Friday, April 29, 2011

Television

The Mexican home has been transformed. In 1990, one in five dwellings had a bare-earth floor. Now only 6% do. Virtually all have electricity, whereas 20 years ago one in ten went without. A tenth still lack sewerage, but this is better than the figure of one in three in 1990.
More interesting still is what Mexicans put in those homes. More houses have televisions (93%) than fridges (82%) or showers (65%). In a hot country with dreadful television this is curious.

I vaguely remember, in my childhood, a pastor reciting a couple of statistics about rural southerners. He said something like, "99% of houses have televisions, and 95% have indoor plumbing. This means that 4% of the population goes to the outhouse during halftime." And now it would seem that about 3% of Mexicans go to the outhouse during commercial breaks.

He was probably talking about the power that television had over our culture. As an economist, I will defend the rights of people to make choices about their own lives. But I still cannot figure out why they make them. Why does television have such a power over the human mind?

Rock Climbing

Yesterday I went to the rock climbing wall in the gym. I met someone I knew from philosophy club, and he showed me the basics. I have been on climbing walls before, but I now realize that what I did before was just super-simple amateur playing. I had never done actual bouldering problems before, and it showed. I could barely handle the easiest V0 stuff.

It is amazing how specific your muscle and skill development can get. I can easily fling myself up a flat 9-foot wall, grab the top, and pull myself up. I can climb trees very quickly and easily. But when I cannot get a running start, and when I cannot wrap my hands around something large and solid, my ability to scale a surface suffers an alarming decline. In rock climbing, you have to navigate precarious grips one careful limb movement at a time, and keep your body well-balanced. It is a different problem than I have faced before, and my skills do not transfer well.

It has been a long time since I tried any physical activity and found myself doing so badly compared to others around me. I will have to work to develop both the muscles and the skills needed for this. Despite the fact that I am in very good shape, my forearms got tired pretty quickly, my back is sore today. Next semester, I will try to get in the habit of doing this for a half-hour before my martial arts practice, at least once a week.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Links

Race and Economics: A short Sowell column reviewing an economics book. Unemployment among black people was lower than unemployment among whites before the government passed minimum wage laws. Those laws were basically the result of white union workers trying to remove the competition from nonunion black workers. The entrenched poverty and unemployment among black people is mainly due to bad government policies.

College Costs Linked to Risky Teen Behavior Research shows a correlation between high community college costs and self-destructive behavior. When reading things like this, always remember that correlation is not causation, but it certainly is plausible that people are more self-destructive when they see less chance of a good future.

In Defense of Flogging

I propose we give convicts the choice of the lash at the rate of two lashes per year of incarceration. One cannot reasonably argue that merely offering this choice is somehow cruel, especially when the status quo of incarceration remains an option. Prison means losing a part of your life and everything you care for. Compared with this, flogging is just a few very painful strokes on the backside. And it's over in a few minutes. ...
My defense of flogging—whipping, caning, lashing, call it what you will—is meant to be provocative, but only because something extreme is needed to shatter the status quo. We are in denial about the brutality of the uniquely American invention of mass incarceration. In 1970, before the war on drugs and a plethora of get-tough laws increased sentence lengths and the number of nonviolent offenders in prison, 338,000 Americans were incarcerated. There was even hope that prisons would simply fade into the dustbin of history. That didn't happen.

I have discussed a similar thing in the past. Of course, my proposal is more scientific than old-fashioned flogging.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Preferences

The life of the rural poor is extremely boring, with repetitive back-breaking tasks interrupted by periods of enforced idleness ....
the authors remark, "things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor". They tell the story of meeting a Moroccan farmer, Oucha Mbarbk. They ask him what would he do if he had a bit more money. Buy some more food, came the reply. What would he do if he had even more money? Buy better, tastier food. "We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player." Why had he bought all this if he didn't have enough money for food? "He laughed and said 'Oh, but television is more important than food.'"


Before you look down on this guy, remember that the revealed preferences of most Americans show that television is more important to them than their health. Americans would never answer the question so honestly, but just look at where they choose to spend their time.

Best Excuse Ever

One of the students in my class is a maintenance tech taking advantage of a benefit that all staff at the university get: one free class per semester. He is not the brightest student in the class, but he is a hard worker and a good guy. He always shows up at my 8:00 class wearing his 'Facilities' uniform, and his questions show that he is really thinking about the real-world applications of the stuff I teach.

He missed the last two classes without an explanation, which was unusual. Today during my office hours, he stopped by, wearing a diaposable tyvek chemical suit, apologized for missing class, and explained that he had been busy dealing with a large chemical spill in the nearby lab building

That definitely counts as 'excused absence'.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Return to Arlington

Last weekend I was in Washington for an academic seminar. After it was over, and before my flight back, I went back to Arlington National Cemetery. It is the perfect little side trip if you are in Washington on a busy schedule, because it is only a couple metro stops away from the airport. I also like going there. It always has a strong effect on me.

It was different than the last time I went. The weather was much nicer, and it was a weekend, so it was pretty crowded. The crowds and weather robbed the place of a lot of its character, making it feel more like a park and less like a shrine.

In no particular order, here are some musings and observations, based on my memories and notes that I wrote down:

What does it say about our country and our military that we choose to lay our honored dead in precise geometric precision?

The changing of the guard to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an interesting ritual. I wonder what the history is behind the exaggerated leg swing and the loud heel clicking. Even the regular pacing of the guard feels so mechanical. This seems to be a relic of the old days of the army when keeping formation was the key to winning. Marching-band style maneuvers have been obsolete on the battlefield for over 170 years, but they still linger on in the rituals, training, and traditions of the military. That kind of thing does not just happen in the military; it is fairly common for actions to go from practical to ritualistic as technology changes.

I overheard this just after the guard change:

Little Asian girl: "If he is the guard and he has a gun, does that mean he will shoot anyone who goes to the tomb?"
Her mother: "I don't think so."

The mother seemed disoriented by the question. I understand why. How could you possibly explain this kind of symbolism to a little child? I did not even know if the gun was loaded. When I was there, I thought they were carrying M1 Garand rifles. You cannot tell if those are loaded or not. I just looked it up, however, and learned that the rifles are actually M14's, and that they are not loaded.

If I have to answer a question like that in the future, I will probably say something like "No, he will only shoot you if he thinks you have a gun."

I noticed a lot of jet noise from the airport. It definitely was distracting. I wonder if people complained about the airport being built so close to the cemetery

It was fascinating to look closely at all of the memorials in the display hall. The ones from American civic groups are kind of boring, but the ones from foreign leaders are very interesting:



All of the items in the picture above were presented by the Japanese. Japanese prime ministers and government officials often come to Arlington. I am not sure why. I know that it is traditional for foreign diplomats to visit Arlington to show solidarity with and respect for the USA. However, from what little I know of Japanese culture, it seems like this would be a humiliation. I wonder what it feels like to pay your respects at a place where the pilots who dropped atomic bombs on your country are buried and honored. Politics being what they are, we will probably never get an honest answer to the question of their feelings and motivations.


This is really impressive. More people should make plaques like this.


This is a mere club presented by the prime minister of New Zealand. I know that this is considered a sacred weapon, a symbol of honor and power, but it still feels very odd. How would all of the veterans of the Indian Wars buried at Arlington feel if they knew if a visit to their tombs was memorialized with the weapon of a "savage" like the ones they had been fighting?

There is a big wooden plaque from the 19th century from "The Grand Army of the Republic." I must confess that when I saw this I immediately thought of Star Wars. People do not use names like that any more; they are confined to history and fantasy. I was somewhat relieved when I looked it up and found that this was the Union solder veteran's organization, and not a name used by our actual military or government.

One final note: What is your reaction to this picture?

Give me your gut reaction in the comments.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Chinese in Africa

Labour inspectors in Lusaka, who monitor sweatshops, have use of only one car and recently it was broken for four months. In the meantime Chinese engineers built an entire cluster of garment factories from scratch.


The saga of the Chinese economic colonization of Africa really is amazing. I have written about it before. The feature that was not apparent a few years ago is the amount of individual entrepreneurial activity, in addition to the big state companies. The big companies are still digging resources and building roads, but we also see individual Chinese families going to Africa to open shops, just like they used to come to the USA.

This small-scale investment is going to be good for Africa, generating more benefits for the people than resource extraction. Any large influx of capital investment and managerial skill will help an economy.

Missing Things

"Statistically speaking, you will die having missed almost everything."

( I posted this yesterday but got the link wrong. )

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Siren Test

Earlier today there was a siren test on campus. For some reason, I really like hearing the sounds of large warning sirens. I know this is totally irrational, but I feel that they have a kind of ethereal beauty to them. Every other kind of loud artificial sound is disruptive and annoying, but sirens are soothing.

I think the scale and regularity of the sound are part of it. I also like the sound of the wind whistling through trees or rocks.

But there is more than that. The sound of big warning sirens is an icon of law and order. It takes an advanced civilization with good engineering skills to produce that sound. The sound represents infrastructure, and disaster preparation, a bulwark against the forces of chaos. It is designed for communication; it has a rational purpose. Any tribe of primitive savages can produce music, but only a well-organized modern civilization can produce the sound of a siren.

Of course, it is entirely possible that the sound was specifically designed to make people feel this way, in order to keep us calm in a disaster, and this post has been nothing more than a confabulation.

Standardized Testing

Here's a good analysis on testing in schools. It talks about the difficulty of measuring and controlling a complex system.

Basically, standardized testing is a clumsy, ham-handed reaction to the very real problem that there are a lot of lousy teachers that are hard to get rid of. The damage that bad teachers do is so severe that any system that gets rid of them will probably have large net benefits, even if there is a lot of collateral damage along the way. It would be nice if we could get rid of the loser teachers without causing this damage, but nobody has a credible way to do this.

What I'd like to know is how the elite private schools manage their teachers. My guess is that they hire the best people they can and let them do whatever they want, just like good universities do.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Research Notes: Children and Wealth

A lot of people believe that a person's success in life depends mainly on how that person was treated as a child. A corollary of this belief is the idea that wealth will become entrenched, as rich people raise their children in such a way that the children are more likely to become rich.

It turns out that nurture is not nearly as powerful as people think. Once you pass a fairly low threshold of parenting quality, so that the child is not abused or neglected, parenting has very little impact on how children turn out:

The most prominent conclusion of twin research is that practically everything—health, intelligence, happiness, success, personality, values, interests—is partly genetic. The evidence is straightforward: Identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins in almost every way—even when the twins are separated at birth. But twin research has another far more amazing lesson: With a few exceptions, the effect of parenting on adult outcomes ranges from small to zero. Parents change kids in many ways; the catch is that the changes fade out as kids grow up.  By adulthood, identical twins aren't slightly more similar than fraternal twins; they're much more similar.  And when identical twins are raised apart, they're often just as similar as they are when they're raised together.

Source ( Short, general interest newspaper article, read the whole thing )

More evidence for this comes from recent research ( long complicated academic paper ) on wealth across generations in England over the past thousand years. When last names were first assigned, they were closely correlated with your economic status. At first, people with 'artisan names' like Baker and Miller did not show up at all as Oxford students or in wills of rich people. But over time, these names started to appear in the ranks of rich people, until the fraction of rich people with these names was equal to the fraction of the general population with these names.  Meanwhile, names that appeared only among the Norman conquerers went from being a big fraction of the rich to a normal fraction.

In other words, there was quite a bit of social mobility. Poor people got rich, and rich people became poor, exactly what you would expect if earnings were mainly based on genetics and not upbringing. The process took generations, but over time the rich families were not able to maintain a privileged position. The money, education, and connections people inherited during childhood did not change things very much.

This paper claims that social mobility, as measured by names, has actually gone down in recent centuries. If this is true*, it could mean that rich parents have gotten better at raising their kids, increasing the effect of nurture.

Of course, if science ever advances to the point where people can directly control the genetics of their children, this question of nature versus nurture becomes meaningless. But until then, there is a big pile of evidence showing that 

you can lighten up a lot without hurting your kids.
Serenity Parenting changed our lives. We used the Ferber method—let the kid cry for 10 minutes, briefly comfort him, repeat—to get our twins to sleep through the night. We enrolled them in an activity or two, but they spent a lot more time watching cartoons while we relaxed. Our family specialized in activities that were literally "fun for the whole family": reading books together, playing dodgeball in the basement, going to the pool for a swim. If "Lighten up" was the only practical lesson of twin research, my reading had more than paid for itself.

*The paper has several problems, and makes more claims than the data can support.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Deference

A few minutes ago, I was sitting outside my apartment reading a book and enjoying the evening. Two women and several children walked by. The children were happily chattering. Upon seeing me, one of the women said to the children, "Be quiet, he is trying to read."

I am wondering why she did this. I was certainly not annoyed or upset by the children, and I hope that I did not look as if I was. Maybe she was trying to teach them manners, but there is no system of morality of etiquette I know of that requires people on a street in the early evening to be quiet. It is a public space, and I should not have any expectation of silence or privacy. If I wanted quiet, I would go in my apartment and shut the door.

It is possible that she just wanted them to be quiet and was using my presence as an excuse to demand silence. But either way, the lesson was wrong. They should not be asked to alter their normal behavior in a public space just because someone else is quietly sitting there.

I do not remember people being so deferential to me in the past. This is not an isolated incident. It seems that people greet me and hold doors open for me much more than they used to. It is somewhat disconcerting. I know that I have become more social and self-confident in the last few years, as well as more physically fit. It seems that this has made me more intimidating. Perhaps people subconsciously see me as a higher-status person who should be given more respect.

In recent years, I have become aware that a great deal of human behavior is determined by emotion and instinct rather than logic and the rules of society. Maybe I am imagining things here, and instinct had nothing to do with that woman telling the children to defer to me. I would like to know why she said that, but I never will.

Alexander Hamilton Rap

This is old, but I recently learned of it.


A couple comments:

Hamilton is my favorite Founding Father. Idealistic revolutionaries, charismatic leaders, and military geniuses are a dime a dozen, but a person who can handle government finances well, and design good economic and political institutions, is much rarer. If you look at the history of our country, the thing that really sets us apart is the strength of our financial system. New countries usually crash and burn because of money issues, but Hamilton's policies helped us avoid that fate.

The guy who raps this is a very experienced performer, a veteran of literally a thousand Broadway shows. And yet, his song introduction is full of vocalized pauses and he comes across as a nervous, stammering novice to public speaking. The fact that he was performing for the President of the United States probably had something to do with it. It shows how anyone can choke in a high-pressure situation. But once he got going with the rap, he was fine. That shows the importance of practice and experience.

Digital Africa

The front-line in Mogadishu was just beyond the ruined cathedral. You could hear the small-arms fire of the al-Qaeda fighters and the return of heavy machinegun-fire from the sandbagged positions of the African Union troops. But the scene on the sun-washed street in the Hamarweyne district was calm. Women were shopping for fruit and vegetables, and the ciabatta and pasta Mogadishu gained a taste for in its Italian colonial days. A couple of caf├ęs, serving also as electronics shops, were crowded, with people inside making voip phone calls and surfing the internet. Outside on the street boys were fiddling with mobile phones, Nokia and Samsung mostly, but also those fantastical Chinese models you find in poorer countries, nameless, with plastic dragon-like construction, heavy on battery-guzzling features like television tuners. I asked my Somali companion what the boys were up to. He wound down the window and summoned his gunmen to go and ask. The answer came back. "They're updating their Facebook profiles."

Technology is changing the world more quickly and more thoroughly than you can imagine. Many of these Africans have mobile phones that are better than the one I had last year.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Religious Ritual

Raising a vodka shot to Allah used to be standard practice in the Caucasus


The world is far more interesting and complicated than you think.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tip of the Day

If you really hate something and write a negative review, do not use good grammar. Research has found that negative hotel reviews with good spelling and grammar actually increase demand for the place. We don't know if this applied to all products, but it seems to. The key seems to be that 

reviews that rate products negatively can be associated with increased product sales when the review text is informative and detailed

which seems to confirm the old dictum that any publicity is good publicity. When people know more, they feel more comfortable buying, even if the knowledge is negative. I would guess that the negativity of the review serves as a signal of honesty, you know that the detailed information is not coming from a shill so you are more likely to trust it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stupid Money Mistakes

This post is somewhat related to the last one, but it was mainly inspired by a conversation I had with one of the professors yesterday.

Aside from monitoring and reducing your consumption, the best thing you can do for your finances is to pay off your debts. If you have any debt, then all of your spare cash should go, before anything else, to getting rid of that debt. You should almost never* save money while you still have debts to pay off. Investing money while you still owe debts is a sure way to waste and destroy your money. You will always be paying more interest on your debts than you earn on your investments, after adjusting for risk.

To see why this is true, consider things from the point of view of the person who loaned you money. They have access to all of the investment opportunities you do. In the case of banks and other financial institutions, they have access to even better opportunities, and they will pay less fees. The reason they are lending money to you is that they are earning more money off of you than they could earn from any other investment. Think about that for a minute. You are paying the bank a higher interest rate, after adjusting for risk, than they could get from any other investment opportunity they have access to. It should be obvious that borrowing money from a bank to invest in the stock market is dumb. If you do so, you are claiming that you are a better investor than a collection of very smart people who spend their lives studying investments.

One basic lesson of Economics is that there is a single, risk-free interest rate in the economy.  Any difference in interest rates that you observe comes from risk. If the interest rate for an investment is higher, then it will be more risky. Guaranteed. If you do not know where the risk is, then it is hiding in a dark corner somewhere and it will probably come out to bite you at the worst possible time. This risk-return tradeoff is the mirror image of the fact that a better credit score will get you a lower interest rate. You are less risky, so the lender accepts a lower return.

Differences in risk-adjusted interest rates cannot persist. If average returns are higher in the stock market, then banks and traders will buy stocks, pushing their price up and making their returns lower. If something has had high returns in the past, that does not mean it will have high returns in the future. If anything, it means that it is overpriced right now.

When you invest, you will, on average, get slightly less than the risk-free rate, because of transactions costs. Even with the lowest-fee index fund, you will pay a small percentage of your money each year. Conversely, when you borrow, you will always pay more than the risk-free rate. There is some chance that you will default, and the bank will charge you a higher rate because of that. If you borrow money and invest it, you are bleeding cash on both parts of the transaction. There is a chance you might get lucky, but it is just like gambling in the casino: the house always takes its cut, and on average you will lose.

Paying off your debts is therefore the best investment you can make. You get a guaranteed, risk-free return equal to the interest rate you were paying on your debt, and you get that return for an amount of time equal to what the lifetime of the debt would have been. If you have 25 years left on a mortgage with a 6% fixed rate, then paying off an extra $100 of that mortgage is like investing $100 in a perfectly safe bank account that will pay you 6% each year for the next 25 years. You will never find an investment that good anywhere else; that is at least 4% above the current risk-free interest rate.

If you have debts, the only reason to keep cash around is because you might need it in a hurry. You will probably want to keep a couple thousand in an easily accessible account, to handle your normal bills and things like unexpected car repairs or house repairs. It is worth losing the interest there to make sure you never have to pay credit card interest rates. If you have a bigger expense, like medical bills, then you can deal with that by taking out a home equity loan. If you have been paying extra on your mortgage, you will have plenty of equity to draw on, and you will have been 'earning' a much higher interest rate.

Despite this, a huge number of Americans routinely put money in retirement accounts or bank accounts or mutual funds while still owing debts. If you are one of those people, you need to change this today. Draw on any savings you can get without paying fees, and use that money to get rid of debts. It is the closest thing to free money you will ever see.

Of course, after you do this you have to make sure that you keep saving when the debt goes away. Immediately after you pay off the mortgage, take all the money you would have paid on the mortgage and have it deducted from your paycheck and put in your retirement account.

If you step back and look at things from an outside view, it is really strange that anyone would be a borrower and a lender simultaneously. It just does not make sense. And yet, we have a culture that considers this bizarre situation to be normal, expected, and even proper. The end result of this is that the financial industry makes massive profits. They lend money to you at high rates, and you turn around and lend it back to them at low rates. When future generations look back on our society, they will probably see this as obvious folly and they will wonder why everyone fell for it and why society encouraged it.

If I have convinced you, you can stop reading now. Go pay off your debts, if you have any spare cash. If you don't have any debts, remember to pay for your next car in cash, drawing down your savings to do so. If you still don't believe me, keep reading. I'll go through the objections that people bring up to debt removal.

I had assumed that what I just said was known to all Economics and Finance professionals. But yesterday, as we were talking about financial regulation and the housing crisis, a professor said that nobody ever needed to pay extra on mortgages. When I pressed him, he said that it would sometimes make sense to borrow money to invest in the stock market. Here are some of the things that came up in the discussion:

"Why are you encouraging people to invest more money in their house, rather than getting a balanced portfolio?"

Paying off your mortgage is not investing more money in your house. You are already the owner of your house, and you are legally obligated to pay off that debt. Unless you plan on walking away from your mortgage and ruining your credit, you will have to pay all that money sooner or later. You are stuck with the house until you sell it; the asset allocation decision has already been made. The choice is between paying off a debt or investing money.

There is no reason to keep a 'balanced portfolio' until you have no debts. The whole purpose of a balanced portfolio is that is always has a good return, no matter what happens to any particular investment. The holy grail of investing is to construct a portfolio that always gives a decent return, no matter what the economy or anything else does. Paying off your debts gives you exactly that, at a higher rate than you can get elsewhere.

"In the past, stocks have earned high returns on average. If you keep and hold them, you will get more than paying off your mortgage."

It is true that, since 1950, the total real returns on stocks has been about 7%. But during that time, the interest rate on mortgages was higher. Aside from a few odd years, anyone who put money in stocks while still paying off a mortgage would have lost a lot of money.  Low mortgage rates are a very recent thing, and they are only going down because all interest rates have been going down in recent years. When interest rates are lower, returns on stocks will also be lower. The future return on stocks will probably be less than 7%. Again, the bank could invest all their spare cash in stocks if they wanted to, and they are only loaning money to you because they know that you are paying more interest than they can get in the stock market.

"This would mean not putting away any money for retirement until you pay off your house."

I can guarantee that a person who pays $1000 a month on their mortgage and puts $500 in a month a retirement fund will be in worse shape than someone who pays $1500 a month on that mortgage. The latter person will have the mortgage completely paid off in 13 and a half years rather than 30, and can then start putting $1500 a month into the retirement savings. The actions of the person who kept the mortgage and the retirement account at the same time are identical to the actions of someone who borrowed $500 a month from the bank and put it in the stock market.

"The interest I pay on my mortgage is tax-deductible, so the actual interest rate is lower"

Any profits you make on your investments will be subject to capital gains tax, so the actual return there is lower too. The capital gains tax rate is probably lower than your marginal tax rate, but that difference is not nearly enough to make up for the fact that you are paying more than the risk-free rate.

* It sometimes makes sense to keep debts that are heavily subsidized, like student loans, or put money into an employer-sponsored retirement plan with matching funds. Also, if you got a fixed-rate mortgage in the past, when rates were low, and rates are much higher today, than it makes sense to save rather than pay off the mortgage. But aside from that, you should never invest anything while you still have debts.

Stupid Mistakes

The following article is from a humor site, and it is full of annoying ads and foul language, but it still has better content than most journalism:


They even provide in-article links to the appropriate academic papers, something that the mainstream media has still not figured out how to do. I already knew about several of them from other sources, and I am confident that they are right about the rest. Read the whole thing, it won't take long.

We often read in history books about people doing amazingly stupid things, like wearing corsets. This is as good a list as any of the equivalent mistakes in our modern society.

Here's some amusing feedback from the comments section:

This is one of the few times I'm actually glad I've grown up with Hippie parents, between Mum's yoga breathing, our kotatsu table, Dad's constant nomadic camping, and their concern for chemicals and wasting water, Iv'e got this list pretty much down pat- I was even a water birth! This almost makes all those years of going to school with smelly clothes and weird lunches worth it.. almost.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Quantity Trumps Quality

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.


I see similar things in martial arts practice. People will do things once or twice and then start talking. Whenever I am teaching, I tell them the absolute minimum needed to do the technique safely, and then have them practice it again and again and again. Only by repetition can you really learn a physical skill.

It is possible to do things wrong, and for practice to give you bad habits, especially if you are not capable of judging the quality of the output. But most people spend too much time talking and not enough time doing things. If you want to do something well, you have to start by doing it a lot.

Child Labor Hypocricy

Food for thought

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Parkour and Shakespeare

These two things have nothing in common except that they both occupied my afternoon. The head of our Dojo and I practiced parkour on campus, and then went to an outdoor showing of Romeo and Juliet.

Parkour is the art of moving swiftly and efficiently over obstacles. It involves a lot of jumping and climbing. We were both very careful not to try anything that would put us at risk. Anything involving movement and heights can be dangerous, but years of martial arts have given us a good awareness of the environment and what we are capable of. I am tired and sore, and have some scrapes on my hands, but we had fun and learned a lot. We still have a long way to go before we get really good, though.

The play was put on by a class that had some of his friends in it. It was different, but enjoyable. They were having fun with it. Both of Romeo's friends (Mercutio and Benvolio) were played by women, and they changed the lines so the characters were women. The actors were very physically expressive, so the production was lively and a little raunchy, just like it was intended.