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.