Thursday, November 29, 2007

Marketing Exam #4

Yesterday after my test, I flipped through the book again to identify questions I missed and I only found one that I knew to have wrong (and it was one that had caused me a great deal of deliberation during the exam), and one that I could still not tell whether I got wrong or not.

I just checked the class website and I got a 98! I now have a 94, 92, and 98 as my 3 highest grades going into the final exam next week. Oh, but actually, that 92 is a 94. I stopped by the professor's office to review exam #1 and exam #3 on Monday (I had been able to determine the 5 questions I had gotten wrong on exam #2) and discovered an error in the grading key that the professor confirmed. So once the grades are corrected, I will have 94, 94, and 98.

Assuming I don't totally screw up the final next Wednesday, I should have my A.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Jonathan Creek

Jonathan Creek is a quirky, amusing British mystery series featuring a curly-haired geek who lives in a windmill, creates clever illusions for a famous magician (who happens to be played by the delicious actor who is Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and who gets to have a lot of fun in the first episode of JC), and is unwillingly roped into solving crimes by an irrepressible female investigative journalist named Maddy (who at least once endangers one of his inventions with her weight). The crimes are kind of incredible, but the characters are fun - especially Jonathan (at least, in the two episodes I have watched so far).

Of course, my entire experience of this show has been influenced by my immediate feeling that in some slightly different universe, Jonathan Creek is Tam's boyfriend.

Let's go to the clips to see what I mean. (I apologize for not embedding the clips, but I couldn't get it to work. But really, opening another window to see them is worth it!)

In the first episode, Jonathan and Maddy bumped into each other kind of literally at a party and later, when Maddy has found out what a smarty-pants Jonathan is and that he could be a big help to her in solving a locked-room style mystery, she invites him for lunch.

Watch segment 8:35 - 9:50 (If you're not used to YouTube, you can move the little scrolling button on the bottom of the display until it shows close to the right time.)

Later, Jonathan goes to visit Maddy at her place, but sees her on the stoop with her boyfriend acting flirtatious, and he gets jealous. Maddy calls him to talk about the mystery, but he has something else on his mind.

Watch segment 1:55-3:55

In the second episode, Jonathan is talking to the widow of a murdered vaudevillian comedian whom Jonathan cannot stand and takes an interest in an idiosyncratic way.

Watch segment 0:00-0:55

I cannot get over how funny the "scientific precision" line is.

The series is available on Netflix.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Congratulations, Austin

We managed to beat out past champ Houston on the Forbes list, coming in at #18; Houston somehow managed to not make the top 20. San Antonio did an impressive turn, ranking #3 in the nation.

Too bad the competition was for most obese high-population city in the US. (Initially, I wrote "most obese large city" but that seemed ambiguous.)

Forbes describes their methodology: "To determine which cities were the most obese, we looked at 2006 data on body mass index, or BMI, collected by the Centers for Disease Control's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which conducts phone interviews with residents of metropolitan areas about health issues, including obesity, diabetes and exercise... Though data is collected for roughly 145 metropolitan statistical areas, we looked only at the country's 50 most populated cities and ranked the top 20."

Forbes reports: "Austin wouldn't have entered our list based on 2005 figures, when only 17.2% of its residents were obese. But in 2006, that number shot up to 24.9%, which was enough to surpass neighboring Houston, an erstwhile "fattest" city. The noticeable shift may shock residents who think of their hometown as healthy and active."

Shout out to Okie readers: Oklahoma City makes the list (#8) but Tulsa does not. Since Forbes did not include the list of 50 largest cities that they used to select the top 20, it is unclear whether Tulsa was a contender for the list. This site and this site include Tulsa among the 50 most populous cities, so perhaps Tulsa just didn't manage to make the cut. Better luck next time!

I was pretty surprised to see two California cities on the list, including San Diego. San Diego?! I guess my experience with the place is terribly out of date (15 years), and was limited to the rich Anglo part of town in any case, but I would not have predicted this at all.

One thing that the Forbes article does not discuss is the ethnic composition of the "winning" cities on this list. My very rough-and-dirty calculation comparing percent-Anglo (from US Census data) and percent-obese for the 20 cities on the list shows a correlation of -0.46, which would be considered a moderate correlation between ethnicity and obesity, with a higher percentage of the population non-Anglo (i.e. non-Hispanic white) being associated with higher obesity.

Also, Robert pointed out that the biggest US cities are not represented on the list. Not only Houston (#3 in population), but also NY, LA, Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Dallas, and San Jose; the only two cities of the top 10 most populated which show up are San Antonio and San Diego. I'm not sure whether this means much of anything, but it is odd. It's hard to credit an explanation like "large cities have better public transportation, which encourages physical activity more than driving does," given the car culture of Houston and Dallas. It may point to something screwy in the disproportionate sampling frame they used for getting representative statewide data when applied to city-level data.

I found the article from this post on Marginal Revolution. Check out comment #6 for some of my thoughts on the methodology and the never-ending "BMI doesn't measure fat" fantasy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Economic Thinking and a Much Stupider Kind of Stephen Hawking

I liked Jen's closing line from her comment on organic foods - it illustrates an economic point:

"So I take the opposite stance and favor organic. I would love to see the prices come more in line, but since I do believe in the health impact (and also in whacky stuff like yoga and meditation), I consider the extra cost an investment in my body -- which is the most important thing I have."

Since Jen is a semi-professional dancer, it makes sense that she would place a premium on things, like organic foods, that either boost her physical performance or at least help prevent deterioration of it. (Or that provide peace of mind about something that she values highly.) Since my physical skills are so minimal (and any advantage being limited perhaps to projectile skills, which I rarely use), losing physical ability short of death, while certainly very undesirable, would have less impact on me. I could maintain my career as a knowledge worker from a wheelchair, for example.

Having a higher income also makes the decision to purchase organic, on speculation that it is beneficial, easier; many of us could buy only organic food and still not spend any great proportion of our income on food - especially if we stopped eating at restaurants. According to this National Restaurant Association data, Americans spend 47.9% of their food budget eating out. That suggests to me that people are throwing away plenty of money on food that is generally relatively unhealthy and fattening. Maybe people will start (continue?) going to all-organic restaurants and really start to eat into that food budget.

My beef (OK, that's a poor word choice) with vegetarianism and organic foods is not that I think people shouldn't eat that way if they want to do so and for whatever reasons they may have. My primary concerns regarding the organic movement are with activists who want to get rid of conventionally grown options and who like to portray conventionally grown food as functionally poisonous, even to lower income, less educated people who need to be eating and serving their children vegetables and cannot actually afford to eat 100% organic; and it is unclear that wide-scale organic farming would be productive enough to feed the growing population of the planet. (To those who propose that there are "too many people" in the world, I say it's time to "think globally and act locally" and "take one for the team.")

On a personal level, I also find the moral superiority and social posturing that sometimes, but certainly not always, accompanies the pro-organic lifestyle distasteful and annoying. And I'm easily frustrated by the many people who do not base their beliefs in the environmental arena in any kind of grounded, scientific truth but fall back on how something is "obviously" healthier or "clearly" dangerous or different. Although there are a lot of people who favor particular environmental activities or choices because in their estimation, the evidence backs them up, many others make unfounded assertions and take a basically faith-based approach to the whole thing. Many times, the argument appears to boil down to "natural is obviously better," which is less convincing than the "God is obviously the creator of the universe" argument, because we have abundant evidence that many natural foods will kill you if you eat them and that biologists can muck about with plants to a great extent with no harm done to the person eating them. (How many common modern agricultural products would Adam and Eve recognize? Do people believe that all the changes in food over time have been accidental?)

All this being said, remember to eat your veggies! Organic, conventionally grown, raw, cooked, from frozen, from a can, from a farmer's market, from your garden, whatever. Veggies are good. With Thanksgiving coming up in a couple of days, I wonder, is pumpkin pie a vegetable? I'm thinking it's vegetable enough.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Unkindness of Silk

I was surprised to read in this description of silk farming in Cambodia that the silkworms are killed in the process - "You have to kill the silkworms before they hatch; otherwise, they'll bust the single continuous fiber, many meters long, that makes one strand of silk. So you boil them alive, or dry them on a hot metal sheet in the sun. Then you carefully unwind that single strand, and bundle it together with 40-50 other strands to make a single silk thread." It's not so much that I would have assumed that silk farming would be any kind of humane industry, especially in a phenomenally poor country, but I had never considered what was involved in making silk.

Considering that silk is much more expensive and less strong/durable than manmade fiber substitutes, I have not purchased silk clothing for myself. Reading about the cruelty aspect of silk production now gives me the opportunity to define my no-silk lifestyle as an act of moral rectitude rather than cheap-ass-hood. Of course, given that I have nearly zero credibility in the anti-animal-cruelty arena (aside from ridiculously catering to my own pet bunny's comfort, which doesn't really count), I cannot quite manage to view my pragmatic decision in that way. However, the killing silkworm angle does give yet another reason to avoid silk when cruelty-free alternatives are so easily available.

I am sufficiently concerned about animal cruelty that I wish I had the wherewithal to be a vegetarian. I'm not saying that it would be impossible for me, if I valued it more highly, but given my current state of concern about cruelty vs. the cost, inconvenience, and day-to-day health requirements, I have not done so. I don't mean that vegetarianism is unhealthy, though I think it can be harder to maintain a healthy vegetarian diet than one in which lean meat is used as a primary protein source; I just have not personally had good luck blending vegetarianism with eating adequate protein to keep my blood sugar steady. I have managed to go about two days on a vegetarian diet before crashing, and eating enough plant-based protein to keep that from happening requires a caloric intake level that guarantees weight gain, which I definitely do not need. (According to, the calories per g of protein for some common foods are: chicken breast - 5.2; tofu - 7.5; egg - 10.0; black beans - 18.5; peanut butter - 23.6.)

The issue of cost is more relevant for buying cruelty-free meat and to date, I have not made it a financial priority to do that. (Though I admit that Buddy's chicken, for example, tastes really good.) One problem for me as a consumer is that meat that is sold as cruelty-free is also touted as "natural" since it is produced without antibiotics and hormones or the use of genetically modified foods (which I either do not care about or view as sort of actively silly to be concerned about), making the product much more expensive; this means that I have to pay a premium for something I don't value. (This article, example, states that the cost of organic cattle feed is up to 30% more than genetically modified feed.)

Also, though I recognize that the costs of keeping animals in more comfortable environments than your typical factory situation are legitimately higher, I suspect that the final product sells at a price that more than offsets the true costs. It is known that "fair trade" coffee, for example, is purchased from producers by a few extra cents and then sold to consumers at much more inflated prices because buying fair trade coffee sends "two messages" to the retailer (in the words of economist Tim Harford from his book The Undercover Economist): "One message interested them very little - 'I think fair trade coffee is a product that should be supported.' The second message is the one that they were straining to hear - 'I don't really mind paying a bit extra.'" This is called "third degree price discimination" in economic jargon - finding a way to segment your customers on the basis of their willingness to pay and extracting more money from those who are willing to pay more. But I am not willing to pay more. I do not want to give away any of my consumer surplus. So unless/until I know that the people selling "natural" meat are not laughing their way to the bank at my expense, I am leery of forking over the extra money.

I am very familiar with (and never tire of marveling at) the practice of people purchasing natural, organic, etc., foods and other products as a way of telegraphing to others that they have so much money that they can easily afford to spend more on these products, although the ostensible concern is for health and the environment.

The commonly given argument that organic foods are healthier does not appear to bear up well to scientific scrutiny (e.g., a review of 400 scientific papers concludes that "While there is no doubt that organic food is more “natural” than conventional food, “natural” on the other hand does not mean benign" and "There is currently no evidence to support or refute claims that organic food is safer and thus, healthier, than conventional food, or vice versa"; see Organic Food: Buying More Safety or Just Peace of Mind? A Critical Review of the Literature. By: Magkos, Faidon; Arvaniti, Fotini; Zampelas, Antonis. Critical Reviews in Food Science & Nutrition, Jan/Feb2006, Vol. 46 Issue 1, p23-56). The environmental value of organic farming has also been called into question (see this interesting article from Australian science magazine COSMOS for a review).

I wonder how many fervent organic shoppers are simply misguided about the relative risks and benefits of conventional versus organic food and would, if the empirical evidence demonstrated conclusively that the supposed health benefits were pretty much nothing, switch back to regular groceries, and how many would continue to purchase organic for the psychological and social intangibles of status and "feeling good."

(A really fascinating example of environmentalism as status symbol is the failure of the Honda Civic hybrid vehicle to compete against the Prius, which has been shown from market research to stem from the huge problem that the Honda Civic hybrid looked too much like a normal car to exude the image of "cool" and "environmentally hip" that the Prius does. This 2004 article in the Washington Post is a must-read on the topic, though it made me very nostalgic for $2/gallon gasoline.)

Basically, I am really looking forward to a time when synthetic meat is commonly commercially available. While this may be the utter opposite of what the "natural foods" movement stands for (if some people are already living in terror of genetically modified corn and rice, lab-grown meat is likely to be especially scary, and we can count on the activist population to stir up fear, especially among the scientifically illiterate who are less capable of assessing the risks and benefits in a more-or-less rational fashion) and I don't know how relatively palatable synthetic meat would be, it would certainly simplify the moral dilemma of eating.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Nasty Example of Personal Selling

Today in marketing, we were covering a chapter on "personal selling" and the professor asked if anyone had ever worked as a telemarketer, which I and two other people had. The first guy said he only did it for two weeks. I said, "Well, I did it for three days but on the third day, I couldn't take it anymore and walked out in the middle of my shift." The other guy had also quit during his third day on the job (and made an eloquent gun-to-head gesture to put across how he felt about it).

I did not mention that right after I left, several other people - I believe the majority of those who started the job the same day I did - walked out also. We all commiserated with each other on the absolute suckitude of the job and how we were desperate in varying degrees, but not quite that desperate, for money. (I was in college and living with my parents, so the least desperate of the group, but even the single moms and such had other options they felt were preferable.) As I recall, I followed up this abortive telemarketing gig with renewed employment at Sonic Drive-In, where my sales requirements were limited to pushing the 44 oz. cherry limeade or onion rings or whatever to people who deep down really did want it and who did not, in any event, call me names when they did not.

So the professor asked me what I didn't like about it and it was surprisingly difficult to answer the question. Not that I do not remember the horrible feeling of doing something intolerable, but it was hard to break that feeling down into what were the particular aspects of the job that I disliked. So I said something like, "I hated trying to convince people who had no interest in the product that they should buy it and talking to old people who were so lonely that they asked me a hundred questions about road-side service even though they did not drive and generally feeling like I was supposed to be manipulating people into doing something they didn't want to do, and I just hated the whole dynamic. It was gruesome." Basically, I felt alternatively like an asshole or an exploiter, neither of which is a role I enjoy.

Another thing I did not say, because I didn't think of it until later, was that one reason that I hated it was that I was so bad at it. Perhaps if I had been more capable of getting that person who said that she was already up to her ears in credit card debt to accept the credit card I was pushing, it would not have felt so awful or so slimy. But maybe one has to be sort of slimy to excel in this kind of sales work. I actually think that a good bit of the sales work being done is valuable and honorable, but telemarketing is a pretty seedy enterprise. I can only imagine that the high performers in the company were not burdened with much in the way of social conscience or sensitivity to being rejected.

Which reminds me... when Robert was out of town a few weeks ago and I was more bored than usual, and Tam had been talking about Facebook and finding some of our old college friends there, I decided to google some random people I knew in high school. There was one particular guy JD (with whom I went to the prom my junior year, for those of you who know these players), who I have always been curious about but had never been able to find anything online. (Everyone who has interacted with JD knows that he is a cocky son-of-a-bitch with zero sensitivity to rejection, a Machiavellian personality, and a potentially adaptable moral compass.) I had heard through other people that he was in law enforcement in some capacity, and thought that might explain why he wanted to keep a low profile. So with low expectations, I looked him up and got a bunch of hits for a criminal lawyer in the right geographical area. For a laugh, I clicked on one of the links. Holy shit, I thought, that picture could be him if he had gained a lot of weight. College details - correct. Law enforcement background - correct. I finally found mention of a journal article he co-published with his best friend from high school which cinched the deal. So if I get stopped for a DUI over Christmas and need a sleazy lawyer to get me off, I know who to call, I guess.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Robert had shown me the basic photo on the Cute Overload site, but Tam sent me a lolbun made from it that is priceless.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Things I Believe In

In response to Tam's post on belief systems, I offer these fundamental beliefs that I cannot claim to be rational all the way down:

Some form of free will


I am not a brain in a vat

Friday, November 9, 2007

Surprisingly Excellent Customer Service

As a part of my plan this afternoon to finally do some things that I have been putting off for too long (taking advantage of the fact that I had scheduled myself until 5:00 this afternoon for my psychology exam and finished early), I went to the Bank of America web site to redeem the World Points on my credit card for the first time and discovered that I could get $120 in cash for them. But I could not figure out how to actually accomplish this - I kept being shuttled between two different pages, neither of which had any obvious place to request my money. Additionally, I discovered that an ancient credit card I had not used since 2001 was appearing on my account and I wanted to close that sucker, but again, could not figure out how to do this online. (However, I was able to make my payment for my current credit card online for the first time since my account was purchased by BOA; there was some kind of screw up in the system that meant we ex-MBNA people were unable to have full functionality for a while, as I understand it.)

So I called the 800 number and settled in for a long wait, but within two minutes, I had a human being on the phone who took care of both pieces of business in just over three minutes. Customer satisfaction is generally viewed as the result of a gap analysis of customer expectations versus experience; in this case, low expectations combined with a truly excellent experience combined to make me actually mean it when I responded with "You too" to her suggestion that I have an "exceptional weekend."

Now if only their web team could get their shit together, I'd be thrilled.

Painful Acronyms

I just finished my psychology take-home essay test (a critique of two health intervention campaigns of my choice - totalling 12 pages) and while it was perhaps not up to my highest standards, I think it was fine. My favorite part was this:

The messages were developed and final versions selected by a panel of experts. However, without input from members of the target audience, it is difficult to ensure that the content and presentation of the ideas came across as relevant, understandable, worth paying attention to, and not just the same old thing experts always say and people rarely act upon with any consistency. All twelve emails came with the same subject line – “HEALTH: Healthy Eating and Active Living Together For Health” – which is lengthy, boring, redundant, and contrived to yield a cumbersome governmental-sounding acronym that borders on self-parody; this is unlikely to grab people’s attention in their inbox as promising anything interesting, novel, or valuable that they should take the time to read.

This reminded me of how the first time I saw a US PIRG bumper sticker (I refuse to link to the idiots) on a sidewalk at Rice, I didn't know what it referred to and with Tam, created a variety of possible interpretations. The one I came up with that I still remember and enjoy was "Under stress, practice invoking relevant gods."

Last night, while lying in bed before falling asleep, I decided that the OK Department of Wildlife Conservation needs to put together a program called OUTDOORS: Outdoorspeople United Together to Develop Oklahomans' Outdoor Recreation Skills. Perhaps I should not give them any ideas.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Via Marginal Revolution, a fun site to get a visual representation of a dictionary word.

Sally generated bubbles based on "sortie, sally: a military action in which besieged troops burst forth from their position," "sally: a venture off the beaten path," and "wisecrack, crack, sally, quip: witty remark."

I did not realize that "empirical" was related in any way to "quackery" (in the medical sense).

"Psychology" yielded a very pretty flower-like shape, though the words shown were a kind of odd mix.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Half-Assed Comparison of Target and Wal-Mart Grocery Prices

The Super Target has finally opened in the greatly expanded shopping center across the highway from our apartment. (How I still wish they had gone with the obvious and ironic name Le Grande Target.) Because Robert and I had a short grocery shopping list for the week, we decided last night it was a good time to check out the Target.

Leaving out the 4 items from our receipt that I could not identify looking at it today (with 2 helpfully listed as "Kraft"), here is what we purchased, comparing prices to Wal-Mart (taken from receipts during the past month) where possible.

Leaf lettuce - $1.99 - 38% higher than WM
Asparagus - $3.49/lb - 19% higher than WM
Oroweat whole grain oatnut bread - $3.39 - 12% higher than WM
Kleenex 3 pack - $4.19 - 11% higher than WM
Brummel & Brown - $1.72 - same as WM
Aunt Jemima wheat pancake mix - $1.92 - same as WM

Dr Pepper 12 pack - $3.33 - buying 2 is 11% higher than WM's 24 pack

Italian parsley - $0.79 - 72% higher than WM's cilantro (which is generally about the same as the parsley)

Archer Farms frozen peaches - $2.79 - 45% higher than WM's store brand
Archer Farms deli turkey - $6.85/lb - 34% higher than WM (national brand, do not recall it) [I had a sandwich for lunch today and can attest that the two kinds taste very similar, but that I think I prefer the one from WM]
Archer Farms bag of salad - $2.79 - 4% higher than WM (national brand, do not recall it)

Eggs, one dozen - $1.32 - 11% lower than WM

Target had a total of two options for cayenne pepper: available in a small quantity along with a couple of other compatible spices for $5 and a normal (small-ish) jar of organic cayenne pepper for $9. This was so crazy expensive we didn't buy any.

Target also did not carry the Sun Maid golden raisins that I prefer ($2.22 for the large box at WM) so I got a bag of their Archer Farms "premium" dried cherries and golden raisins for $2.79 (for a smaller quantity). They are quite good, but not worth the extra expense.

Target and Wal-Mart both suck in their selection of peanut oil. Robert did not buy any at WM the last time because they only had a large bottle; however, Target sells a small bottle for about the same price ($7.54), which we did buy.

Target did come through on a couple of things that are not stocked at the Wal-Mart: Morningstar Farms mini corn dogs (which WM used to sell but not anymore) - $2.99, Buitoni whole wheat tortellini - $2.99, and a box of oat bran (carried only very briefly by WM and that we have been buying at HEB for $2.49) - $2.64.

Wal-Mart prices were not available for: Morningstar Farms breakfast sausage ($2.99), Campbell's Healthy Request Cream of Celery soup ($0.92 on sale), Smuckers jelly ($2.49), Polaner sugar free preserves ($2.99).

Overall, the store appears to be geared toward people who want fast, semi-upscale-seeming meals and snacks, while the selection of "ingredient" type foods for putting meals together is limited compared to Wal-Mart. (For instance, Robert pointed out the laughably small canned vegetable and fruit section.) However, they have a number of quite tasty-looking (but not particularly healthy) prepared foods that would be easy to take home in lieu of stopping at a restaurant or fast food joint.

The Archer Farms house brand was absolutely everywhere. They offer an impressive array of frozen foods, snacks, dessert mixes, etc., for somewhat more money than the more prosaic versions at Wal-Mart (I didn't compare any of the Archer Farms with the national brands stocked by Target, though this side-by-side would be easy enough to do on many of the items). Robert thought that the Target's produce looked fresher than we typically see at Wal-Mart, but because shopping on a Monday night is such a rarity, it's hard to know whether this is a function of the timing since restocking. Target's produce definitely comes at a premium. In general, prices were higher, except for a few national brand items, where they matched Wal-Mart precisely.

In the check out line, we were behind a couple purchasing two frozen pizzas and a baking mix (for making brownies or some kind of sweet), which seems like a very 'typical' consumer, based on the kinds of products that are available.

They are sort of evil with their endcaps, promoting their house brand chocolates and other high calorie treats (that no doubt have nice, high markups). We heard one girl calling to her mom, who was looking at items in the aisle, "Mommy, look what I found" over and over; she had found a bunch of candy positioned at kiddy eye level at the end of the aisle.

The woman at the deli who sliced our turkey took forever to do the job; she was slow to come to the counter to help us and then it was almost impossible to believe that a person could work so slowly in doing the slicing. (At one point, Robert whispered, "Look, we're up to 0.65 pounds!" and I was sort of relieved.) I can only hope that it was her first day on the job.

We are not going to be replacing Wal-Mart with Target as our primary grocery store, for a combination of primarily price and secondarily selection, though it will be a good place to pick up items that aren't available at Wal-Mart and for the occasional something different. (Or as Robert put it, "This won't be our fast ball, but it will make for a change up.")

The Barking Dog Test For Divergence

Let me out of this damn box, you jerk!
Several people in my calculus class continue to have difficulty understanding the implications of the Nth Term Test, which states that if the limit as n approaches infinity of the nth term of the series does not = 0, the series diverges. Again and again, people interpret this to mean that if the limit is 0, that the series converges. (They do seem to understand why having a limit of 0 is a necessary condition for the series to converge.) However, a limit that = 0 tells you nothing about the convergence or divergence of the series.

Fundamentally, people are confusedly thinking that to fail to disprove something is the same as to confirm it. This is a not uncommon logic problem.

During class, I thought of an analogy to the Nth Term Test that I will call the Barking Dog Test.

A storage container/enclosed box has either a cat or dog in it, and it is your job to identify whether it is a cat or dog, and if it is a cat, what specific kind (so that, say, the boxes of various types of cats can be placed in the correct location in your storage facility and the boxes of dogs can be sent to another facility that deals in dogs).

There are many different, sometimes complex ways to determine if the animal is a cat, and what kind of cat, but one easy way to see if the animal is definitely a dog, not a cat. We will use the fact that no cat will ever respond with a bark when offered the opportunity to go on a walk; a cat will always remain silent (Bark = 0).

If you say to the animal in the box, “Do you want to go on a walk? Huh? Huh?” and the animal responds with a bark (Bark does not = 0), then the animal is a dog, not any kind of cat, and no further testing needs to be done.

However, if the animal responds with silence (Bark = 0), it is still unknown whether it is a cat or a dog. It could be some sort of cat but could also be a dog who is deaf, mute, asleep, or just uninterested in walks. To distinguish between these possibilities, you will need to apply your other methods. All the Barking Dog Test tells you is that if the animal barks (Bark not = 0), it is definitely a dog.

Similarly, if the limit of the nth term does not = 0, the series is definitely divergent. Otherwise, you need to check for convergence using other tests.

(Please note, the Barking Dog Test is not to be confused with either the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Test or the Shroedinger’s Cat Test, neither of which are applicable to the cat/dog sorting job you have been hired to do. You can muck around with mystery novels and quantum physics on your own damn time.)

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Open Letter: Economics Version

Tam linked to an open letter written by a linguistics professor bemoaning the misconceptions and ignorance of the general populace who yet believe that they are qualified to make statements about language (or psychology or whatever). Robert helped me write a version of this letter including some commonly held and expressed beliefs about economics which, incidentally, the average linguistics professor is perhaps even more likely to endorse and pontificate on at length to like-minded friends at dinner parties or in restaurants than the typical American (who, frankly, would rather talk about why their favored football team was screwed this weekend).

What is worse: the average person who thinks they know something about economics or the average professor, who spent a multitude of years learning the nuances of a field and currently engages in high level research in this field and is sensitive to the fact that the common person is unlikely to have the background to even grasp the basics, but thinks that everything that needs to be known about economics can be expressed in a politician's talking points? I don't mean to pick on the writer of the original letter - for all I know, he is properly circumspect about the fact that he knows jack-all about economics, or perhaps he actually knows something about the field starting with which is the demand curve and which is the supply curve and what is the definition of economic efficiency - but reading his comments really reminded me of how many highly educated people seem to treat economics as something dirty that others use to get rich and exploit the masses rather than a legitimate field of inquiry.

Of course, economics is a weird topic in that it is so high profile in politics and hence viewed as a matter of what "should" be true rather than what is. People do not welcome the harsh message that having people with the right letter after their name on the ballot elected is not sufficient to overcome economic reality.

And given the strange way that various political beliefs cluster together, people often accept a whole package of beliefs together without bothering to be informed beyond absorbing and parrotting what other people like themselves say. Many things that superficially make sense are not actually true. (For instance, if people did not know differently from experience, might they not agree that it would "make sense" for water to be more expensive than diamonds, because water is so critical to human life and diamonds aren't of much use?) And since human beings are basically brilliant at making things make sense, while also being frequently intellectually lazy or influenced to believe things through non-rational means without realizing it, it's easy for politicians, ideologues, activists, and self-interested assholes of various stripes to sell people on ideas that have a surface plausibility about them.

So on to the letter:

Dear [□ Sir / □ Madam / □ Representative / □ Journalist / □ Linguistics Professor],

I know you believe you know a great deal about economics simply because you have a job and buy stuff or because you've read a newspaper article about outsourcing.

But please understand that the issues in this field are far more complicated than you realize. For instance, the field isn't all about the power of the haves over the have nots. Those of us practicing in the field spend much of our time reading articles, synthesizing facts, and seeking a deeper understanding of market forces.

I'm not saying that you can't have an opinion until you've memorized An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations —in fact, most of the people in our field have never done that. But we'd appreciate it if you either consult an expert, or educate yourself a little more by taking a course or two so that you have a basic understanding of what's going on in the field*, before you confidently proclaim that foreigners are stealing American jobs, the trade deficit is one of our greatest problems, Wal-Mart is one of our greatest problems, 0% unemployment should be our goal, cheap imports are destroying American industry, increasing teachers' salaries will solve America's education problem, or Europe has everything figured out so we should do what they do.

Thank you for your time.

Yours,[□ __________(your name here)__________]

*Note: To my mind, it is an open question whether taking a typical principles of economics course in a university actually increases economic literacy and if so, to what extent. I think it's possible that there is too much focus on doing the math and not enough time spent on the fundamental concepts for most people to actually get a lot out of it. I feel fairly confident that (non-AP) high school economics classes are mostly useless - too much "5 page paper on the economy of Paraguay, including primary industries and most common exports and imports" or Junior Achievement stuff.

Marketing Exam #3

I actually cheered out loud when I saw my grade on the web site just now - I pulled off a 92.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Image - Halloween Edition

Following Tam's lead, I searched on my first name in Google Images and the first one was this fan drawing of Sally from the beloved Nightmare Before Christmas movie:

A billion years ago, Robert and I went on a date to see that film in the theater and ever since, I have kept the obvious Jack and Sally Halloween costume idea in my head for when we really need a good one in a situation that merits putting some effort into the thing.

Others: a very young Sally Field, a boat, mandolin sheet music for "Sally Goodin," and the character Sally from the movie Cars (which I have not seen, but which sort of surprises me is a Porsche and not a Mustang).

Less thrillingly, my full name returns the photo and promotional page of an ex-model turned TV commercial actress that no one will mistake for me.