Two Topics I’m Following

In the last several months a couple topics have piqued my interest much more than I previously imagined they would.

(1) Conflict in Ukraine:  My initial attraction to Ukraine’s plight stems from my genealogical connection–my mom’s grandparents emigrated from there.  But it’s grown beyond that as I’ve watched the Euromaidan and subsequent war unfold.

Along the way I’ve learned about the history, people, culture, economy, religion, and politics in the region.  Eighteen months ago I knew very little about any of it.  I’m hardly an expert now, but I do know something.

I follow a large Twitter list to keep up on all the news, and am engage in discussion/debate at a couple forums (I’m Velo Vol).

Although the War in Eastern Ukraine receives only intermittent U.S. news media coverage, it’s one of the important foreign policy issues we face. This doesn’t have the ideological makeup of Cold War 2.0, as some have described it.  But it does jeopardize Eastern European stability.

(2) Research on the human microbiome: This, too, has a personal angle.  I have psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disorder which is not well understood at all.  We don’t know what causes it, what triggers the inflammation, why drugs to relieve symptoms work (or more often, don’t work) . . . it’s a big mystery.

But there’s a growing body of research linking these kinds of diseases to the microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, where most of the immune system resides.

For example, one small study shows that people with psoriatic arthritis have below normal levels of multiple intestinal bacteria.

Of course correlation does not equal causation, and we’re years away from translating these discoveries into new therapies, much less a cure.  But this kind of thing gives me hope that we’ll someday get there.  So I like to keep up on research news.

The Inverted U-Shaped Curve

Does more always mean better?  If devoting resource x to a social undertaking is good, shouldn’t x+1 be better?  And x+2 better still?

Not necessarily, argues Malcolm Gladwell in this talk at Microsoft regarding inverted U-shaped curves.

Humans intuitively visualize a linear-shaped model, where the more we input toward a desired outcome, the better.  In some cases, the slope may flatten the further you go (diminishing marginal returns), but it’s still going upward.

But with an inverted U-shaped curve, there is a point where the slope starts pointing downward.  In other words, allocating more resources toward a problem not only ceases to be helpful, it actually makes outcomes worse.

Gladwell elaborates on two examples to illustrate this phenomenon: school class size and imprisonment.

There’s a general public consensus that students learn better in smaller classes–and to some extent, they do.  But, according to Gladwell, when classes get smaller than 20 or so students, the benefit disappears.  A couple theories as to why are that class discussions suffer with fewer participants, and student peer support declines when there are too classmates.

The model is even more counter-intuitive when it comes to crime and punishment.  Isn’t society always better when it keeps criminals locked up?  Perhaps not, if you imprison too many people for too long.  The problem is that although they may not be great role models, prisoners often have dependents.  And if you remove too many fathers from their children, it can be detrimental to the community, perpetuating the cycle of crime.  Moreover, people are much less likely to commit crime once they reach their 40s.  So long sentences for some crimes–e.g., drug offenses–are an increasingly inefficient allocation of resources over time.

Gladwell cites a few more examples of this in the Q&A session–e.g., wealth and happiness. In fact, he goes so far as to state that it’s difficult to think of a case where the linear model is more useful than the U-shaped model.

What do we take from this?   That often there can be too much of a good thing.  We need to systematically monitor outcomes to ensure resources are being used efficiently.  And lastly, there’s wisdom in the adage: “Everything in moderation.”

Tracking Mind-Wandering

Does your mind stray? Do you daydream often?

I do, or at least it seems like I do. But according to this Matt Killingsworth TED talk, people think about something other than what they’re doing 47% of the time. So maybe I’m not unique in that regard.

Is mind-wandering a good or bad thing?  If a diverted focus causes you to be less productive, or worse, have an accident, it can clearly be detrimental.

But what if it doesn’t alter your performance? What if your mind strays, but it doesn’t change you outwardly? What inward impact might it have?

According to Killingsworth’s research, the effect tends to be slightly negative on people’s mood:

While most people think of mind-wandering as a lifting escape from daily drudgery, the Track Your Happiness data shows that this may not the case. In fact, mind-wandering appears to be correlated with unhappiness. When people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling happy only 56% of the time. Meanwhile, when they were focused on the present moment, they reported feeling happy 66% of the time. This effect was true regardless of the activity the person was doing — be it waiting in a traffic jam or eating a delicious dinner.

In my opinion, Killingsworth’s presentation over-dramatizes the impact mind wandering has on happiness scores.  For those thinking about something pleasant (other than their present activity), the happiness scores are virtually the same.  The scores for those mind-wandering on neutral thoughts is only slightly lower (59% versus 66%).  Only those dwelling on unpleasant topics had a significantly lower happiness scores than those focusing on the present (42% versus 66%).

It’s not surprising to hear that people are less upbeat when they are stressing out over something negative.

Nonetheless, this is interesting research and a reminder that sometimes being occupied with your work (or play) is a good way to mentally crowd out unnecessary anxiety.

Trumpet Solo: “Panis Angelicus”

I play the trumpet, at the intermediate level. Here I am recently performing at church:

I frequently accompany congregational hymns at church.  But I don’t often perform as a soloist, which is quite different, according to my nerves. There’s nothing to hide behind when you’re center stage.

“Panis Angelicus” is a hymn originally written by St. Thomas Aquinas.  César Franck composed this version of the hymn, often called “O Lord Most Holy,” in 1872.

Watching Tennessee Football From The Sky

On 31 August 2014, I attended the University of Tennessee’s season opener against Utah State.  I had a rare treat: a friend hooked me up with a skybox pass.  A few pictures from the evening.

Pride of the Southland Band pregame march

I arrived at the stadium (after a lengthy walk) about 1 hour 40 minutes before kickoff. The sky was threatening rain, but it was still dry.

A sea of orange

An hour before the game I met my friend at Gate 26 (the east side skyboxes).  It was starting to sprinkle.  I had my ticket scanned, walked a few feet to the elevators, and was whisked up to the fifth level.

Looking east toward downtown from the fifth level

The skybox area is considerably less crowded than the stadium.  There’s a large common foyer area in the middle where hosts serve free snacks, salads, desserts, and drinks.  It’s much better than the concession stands.

A rain shower rolled through about 40 minutes before kickoff.  It remained dry in the box.

Rain shower

The rain stopped after several minutes, and it remained dry for most of rest of the night.

Pride of the Southland Band pregame performance

Tennessee Volunteers running through the “T”

Our skybox had a sink, counter space, and a refrigerator (not pictured).

Inside the skybox

With Keith, my college roommate

I enjoyed watching the game above the unwashed masses.  My only issue is that you feel somewhat removed from the stadium experience, particularly the sounds.  A few minutes into the first quarter we opened the one window that you can open, and that allowed some noise in, but it still seemed detached from the stands.

Apart from that, it was an enjoyable experience.  I’d love to do it again.

Adopting A Single Global Time Zone

Matthew Yglesias argues in favor of abolishing time zones.

Time zones are a recent creation. Through most of human history, time was kept locally, based on the solar noon.  This worked well enough, as long as most people stayed put.  Or if they traveled, traveled slowly.

But by the mid-1800s, thanks to the railroad and telegraph,  people were communicating and traveling much greater distances in a day.  Now local time differences were much more noticeable, as this table illustrates:


Comparative Time Table

Dinsmore (1857) – Dinsmore’s American Railroad and Steam Navigation Guide and Route-Book

You can see, for example, that the time in Knoxville, TN, was 12 minutes later than it was in Nashville, TN.

The table claims this is an “easy calculation,” but it seems like a hassle to me.  And it was for the people living then, too.  So in 1884 international representatives agreed upon an international system of  standardized time based on the Greenwich Meridian.

Although our current time system is much simpler than before, it still has quirks, as this video amusingly highlights:

If you’re a computer programmer who has to account for time differences, or a frequent traveler, or someone who routinely communicates over long distances, the two dozen plus time zones are confusing.  Thus the above proposal to eliminate all the time zones in favor of a single, universal time.

But most people don’t conduct much business over great distances.  The bulk of their daily interaction is local.  The present time zone arrangement is only an occasional nuisance.  It’s a (seemingly) bigger hassle to adapt to a “new” system of time.  Which is why I don’t foresee this change coming anytime soon.

I’m in the minority of people who are in favor of a single time zone.  It’s more rational, but admittedly it’s not without its drawbacks.

For me, the most difficult adjustment would be with the changing of the civil day. Whereas now the day ends at midnight local time, under a universal time zone, it would end at various stages of the solar day, depending on your location.  If GMT was adopted as the standard, the calendar day in the Eastern United States  would end at what is currently 7 p.m. This would feel odd, particularly during the summer, when it’s still daylight out.

At any rate, it’s interesting to occasionally examine the systems that govern our lives, such as time zones.