Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Optimization Metrics

Clara and I have to take a written exam in order to transfer our driver's licenses to Minnesota, so we're studying the Minnesota driver's manual. In the section on crosswalks I found this instruction:

The problem is that you can't leave an intersection both as quickly as possible AND as safely as possible. To leave as quickly as possible would be to sprint the last few yards, raising the chances of tripping and falling. To leave as safely as possible would mean walking slowly and carefully, constantly scanning your surroundings for new dangers, which is not particularly speedy.
This curve represents the boundary of your possible choices for how to cross the street. Anywhere inside the curve, you can increase either your speed or your safety, or both. Combinations of speed and safety outside the curve are beyond your ability, such as trying to go both as fast as you can and as safely as you can, the way pedestrians in Minnesota are charged to do.

Of course, no one is really bothered by this in practice; what we actually do is something like "leave the intersection as quickly as possible while still staying reasonably safe."
But this is only one way of solving the problem: you could decide instead that you need to leave reasonably quickly and then go as safely as you can at that speed. And either way, the choice of how safe is "reasonably safe" or how quickly is "reasonably quickly" is a little arbitrary.

Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up is to try to make clear the idea that even if two people value the same things, they might disagree on where to allocate their efforts. This is especially relevant these days, as so many people seem to be talking past each other about what they want for our country. We all want everyone to be better off, but there are many ways to gauge the wellbeing of a population, and you can't optimize them all at the same time. Here are some examples:

  • How good the best are. This is how we compare countries in the Olympics, for example.
  • How good the average are. This is what we are thinking of when we worry that U.S. students are falling behind those in other countries regarding their math scores, or when we compare different countries based on their GDP per capita.
  • How good the total is. If a life is valuable in itself, then all things being equal a larger population is preferable to a smaller one. Measures along these lines include total GDP; policy based on improving that might involve promoting birth rates so we have a larger workforce.
  • How bad the worst are. If we want to improve the minimum quality of life in the country, we should concentrate all our efforts on those people who need our aid the most.
  • How far apart the best and worst are. If we want everyone to have equal resources, then we should keep on robbing the rich to give to the poor until there's no difference, regardless of where that middle point ends up being.
  • How many people fall below a certain threshold. If we've drawn a poverty line and only want to reduce the number of people below it, it's better to adjust handouts so that everyone just makes it above the line, regardless of how much worse off those above the line end up being.

One of these may sound more like your preference than another, even though they're all based on some way of trying to make things better for everyone. It's impossible to optimize with respect to two different metrics at the same time, so you have to choose what to fix at "reasonable" and what you optimize given that, and the choice of "reasonable" is a little arbitrary. So next time you're in an argument with someone, please remember that they might just be trying to optimize according to a slightly different metric, and just because they disagree with you doesn't mean they don't value the same things.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Turning token actions into keystone habits

Last time, I talked about the idea of encouraging big life changes by making small changes to your environment:
  • become a writer → keep a journal nearby at all times
  • take charge of your health → put the cookies at the back of the cupboard
  • organize your household → dedicate a spot for give-away things to live until you get rid of them
This isn't the only way of making a life change, but "soaking the nut" by consistently taking small actions in the direction of a new lifestyle is remarkable for how little energy it takes in the long run.

In Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit, small changes that provide a structure for adding more habits later are called "keystone habits." Their essential feature is that their small steps encourage "small wins," building momentum and setting the stage for more success. Often these beneficial side-effects are unplanned: Duhigg tells the story of a weight-loss trial in which the participants were merely asked to keep a log of everything they ate, but many of the subjects started unbidden to use the data from their logs to make food plans they approved of and could stick to.

But sometimes small wins don't set you up for more small wins; sometimes they seem to discourage them.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Soak the nut

Growing up in my family, my sister and I took turns with the chore of washing dishes every evening. This was not a job I liked, and there were many ways I tried to get out of it:
  • Before dinner, I would do some other extra chore, so that when the calendar was checked to see whose turn it was, I could exclaim with indignation, "It's my turn? But I set the table!"
  • Right after dinner, I would conveniently have to go to the bathroom. For me, the toilet has always been a place where I feel I can dawdle guilt-free, because after all, who can seriously tell you to hurry it along if you need more time? But this was more procrastination than a ploy to get out of dish duty.
  • When I finally did drag myself to face the mountain of dishes in the kitchen sink, anything that needed to be handwashed or that didn't fit in the dishwasher I would squirt with a generous helping of dish soap and fill with water. If anyone asked, I would say they were "soaking overnight," and—ta-da!—the next day they wouldn't be my problem anymore.
This all changed when I started living on my own, without the never-counted blessing of a dishwasher, and with no one else to wash my dishes if I didn't. I realized that it was much easier to clean up if I did so right after each meal, rather than waiting for food bits to harden and then be soaked and scrubbed later. I resolved never to procrastinate by soaking dishes again.

But when Clara and I moved to the Netherlands, the rhythm of our life changed from me preparing and cleaning up after each meal at home, to me scooting out the door right after breakfast, bringing home dried-out leftovers containers, and doing all the day's washing-up after dinner in the evening. I was back to scraping dried food off of dishes, perpetually wishing I had gotten to them sooner.

One day, I guiltily tried soaking a stubborn pot in soapy hot water. But so as not to break my resolution, I only left it a few minutes before giving it another scrub. When I did so, I was amazed how much was already coming off—not everything, but more than I expected after such a short time. So I dumped the now very dirty water out of the pot, refilled it with more sudsy water, and left it again for another few minutes, after which it practically wiped clean.

This reminded me of what a famous French mathematician, Alexander Grothendieck, had to say about problem-solving. He compared the idea of cracking a mathematical nut by hitting it as hard as you can with your sharpest chisel to the approach that he usually took himself:
I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened. The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!
—Grothendieck's Récoltes et Semailles, p. 552
translation by Colin McLarty

Now this soaking technique is a regular part of my dish-doing routine. I look around to see what dishes look most difficult to scrub, give them a quick swipe with a soapy sponge as I get started, and periodically rinse them out and swipe them again as I wash everything else. Usually by the time the other dishes are done, so are they, and with almost no effort.

But what really struck me when I thought of the Grothendieck quote was not a low-effort way of washing the dishes, but a low-effort way of making life changes. When I dread the effort required by a change I want to make, I remind myself to "soak the nut" and consider the small things I can do now that will make bigger changes easier later. For example, I've wanted for a long time to be a writer, but I've always felt like I'm not talented enough and don't have anything to say. So last year, I ditched the big heavy journal I never used and started keeping a smaller one nearby, just in case I had any thoughts I considered interesting; I only wrote in it about once every month or two. Eventually that increased to about once a week, and later I committed to writing every day. Then I started picking out the ideas I wanted to share, and wrote a blog post occasionally. Now I've committed to a post a week, and my list of post ideas just keeps getting longer. And it all started by making a tiny change that made it a correspondingly tiny bit easier to write down my thoughts.

Photo by Rusty Clark, under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license


I've decided to officially change my posting schedule from Mondays to Wednesdays. I originally chose Mondays so that I'd have the free time in my weekends to mull over what I wanted to say, but now the weekends are the only days I get to spend with Clara and I have more free time during the week. I'll kick off the new schedule this week by posting a followup to this post, containing more examples from my life and an exploration of when tiny life changes encourage growth ("keystone habits") and when they just defuse the energy that could have gone into something greater ("token actions").

Monday, September 12, 2016

The quest for a dresser

We are making great strides in moving in. We have a books on our shelves, hooks for our keys, and cookies in the cookie jar.

But one of the things that was surprisingly difficult for us was finding a dresser. Most of our furniture came from IKEA, and we were able to check out the various options in the IKEA in Haarlem before we left the Netherlands. That way, we were able to get our new apartment pretty much mapped out before we came.

But while there's much more closet space here than in our place in Leiden, the rooms are more square, so wall space, not floor space, is at a premium. That means using taller, narrower storage whenever possible, so we wanted one of these dressers from IKEA:

But when we looked to see what was available in the states, what we found was more like this:

Where are all the tall, narrow dressers? IKEA isn't offering them anymore in the U.S., the country where they have been sued for the wrongful deaths of several small children who have been crushed in the last few years by chests of drawers tipping over. When we went on our big trip to IKEA last week, signs exhorting customers to affix their furniture to the wall were everywhere.

My knee-jerk reactions:

  • "I don't have children! Why shouldn't I be allowed to buy furniture for myself, just because someone else might do so irresponsibly?!"
  • "The furniture already comes with brackets to mount it to the wall, and the instructions include that step!" (Sure I've ignored that step in the past—living in a cinderblock dorm room does tend to prevent one from making any kind of hole in the wall—but the consequences of that neglect are my responsibility!)
  • "If IKEA really were contrite about these deaths, they'd pull the furniture line everywhere, not just in the one country where they got in trouble!" (It's as if, when they rolled out the slimmer and eco-friendlier KALLAX replacement for their iconic EXPEDIT series, they had only done so in countries that are particularly uppity about environmentalism.)
  • "It's not even that big a problem!" I mean, yes, it is an enormous problem if it's your child, and apparently a child in the U.S. is killed once every two weeks by furniture tip-over, which is awful. But given that there are over 21 million children under the age of 5 in the U.S., this works out to a probability of about 99.99938% that your newborn will survive your furniture.  If we were looking at, say, the Netherlands instead of the U.S., at this rate there would be a high probability of no child ever being killed by an IKEA dresser.

But on reflection, maybe discounting the size of the U.S. isn't such a good idea. Maybe a big country, where precedents are set for many at once and where legislative decisions have an exceptionally wide scope, has an extra responsibility to err on the side of safety. Maybe that's why small countries should belong to supranational organizations that impose annoying regulations.

But what does all this mean for us? It means we got our dresser at a thrift store.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The unexpected things you need when you move in

This is the week we finally made the move to Minnesota, and so far it's gone wonderfully. We completed the two-day drive without incident, we've assembled six carts' worth of Ikea furniture (just the desk is left!)—we've even gone to the state fair:

That's right: all-you-can-drink milk for just $2.
There have been a few things that have been difficult for us, though. With all the packing, re-packing, purging, and shipping, we are frequently unsure where we put the [fill in the blank] or whether we kept it at all. So for future reference, we've been making a list of the items we don't usually travel with that would have been really helpful to have easily accessible when we arrived.
  • Scissors
We knew we would want to measure our apartment as soon as we got here, so we stopped by Target to get a tape measure right before we left Virginia. The only tape measure they had was the same price as a tool kit that also contained a tape measure, so it was a clear choice to get the set. But far more useful than the tape measure have been the scissors—we have had so many boxes to open and packaging to cut through that it would have been a nightmare without them. The other tools have been useful too, what with all the furniture we've been assembling, but the scissors take the cake.
  • Water
We don't know yet how clean the tap water here is, so we've been really grateful for a 24-pack of water bottles my parents gave us right as we were heading out. Now we have a filter, so we have ready access to water we feel good about drinking, but in those first few days it was really helpful not to have to worry about how we would stay hydrated.
  • Plates/bowls/utensils
Seeing as we didn't want to eat out every meal, we were very glad that our plates and bowls were in some of the first few boxes we unpacked. All our silverware is in the shipment coming from the Netherlands, though, so we had to buy some inexpensive utensils to use in the interim. 
  • Can opener/knives/pot and pan/spatula
Again, we knew wanted to do some cooking, but didn't think about how we'd need tools to do it. It was a sad moment when we realized we'd bought canned beans to use for dinner and had no way to get at them. Fortunately one of our neighbors just moved in as well, and he had a spare one left by his previous tenant. Whew!
  • Soap
All kinds: dish soap, hand soap, bath soap, laundry detergent. It was embarrassingly long before we got all of those.
  • Paper towels and toilet paper—thanks for the tip, Keslei!
Clara and I each bought some of these paper products right away when we arrived, so it wasn't a crisis for us, but they were definitely handy and not something we usually travel with!
  • Quarters
While going through my old belongings at my parents' house, we found a film canister of quarters that I used to use for laundry. Turns out our laundry room here needs quarters too, as does the bus fare ($1.75 off-peak).
  • A place for dirty clothes
When we did finally do our laundry, we were pulling out dirty clothes we'd tucked away in all our bags and suitcases. No wonder we felt like we had no clean clothes! Don't be us. Keep the dirties in one place so you can wash 'em when you need to.
  • Shower curtain, liner, and rings
We have a shower curtain somewhere, but purchasing the other two (and more necessary) ingredients was another of those embarassingly belated tasks.
  • Lamps and light bulbs
Our living room doesn't have any built-in light fixtures, so for a while we just had to stop working there when it got dark. As of today, we have brought that room into the age of the electric light!
  • Checkbook
This really stands for all forms of payment—you never know when you might need cash or credit in an emergency—but the one we have been least likely to carry with us is our checkbook. These days we almost never use checks, but our landlord wanted a check for our first month's rent in exchange for the keys to our apartment. We ended up having to stop at a bank two states away and get a single page of three checks so that we'd have some when we arrived.

Thanks for reading! Anything I'm (still) forgetting? Any tips for the next stage of moving in, where the space is livable enough to get by but there's still a lot left to do? I'd love to know!