30 November 2012

"The Richest Man in Babylon" by George Samuel Clason

Clason uses a fictional story line, set in the height of the Babylonian empire, to distill his wisdom on the accumulation of wealth and wise money management. While at times the stories seem unnecessary, they help to reinforce the importance of the point Clason is trying to make without bearing down into boring numbers and statistics.

24 November 2012

Good old check depositing days of yore

My bank recently started allowing me to deposit my checks through my phone (I know, a cool feature that almost every other bank had, but they give me free checks so I stick with them). I had been really happy when I first got the feature, I could hardly wait to use it. Now, I am considering not using it any more because I found it introduced a void in my life.

I live 30 minutes away from the nearest branch of my bank. Conveniently, the bank is surrounded by a fully featured city complete with shopping and delicious food vendors. Thus, previous to my mobile check cashing days, checks meant not only money (which is always a good thing) but also a  drive with a friend (or friends) and then often a meal with said party before another drive back home. It was a rare excuse to spend time together. While under the guise of necessity, everyone knew that it only takes one to deposit a check yet we were all glad for the time spent together and the excitement of breaking out of escaping, however shortly, the boring cycle that small towns can lock you into.

Now I find myself in a new quandary. While I fully recognize that my previous reasoning was nearly invalid, I am struggling to come up with a new excuse of any validity. No excuse seems to be able to combine sufficient seriousness to justify the drive while still allowing enough levity to not encumber the evening.

"Want to go want the wind mills?" is dismissed with, "That's a good date, but not a good group activity."

"Want to go shopping and have dinner?" is met with, "If we had money to spend on frivolous things."

"Want to peruse a distant thrift store?" gets, "That's a long way for nothing."

Even if I break down and call it what it is: "Want to go catch some dinner?" I still have to overcome, "What's wrong with the restaurants in town?"

Alas, I will still use my mobile deposits because I would feel lame to not use it (plus, mobile deposits do not cost gas to drive 30 minutes one way), but I will still fondly remember the "good old check depositing days" of yore.

19 November 2012

IFTA: All in the wording...

In my new work we deal with a lot of taxes. In fairness, I do very little with the actual taxes. No, I have fun building the spreadsheets that calculate them--which I can say is rather nerve racking as the Federal Government is not very forgiving when mistakes are made--but I digress.

One of our most frequent taxes is called the International Fuel Tax Agree (or IFTA). It applies to the United States and most of Canada and was developed as a way to avoid the old method of making a truck register for fuel taxes in each state they would be traveling through. So, in general, IFTA was a really good idea all around.

One day my boss asked if I could make a diagram that explains how IFTA works so our clients could better understand it.

I said, "Sure... How does it work?" In defense of my question, I knew how it worked because I reviewed the formulas that make up the calculations that determine the taxes we report. I was really hoping for exactly what my boss gave me: an oral version of the formulas, which follow:
Total miles / Total gallons = MPG
State miles / MPG = Taxable gallons
Taxable gallons - Gallons bought in the State = Net taxable gallons
Net taxable gallons * Tax rate = Tax due
It is no wonder to me that people get confused on how the tax works. After a few minutes, it hit me: IFTA is actually very simple. Instead of thinking about the formulas we use to generate taxes amounts, I just had to think about what the tax was actually taxing (the key is in the MPG calculations). Thus, the grand conclusion is that IFTA is a calculation of fuel consumed while traveling through the state. In other words, how much fuel would you have needed to buy to operate in a given state. Sure, there is some averaging in there, but that is just to make it calculate easier.

It felt good to take something as complicated as the robust formulas and summarize it in a handful of words.
IFTA: A tax on the fuel you used in a state.
(Okay, two handfuls and a toe, but it is still much less complicated than the original formulas. A copy of the diagram is attached for amusement.)

How IFTA is Calculated. ©2012, used by permission. Details available upon request.

15 November 2012

Roy F Baumeister - Willpower: Self-control, decision fatigue, and energy

It turns out, the ability to self-regulate (self-control), make decisions and take initiative all stem from the same, exhaustible, mental resource and takes a lot of physical energy to do. Like any mental resource, however, this one gets stronger with use. Thus, it is better to provide rules and structure for the young and old alike (even while knowing that the rules will be violated) because it helps the mind to become stronger at resisting impulses.

Willpower: Self-control, decision fatigue, and energy (RSA)
Roy F Baumeister - Willpower: Self-control, decision fatigue, and energy (TED)

As a side note, scientists recently discovered that consuming familiar, favorite materials (i.e. TV shows or movies that we have already seen or books that we have previously read, and that we enjoy consuming repeatedly) will "recharge" our willpower quicker than it will naturally recharge by itself. The benefit, however, does not come from consuming new material even if from in a favorite collection (i.e. a new episode of your favorite TV show). The original article can be found here.

13 November 2012

E.O. Wilson: Advice to young scientists

A call for young scientists to hold true to their course as the world will need them as guides to the future. It is interesting to note that Wilson downplays the importance of math. He comments that while it is the language of science, one only needs a rudimentary understanding of the language to use it. Instead, it is critical to be able to dream in order to push science forward.

09 November 2012

The Ambient Exchange of Knowledge

Note: I wrote this back when I was an intern for a certain government research facility. I wrote it on the long the (2 hour) bus ride from "the site" and edited the next day on the same, long bus ride. I have included some additional thought in italics.

Working for a government contractor (basically the government) has been an interesting experience. Of course there have the normal "we can't do that" and "we have to submit the change for approval" (it took more than 5 months to get approval to change minor wording on a post-training survey) but there has also been an interesting transition as they have been cutting staff.

The need and want to cut cost is present in every company I can think of and has the oblivious benefit of making the company more profitable. There is, however, an interesting and unfortunate side effect to these cost cutting efforts: innovation is stifled.

Time and again, there is a clear pattern of disparate entities getting together and sparking evolutionary or revolutionary changes seemingly based on their proximity alone. (Duncan Hines revolutionary invention of cake mix came when a baking guy was having lunch with a powdered soap guy and they developed a method of creating the liquid mix and then spraying it onto screen for powdering like the soap guys did; Post-it notes' evolutionary invention came about when one inventor created the weak, reusable glue and the other found a use for it; and many more, if you do some digging.) Ideas that otherwise would have taken a long time to come about, if they ever emerged. Which then confuses me as to why you would be stripping away most of the opportunities for new, innovative ideas by saddling down employees with so much work (by cutting down the help for those tasks) that they have no chance to interact with others. It would seem that instead of cutting everything down, companies should set more people free: free to interact with and learn about other departments, free to dream, free to bear those dreams into reality, free to create new revenue streams.

But then, what do I know about "the real world," I am just an intern who created a website in a week that took other departments several months to do.

P.S. Can I mention that because the web programmer (namely me) was working with "the site" management while hanging out with the Training department instructors and cavorting with the PR people, he was able to completely redesign their daily internal publication in a way that greatly improved the appeal and readability of the content? How? By asking why people never read the publication. No magic, just someone who could do something being around people with good ideas.

07 November 2012

"Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers: Testosterone and Behavior" by James McBride Dabbs with Mary Godwin Dabbs

The Dabbs couple explore the profound and vast effects of testosterone on men and women from the youngest of ages (in utero) through mid-life. After childhood, they explore the three basic effects that are outlined in the title: creating heroes, rebel rousing and making lovers. While the presented research focuses on men, the Dabbs are frequently cite studies of women to establish a baseline of the norm before showing  how testosterone changed the default behavior. This book has greatly expanded my understanding of, and provided fascinating insight to, why both men and women behave the way they do.

Interesting tidbit: Alfalfa and clover are estrogen rich and thus birth controlling plants. It is thought that the plants maintained this chemical feature to limit offspring of hungry animals and thus prevent overgrazing. Today, some million sheep go sterile each year in Australia alone from eating too much wild clover and alfalfa.

05 November 2012

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Today is the day that Guy Fawkes, and company, did not blow up the English parliament in 1605. You can read more about it on Wikipedia, here.

Why should you care about Guy Fawkes day? The same reason why we celebrate Saint Patrick's Day. Namely, to have fun. In England, Guy Fawkes Day celebrations consist of making an effigy of Guy Fawkes and then burning it (well, they do more but those parts are not as fun). If we were really cool we would have fireworks to set off too.

01 November 2012

Pranav Mistry: The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology

Mistry built a simple device of a projector, camera and small computer that basically allows the computer to break outside the normal confines of screen, keyboard and mouse. This is the stuff of movies.