Category Archives: happiness

The Modern Gentlemen’s club

I inherited from my father an affection for cartoons.  I still have his books of Punch, and a complete set of New Yorker cartoons.  One of the standard tropes in these collections is set in a gentlemen’s club.  Two large cigar smoking elderly gentlemen recline in leather arm chairs.  One says something to the other.  Such as: “I think I’ve acquired some wisdom over the years, but there doesn’t seem to be much demand for it.”

old_fartsMen’s clubs seem to be rare in America.  We used to have lots of them.  The suburbs and television sucked the life out of the, or so I’m told.  And the term “gentlemen’s club” now has become a euphemism.

But, for the rich, the men’s club solved a problem.  It got them out of the house.  Which is a serious problem if your a type A over achiever, since chances are you married a type A over achiever.  Imagine the trouble.  You sell your startup and decide to spend more time with the family only to discover there isn’t really room at home for two over achievers 24×7.

In the good old day’s you’d join a good club.  And added bonus: you could sit around and whinging about who the youth of today are going to hell in a hand basket.

But of course capitalism is very good at filling demand, particularly when those who have the need happen to have disposable income.  And thus we have the venture capital firm.  It’s actually better than the classic gentlemen’s club.  You can still have the comfortable digs, the high end dinning room, the subscription to all the daily rags.  But it’s better!  Instead of complaining about the young you get to invite them in and give them advise!

That’s an old joke of mine, though it’s not entirely clear if it’s a joke or a deep insight into some aspect of the venture capital firm’s value proposition for it’s partners.  Memory is an untrustworthy beast, but I’m pretty sure I came up with this joke after hearing of a VC firm in the valley that had a wall down the middle; one one side it was pure luxury and on the other it was standard spartan office space.  As I remember the story the partners would always meet the entrepreneurs on the spartan side of the wall.

And so, it was with great delight that I read an article in today’s paper.  A friend of mine, having recently exited from his last of a series of successful entrepreneurial activities appears to have taken my insight to heart.  He is setting up a startup incubator here in Boston.  And make no mistake: that’s is honorable work.  But this was the sentence that delighted me:

English says he’s planning an “outrageous” workspace that will transform into a club at 6 PM, with regular events that “celebrate creative people” like dancers, sculptors, and clothing designers.

That is definitely an improvement on my original insight.

Compass and Straight Edge

EuclideProgramming languages often have a juicy core of one kind or another.  Back in the 60s and 70s we had a lovely assortment of languages each of which took some particular idea to heart and then ran as far was they could with that idea.  SETL – using sets – is a good example.  It was a lot of fun to write within it’s framework.   I still my  delight when, at one point, they managed to get the compiler’s optimizer to the point where it spontaneously discovered assorted famous graph algorithms.

Other examples include:

  • SIMULA – using what we’d now call lightweight threads.  
  • SNOBOL – centered around pattern matching which informed a whole tangle of other languages like SL5, and Prolog, and such.
  • LISP – with its symbols, lists, etc. etc.
  • APL – with its arrays
  • etc. etc.

There others that stand atop a big data structure; SQL, Emacs, and AutoCAD.

Some stand on an unusual computational model.   Rule based (truth maintenance?) systems like Unix make or Prolog.   The constraint based systems.  Lazy evaluation.

A very few are almost only about some syntactic or semantic gimmick; like forth, postscript, or Python.

Is that era is largely over?   The search space has been mined out?  I guess some work on genetic programming or machine learning are the modern decedents of this style of language design.

All these languages have a kind of inward looking quality to them.  They don’t really care much about their users.  If there are applications, well that’s nice.  Their enthusiasm is rooted in their the juicy (often somewhat eccentric) center, not the tedium of actually putting them to use.  To a greater or lesser degree you can make that critique about all programming languages.

DSC02333Which brings me to a last night.  Harry Mairson gave a nice little talk to the Boston Lisp meeting about a spin off of his hobby – which is making string instruments.

Apparently we don’t actually have a good handle on how our ancestors designed and built their instruments.  Insta-theories might include that they traced existing instruments, or maybe they had templates they handed down, etc. etc.

One recent theory is that they had recipes that guided the making of patterns using only compass and straight edge.  There is a book that makes this case.  “Functional Geometry and the Traité de Lutherie.”

When Harry found and read this book he got to wondering if the descriptions in the book might be converted into something more algorithmic.  He spun off a little language where the juicy core was a compass and straight edge.  … time passes … and now he can write programs that almost sketch out the designs for cellos and such.   It was an awesome, eccentric, fun talk.

It’s notable that he did this backward.  He started from the application and ended up with a cute new language based on a curious juicy center.

I found myself wondering.  To what extent the design languages used by craftsmen in the Middle Ages rested on the compass and straightedge.  Architecture?  Furniture?  Music?  Here’s graphic I found showing a bit of (presumably modern) font design.


His work is not yet published, so all of you who are suddenly tempted to write a web server using only a compass and straight edge are best advised to wait until it is.

Update: Cool, there is now a paper you can read.  I look forward to seeing your web servers.

Eccentric goals

People are writing blog posts about plans, goals, resolutions and such.  I am reminded that like a plan that manifests some  eccentricity by this guy who resolved a year ago to spend a year without getting into a car.  Nice.  After the revolution all media outlets will be required to report on some happy local who has just succeeded in keeping an exceptionally interesting resolution.  Give us all hope we can pull it off.  Help to model this fine behavior.

If you see more examples, please pass them along.

A public service announcement: You’ll get 40% more done by keeping your plans secret! So if your writing up resolutions and goals, have at it; but consider tearing up the list and don’t show anybody!

Anonymous Giving

Giving donations is fraught with frictions of all kinds.  For example my wife and I once gave some money to a nonprofit only to suffer a year of verysolicitations for more money.

I think this is just amazingly and delightful.  Giving Anonymously is a small nonprofit in Washington state that facilitates giving money to others anonymously.  They clear about $75 thousand dollars a month at this point.  This lets you avoid the social frictions of donations.  It avoids any suggestion that your dontation is a form of status seeking.  It avoids any suggestion that the donation is just another market transaction.

So what could you use this for?

  1. Help a neighbor, coworker, friend, … in need
  2. Help your club without revealing how rich you are
  3. Say thanks to the person who did all that work for the recent event
  4. Avoid the embarrassment of a public thank you when donating to the event
  5. Use it create a hard to fake signal
  6. Use it to demonstrate it to another, a potential donor
  7. Give money to things one might not have expected.

I really like #2.  If you are trying to fund some club’s operations it is brilliant.  It is very likely your club’s community of members has some very very wealthy people in it.  But they have little desire for that fact to be known.  By offering all your members the opportunity to make anonymous donations you create a way for the rich members to help without insisting that they break cover.

For gifts of less then $500 they charge nothing, though you can give a bit to help them along.  That’s pretty amazing when you block out what their credit card charges, mailing costs, check processing fees, etc. are so say nothing of the labor.  Well actually, they are apparently entirely run by volunteer labor.  It must be strange working there!  Apparently they listen to every phoned in thank you message before forwarding them back to donors.  Listening to a few on their site makes it clear that would be emotional work!

To give money you’ll need:

  1. a credit card or a bank account,
  2. the snail mail address for your recipient, and then
  3. either an email address or a phone number.

Try it!

The Misery of Opportunity

Fun video by Barry Swartz author of “The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less”.

Why choice makes people miserable:

  1. regret over the choice not taken, and fear of that future regret,
  2. the cost of managing a portfolio of options,
  3. the benchmark for success is raised higher, i.e. expectations escalate
  4. self blame, when the choices made later appear to have been the wrong ones

He reports a study they did: those who maximize a job choice did in fact capture significantly more income, but at a cost.  They are more: pessimistic, anxious, stressed, worried, tired, overwhelmed, depressed, regretful, and disappointed.  They are less: content, optimistic, elated, excited, and happy.

Adds something to my thinking about option spaces, but still I regret not having the option of seeing the copyrighted cartoons.

Minimum Dosage

“study shows that health benefits follow from just 2 minutes of written  expression. Certainly these results do not mean that spending more time expressing  emotion is bad but they do show that the minimum dosage required may be lower than previously thought.” — Burton and King

What we really want to know: “Is 140 characters enough?”

See also: blogging happy?


There is a lesson here:

Abstract. Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment. Our results are robust to the inclusion of individual fixed effects, and are not driven by outliers: when omitting the top and bottom deciles of the price distribution, our qualitative results are strengthened, and the statistical significance is improved further. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.

From: Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? : Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings

You should pay me to buy your wine, scrap off the prices and replace them with tasty robust high price labels.

Positive/Negative Emotions

funny-kittenspreview.jpgI read Seligman’s Authentic Happiness some time ago.  He has an interesting hypothesis. The idea is that the negative emotions (fear, envy, greed, etc.) are about scarcity (win-lose) while the positive emotions are about more collective constructions (win-win). It is a bit difficult to discern which ideas in this book are well validated by good studies; it appears that this idea is closer to the insta-theory end of the spectrum than most. But I like it. Collective good, selfish bad.

Even if you can puzzle out exactly which ideas and techniques he suggests are well tested you still get difficult confusions between cause and effect. Happy people have larger social networks, but how can you tease out the causality?  In another example; it is will known that marginal increases in your wealth have a weak but positive correlation with happiness. That weak link suggests we ought to strive to earn more. Much less widely reported though is the trajectory of happy people tends toward higher wages and positions.  I think that a cheery affect tends to generate the wealth, not the other way around.

The studies did show some interesting effects. Your various traits (humor, punctuality, cleanliness, etc. etc.) do tend to be genetically inherited and they don’t tend to be strongly effected by circumstance. I particularly liked that they know that older siblings do often have higher IQs than younger ones. How much? One IQ point!

He has a few pages devoted to dismissing the Freudian idea that childhood trama creates an emotional blockage which latter blisters out in ugly behaviors. Those ideas have been extensively tested and they came up wanting.

The Freudian idea that emotions are like water, e.g. if you represses them up they will leak out elsewhere turns out to be extremely wrong. Repressing is fine, and effective. Bottling up doesn’t cause them to stew. No, stewing on them makes them fester. If you nurture a grudge you can turn it into a monster. Living with those is a bummer. If you nurture gratitude, satisfaction, forgiveness, confidence, optimism, etc. etc. you can fill your inner life with kittens.

Search Frequencies/Person & A Public Service Announcement

AOL recently released a huge sample of search engine queries. In a highly questionable move they tied these queries to reasonably anonomous user identifiers; for example we know that user known as #724 searched for “how to install a glue down floor”, as well as “carbol tunnel” etc. He did 366 searchs between March 1st and May 5 2006.

Unsuprisingly the distribution of search generators is power-law distributed. This is a log-log chart. Each dot on the chart represents one AOL users. The vertical axis is how many searches they did; for example the highest dot, aka user 2263543, did 8695 searches. This is only the most active 20 thousand users in this data set, the least active of whom did 313 searches. The complete data set has 657 thousand users, 57 thousand of whom only did one search.

Actually I dropped the most prolific searcher, user #71845, who made over a quarter million searchs; and totally messes up my nice straight line.

Today is national mental health day. I think the most disturbing thing I’ve noticed as I browse this data is the number of people searching for information on how to commit sucide. There are effective treatments for depression.