Archive for the ‘Random Life Stuff’ Category

This is the second part of my thinking.  Is it related to the first? Do I completely contradict myself?  Probably. If my experience with my parents tells me anything, that’s what happens when you get old. 

A few things have happened in the last few weeks which have made me thinking about the ways in which we communicate with each other.

The first involved meeting K’s parents last month, where we shared no languages in common. They were very nice, but we will never really know what the other is thinking unless Google Glass invents a subtitle function. It was so different because as an English speaker, I am so accustomed to people accommodating my language requirements that I am not often presented with cases where this can’t happen. It does become taken for granted. On a side note, I think this subtitles thing could be a wicked function, Google.

The second was at work. One of the partners at my firm looks kind of like my mom, and I think if my mom had more money growing up or was born ten years later, she may have ended up with the same kind of life – Beijing University, Oxford educated, the works. We were in the kitchen during free fruit Wednesday and she was talking about the challenges of trying to get her daughter to speak Mandarin in a house were she is the only speaker (her husband is English I think), and despite her best efforts, it was difficult to teach a language to a child when she doesn’t have the opportunity to constantly hear it being used in context. I pointed out, that even as that child, in a household with two native Mandarin speakers, I’d lost a lot of my potential ability to speak in that language the second I went to an English speaking school.

The main value of language, and why it is so hard to create a desire to save small ones, is that the value doesn’t come from knowing it, but from the sharing of it between two people who are already at a minimum level of fluency. For example, me and K:

language venn diagram 1

And only those located at intersections are maintained.  It becomes a critical mass effect where over the course of many years (and especially with the internet), it’s not that the common piece of the intersection is shrinking in terms of language options, it is just that more and more people are adding their own language circles to the mix, which is reducing the number of languages that can be considered universally shared.

language venn diagram 2

When a two parent family where each parent is from different language cultures then decides to raise children, the effect is probably amplified since communication happens at the intersection (as in the case with the partner at work). The next generation then has an over-exposure to the intersection of the diagram and not enough at the edges. Not to say it is impossible, but since fluency is something that requires a lot of constant exposure, it would most likely come from the language that parents are most frequently using for communication themselves. Maybe fluency at the fringe languages  requires a Herculean effort to expose children to mother tongues.

When I was a kid I never understood why my parents used to make me go back to China for the summers. Besides being a relief from babysitting, it was a great opportunity for them to expose me to the language that I came from, without having to battle the constant influx of English language influences that I would face at Canadian summer camp. I used to hate it, but now I am grateful for their concerted effort not to give up on me. At several points in my childhood they also cancelled cable and started exclusively streaming Chinese shows off the internet, which also used to annoy me because it wasn’t MTV.  I’ve lost a lot of the ability to speak now, but sometimes, I listen to a show or something in Mandarin and it feels like being in the house again. I wonder if I will be strong enough to have the same kind of commitment to teaching anyone else Mandarin that my parents had with me, especially if I’m alone in that regard.

I’m not sure what the future will hold, but maybe it will look something like my dinner table last night. There was sweet potato noodles (japchae, I know, it is Korean, but I love it), sitting next to a baguette and about six different types of cured Spanish sausages. None of it was consistent, but we will each bring what we like to the table, meeting at the intersection, and figure out our lives as we go.


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Mathematicians like to take the fun out of everything, according to non-mathematicians. I like think more of this as a fun-replacement, with a new language of fun that most people hate. This may be because the only thing I got for Christmas from Santa were math books. For example, K bought me this book, Things to do and make in the fourth dimension, which takes all sorts of mundane topics, like knots, and bubbles, and adds a fun-jection of math.

The Secretary Problem goes something like this: you are interviewing potential candidates for a secretary position, and there are twenty lined up outside the office waiting for their turn.  The interview is done one at a time.  We live in an archaic world where email communication is not possible, so your only chance to provide feedback to the candidates is to give them a yes or no at the end of their interview. We also live in a seller’s market, in the sense that once you say no, a candidate becomes so angry that he/she will storm off with a permanent grudge, never to return again. So you better be sure your ‘no’ is justified. You are also afraid that if you say yes to a candidate, there may have been someone further down the queue, who may have been better suited for the job.

This has (well, I think) a more direct application in the romance market. It also been called the Marriage Problem, which makes sense in a world where people date sequentially (assuming you aren’t dating multiple people simultaneously), and also that once you break up with someone, they will never come back. Once you marry someone, you are committed to them forever. That means you stop dating. You are also afraid of this:


. . . .

So obviously, math came in and found the least romantic way to optimally find happiness by avoiding the situation above, but also the one where you date 20 people, reject all of them out of risk averse-ness and end up alone forever. Not that being alone is some horrible life sentence anyways! Who decided that? Ugh. The point is, based on an assumed distribution the quality of your potential mates (I forget which one, probably normal?), the optimal strategy would be to take your entire useful dating life (let’s assume, you are planning on dating from when you are 18 to when you are 33), play the field without committing to anyone for the first 1/3 of that period (date until you are 23 sans commitment), and then choose the first person who comes along after this period which is better than anyone you observed previously. Obviously, there are risks, but without any foresight, this is theoretically the optimal way to maximize your chances of finding the best partner.

There are some potential caveats to why the direct transposition of the Secretary Problem onto the Marriage problem doesn’t make sense, so don’t run off and breakup with your person just yet:

  • Unlike interviews, your observations of eligible candidates can occur while you are still in a relationship. Well, take from this what you want, but I mean in the sense that while you are with someone, you are observing people around them, and are free to make passive evaluations on whether or not they would be a good partner without anyone being the wiser. This should mean that your search time goes down, since you are collecting information on what’s out there all the time.
  • Unlike interviews, your pool is changing. Sometimes, rapidly so. In the interviews, your pool of 20 candidates is captive, sitting there and waiting for you to make decisions. In romance, I’m going to assume that as you get older, and making a very simplifying assumption that you are looking for someone around your age (ahem), you are going to find that this pool is shrinking from death/marriage and commitment to people who are not you. I feel like once I hit 23 (which is ridiculous), the number of weddings popping up on Facebook started to blow up my newsfeed. Do these people know about the optimization? Did they all meet the best person right after their evaluation window ended? That means that you may have to spend more time searching before you find someone suitable.
  • Unlike interviews, you can observe what other people are doing and apply their experiences to your own search. Based on those previously mentioned weddings, your friends, what your family is telling you, you probably have a lot of research done for you on what a happy relationship looks like. You also have a lot of information on what a crazy relationship looks like.  You will probably use this in some way to better your understanding of what you are looking for, which makes your search time go down.
  • Your secretaries are interviewing their own secretaries. They may be applying the exact same type of optimization simultaneously, which makes the whole problem kind of a problem within a problem within a yeah . . .

Which one of these competing forces will win? I’m not sure, but I think that the last two are key.  I more than anyone would love a well-reasoned approach to all my living sources of happiness, but who really knows what they are doing?

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Happy belated Valentine’s Day! It’s time to think about love. Math love.

While Scarlet O’Hara was brazenly optimistic in proclaiming tomorrow a new day, the reality is that she was just being naive – no day exists in a vacuum.  It’s unlikely that Rhett would feel differently about Miss Scarlett a day after walking out on their marriage. It’s also probably likely that the mood you were in when you went to bed will affect how you start your day eight hours later, especially if you were in a really sour one. But as the day goes on, you are likely to be affected by little bumps in the road, little surprises throughout the day that you weren’t expecting (either a welcome or negative).

This is an especially tough problem for statisticians and macroeconomists to figure out, for all macroeconomic indicators, such as unemployment, inflation or GDP.  Today’s unemployment rate is a function of yesterday’s.  Yesterday’s rate is affected by the day before that, and so on. It becomes one of those picture in a picture in a picture headaches that you’ve probably seen before.


I’ve recently been thinking about this issue, but in the context of love. What happens if you meet someone amazing and wonderful, and he or she is perfect, but the beginning of the relationship itself is rather tumultuous? Can you make things peaceful despite a crazy start?  Can something that starts crazy, not implode? I think that maybe it’s going to be fine.  Actually, I know it’s going to be more than fine.

Let’s say this is the function of how you feel about someone in month t. But this is also a function of how you felt about them for the last 12 consecutive months. In each month you also introduce the new shock – a major life event, money problems, babies, etc.

love var

So t=1.  It’s the beginning, there are no past values to tell you how to feel about someone. The craziness of the beginning manifests itself in the error term. But the next month, you know that your relationship is also a function of the first month, which includes with it, the first period shock. This shows up again and again, month after month, influencing the relationship every month for the first year. Furthermore, you know that one year from how, your relationship is a function of the state it was in for each of the twelve months prior, which are all affected by that one first period shock. It’s one big chain reaction.

The stability depends on whether the entire relationship is covariance stationary. It’s a bit of math that boils down to whether you can solve for the zeros in an equation where you are trying to solve for L values. If it is, then over time, over enough time, even a big shock in the beginning will be absorbed by the inherent stability of the system and become smoothed over time.  If it isn’t then, the system isn’t stable, and any small disruptions, will cause the relationship to spiral wildly out of control.

The covariance stationary single-variable relationship will be fine, as long as you can ride out the initial crash landing.  Anything that isn’t, is already doomed. So in a way, there’s really no point in wondering whether a relationship can survive an initial big shock, or what you can do – it’s already been pre-determined. For Miss Scarlett, there’s nothing she can do to bring Rhett back. For the rest of us, it may be a relief to know that as time goes on, a system that is inherently resilient, will be able to weather the occasional big storm.

On an interesting sidenote, I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about applying econometric models to relationships – there’s been work on determining whether this can be used to estimate, in a two variable case, whether two countries will stabilise a chilly relationship or spiral into nuclear war.  In reality, using vector autoregressions to figure out whether or not nuclear escalation is likely, even when looking at ex post examples, is actually pretty tricky. Read about it here.

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I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately on the role that sports plays in life, a lot of this due to my own recent attempts at finding a procrastination method for exams.  The UK Open is coming up, you say? So are my essay deadlines?  Well, how convenient:


In my opinion, this year has really been a disappointing one for the sports world.  There are a few positive notes; the NBA sees its first, openly gay, non-retired player in Jason Collins.  But then, there’s so many epic fails. Ronda Rousey’s debut in the UFC was met with one of three reactions:

1) Sure, why not?

1) She’s hot, so why not?

2) There’s a troubling undercurrent of aggression and defensiveness over women headlining a card.  Critics on facebook are complaining that the women’s fights will be all hair pulling and scratching (those aren’t even legal techniques) or that they aren’t skilled fighters (they are), or that they are skilled but not well rounded (potentially not so far, but was Royce Gracie well rounded in the first men’s UFC event? Give the ladies division a decade to develop and then come back to me if you don’t find them amazingly technical).

MMA fans apparently want MMA to both simultaneously be taken seriously as a legitimate sport but also be exclusively practiced by large toothless redneck men.  And this argument over women’s participation? While the NBA has a player come out of the closet?  Are we in the fifties again?  Is this the church of England?  How did we move so far backwards socially?    I’m embarrassed.

Sporting culture has become the last great bastion in the public sphere which sees such open expressions of people being intolerant or generally acting like ignoramuses (ignorami?).  What is it specifically about sports that brings out this side of its fans, or is it the fans that are themselves a special breed?

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Today, one of my medical school friends admitted to me that because of the workload, he’s been in and out of colds 12-15 times in the last year.  That’s quite inhuman.  If the common cold and it’s post-cold state of phlegminess lasts roughly 10 days per occurrence, that’s  over a third of the year being subjected to headaches, joint-aches, bizarre body-induced temperature changes, and all sorts of wonderful pains in vicinity of the head.  I had one particularly bad year in undergraduate where I was sick at the beginning of every calendar month, and I have had some sort an irrational obsession with eating oranges ever since.

Personally, Canada’s system has been great to me; I’ve been in and out of emergency rooms without a hitch, and while the wait times have sometimes been in the range of hours, I have never really needed immediately treatment, so I can’t really judge their efficacy.  Some people are arguing that our healthcare system is in need of some reworking in order to bring in elements of privatisation, while some people think not enough money has been invested in a public system to enable its success.  I’m starting to think it may have something to do with this:

New York City Hospitals to Tie Doctors Performance Pay to Quality Measures

If we are just now, starting to pay doctors, for the kinds of things we want to see from them, then what the hell were we paying them for before?

Our fundamental problem is that we don’t live in a society where we fully understand what we want from our healthcare system.   The quintessential North American system looks something like this:

1) ignore a problem

2) ignore it

3) ignore it

4) it becomes a big problem, go to a hospital, ask to be pumped full of drugs, get discharged

We live in a culture full of last-minute treatments, and these often involve lots of strong, expensive drugs.  There’s no culture of “health ideals” or ways for us to maintain our ideal health; our media is always telling us about malnourished celebrities, or overweight talk show disasters, or a new crop of shows in the Oprah timeslot which are all about exploiting people’s lack of familiarity with health by highlighting all the worst possible diseases one can get.  Our problems will likely continue if we have no benchmark upon which to assess our day-to-day state of health.

It is impossible to ask our public health system to deliver on a set of ideals if we cannot define them first.  Until then, it’s potential role is largely ignored, while preventative measures are glossed over, and individuals carry on with their lives and run themselves down to the point where the only solution is a drastic overhaul.  Public health’s role is only to intervene with the permission of those who are already broken down.

Our society’s relationship with public health and healthcare is similar to my understanding of wines; I like having it as an option, but I don’t really understand, and therefore I don’t really appreciate, what an ideal glass of it would do for me.

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Two weeks into my arrival in London and I’m getting my ass kicked by a “review” math course right now.  It’s ridiculous.


The class is pretty polarized into extremes with not that many people in the middle, which is kind of similar to the Business Writing course that they made us take in undergraduate.  Essentially, if you have no idea what’s going on before the course, the course does not really fulfill its role of fully introducing you to a topic (given they cover like, 4 or 5 terms of information in 15 days) but if you have already seen it before (because you are planning on doing a PhD, or already have a Masters, or are just freaky smart) then it will bore you to tears.  I’m on the first end of the extreme.  At least that’s how I feel given my propensity to hyperbolize (which is something that I should remember from calc, but don’t.)

It also polarized the class into those who are interested in economics mainly for academic purposes (papers, research, a career as a prof) and those who took this but are actually going into an MPA class (which is more for those who are geared towards some kind of job after grad).  I used to be kind of a quant/academic snob and think that theory and rigour, and an understanding of these concepts, made me better than my social science counterparts.  I’ve fully become one of those counterparts.  We’ve done so much stuff in probability densities, Lagrange, manipulations of matrices and vectors and what’s quasiconvex but not convex but actually also concave . . . . I’m starting to see why it’s dangerous.

It’s so easy to get lost in a see of Greek letters and to forget what you are actually trying to do, which is (positively) influence people’s lives and choices.  We ain’t doing this for fun!  But being surrounded by the objectiveness of the math can make it easy to think that our manipulations of the real world are so insignificant that we can shuffle them across both sides of an equal sign, when really they can represent millions of people.  I always felt like the world was opposed to academia for being detached from her worries, and the danger is real.  Economists who operate with “moral awareness” like Amartya Sen are rare because after hours of studying equations in the library, it can be easy to forget to be human.

I don’t like the way the world pits “street” vs “book” smarts.  If I had to choose, I’d prefer to be on the side of “street” but I’d love the credentials on the other side.  Mainly because I don’t want to take the same side as Ron Paul.

Related Video: “Street vs. Book, Paul vs. Paul” (I’ll side with Krugman)

Paul vs. Paul

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Yippee!!! Into the MPA in Public and Economic Policy.

I’m in!  Starting in September, I’ll be in the UK surrounded by new ideas, people and a new adventure.


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