Tuesday, July 17, 2018

I Scattered My Mom's Ashes In The Ocean

I didn't have time to write a TKIN post, because I was too busy traveling to Cape Cod to scatter my mom's ashes.

If you're following along at home, my mom died about a year ago. You can read my post about her here. We had a small memorial for her at the time, but then last weekend a larger group of family members got together in Hyannis and took a small boat with a crew who knew all about the ashes scattering process.

It was an incredibly beautiful day, and here's a picture of me watching the ashes slowly disperse into the ocean:



Au revoir, Audrey!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Things That Annoyed Me Between 6:00 And 7:30 PM On Monday July 9

These aren't big life problems. They're not even my big life problems. I'm going to write about them anyway.

At 6:00 PM I showed up for a yoga class, and I was immediately annoyed to see that the instructor had brought a bunch of those mini plastic fake candles and was putting one of them at each person's mat. I know this is crabby, but all I could think of was how each candle had a battery, and each battery had some small amount of those compounds that make batteries work that are bad for the environment, and how once the batteries wore out the candles would probably be thrown in the trash.

Let me be clear: it's not the idea of candles I'm complaining about. It's the pointless waste of plastic and other crap. All this future landfill -- and for what? And during yoga class? Aren't we supposed to be extra mindful of our relation to the earth when we're doing yoga? Somehow I feel like there's this environmentalism frame of mind, and there's the "other" frame of mind, and when we're doing one we're not doing the other.

Yoga class was fine, but it's supposed to end at 7:00, and as the clock said 6:58, the instructor started winding things down and getting ready for the meditation. The reason I'm fussy about the ending time is that on Mondays I take a bus back from yoga, and here in Waterloo (where I work) the bus goes only every half hour. If I leave yoga class at 7, I almost always make an earlier bus. If I leave at 7:05, I often miss it.

It's a measure of the power of the social environment of yoga, I guess, that I don't pack up my stuff and leave before we're done. This seems disruptive, and wrong. So, instead, I lie there getting mad that it's getting late and I'm going to miss my bus. I know -- it's the opposite of the whole point of the exercise. But what can I do?

This time I caught the bus and stopped by the grocery store. This store always plays some kind of classic rock, which always annoys me, because classic rock might have its time and place but grocery shopping is not it. On Monday, it was The Rolling Stones, Shattered. I have nothing against the Rolling Stones and if I heard this at a party I might have a moment of light nostalgia. But it's a song about sex and NYC. Do I want to think about these things while I'm selecting a red pepper? No.

When I'm in Waterloo it's a ten-minute walk from the grocery store to my place. It's along a wide road with a lot of cars, which always reminds me how a ten-minute walk along a lovely path or an urban street feels like nothing, while a ten minute walk by the side of cars, cars, cars feels like forever. When I lived in Palo Alto, it was a ten-minute walk from my apartment, on the edge of Menlo Park, to this large outdoor mall-type thing with restaurants and cafes. The walk took me along a busy road, with drivers rushing past, car dealerships on the sides, and a narrow sidewalk. The longest ten-minute walk ever.

While I was walking along on Monday, I encountered an automated sprinkler system. I have come to think of these as the bane of pedestrian existence. When I was in graduate school in Irvine, California, the working assumption seemed to be that no one would ever actually use a path or sidewalk -- they were there just to look nice. Walking, I was constantly attacked by these systems. In Irvine, they were set on timers, which meant I'd be quietly ambling to class or back from the pub, and BOOM -- suddenly I'd be drenched with water. On Monday the sprinkler was already on, so I just had to pick my way through the drenched grass on the side of the sidewalk.

On one level this is just complaining, but I think there is something interesting in the fact that the modern world so often feels hostile, aggressive, or just annoying. You might think several of the items above are particular to me as a non-driver, but in my experience the drivers have it even worse. Often, yoga class starts with an acknowledgement that if you battled your way through traffic and fought for a parking space before showing up, you're going to need extra time to decompress.

These are first-world problems. As I said, they're not big problems -- and if I were describing my life, I probably wouldn't even mention them. But I don't think I'm the only one who feels that even just the regular texture of daily life in modern society can be stressful and exhausting. Somehow, we've set things up so that buying a flat-screen TV is easy and fun, while walking on a sidewalk is difficult. And forget about things like feeding kids healthy food or getting a plumbing problem fixed while working a full-time job. How did the treats become the center of things and the ordinary essentials become so strange and difficult?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Irrationality: Why Not Make It Work For You?

Sometimes I read an advice column that advises people to save money by avoiding general or monthly fees in favor of a more pay-as-you-go approach. So, for example, as I understand it a lot of people who sign up for a gym at X dollars per month then use the gym less often than they expected, to the extent that they would have been better off financially paying per visit or something like that.

I think that often this is bad advice. It assumes several things that are certainly or maybe false:  that the number of times you go to the gym doesn't depend on how you pay, that your goal is to get as much gym time for as few dollars as possible, and that you are a rational decision maker.

If you drop all those assumptions, you get a different perspective on the problem. What if you articulate your main goal as working out as much as possible without spending more than X dollars? Suddenly the monthly payment system starts to look pretty good, even if you could have saved money by doing it the other way.

The reason this difference arises, I think, is that having paid a monthly fee incentivizes you to work out, while paying per use incentivizes you not to work out. What's interesting about this is that strictly speaking, there's a sense in which being incentivized to work out by having paid a monthly fee is irrational. And yet, it's such a common and familiar feeling. And you can use it to your advantage.

The reason it's seen as irrational has to do with the "sunk cost" fallacy. According to one strand of decision-making theory, the only factors you should consider when evaluating what to do are factors that actually come into play in your decision. When it's time to decide whether to go to the gym or stay on the sofa, this system says, the only things you should be considering are the options you have and how well those options satisfy your current needs and desires. The fact that you paid a non-recoverable fee for a gym membership is irrelevant, because you can't change it: it's the same no matter what you choose.

But we know from behavioral economics and from life that this isn't how it works. Of course having paid a fixed fee, you feel you should go to the gym -- to "get your money's worth," whatever that means. You pay a fee and you don't use the gym, you feel like an idiot. So you feel you should get to the gym. The pay-per-use is almost the opposite, encouraging you to think, again, on every occasion, are these dollars maximally satisfying my happiness and well-being when I spend them on the gym? Or would ice cream be even better?

Of course, if you pay a flat fee, you may pay more than you would have paid per-use. But you may also work out more than you would have worked out had you paid-per-visit. So it really depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to go to the gym more, even though it costs a bit extra per time, then the flat fee makes total sense. You can think of it like a self-nudge: you structure your own environment to exploit your own systematic irrationalities for your own gain. A nudge without the creepier effects of being nudged by the other people, because you're doing the nudging yourself.

I do this all the time -- structuring my own environment to make my impulses draw me toward a more desirable rather than a less desirable conclusion. And I can tell you: there's a lot to be said for seeing the emotive force aspect of your self and the logical structure aspect of yourself as cooperating friends, rather than enemies at war.