love to see your answers to these questions in the comments. 

Note that I have not mentioned what charities to give to. That will be the subject of a future post. I separate them deliberately: the choice to give and the choice of what cause to give to should be separate choices, because choosing what cause to support is terribly difficult, and can cause paralysis, resulting in your not giving anything at all.  

Pictured is Bill Gates, the world's richest man, who, with his wife Melinda, are donating an enormous amount of money to awesome charities. More on this great man in my next post.  

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Importance of Attending (even boring) Talks

In my experience, most academics, especially graduate students, do not attend enough talks. The excuse is usually some combination of being too busy and the talk not being relevant to their research area. And indeed, about half of the talks are not worth watching. Nonetheless, I still believe an academic should attend many talks, even when the probability of getting anything out of the talk is low.

There are two reasons. First, 50% success rate is not bad at all. Considering enjoying a play (for me) has a probability of about 12%, and they cost money, and I still consider them worth seeing, 50% is pretty good. The reason is that the ones that are really good are so good that they make up for the lost time at the others. You might see an hour long talk that is so good for your work that it's worth having spent many hours in boring talks.

The second reason is more subtle. When you're in a boring talk, your mind wanders. This is a very good thing. Academics nowadays are so busy that they have very little unstructured time to daydream and have free-ranging creative thought. Always bring paper and a pen to a talk. When your mind checks out after the first 5 minutes, think about your big projects, your future, some problem you have not figured out, your big theory, your time management, what your priorities are, and start writing. Make a list of things to put on your todo list. I go to a lot of conferences, and my notes are legion at the end of it, and many of the notes are not really about  the talks at all. The talk might inspire some idea that is only tangentially related, and spur a whole new creative project. When I get back, and go over the notes, I'm always surprised at how many ideas I had. I'm also always shocked at how many I know I would have never remembered had I not written them down.

Being bored for a time can be valuable. The boredom forces your mind to find it's own entertainment, and often you dig up problems you are too buy to think about any other time. Embrace the boredom.

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