Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fallacy of Aggregating Experiences

A cursory observation of the busy streets of New York would reveal a multitude of satisfied people going about their rather enjoyable lives. Everyone seems to have places to see and people to meet, and most people seem to be comfortable with their fortunes. Though one would occasionally notice a beggar sitting on the floor, a blind man calling for help, or a vagrant missing a limb, these few outliers are not numerous enough to substantially reduce the average standard of living. Reports of tragedy frequently sprinkle the radio waves, but the volume of these adverse occurrences pale in comparison to those reported in the annals of history. When the modernized world is taken as a whole it is quite clear that people living in the twenty first century are living far better lives than those of their ancestors.

Making a comparison between the standard of living from one generation to another or from one population to another requires zooming out of individual biographies and instead observing the panorama of collective experiences. Selecting one individual from each population would not be sufficient to fulfill the purpose of collective comparison. It would be possible that those randomly chosen individuals would not be a fair representation of the rest of people. Therefore, large pools of people must be gathered, and special parameters and statistics must be calculated in order to gain insights into overall levels of well being. These numbers can then be compared with various populations and generations in order to glean valid conclusions. Essentially, for comparison purposes, it is the aggregate experiences that are important and not the individual ones.

Sampling and statistics generally follow the anecdotal observation that people are enjoying a far better standard of living today than ever before. However, although these sampling techniques work well to compare populations, the information gleaned may be misused, and result in false conclusions. The aggregate numbers seem to describe the aggregate feelings of populations. However, though aggregate feelings may look good on paper, they are never experienced in actuality. A population is not its own sentient being. Only the individual people can experience happiness or misery. Aggregating all the happiness or misery of a few people does not result in a more happy or more miserable population. Because the experience is localized to the individuals, it is not possible for a fantastic level of aggregate happiness or misery to be reached. Therefore, these aggregating techniques must be looked at as nothing more than calculations of the probability of any given individual being happy or miserable. A valid conclusion would give better odds for picking a person with a high standard of living out of a modern population than out of an ancient population. Though these conclusions are informative, they seem a lot less meaningful.

The fallacy of aggregating experiences is commonly used to compare populations and to evaluate tragedies. Economic indicators of prosperity are taken as signs that people are all happy, but economic indicators of recession are indicative of people that are all depressed. It is common to conclude that times of economic prosperity are better than times of economic slumber. One would often look back in the history books and pity those time periods of hardship and envy those periods of plentiful. But this conclusion is not valid. The population doesn't receive a dose of endorphins or feel a thrill of economic prosperity, and the economy is not crying when the unemployment rate climbs. Rather, individuals cheer when they close a deal, and workers sob when they lose their jobs. The probability of being in one state or another is effected by the population measures, but the individual experiences are still localized. People who close million dollar deals in the middle of recessions are no less elated than they would have been in the middle of an expansion. Similarly, homeless people are not interested if unemployment fell to near zero. Experiences of pleasure or misery are dependent on the conditions of the individuals. To consider aggregate data to be an experience of the population would be committing a fallacy.

The broad observation of standard of living may be useful for calculating probabilities, but it doesn't paint a picture of any aggregate feelings. The few individuals that live in abject poverty cannot be ignored. Their experience of frustration is no less real than the beggars of previous generations, and the prosperity of others doesn't average out their pain. The tragedies of lost loved ones reported in the news are no less painful for their relatives than those who witnessed mass murders in the past. Experience is in the minds of individuals, and experiences cannot be aggregated for better or for worse.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

You Never Know

The world is full of uncertainties. From little things like the weather to big things like the state of the economy, unpredictable circumstances surround us everywhere we go. Although we can't avoid uncertainties, we can develop an intuition with probabilities that can accompany logic in our quest to make the best possible decisions. We don't give up on logic altogether because it can't work a hundred percent of the time. Rather, we use logic to its limits and rely on our intuition for that shred of uncertainty that will never be completely removed.

An alternative to the preservation of logic for its limited use is the rejection of logical analysis entirely. Some people face the world as a completely chaotic and uncertain jumble, and instead of using their unsatisfactory reasoning skills they invoke the anti-logic or the logical suicide. Some take risky hobbies for ephemeral thrills without thought of the consequences, and others live unhealthy lifestyles giving no credence to medical research. Still others make minor uninformed decisions or buy into speculative investments. All of these people share the common underlying anti-logic: You never know. Although logic is a fine tool in places where it can yield a comprehensive solution, in cases of uncertainty it is completely useless. You can argue for years with all the logical reason the world has to offer, but no amount of solid logic can come close to denting the armor of this solid anti-logic. Whatever models you may construct and whatever statistics you may collect, in the end of the day you can never really know anything.

This most powerful form of anti-logic has presented itself on numerous occasions over the course of my life. I find that the temptation for me to fall prey to this motto is felt strongest when make decisions related to dating and investing. I frequently compare the decision of which girls to date to the decision of which companies to invest in. When I first hear of a girl that would be a potential match for me I usually have the same feeling as when I first discover an interesting company while browsing the Internet. In both of these situations I have absolutely no idea of what may come of these discoveries. Logical reasoning is waiting in the background, and the illogical exuberance races to the foreground. This girl may be the one for me. The share price of that company could triple by next year leaving me financially independent. I come very close to immediately offering a date to this girl, and I must hold myself back from throwing my hard earned money into this random stock. I must wait for some logic to gain control of the decision process.

After taking a deep breath I begin to think logically. I analyze each situation carefully. I peruse through the girls profile and I realize that she is older than me. This alone is not the end of the world, but I continue to realize potential problems. The girl seems judgemental, materialistic, overly spiritual, and demanding. She seems to have all the qualities of someone that I don't socialize with, and she describes her perfect spouse as someone who I clearly cannot relate to. My exuberance subsides and I am ready to disregard the idea in its entirety.

A similar mental path is taken regarding my potential investment opportunities. I start looking at the companies financials. I notice a P/E ratio of 50, a PEG ratio of 3.5, and profit margins of 5%. The company seems to operate in a highly competitive industry, and the company seems completely overpriced. The next company has its own problems. This one has a net loss, a declining share price, heavy competition, and a management that is falling apart. I have lots of money to invest and I am very eager to yield a large return on my investment. However, the logical circuits in my brain conclude that it is probably much wiser for me to save my money for another opportunity.

At this point my brain is teased by the powers of anti-logic. I am about to make a logically informed decision but something very powerful is holding me back. I can never be sure. I know many men who have married older women, and I may be misjudging this girls personality. I can't know for certain unless I go out with her. This may be the perfect girl for me, and I would be passing her up simply because I have some logical hypothesis. I might as well go out because I can never know for certain unless I do. Similarly, regarding my company under scrutiny, I may be passing up the investment of a lifetime. Many companies have gone from rags to riches overnight, and I can't be sure that this is not one of them. The company that seems overpriced may be valued that way for a reason. Its share price may continue going up. And that company that has a declining share price may be just about ready to start turning around. The management can be fixed and the margins can improve. Though all these things are counter intuitive, I can never really know where the stock price will go. After all the logical analysis is complete, I still may be passing up a great company. I might as well just buy a few shares in order not to feel bad when the company actually does succeed.

No matter how solid one's logical reasons are they can fall prey to the "you never really know" anti-logic. Though this feeling may seem compelling, it is very important to withstand its temptations. Once while tutoring a college student in statistics I mentioned about the improbable chances of winning the lottery. I clearly demonstrated that winning the lottery is basically impossible from a probability perspective, and if one is willing to buy a ticket for the one in a million chance of actually winning, the same person should avoid driving a car because of the one in a million chance of it being picked up by a tornado. Though I made the point very clearly, the student was convinced that winning the lottery was still a possibility. Though it may be incredibly improbable, those who created the lottery have tapped into our inner anti-logic. You can only know for certain that you won't win if you don't play the game. But if you have nothing more than a one in a million chance of winning, it may still be worth a shot because in the end of the day, no matter how logical something may sound, you never know.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's Not Fair!

Though many of us may start life with the ideal that all people are equal, I doubt few of us were fortunate enough to graduate first grade still holding on to such a naive approach to life. Upon being subjected to the basic misfortunes that we all learn to live with, most of us begin to realize that life is just not fair. Some people seem to always have the best of fortune and other people seem to be dealt a bad hand of cards. Most of us would suggest that a fair world would be the ideal kind, but in reality, for whatever reason, the demons of injustice seem to have the ball in their court. However, closer examination suggests that the nature of our world is a perfect reflection of what most people honestly consider ideal.

Though most people seem to espouse the idea of all people being equal, it seems highly unlikely for even one person to actually feel this way on a personal level. The spreading of all the pleasures and sorrows of life in a perfectly fair manner may objectively seem like a worthy goal. However, how many people live in the world of the objective? Looking at the world through the glasses of anything other than a human being can lead to false and deceptive conclusions. Ideals must be thought of in the context of a subjective human experience if they are to relate to reality in a truthful and pragmatic manner. Don't look at the world as a large reality that happens to be populated with humans, and instead think of the world as the frame of reference for a given individual human. With a purely subjective and human observation of the world it seems obvious to me that a fair and even spread of life's assets is quite far from what is considered ideal.

An exercise in subjectivity reveals the fallacy of this parity. Put yourself in your own shoes for a few minutes, and think if you would prefer if all people would be equal. Imagine yourself winning the lottery, and think of all the work that other people can do in order to partake in your prize. You can walk through the streets of the city and browse the sites of the web while exercising your debit card in a purchasing frenzy, and others are toiling for their bread by supporting your every whim. Does this reality of yours sound fair? I don't believe it does. But do you find it wrong? I don't believe you do. You probably think that the world is a big place and it's not that bad if one human has a free ride. If this is the case, where has your desire for a fair world gone? Apparently, a fair world takes second priority to a world where all of your wildest desires are satisfied. Your altruistic desire for the equality of people has dried up the second you have been dealt a load of fortune.

Now, instead of thinking of yourself as a lottery winner, think of yourself as an acquaintance of one. Someone who worked with you in the office has just hit a major jackpot. On the outside you are full of excitement for your colleague, but on the inside you are overflowing with envy. You play the lottery every week and he just happened to buy one with his extra change. It's not fair! If only life was fair. If only you could have won the lottery as well. But you realize that you don't wish for both of you to win the lottery. After all, if everyone won the lottery their would be no use in the money. You are upset because you would have preferred to win the lottery instead of him. The whole purpose for you to win the lottery would be for you to be able to sit back and relax while everyone continued working to satisfy your needs. You don't wish for the world to be a fair place. You only wish the world would be more unfair with results that treat you favorably.

With the proper perspective it becomes obvious why the world is naturally such an unfair place. In reality nobody really cares for a fair world. Though the unfortunate may lament the ills of an unfair world, they must realize that they by no means take what they say to heart. By playing the lottery they are acknowledging the fact that the ideal world is an unfair world. Though this world may bring many to misfortune, most people are willing to risk living in such a world as long as they are given the chance to be on the fortunate end. The unfair nature of life is nothing more than a reflection of the will of the human race.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How Did This Happen?

What's with this?

Either the end of the world has finally arrived or Google finance is having some serious trouble.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Shidduch System vs. Job Market

Nobody likes uncertain and disorderly systems. Humans are known to be risk averse, and people generally prefer one bird in the hand to two birds in the bush. However, when engaging in any sort of matching process, a sizable amount of nondeterministic randomness inevitably results. Although people tend to avoid situations that must lead to disorganized matching processes, such situations are unavoidable as they present themselves in the shidduch system and the job markets. It is the underlying nondeterminism in both of these processes which causes them to be such painful experiences for those who must endure them.

The purpose of the shidduch is to match an appropriate man with an appropriate women in order to hopefully lead to a successful marriage. There are many different venues for finding men and women of marriageable age, and many different kinds of matching techniques. After using the proper methods it is hoped that a match will result. Many people enter the process full of optimism, and they put their faith in their particular form of shidduch system. However, after months and years of failed attempts at finding a proper spouse, it is quite common to become disenchanted with shidduch methods. It is very normal to lambaste "the shidduch system" as a complete failure, and more often than not one will put forward a whole plethora of patches and tweaks that would likely be of benefit to the flawed process. Sometimes these supposedly constructive measures are carried out, but in most situations the disgruntled shidduch dater will just continue to moan for the duration of the process.

What ends up happening to the long-term shidduch daters? Of course those who are married within a few months of dating are considered great successes. In fact, those people don't give much thought to "the shidduch system" altogether, and they go about there daily lives pondering their next milestones. However, those who remain in the system too long become bitter and dejected, and they begin to loathe shidduchim in general. The longer they remain single the longer they ponder the ills of the system.

This process continues until some solution occurs. The first solution occurs when the person eventually finds his or her long awaited lifelong partner. At this point an interesting transformation takes place in the persons mind. Whether the system remains a soar memory of torture or if the system becomes a fond memory of character building, the shidduch system in the end of the day transforms into nothing more than an interesting memory. Given a few months, the topic will no longer enter the conscious mind. Another more pitiful solution occurs when the individual leaves the shidduch market. A decision is made that marriage is not worth the bother, and single life is a fine alternative to life as a couple. People such as these may become abject and crestfallen, or they may truly find comfort in their life altering choice. Either way, they will continue to display an antipathy for shidduchim, and will encourage people to find comfort in what on the outside seems to be a failure of a life. Given enough time, everyone exits the system and gives no more thought to how it can be improved. Passion moves on to the next agenda.

Although shidduch matching may seem like a very unique kind of process, it shows a striking resemblance to the job market. Like shidduchim, most people have an optimistic outlook while entering the employment search. A job resume is constructed in the same way a shidduch profile is created. And much like shidduchim the job market can take a serious toll on the mental health of job seekers. There are always those people who find jobs right out of college, and such people give little thought to the whole concept of employment search. But most people find themselves searching for months for the right job. Over time, the unemployed begin to lose hope in finding employment. Many people become depressed about the situation of the economy, and some even put forward methods for fixing the system.

What ends up happening with the unemployed? People who are unemployed for a long time become less and less convinced of ever finding a job. The longer they wait the more they detest the job market. But in the end of the day almost all of the unemployed become employed. Some people eventually find their dream job. To these people the job market rapidly becomes a distant memory. Other people take sub par jobs and continue to detest the job market. Still other people go back to school and develop new skills in order to find a new job. It is common to settle for a pay cut and lower one's standard of living as well. When all is said and done, the options are employment, disability, or death. Most people end up choosing employment from that short list of options.

The shidduch system and the job market are similar in a very fundamental way. Both of these systems represent a matching process. A direct result of this is nondeterministic randomness. This is a large source of anguish to human beings. We would prefer to see clear results from actions taken. But in both the shidduch system and the job market it is very common to find two people with identical resumes yielding completely different outcomes. This fundamental nature of these systems cannot be changed and no tweak in the system will make it fair. Those who succeed can either praise the system or ignore it, and those who fail will criticize the methods and occupy their minds with the topic. But there can be no fix to either of these nondeterministic random systems.

What can one do to prevent failure in the shidduch system? It seems that the situation is quite bleak for those who find themselves single at an older age. Many think they have a solution for the system, and others eventually give up trying altogether. However, the solution to the problem involves the main difference between the shidduch system and the job market. When a person fails in finding a shidduch he or she frequently blames the system, but when someone can't find a job he or she works on improving the probabilities. The solution to a personal shidduch crisis seems to be a matter of mathematics and probability. The people that find shidduchim within the first month of dating are very eligible shidduch material. They are usually normal people that may easily be set up with an equally normal mate. In theory, those who are most normal are compatible with the most people and will have the easiest time finding a shidduch. However, those who are unique for better of for worse will have a hard time finding an equally unique individual. There just happen to be fewer people that would be compatible with such a person. Similarly, in the job market there are people with marketable skills and there are people with very specific skills. Those who have the most marketable skills find a job the fastest while those with the more specific kind find themselves searching in a niche market.

Both the shidduch dater and the job seeker can increase their chances of finding what they want by becoming more marketable and less specific. The unemployed typically go back to school or settle for sub par work until they have what it takes to find a proper job. Those who have obsolete skills must learn new ones, and those with specific skills must learn some more universal ones. In this manner job seekers will almost always eventually find a job. A shidduch dater should be doing the same thing if he or she hopes to reduce the amount of time necessary to find a match. Becoming more marketable may mean improving ones appearance, social skills, or financial position to the point where they have reached the realm of normal people, or it may entail mingling with the lowly folks, eating fatty food, watching sports, or drinking beer in an attempt to lower ones self to the realm of normal people. Of course, the latter would involve a compromise comparable to those who settle for a sub par job. It may be necessary to give shidduch profiles to those who you would rather not ask for help from in the same way job seekers ask for job assistance from people they are normally uncomfortable approaching. Sometimes sacrifices must be made if one would like to increase the probabilities of successfully navigating through the shidduch system in a timely manner.

While such sacrifices are frequently made in the job market, people rarely feel like taking such measures while involved with shidduchim. People feel better blaming "the system" and not working on solving the problem. In the end of the day everyone needs food, and that is why people make the job market work. Although the same measures may be taken regarding the shidduch market, too many people see a single life as a plausible option, and they therefore choose the easy way out.

The shidduch system and the job market both suffer from the same fundamental problem. Any fix to the system would do nothing to change the underlying nature of the nondeterministic random process. Unique individuals, for better of for worse, will have a hard time finding an appropriate match. These people can spend a long time searching until they find the object of their dreams. However, both shidduch daters and job seekers have the opportunity of becoming more marketable individuals, and by doing that they can potentially decrease the amount of time in the matching market.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chol Hamoed Pesach Trips - 2011

Although this years Chol Hamoed Pesach had only one full week day, I still managed to fill every moment of the time I had with the traditional holiday adventures. In previous years, my brothers and I would make a point of visiting the same places, and we would find pleasure in following what resembles a sort of Chol Hamoed field trip seder. This traditional itinerary would allow us to find pleasures in the simple things of life, and it would also result in less of a heartache in deciding exactly which excursions would maximize our holiday spirit. Naturally, it is the pictures taken to document the journey that make the outings much more worthwhile.

I enjoy snapping photographs of scenic discoveries, and this year was no different than any other year. However, this year there were certain pictures that I had to have in order to feel as if I had fulfilled the Positive Commandment of enjoying my holiday of Pesach. Having concrete goals is very important, and it can save a lot of storage in both your camera and hard drive if you are certain of which pictures are absolutely necessary. On the first day of Chol Hamoed I woke up bright and early and my two younger brothers and I prepared the car for a ride to the Bronx Zoo. The Bronx Zoo is not one of our traditional Pesach points of interests, but it has been a long time since we had been there and my brother just happened to really want to go there for some unknown reason. I was not terribly excited to be in an outdoor park on a pretty chilly day, but with my camera in hand I was all eyes. Immediately upon arrival I began carefully observing and photographing the various animals in there various habitats. I was very busy taking pictures, and it didn't even occur to me at first that I was really looking at live wild animals that are rarely seen in New York City.

These tigers are really large and it looked really cool the way they seemed to engage in peaceful dialog.

Not all animals are as peaceful, and one of the most thrilling sights of the day was this bear fight. A true grizzly sight.

On a more beautiful note, we witnessed a peacock open up and show its true colors.

We also witnessed a gorilla stand upright like a human.

A last but not least, I believe this is the celebrity Egyptian Cobra that escaped the zoo a few weeks ago.

Although the Jews never returned to slavery in Egypt, this Egyptian Cobra (now named MIA by its fan club) was not as fortunate to remain free.

On the next day of Chol Hamoed we did not have much time to do anything exciting. I am assuming most people were probably at a loss when it came to fun ideas for a Friday afternoon. However, this is where the concept of traditional visits to holiday destinations came in handy. On the second day of Chol Hamoed I went with my father and my two younger brothers to visit our families favorite tree.

Although this may look like any ordinary tree, we have visited this amazingly cool climbing tree almost every single Pesach Chol Hamoed since I was about 11 years old. Aside from being an awesome tree, visiting this tree year after year has turned an ordinary walk in the park into an amazing adventure.

And finally, today we made our yearly trip to the annual international car show in New York City at the Jacob Javits Center. I am not extremely knowledgeable of cars, but this place is really worthy of an annual visit. I first took a look at some of the normal cars, and inspected all the various gadgets. It is interesting to see how many different ways it's possible to adjust a drivers seat. Once I felt as if I had been sitting in enough cars that I felt as if I was just hoping into a taxi, I made my way to the expensive and extravagant automobiles in order to have some fresh footage for this years trek.

Here are the cool and expensive Ferraris and Bugatti.

This was just some weird looking car that I found very amusing.

Almost every automobile manufacture at this year's show was demonstrating some kind of battery powered car or hybrid. Here is an example of a hybrid from Mitsubishi.

This was pretty cool. The car used in the Transformers movie.

And here is what we came to see: We caught a glimpse of the widely publicized Chevy Volt (an electric and gasoline car).

Today ends another great year of Chol Hamoed trips. I feel very accomplished with the photos that I have taken, and I think this has been a successful Chol Hamoed. I hope to have as much productivity on all subsequent years to come.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My New Gadget

I have only recently become aware of all the cool gadgets that are available on Microsoft's latest version of Windows. Although I was not very impressed with the new version of Minesweeper, I have found the new picture puzzle gadget to be very entertaining. When I first started playing the game I was challenged with basic solving of the grid. However, after winning a few times I began to discover tricks and patterns. It didn't take long before I "solved the game" completely. But thanks to the good people at Microsoft, I have not been forsaken without a challenge. All I needed was a small timer placed on the top right corner of the gadget, and I have fulfilled my time wasting needs for years to come. Now I can continue to play this game in pursuit of my absolute best timing. This game may even take me as far as Minesweeper has, and I may even some day have the world record for having the fastest picture puzzling timing. Now I keep playing faster and faster, and I have already been able to solve the entire puzzle in only 20 seconds (see above). I was first a little worried about becoming too good too fast. If this challenge becomes either too easy or if beating my timing becomes completely impossible I might be encouraged to search for another hobby. However, I realized that even if I have reached my limit with the number format of the puzzle, I still have 10 other puzzle formats to chose from! The other puzzles are harder complicated pictures, and I haven't even been able to solve them completely yet. I am very excited about all of the years of challenges that lay ahead.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Decision Making

If everyone was blessed with unlimited resources there would be no decision making challenges. However, the central economic problem known as scarcity results in having to make choices between different feasible packages of goods. If people can't have everything they must try to optimize their decision making in order to arrive at the maximum amount of pleasure possibly achieved with the given budget constraint. Though economists can produce fanciful equations with complicated mathematics describing the process with which the average folks engage in such decisions, they offer no practical advice on exactly which decisions are optimal in which situations. The result is my lack of confidence in what seems to be an impractical and irrational science, and a feeling of ambivalence and helplessness when faced with some challenging and mostly irrelevant decisions.

Since the days when I started playing with toys, I would categorize my behavior as decision making challenged. From the color lolly pop to the courses in college, I have always found it impossible to decide between various options. After giving my nature some serious thought I have concluded that there are two logical reasons for having trouble with making decisions. The first challenge with decision making is the lack of proper information available for coming to informed conclusions. With easy access to a logical and comprehensive list of correlations between various decisions and their definite outcomes, decision making would become a purely logical process, and choosing a college would be as simple as counting to ten. Since computers are very good at logical reasoning, and most people today have access to advanced computing machines, decision making could easily be outsourced to sophisticated software packages. However, the information necessary for such computations just doesn't exist. Economists deal with the lack of information by introducing more complicated mathematics and given probabilities. However, it seems obvious that the lack of information means a lack of probabilities as well, and adding such factors only leads to unnecessary complications. A result of this problem is the impossibility of making perfectly logical conclusions.

The second problem, although admittedly a minor one, is the fact that half of the decisions are irrelevant either way. When given five different lolly pops to chose from I may end up deciding on green. But I freely admit that if green was not available I would have no less pleasure from choosing purple. If two choices are basically the same it becomes extremely difficult to make a logical decision between them. Both of these problems cause an element of irrationality to characterize the decision process.

Although these problems may sound very petty, they can be very debilitating for extremely logical people. I myself always try to act and think in the most logical manner, and I can be caught up for hours on those "hard" decisions. What do I eat for dinner? What articles should I read? Which career path should I take? Which girls should I date? Who do I vote for? Whose weddings should I attend? All of these questions may seem reasonable, but I can occupy my mind for weeks with some of these without moving any closer to a logical decision. In the end of the day I usually end up deciding on a whim, and the time spent contemplating would usually end up wasted. The waste doesn't stem from these questions being unimportant. Many of these are extremely important decisions. However, it seems that there is rarely a strong correlation between the amount of time pondering and any positive results from the final conclusion. Some people consistently make sound decisions, and the positive outcomes are frequently attributed to the careful decisions they have made. However, even the biggest winners can be seen to make very poor decisions at times, and those are attributed to random unpredictable shocks. But no matter what the good fortune is attributed to, an element of randomness is always the final deciding factor. It is therefore necessary to develop techniques for streamlining the decision making process as much as possible in order to avoid the wasted time.

To lessen the amount of time wasted contemplating my choice of action, I have devised two solutions to the decision making problem. The first solution is the artificial preference creation or structured randomness. To solve my problems with contemplating decisions I can develop a list of preferences and store them in my memory for future references. Other people may subconsciously make use of this technique in order to solve their own decision problems. For example, sometimes when visiting a restaurant people will peruse the menu and draw faulty and illogical conclusions about unknown variables. Will the moo goo gai pan really taste worse than the chow mein? Often there are some real unknowns and decisions are frequently made by invoking artificial preferences. People who can do this subconsciously are blessed. Unfortunately, I really have very few preferences and I mostly couldn't care less about what I eat for lunch. In order to cut down on the wasted time making the decisions, I must train myself to prefer certain foods over others, certain subjects over others, certain people over others, and certain stocks over others. Once such preferences are stored in my memory I will easily decide on my best food, my choice of college courses, my people to associate with, and my stocks to invest in. No longer will I lack strong opinions. If the topic is contentious enough I will develop an opinion just for arguments sake. I can walk around praising Pepsi over Coke, and everyone will be aware of my decisions even before I make them. Although the opinions and preferences begin as artificial, eventually I will begin to believe myself, and decision time will be greatly reduced.

The second solution would be to act with completely arbitrary decision making or with pure randomness. In order to use this solution I must completely embrace the random nature of things. This would include always carrying around a quarter in my pocket to make the most efficiently random Bernoulli trials, and in circumstances with more than two choices I would have a handy pair of dice. On first thought it would seem that such an option is very foolish. Why would one want to intentionally act in a random manner? However it may sometimes pay to act in a completely random manner if it can lead to efficient decision making. When playing minesweeper and trying to achieve the best possible timing it is necessary to make the guesses as fast as possible. Some decisions are completely random, and thinking to much into them is a pure waste of time. However, with a completely random guess, one is bound to win 50% of the time. Similarly with many day to day irrelevant decisions, the efficiency gained with making a rapid decision may frequently outweigh any negative results the random decisions may bring.

Some decisions are easy and others are hard. Sometimes enough thought is all that is necessary to optimize the process of making choices. But more often than not, the decisions lead to arbitrary conclusions, and spending too much time contemplating can lead to wasted time. Although it is impossible to standardize the decision making process when there are too many decisions, some form of random process may be the best option when only dealing with a few possible choices.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Purchasing Practice

I always considered buying a laptop computer, but whenever I would think of the various uses for such a machine I could never find that I had any real need for one. For years I had been able to survive on nothing more than food, clothing, and shelter, and the added entertainment value that a personal computer had to offer didn't seem to fit the criteria of a worthy purchase. Of course I was able to avoid a lot of purchases using this mentality, and I missed many opportunities for sharpening those dull skills of purchasing decision making. But now I had finally decided that it was time to have a laptop. The old family computer had finally died, and my father frequently had business to do with the new computer. Although I hadn't yet figured out any real need for it, I decided that I needed my own computer just because I needed it. It was now time for my rusty skills to be challenged with the task of choosing the right computer to purchase.

Because my purchasing history had been sprinkled with plenty of lost deals, overpriced junk, and outright scams, I was determined to apply plenty of due diligence before going through with my dream purchase. I did a google search and I started browsing through various computer sites. As usual, I was hit with hundreds of terms that were Greek to me, and with every additional search I became less and less confident in my finding the perfect laptop. My search started out very practical. I went to the Dell website and began building a computer in the same manner that I used to play with the configurations as a dreaming child. However, after putting in hours of thought, and coming to be determined to find the best possible deal, I began to think more and more on a philosophical level. How was it possible to find completely accurate and unbiased reviews of any product? If it were possible to find the best deal, all the other computers would never sell. I doubted and second guessed all the innate wisdom I had about computers, and I opened my mind to anything with buttons and a display. Eventually I realized that this search was becoming futile. Instead of searching on my own I would have to have some assistance.

Since I was having a lot of trouble working on this decision by myself I decided to seek some help from those with more shopping experience. I wondered how other people were able to make up their minds when confronted with the same thousands of different options that I was being presented with. Everyone seemed to have a laptop, and it didn't seem like much of a burden to consult the veterans of consumerism. I began asking everyone I knew about their computer purchasing history. I started with my good old normal friends and I worked my way up to the certified geeks. I was presented with various computers and equally varied reasons for purchasing those computers. Some said they found a computer refurbished on ebay for half the price it normally goes for, and others said they found the top of the line gaming computer with a special graphics card. Most people, however, admitted that they had no idea about computers, and they had only bought what other people had told them to buy. Some praised the computers that they themselves owned, and had nothing but unflattering comments for competing brands. Others seemed to praise every single computer for various different qualities. And then there were those geeks who would just speak above my head. It would have been nice to just ask one person and trust his opinion. However, my skepticism has a way of putting me in these situations. My consulting with people left me even more befuddled than I was while doing my own research. I was again beginning to doubt whether I really needed a computer.

Today I finally decided that I was going to buy a laptop without any further ambivalence. I had come home with nothing much to do and I was going to use the computer, but my father had business as usual. I decided to go to a computer store in person and let the wonderful sales staff influence my final decision. I hopped on the subway and headed to J & R Computer World. While waiting for the train I had a final discussion about this matter with my brother. I told him that I was leaning toward an HP, and as usual he said that a Sony would be much better. Although I was open to basically anything, my mind was dominated by that last influencing remark as I entered the store. I carefully looked at each and every laptop, and the kind salesperson was giving me little tidbits about the various features of each of them. When we arrived at the Sony laptops something was telling me that this was the time to make the purchase. I had a feeling that my mindset was a result of the most recent conversation that I had had with my brother. I knew that this purchase would be very impulsive, and although I wasn't really looking for anything in particular, I forced myself to formulate some random questions about the features of other computers. The computer was kind of expensive, but something told me that I was going to be impulsive and just take the computer that I last heard was considered good.

Before making the final decision, I asked the salesperson to give me some time to think about things. I didn't think this time would do anything for me, but I couldn't let myself fall into another random purchase. While fiddling around with some random features on the Sony, I received a call from a friend of mine who was nervous about taking an exam. I realized that he had told me all about his computer when I had asked him about his computing preferences. He had a Lenovo computer, and I remember asking him what he thought about it. Although he wanted to ask me questions about the exam, I briefly changed the subject and asked him what he felt about his computer again. After that phone call I asked the sales person to see the Lenovo computers. It turned out that a Lenovo computer with the same specs as the Sony was on sale for a much lower price. The salesperson told me that this computer was on sale for Valentine's Day, and it was the only one on sale of its kind. At that point I felt a feeling that I had never had before while making purchases. I felt the logical reasoning circuits of my brain begin to turn. The feeling was very good. I smiled and said that I would go with the Lenovo Z560.

The feeling of making a logical purchase was very new to me, and I felt very accomplished with my spiritual growth. The computer was cheap enough, and I was excited enough that I actually started to purchase some accessories along with my new toy. After finalizing the purchase and proceeding to pickup my merchandise, I began to feel a little uneasy about the decision that I had made. Was it really logical or was I impulsive again? When I came to pick up my item I was relieved to see that the customer in front of me was picking up the very same laptop. I realized that I must have been making a logical decision if other people were going for this deal as well. When I came home and started the computer I searched through ebay to see if I had really found a good deal. Sure enough, I had paid less for my computer than all of the ebay listings for the Lenovo Z560 with the sole exception of a refurbished product that was only $10 cheaper. I was very happy with my successful purchase, and after setting up the millions of different features and configurations, and overworking my brain with all of those both tedious and meaningless decisions, I found some time to type up my experience and share it with everyone.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Free Money!

For some unknown reason, Chase Bank decided to start imposing a minimum balance for all free checking accounts. For someone who keeps all his money in the stock market, I naturally don't have an opportunity for keeping any large amounts of cash in the checking account at any given time. The checking account is only used when I must make big payments with checks, and I typically transfer the money from my brokerage account before I actually make the payment. Chase Bank was willing to let me keep the checking account with no minimum balances as long as I would use their debit card about six times a month. Although this sounded tempting, I have not used my debit card at all since I started using my credit card, and I knew that there was no way I would make that many purchases every month. Therefore, it was time to close the account and switch to Apple Saving Bank's truly free checking account with no strings attached.

Once I switched all my money to the new account it was time to establish new connections between the Apple Bank account and the other places where I might need to transfer money. I first went to my PayPal account and broke the connection with Chase. I had never even used the PayPal account, but I figured it may be a useful thing to have, and I have always connected my bank account with their site. I started the process of connecting the new account with PayPal. After completing all of the forms, I was requested to verify the account. I guess they needed to make sure that I was the true owner of that account. One option for verifying was to give PayPal all my bank login information and let them conduct an instant verification. Although I trusted PayPal wouldn't use my information in an improper manner, I ran into complications while trying to use the instant verification. The other verification option would take a few days to complete, but I found this method to be very interesting. To verify my account, PayPal would make two small deposits into my account and then test to see if I knew the exact amount. I thought this sounded interesting, and I chose that option before going about my business surfing other sites on the World Wide Web.

When I went to check out my Apple account a few days later I was a little surprised at what I saw. PayPal had lived up to their promise, and there in my new bank account was free money! The amount was very low, but I was a little amazed that this was actually happening. I didn't do anything but connect the accounts, and I had never even used PayPal to make purchases, and here they were giving me a generous donation. The story only started to sound even better when I tried to connect my brokerage account to the checking account as well. They had the same deal! It seems that there is a new fad with these online verifications, and some companies are really giving away free money. After a few days I noticed that the brokerage firm had given me more than twice the amount of money as PayPal. My winnings from online account connecting were beginning to pile up. I started to wonder how much money I could make doing this. For instance, what would prevent me from just breaking the connections each day and then reconnecting them a few days later? I could open many checking and savings accounts and connect them to many different brokerage accounts and PayPal accounts, and I would be able to earn a decent amount of free money all day long. I could write programs to automate the process, and I could borrow other people’s identities to generate exponential growth in profits. The profit margins are 100%. The money is free, and it is guaranteed.

On second thought, I think this process is starting to sound like a lot of work as it is. Like panhandling, this scheme is also just another way of working hard for small amounts of money. I think I would rather not quit my day job, or better yet, I think I should continue to search for a day job. But it is still cool to watch free money enter my account no matter how little. I have already made about 80 cents just from having a new bank account. Has anyone else made such a substantial amount with their new accounts?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Does your house have heat?

Simultaneously satisfying the needs of many family members living under the same roof can be a very daunting task. Everyone has his or her own preferences regarding the indoor weather conditions, and although there is one thermostat that has the same number for the entire house, heat is rarely spread uniformly throughout living quarters. Additionally, the level of heat necessary for bodily comfort varies from one person to another as well. Since it is rarely possible to please everyone, members of the household must make compromises and sometimes knowingly sacrifice some personal comfort for the ideal goal of keeping the peace. To this end, I frequently endure below normal room temperatures during the winter months in order to accommodate those around me in the best way possible.

I generally do not have a large amount of sensitivity toward heat or cold. If there were to be a crowd of people in an uncomfortably hot room and the amount of time necessary for each one to actually notice the discomfort was then documented, I feel quite confident that my timing would definitely fall in the upper quartile. Some summer days have gone by in which the living room reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit before I even thought of turning on the air conditioner. Even during the dead of winter I can frequently be spotted taking a stroll without wearing a coat. However, even I can sometimes have preferences when dealing with the houses thermostat. When waking up early in the morning, placing my foot on a 60 degree floor is exponentially harder than placing my foot on a 75 degree floor. Also, keeping an empty stomach while trying to lose weight becomes much more difficult when residing in very cold climates. Although I am willing to bend my needs if it will help the comfort of others, the temperatures that I endure are probably far beyond the threshold of pain for your average folks.

Today I was sitting on the couch in the living room when I finally noticed that it was unusually cold. I told my father that my feet were freezing, and I thought it was a little cold in the room. My father informed me that I was correct, and that he had set the thermostat to 60 degrees. Because my parents room has much better insulation, and the idea that heat rises in general, the temperature that it can reach in there is generally much higher than that which is set on the thermostat. My father and younger brother both don't like the stuffy and hot feeling that is caused by an overworking heater. Since it had become very stuffy in his room during the previous night, my father decided to lower the heat just a drop. Apparently that extra drop in temperature had pushed beyond my tolerance level. I informed my father that this kind of weather in the outdoors would cause most people to wear spring jackets at least. My complaining paid off eventually, and the heat was raised to 62 degrees. Once the thermostat was adjusted and I actually heard the steam running, I assumed the room would soon be much warmer, and I was once again oblivious to the cold air in the room.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The House Is Alive!

Is your house infected with icicles? As I take a stroll through the neighborhood I take notice of different icy growths on various houses. I notice that some homes have a very bad case of Ice Protrusion Syndrome, and other houses are completely healthy. Some houses have lots of little outbreaks, and others have a few three foot long monsters. The case of these home hives seems to vary from house to house. Whatever causes the large and dangerous variety has been infecting the front right corner of our house for some time now. With every snow storm it becomes bigger and bigger. Eventually it cracks and falls wreaking havoc on the ground below. Then a new one grows back in the very same place as its predecessor, and the destruction cycle continues. What makes one house covered in the icy infections and other houses completely immune to them? What can be done to cure one's house from this recurring menace?

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Intercom System

As a child we were probably all told that it's wrong to talk to strangers. Children are defenseless and innocent, and parents always do their best to prevent them from being harmed. The best defense against potential assailants is to stay as far away from them as possible, and definitely not engage them in any long conversations. This is why people are nervous about opening their doors to strangers as well. Once the door is open, the whole house is potentially at risk. The fear of the unknown is quite powerful, and it's therefore quite common for one to seldom open the door to an unfamiliar face. Although this way of thinking seems logical, how can one know who is familiar unless the door is first opened?

One solution to solving this identity problem is to develop a system of bell reading techniques. Growing up, I always had my own set of keys, and I generally didn't need to use the bell. However, sometimes the keys would be misplaced, and it would be very annoying to wait outside for hours just because my brothers were scared of opening the door. The whole family need not be on red alert just because one member of the household left his keys in his yesterday’s pants pocket. Therefore, my older brother developed a kind of Morse Code for door bells. Naturally the code was slightly annoying, and this made it much more effective as well. This code was a secret for me and my brothers alone, and we were able to safely find our way inside without scaring everyone in the house to death.

Although this kind of private key cryptography works fine with relatives, it doesn't quite solve the problem for the average innocent folks that would have no knowledge of the code and would probably not have the gall to actually use it either way. Other methods must be used in order to screen the average door bell ringer. A more general solution would be to deduce the identity of unknown visitors through careful analysis of the door bell ring. The potential identity of the visitor can usually be narrowed down first. Ninety percent of non-coded bell rings come from collectors of one kind or another. The other nine percent come from the mail carrier, Con Edison, neighbors, or political activists. Only one percent of the time is the person a complete stranger. After narrowing down the possibilities, by carefully listening to the length of the bell it is possible to deduce some pertinent information. Collectors generally give very short rings especially if they are just a few kids selling raffle tickets. However, if one hears a very long ring it is quite probable that it's an old man collecting for his institution. Mail carriers and Con Edison always give the shortest rings. Neighbors always ring the bell somewhere in the middle, but it's always hard to tell exactly. Long and annoying repetitive rings most likely signal danger or an emergency. A short whisper of a ring followed by a longer ring is probably indicative of a shy individual that may have important things to give you or an important favor to ask of you. A careful reading of the door bell can sometimes both prevent unwanted confrontations and avoid wasted time. However, door bell reading alone is rarely reliable enough, and some other techniques are undoubtedly necessary.

Other techniques may be used in conjunction with bell reading. The time of day can give some clues as to the potential threats of answering the door. Earlier in the day it's very unlikely to encounter problems, and the stranger is probably just a FedEx delivery person. Late at night, however, potential risks increase exponentially. It is quite possible that there are a bunch of drunken college students panhandling for extra booze. More caution is advised at those times. Sometimes after reading enough into the bell, it’s possible to peek through the curtain in hopes of seeing who may be there. Although this technique can be very effective, it is also quite risky. Not only does it feel very awkward to be caught staring at someone, it also informs the stranger of your presence. Once he or she knows you are home, it will likely be much longer before the door bell finally stops ringing. Proper care must be taken to remain undetected. Although some of these techniques may help, the identity problem seems to present a formidable challenge.

With the invention of the intercom system, however, all the worries of outsiders seem to fade away. This device can enable one to communicate with the outdoors, and it solves the problem of dealing with disagreeable people. No longer does one have to listen carefully to the rhythm of the bell or sneak a peek from behind the window. Instead of personal interaction, a few brief questions can decide whether this guest is worthy of attention. An innocent person can prove his or her innocents, and the occasional scary stranger won't fool anyone. It seems that this device has become effective enough at dealing with the identity problem, and few people even realize that such a problem ever existed. Telemarketing has replaced most door to door panhandling, and breaking through windows has replaced the usual front door hold up. The intercom is a simple example of how technological progress can completely revolutionize the world.

An incident that happened to me a few days ago brought to life some other purposes for the intercom, and I began realizing what a great device it really was. Some people would like information about the occupants of the house before actually meeting them. Aside from helping screen outsiders to avoid unwanted encounters, an intercom helps screen insiders from helpless collectors as well. When I heard the bell ring a few nights ago I wasn't in the mood of using the intercom. Instead, I used my bell reading clairvoyance to discern that there was a collector at the door, and I felt confident dealing with him in person. I went straight for the door and opened it. The visitors were three very young girls going door to door selling raffles for their school. When they saw me come to the door two of them began running away. It was clear that my not using the intercom was a complete startle to them. The third girl standing at the bottom of the steps informed me very rapidly that she was selling raffle tickets for her school. I decided that she probably expected some old lady to answer the door, and I didn't feel obligated to buy any raffles. Although, I had correctly identified the strangers as collectors, a brief use of the intercom would have avoided traumatizing these girls for life.

I am amazed at how much some simple pieces of technology have shaped our lives. At first I was puzzled about the whole situation. But then I realized that it is abnormal to answer the door in a completely uninformed manner. It has become that natural to expect people to use the intercom, and people are already relying on it in order to screen those inside the house. I had never given the intercom much thought before this happened, but now I realized how important this device has become for everyone. Once certain devices enter our lives they can easily become practically indispensible.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Field Trip

Can someone take a vacation if he or she doesn't work? I would say the answer is clearly no. If no work is being done, there is no job to be vacating from. It therefore would imply that a very valuable perk of holding full time employment is the ability to enjoy the little time-off that one manages to procure. The unemployed, however, don't even have a single minute of vacation. Even weekends are not vacation. Day in and day out, there is the constant job searching, life planning, soul searching, and basic contemplating. For such a person, a vacation can only come about through an exciting field trip. It also helps if the field trip is completely funded through the finances of a friend. Although the feeling of returning to the usual lack of work resembles that of a recently laid off employee, the ephemeral distraction from reality that an unexpected exploration can offer is a very pleasurable experience.

Today I broke from my usual rather dull routine, and I accompanied my brother and a friend of mine on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I woke up early in the morning to learn with my friend like any other day, when he informed me of his plans for taking a trip to the museum. He had the week off for mid-winter vacation, and I had my usual job search and studying to do. When he asked me what my plans were for the day and whether I wanted to join him on an excursion, I couldn't think of any urgent tasks on my schedule. I decided to go with him, and I brought my brother along for the ride. Having ate my daily dose of liquorice and inserting fresh batteries into my camera, all three of us headed to the Manhattan bound subway. Although we did miss our stop due to being on an express train, the train ride was relatively uneventful, and before we could have any serious arguments, we had arrived at our destination.

Of course, living in the twenty first century, a trip is never worth going on if it isn't viewed through the lens of a digital camera. Fortunately I was armed with the memory and battery power to start the trip off on the right foot. Right when we arrived at our station I started shooting some pictures.

When we entered the museum we were greeted with the famous large dinosaur skeleton. As a child I was never really crazy about seeing dinosaurs, and although I had frequented these parts many times before, I never quite appreciated the vast collection of bones they had on display. But now I was a little older, and I had a broad knowledge of Calvin and Hobbes comics. This made me much more interested in seeing these enormous and vicious looking dead animals. Right after buying our tickets we proceeded straight to the fourth floor in search of the T. Rex. The skeleton of this creature was even bigger than I had expected, yet it wasn't too big to fit in my camera's lens or my camera's memory. Naturally, it wasn't too large to fit in the blog either.

Next we saw some Allosaurs, Woolly Mammoths, and some really big looking dinosaurs that had names which I couldn't recall from my comic book knowledge. We covered all the exhibits on the top floor, and thankfully all those enormous skeletons remained dead.

There were lots of interesting videos describing the mind numbing tasks required to find, clean, and preserve buried fossilized bones. It seems that unemployment is not a new phenomenon, and even years ago people would randomly dig for bones in desserts just to earn a few dollars. I asked one of the tour guides what the market value of the T. Rex would be. He told me that a slightly more complete skeleton of the same species was sold in Chicago for 8 million dollars. Having heard that, I now understood why certain people would spend their time doing what they did. I could forget the stock market or searching for gold. All that was necessary was to find a dinosaur's skeleton. For some reason this sounded a lot easier to me than finding a job in this economy. Unfortunately, it is probably a lot harder, and I couldn't even begin thinking of where I would start to look for such things. After all, I had never bumped into dinosaur bones while digging in my backyard.

After finishing the fourth floor it was time for lunch. We took the train to Bryant Park, and found a pizza store around there. Then we stopped to daven at the Chabad of Midtown Manhattan. Because today happened to be Tu Bishvat, there was plenty of new fruits available there for our consumption. We stuck around a little before heading back Uptown. Although, I had very little to do with this decision, we ended up walking the forty blocks back to the museum.

By the time we arrived back I was already very tired. Although my friend claimed to have been rejuvenated by the long walk, he eventually fell asleep sitting down in front of one of the videos about sea creatures. There were way more exhibits than the hours in the day could provide for. We were able to see some of the more important pieces, but before long we decided that we had to start heading home. As usual we saved my favorite exhibit for last, and I was very reluctant to leave the gems behind. We were all very tired, and we started to head home. Fortunately, I was able to snap a few more pictures to make our second visit to the museum worthwhile. Here are some of the highlights.

I had no idea that a Komodo Dragon was this big!

This famous Blue Whale is a must see.

How old do you think this tree was?

Yes this is a real meteorite from outer space.

I thought all the gems were cool but these peridots were something else.

These are some random cool minerals that I didn't have a chance to really see.

And if I'm not mistaken, this exhibit is real gold.

I obviously didn't have enough time to visit all the exhibits, and the gift shop was a place that I real should have had time for. I guess I will have to return for another vacation some day to see what we had missed, and to take some more pictures. Until then I guess I will have to go back to the good old job search. This has been an exciting field trip.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Although many of my friends may disagree, I consider myself to be a very generous person by nature. If I had the resources available, I would find great satisfaction in giving away much of my wealth in order to better the lives of needy people. However, I don't presently have the capability of throwing away money, and I have begun to value purchasing power as a very important and cherished tool. Furthermore, having been cheated before by random strangers accosting me for generous donations, I have naturally become quite skeptical when dealing with what seem to be beggars. Therefore, I rarely part with my hard earned money when presented with an unsolicited opened hand, and I generally give charity only to confirmed legitimate organizations.

Yesterday, however, I found myself digging my hands into my pockets for a complete stranger in what has become very uncharacteristic of my nature. I was walking down a busy street in Brooklyn minding my own business when an alarmed person approached me and started on a rant. Although I always remain alert in these situations, I am never shy of helping people or at least listening to what they have to say. It seems that I haven't yet developed that New Yorker talent of completely ignoring unrequested company. I stopped to listen to what this person had to say. He was speaking very fast, and his method of panhandling seemed almost professional. "Can you please spare a quarter for me?" he asked. "I am stuck here and I need to make a phone call to someone who will be able to give me a ride." The words came out of his mouth really fast, and the sound of his voice was alarming enough that my first inclination was to put my hands in my pockets and supply him with his request. The guy sounded like he was really desperate. As I put my hand in my pocket to find some spare change, the panhandler started to test my limits. I guess I was dressed presentably with a nice cap, and he must have felt that I would give more than a quarter. He didn't stop talking. "Maybe you can give me $2.50 for the subway or maybe you have $10.00 for a car service, I just need to get home soon." At this point I was well aware that I was dealing with a professional. I thought for a few seconds, and then I promptly brought forth a quarter and wished him good luck. I figured that although this person was obviously lying, he had done such a nice job telling me this story, and I felt he earned his money with his astute behavior.

Stories such as this one cause me to think about the concept of charity. People approach me all the time asking for unearned gifts of money. I wonder what these people contribute in order to deserve this money any more than I do. I am looking for a job, and I earn money doing part-time work. These people simply open their hands and expect me to fork over some hard earned cash. Additionally, how do I know that these people really need the money? What if these guys go out and buy cigarettes and alcohol with the extra dollars that they manage to convince me to give away? Maybe these people are living lives of luxury while I live a life of sustenance. It doesn’t seem fair for one person to sweat for his bread and another person to be handed free food.

More thought on the subject, however, leads me to different conclusions. Although these people don't seem to be contributing to mankind, they are working for their money as well. At the place where I pray every morning there are always dozens of collectors seeking that daily quarter. One morning, a rather young collector was approached and asked why he didn't find a job. A young person should have ambitions, and there is no excuse for a perfectly capable individual to panhandle. The young man explained that he does indeed work many hours a day to support his family. However, he happens to work all day collecting money from generous people.

Panhandling has many of the qualities of the usual means of employment. Firstly, like any other job, making a lot of money requires some talent. Some people walk around with a helpless look and a sheepish appearance, and others march in with a confident smile and an aggressive approach. Some people shake cups of change and others flash wads of bills. Some people are easily dismissed, and others make me feel very guilty. People with more skills make more money. Secondly, like regular employment, the more effort one contributes the more fruits are produced. Some people approach with a story and explain their situation to everyone that they see. Others sit on the street corner and call for help to those that pass by. Still others just sit on the floor shaking a cup full of quarters, and others just bury their faces behind cardboard signs. As usual, those who try harder are more successful, and they definitely bring home more money. Finally, although not that obvious, panhandlers do provide some sort of satisfaction to those who contribute to their cause. It always feels good to know that another person was feeling pleasure from your donation. Even if the person doesn't necessarily need cigarettes or alcohol, it is not for other people to judge what someone should or shouldn't choose to spend money on. He or she may truly need these products, and it feels good to know that you provided for someone’s needs. Even if someone has completely lied about his or her circumstances, everyone can use a little more money, and if it is not used on a bus ride home it may be used on next month’s groceries. And even if the person may not do anything worthwhile with the money, it is sometimes very entertaining to hear the stories that these people come up with, and I feel that, like any other entertainer, some people earn their money just by demonstrating their talents.

I am reminded of another story that involved a very professional panhandler. A few years back I was going on my very first date in Manhattan, and I was approached by what looked like a Jewish man with broken front teeth. He began to tell me a long story about how he was touring the city and an anti-Semitic taxi driver drove off with his bags still in the car. Of course, his wallet happened to be strategically placed somewhere in the car as well, and now he was stranded all alone in the big city. He needed me to lend him thirty dollars in order for him to take a train ride to Philadelphia. He was ready to take down my address, and he would mail the money to me as soon as he arrived back home. I don't think my date believed him at all, but back in those days I was slightly more trusting. I didn't have enough money to help him out completely, but I did give him more than a quarter, and I had him take down an address in order to see if he would return any of it. There were many holes in his story, and naturally he would never end up returning any of the money (at least not yet). After finding out that my father had fallen prey to the exact same person, I began wondering what could be done to punish such people. It is quite possible that I would run into him a second time. What if I would call the police on this guy? Then it occurred to me that the police wouldn't do anything because this person didn't do anything wrong. He gave me exactly what I paid for. He was a shrewd and talented panhandler, and he had definitely earned his money. I, in return, received the satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone out. Even if his story was completely made up, I can be sure that he put the money to good use.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


What is morality? Are there any objective morals that every human being must follow? Is there a logical or scientific source for an unquestionably factual code of ethics? These are classic topics of debate and discussion, and the answer as usual seems to remain elusive to the thinking mind. Perhaps the most frequently asked question is whether or not someone can be moral without having any religious beliefs. As is the case with many debated topics, the definitions of each of the terms can play a fundamental role in the outcome of the argument. Although clearly defining morality is crucial, some simple definitions can lead to deceptively simplified and misleading results. It is very important to make sure that the definition doesn't distort the common notion of the word.

Let's first start by supplying a definition, and then see if it can fit the context of the common uses of the actual word. In order to answer questions of morality, let's start by defining morality simply as "the following of rules." A moral person is therefore one that follows rules, and morals are the rules that are followed. Conversely, an immoral person is one that does not follow any rules. The substitution of this word seems at first glance to fit pretty accurately into the widely accepted usage of the concept of morality. In the absence of any counter example it seems proper to stick with this definition and use this simplified form of the concept to tackle some of the more problematic issues involving its usage.

Now let's try to answer some of the questions that are commonly discussed regarding the nature of morality. First of all, what is morality? This question is answered through the definition: Morality is the following of rules. But this definition doesn't qualify the kind of rules, and therefore, the following of any rules must be categorized together with morality. There would therefore be no difference between someone who makes it his or her job to give car rides to other people and a person that goes out of his or her way to find a hitch every morning. Each person is equally moral because each is following self described rules. Let’s look at another question. Are there any objective morals that every human being must follow? In other words, do humans have to follow certain rules? Well technically humans have to perform certain life functions if they wish to stay alive. But nothing prevents people from doing what they want. Humans don't have any more rules than common insects. Now, is there a logical or scientific source for an unquestionably factual code of ethics? Well it is possible to say that the laws of nature give humans certain rules. But these rules can't be broken, and therefore, to follow these laws doesn't involve any voluntary action. Therefore, it seems that there are no scientific morals in the sense that humans have rules that they should intentionally place upon themselves. It can be said that normal humans should follow certain behavior patterns, but like any animal, there is nothing inherently wrong with deviating from the norms of the species. Finally, let’s analyze the most highly debated topic, and see what light this definition game can shed on the subject. Is it possible to have morality without religion? Although this question seemed difficult, the new definition makes it look like a joke. Of course it's possible to follow rules even if one is not religious. Just make rules and follow them. A person may do nothing more than decide to always buy gas from the same gas station and his actions have fallen into the category of moral practices.

After answering these questions, although not running into any logical fallacy, the definition seems to have strayed far from the common usage of the concept of morality. People think of a moral person as one that does what's right. Things like murder are considered immoral, and things like charity are considered moral. Morality seems to be more connected with certain universal principles of right and wrong. Furthermore, right and wrong seem to be intimately connected with a transcendental or mysterious purpose of existence. The concept of morality begins to sound very much like religion. The definition introduced doesn't seem to have anything to do with these commonly accepted morality topics.

Although a clear definition of morality may remain elusive, people seem to have an ability of sensing morality, and certain things are considered right and others are considered wrong. But there doesn't seem to be any logical justification for any of these practices, and scientific inquiry alone seems to leave us with few answers in these matters. It would therefore seem that morality is only achieved through religious beliefs.

Some scientists and philosophers have attempted to create logical rules and reasons behind certain morals. Based on these arguments, morality can be subject to scientific inquiry and certain actions can be deemed scientifically or logically wrong. The claim is that these rules are not connected with any purpose or religion, yet they are still binding on every individual. Morality can be claimed as a kind of social contract that is the best path for a human to take in order to derive the most pleasure from life. It can be argued that people should behave morally as a kind of insurance policy against adverse social interactions with other individuals. It can also be argued that morals are a promotion of the collective good or pleasure of human beings or any conscious being. Acting morally would be the right thing to do inasmuch as it causes more happiness in the world. However, these definitions of morality require their own postulates or world view, and most of them don't fit the common notion of morality either. The social contract approach has its problems. Naturally a weak person would want everyone to agree not to murder. But a powerful individual may not wish to take on the insurance that the social contract has to offer. Additionally, some people may not value life, and they may not care if they die. Regarding the common good of humanity, why should someone want to spread goodness? It may seem nice, but there is no logical reason for someone to give up pleasure in order to share it with others. Both of these approaches to morality have their own world views that are not necessarily inherently logical or shared by everyone.

Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in any of these definitions of morality is the lack of the status symbol attributed to the moral individual. A moral person doesn't just follow certain rules in the same way that people chose different flavors of ice cream. A moral person should be given a higher status than an immoral one. A certain level of holiness or awe should be attributed to one that does good things for goods sake. But this concept is quite foreign to the logical mind as well. Although certain actions may be optimal or smart, nothing can make one person truly better than another person. Both will remain human no matter what they decide to do or what they happen to accomplish. With the above definitions of morality, neither a murderer nor a philanthropist can be considered a better person. Does a person fall to a sub-human status if he or she refuses to buy health insurance? Why should someone fall to a lower status just because he or she does not wish to engage in a social contract? Additionally, why should someone achieve a higher status just because he decides not to murder for the selfish reason of not wanting to be hurt by others? Although admittedly completely illogical, a moral person must somehow surpass an immoral person in what must be a spiritual or religious plain. This is the only way to give the common notion of morality the proper definition that it deserves.

It seems quite clear that the commonly accepted notion of morality is intimately connected with one's religion or world view. The common experience of morals escapes the realm of logical reasoning or scientific enquiry. Although it is possible to give definitions to suit one's arguments, these definitions may not necessarily be satisfactory in their description of common experience.