I recently had a short conversation with a coworker about poverty and providing social services. My coworker expressed the opinion that he’s reluctant to provide social services to poor people since he has observed poor people spending money on luxury items. I told him that I disagreed, but unfortunately we were interrupted by work and never got to finish the conversation.
I’ve been thinking about this conversation since then, and while I have some very firm opinions on this matter, it dawned on me that I may not be able to communicate them very coherently. So, I took this issue to Facebook to get input from friends.
One friend pointed me to research on the psychology of poverty. In summary, the additional cognitive load of being poor directly contributes to poor people making poor decisions. With a little searching, I found this paper (PDF) which offers a good analogy of how one aspect of this works:
Imagine packing for a trip, using either a small or large suitcase. If you have a large suitcase, it is an easy task to pack everything important with room to spare. You may even choose not to completely fill the suitcase. With a small suitcase, however, the task becomes much more complex. If not all important items will fit, you must consider trade-offs, such as what to take out if one more item is added. The suitcase can represent any resource, such as money. In that case, someone with ample resources can easily purchase all needed items with money left over. They may consider the wisdom and value of a particular small purchase, but are not likely to explicitly consider what other item must be given up in its place. In contrast, someone with limited funds must spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about what to purchase, as each item chosen means some other item or items is foregone. In other words, having fewer resources makes decision-making much more complex. Complex problems draw on limited cognitive resources, which in turn means that there are fewer resources available for self-control.
The answers to this Quora question provide an entertaining introduction to several aspects of linguistics: What are some English language rules that native speakers don’t know, but still follow? Among several very good answers, this one is very succinct:
If you want to insert ‘fucking’ in the middle of a word you know exactly where to do it. You say Colo-fuckin-rado, not Co-fuckin-lorado.
Even more surprisingly, if you want to insert ‘diddley’ in the middle of a word, like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, you know where to put that and it’s not the same place. (Note: Flanders’s also duplicates a syllable so it’s slightly different.)
Still more surprisingly, the rule that explains this placement can be explained in terms of prosody which is an entire dimension of linguistic (and almost musical) rules that few people seem to be aware they use.
A couple of months ago, a very creative friend of ours hosted a tie-dye party. It’s actually quite an involved process. You have to soak the shirts for 15 minutes in advance, then tie and dye them, and then 24 hours later, you have to rinse them thoroughly, apply a fixative and then wash them with a fixative detergent.
She purchased the dyes and other chemicals (about $160 worth, I think she said) and then invited several families over to do the tie-dying in her front yard. The following evening, I spent several hours rinsing our clothing on the deck and washing them. We had a lot of fun, and I made the shirt below, as well as a couple of T-shirts. I’m afraid my attention to detail wasn’t very good, but every time I wear this shirt, I get compliments, so I guess I did well enough.
Recently, Charlie Pierce got thinking about how well Americans of one group know others outside their group. He got a polling organization to ask a set of “Do you know anyone who…?” questions, and here are the results:
Results: The percentage of Americans who don’t know anyone who…
- Died in Iraq or Afghanistan: 87%
- Is part of a married gay couple: 76%
- Was a victim of gun violence: 73%
- Has HIV/AIDS or died of AIDS: 72%
- Is an illegal immigrant: 71%
- Is a millionaire: 63%
- Is in jail: 62%
- Committed suicide: 59%
- Had an abortion: 49%
- Lost his/her job in the financial crisis: 46%
- Doesn’t have health care: 31%
- Has been arrested: 26%
- Owns a gun: 22%
- Served in the military: 17%
In reading through the list, I realized I do, in fact, know people who meet almost all of these criteria.
Here are my responses:
- Died in Iraq or Afghanistan: No
- Is part of a married gay couple: Yes
- Was a victim of gun violence: Yes
- Has HIV/AIDS or died of AIDS: Yes
- Is an illegal immigrant: Yes
- Is a millionaire: Yes
- Is in jail: Yes
- Committed suicide: attempted, yes, succeeded, not that I can think of.
- Had an abortion: Yes
- Lost his/her job in the financial crisis: Depends on how you define ‘financial crisis’
- Doesn’t have health care: Yes
- Has been arrested: Yes
- Owns a gun: Yes
- Served in the military: Yes
So, I apparently have a much broader experience than the average American. I would like to think that it makes me more accepting, but I don’t want to flatter myself. I’m not sure what else to take from this survey and my answers except to try to keep in mind that many of the people around me do not have such broad experience with their fellow residents of the US.
I’ve been an avid user of Google Reader for several years, and I am bummed about Google’s decision to shutter it. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about the life of the underlying technology: RSS. In this blog post, Ryan Holiday offers his opinion on why RSS, along with Google alerts and Delicious, is dying:
Think about it: in an ad impression-and pageview-driven business, a service [such as an RSS reader] that allows users to opt out of the noise and get content delivered directly to them is dangerous. When the common practice for bloggers is to publish first, verify second, the paper trail of Google Reader can be an embarrassment. And when sites do everything they can to hook you and increase the critical “time on site” metric or hit you with retargeting cookies, off-site RSS Readers once again stand in the way.
In other words, RSS is impervious to blogging’s worst, but most profitable, traits.
Depressing but probably accurate.
In 1982-83, I was a high school exchange student in Austria. A few months after I returned home, my friend Jim sent me the political poster below that he had found in Graz. He identified the blond guy on the left with the bandaged head as me. It sure looks like me, and it was–and still is–very common to find me with a bumped head, but I had no recollection of this photo being taken. So, either I attended a political event that I don’t remember or my Austrian doppelgänger did.
I received my Ph.D. in Germanic Studies from the University of Texas in 1997, but I work as a software quality assurance engineer. I do not directly use my language/culture/literature education in my work, but I started out as a computational linguist in jobs which very much required my educational background. I was recently invited to talk with the students currently enrolled in my graduate program about career opportunities outside of the academy. How could I offer any kind of advice when I didn’t really have any particular plan before the age of 30? After a lot of soul searching, I settled on describing it this way: I was the recipient of some significant good luck, but only because I was open to a variety of experiences did I take advantage of the luck when it presented itself.
The biggest break came after six years in grad school. I had completed my coursework, was working on my dissertation and was beginning to think about my longer-term future. I admitted that I wasn’t particularly passionate any longer about my academic area (if I’d ever been very passionate, to be honest). Therefore, there was no reason to believe that I would be among the smallish percentage of my peers who would get good jobs in academia. So, I made a conscious decision to open myself up to other opportunities. Very shortly after this self-confession, there was a part-time job opening for a English-to-German lexical coder and quality analyst with the Metal machine translation project (which was, at the time, owned by Siemens and maintained a development office at UT). To make a long story short, this job led to a full-time job as a software quality assurance engineer with Logos machine translation and ultimately to my career as a software QA engineer.
As far as I know, I was the only one of 20 or so qualified grad students who applied for the Metal position. There are very few industry applications for my graduate education, and working in machine translation was one of them, but most of my peers were so focused on the very narrow path that was presented to them by their graduate program that they didn’t even think to try out this opportunity. Tellingly, when I decided to pursue this path instead of one directly in the academy, some of the faculty members in my program wrote me off. They didn’t consider my job as a computational linguist a valid career choice for my education.
So, my advice to the current grad students was to think more broadly of the skills that they’ve acquired in grad school and just to be open to the opportunities that fate places in our paths. You just never know what might come along, and if you’re not open to it, you might not recognize an interesting opportunity when it presents itself.
Marco Arment‘s new project, which he’s calling The Pinboard Investment Co-Prosperity Cloud, is brilliant. As a counter to the typical get-your-investors-rich-quickly model of venture capital investment in startups, Marco believes that ” social capital [not money] has become the bottleneck to success.” Therefore, Marco is backing innovative projects with his own social capital: his ability to get “world to go look at what you made.”
Having worked in numerous startups (including one that refused venture capital), I’ve long been critical of the VC model of investment. My primary criticism is that it reinforces short-term, get-rich-quick thinking, not a view for the long term viability of the product or services. Marco holds similar beliefs and furthermore, he has the ability to help give a leg up to innovators who aren’t interested in, or aren’t appealing to, the venture capital model.