The Why Axis

I was home for a few weeks, and amongst the old mail that I rifled through, there was a book mailed from my undergraduate economics department. And so I read the book, The Why Axis, by Uri Gneezy and John List.

The book is about using field experiments to generate insights. The authors described field experiments that they performed, and the results were fascinating.

Structurally, the book could have been tighter, more concise. Oftentimes, the author would repeat exactly what he said in the previous paragraph. And there were awkward transitions that made it more difficult to follow the train of thought. Also, the chapters were written inconsistently. Some chapters had detailed storytelling or tried to focus on impacted individuals, while other chapters were descriptions of the experiment and data. There were fluff sentences with vague pronouncements that lacked any insight.

The authors state that by observing the world, you can come up with many correlations. But determining causality requires an experiment, whether the experiment was accidentally or purposefully orchestrated.

One issue the authors look at is why men get paid more. They find that in patrilineal societies, men are more competitive and aggressive. The opposite is true in matrilineal societies. Also, they find men are more likely to negotiate salary unprompted. When a job listing states that salary is negotiable and the ambiguity is removed, men and women are equally likely to negotiate salary.

The authors say much of the bias today does not stem from hate, but the desire to make money. In a field experiment, they found that disabled people were given a 30% higher quote for a car repair because it is assumed they won’t want to go through the effort of collecting multiple quotes. If they tell the car repairman that they are receiving 3 quotes, then the repairman gives them the same quote as able people. In another experiment, they found that young black males wearing hoodies were the least likely to receive help when they asked for directions. In order to receive equal treatment, they had to dress better and wear business clothes.

The authors discuss experiments they performed for Chicago public schools. In one experiment, they confirmed that loss is more motivating than gain. One effective strategy to motivate test-taking students is to give them $20 before the test and have them write what they want to spend the money on, then let them keep the money if their test scores improve. That is better than telling students that they will receive $20 if their test scores improve. In another experiment, they wanted to see what would improve scores the most, giving financial rewards to students, parents, teachers, or a mix. They found that financial rewards improved performance in all cases, and rewards improved scores the most when they were given to any one group (such as just parents, or just teachers).

The authors discuss experiments that they performed for various charities. One question they had was what would result in more giving, saying that the goal was 0% reached, 33% reached, or 66% reached? They found saying the goal was already 66% reached was the most effective. Even though people would have to give less for the charity to meet its goal, they actually gave more, because having the goal partially met provided validation that the charitable cause was valid. Another interesting finding was that when there is a matching gift promotion, all matching gifts perform equally well, whether the match is $1 for each dollar you donate, or $2 for each dollar you donate. Again, the matching gift provides validation for the charitable cause, and the match multiple does not matter.

The authors urge individuals and businesses to experiment more. They find a few reasons why businesses do not experiment as much as they should. One is that managers want to validate their positions, and they fear using data-driven methods will invalidate their own methods or compromise the appearance of their expertise. A second reason is inertia, some businesses are slow to act. A third reason is managers are scared of uncertainty and change. They want to use familiar methods that have been satisfactory in the past.

For incentives to be effective, they must speak to people’s underlying motivations, lest unintended consequences occur. Field experiments are an excellent way of discovering these underlying motivations.

Mount Pilchuck

I hiked Mt. Pilchuck, 5.4 miles and 2300 ft. elevation gain. In terms of views and variety of terrain, this hike is top tier. But I was constantly accosted by insects (flies, bees, mosquitoes), so I couldn’t stop moving until I reached the fire tower.

Mount Pilchuck panorama
Mount Pilchuck panorama

Mt. Pilchuck had it all: streams, rocky slopes, slippery snow, still-water insect breeding grounds.

Mount Pilchuck trail through rock and snow
Mount Pilchuck trail through rock and snow

To get to the tower, I had to scramble up boulders then climb a ladder. So I left some of my gear lower down, and after psyching myself up to overcome a mild fear of heights, I climbed the rocks and reached the tower.

Mount Pilchuck Lookout
Mount Pilchuck Lookout

There were a lot of people milling about. Some had brought camping gear to stay overnight, since the tower can be used on a first-come, first-served basis. A brave teenager posed for a picture on top of a narrow rock that fell sharply off, and it made me feel uneasy looking at him standing in such a perilous spot. “I’m wearing my plaid shirt, so nature.”

Another person accidentally dropped his water bottle, and we heard and watched it clang down the cliff for a good minute.

It was a foggy day, so I didn’t even see the tower until I was right next to it. Sometimes the fog would blow away, and I could see panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. But Mt. Pilchuck itself if so beautiful, that even though everything else was not visible, the hike was incredibly fun. Even the drive to the trailhead was an adventure, as the 7-mile forest road is mostly unpaved and laden with potholes.

Seconds

I read the comic Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the same author of the Scott Pilgrim series.

The comic is a quick read. The main character is Katie, the head chef at a popular restaurant. She meets the restaurant’s house spirit, and Katie is given a magical mushroom that lets her redo events that happened in the restaurant (or rather, the mushroom sends her to a world in which she made a different decision). Katie finds more mushrooms, and uses them in an attempt to build a perfect life. Katie is rash, impulsive, and a bit self-absorbed, so she needs to consume a lot of mushrooms to fix her mistakes.

In the end, after abusing the mushrooms and destroying the fabric of space and time, Katie reverses all her changes. She learns her lesson, and her life ends up exactly as she wanted it to anyway. Everyone gets a happy ending.

Mailbox Peak

I hiked to Mailbox Peak, taking the old trail up (2.6 miles) with 4,000 ft. elevation gain, and the new trail down (4.7 miles).

The old trail started pretty flat as it wound its way through the forest. Then the terrain turned steep. The trail was marked by white diamonds, but they were rather sparse. Everywhere I looked was exposed roots and erosion and dirt, so I wandered off the trail a few times. Not that it mattered though, because as long as I continued upwards, I would hit the trail again.

White diamond trail markers
White diamond trail markers

At the edge of the forest, the old trail and the new trail met up. I continued along the exposed trail, flanked by leafy bushes.

I hit a talus slope, and here, the trail was truly well-maintained and a joy to hike. The rocks for the trail were all flat and arranged neatly into a staircase, any openings tightly filled with smaller rocks.

Talus slope
Talus slope

Finally, I reached the homestretch, the steepest part of the hike: a dirt trail that cut through a meadow. Wildflowers were in bloom: purple and white lupine, fiery Indian paintbrush, fluffy white beargrass. This section had the most animal activity. There were white and orange butterflies, a brown lizard, sparrows, and some buzzing flies.

Purple and white lupine
Purple and white lupine
Wildflowers in bloom
Wildflowers in bloom

I hiked Mailbox Peak on a weekday, so when I reached the mailbox, I had a glorious 20 minutes all to myself. I left some Nintendo swag inside the mailbox. There were panoramic views of the mountain ranges.

Mt. Rainier in the background
Mt. Rainier in the background
Panoramic view towards the trail
Panoramic view towards the trail
Panoramic view towards the back of the mailbox
Panoramic view towards the back of the mailbox

All at once, groups of hikers started streaming in to the peak area. So I began my descent. Not far from the top, there were a couple children complaining loudly. To cheer them up, I congratulated them on almost reaching the top and told them there were prizes in the mailbox. At that, they excitedly started running. I spoke to the mom a bit, and was surprised that her children were only 8 and 10-years-old, and yet were able to hike this strenuous trail. They only brought one bottle of water and drank it all, so I gave her the rest of my water.

I hiked down the new trail without seeing a single person. The new trail is wider and less steep than the old trail, but took longer to hike. It felt like the switchbacks would never end, as it is twice as long the old trail. I tried hiking the new trail earlier in the year, but I turned back because I didn’t have the correct gear to hike in snow. Currently, there is no snow at all, and as I descended I noticed that in my previous attempt I had turned back right before the talus slope.

As for views, the forest section gets rather repetitive, but the hike is breathtaking at the talus slope and onwards. Perhaps the reward to effort ratio is not quite there, so I can see why Mailbox Peak is more of a conditioning hike.

Geocaching part 10

I spent a weekend in Terranea in Rancho Palos Verdes, near LA. All things considered, I had a good time.

I tried to get into the adults-only swimming pool, but I got carded. So after going to my room to get my license, I went back to the pool and floated about. From the pool, we saw a pod of dolphins playing at the beach, jumping out of the water in arcs.

We went bouldering, and I got a massive ego boost by doing most of the beginner routes. I met a group of passionate foodies. They introduced me to interesting dishes, like baby pigeon and caviar egg toast.

Caviar egg toast in the Waldorf Astoria Jean-Georges
Caviar egg toast in the Waldorf Astoria Jean-Georges

We did a nearby hike at Pelican Cove Park, walking by desert shrubs, an abandoned motor, carcasses of seabirds. I didn’t notice at first, but the shore was teeming with small crabs. The crabs would scurry under rocks when they felt my footsteps. Flocks of herons flew overhead. As we neared the cove, the tides trapped the ocean water, and large swarms of gnats flew around the rotting kelp. At the cove, the overhanging cliff was worn down by erosion and looked like a burnt sienna layer cake.

Pelican Cove Park
Pelican Cove Park

And I found a geocache! The desert biota was so foreign, with its flowering cacti and other succulents, brown lizards.

Geocache under a picnic table on the Terranea trail
Geocache under a picnic table on the Terranea trail

Back in Washington, I found some more geocaches. There was a cache hidden within a piece of wood.

Geocache in a piece of wood
Geocache in a piece of wood
Bison geocache inside the piece of wood
Bison geocache inside the piece of wood

Another cache was nestled in a tree.

Geocache in Westside Park
Geocache in Westside Park

I found a couple caches in South Lake Union. There was a cache hidden on a pedestrian overpass.

Geocache on a bridge
Geocache on a bridge
Film canister with a magnet attached
Film canister with a magnet attached

A cache was hidden in a guardrail.

Geocache tin hidden in a guardrail
Geocache tin hidden in a guardrail

I found a few geocaches around Seattle Center. One was in the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole.

Magnetic geocache in the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole
Magnetic geocache in the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole

A geocache was at the top floor of a parking garage, under a lamppost skirt.

Geocache in a parking garage
Geocache in a parking garage

There was a cache in the bushes right by the Pacific Science Center.

Pacific Science Center geocache
Pacific Science Center geocache

I found a few caches in the Washington Park Arboretum. One cache was under a boardwalk.

Geocache from under a bridge
Geocache from under a bridge

Another was next to a tree that had been struck by lightning.

Geocache under branches
Geocache under branches

Another geocache was near a bog, under a log.

Geocache under a log
Geocache under a log

Outliers: The Story of Success review

I read Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, a discussion on what factors enable someone to be successful.

The main takeaway is, success requires preparation and lucky opportunities. Gladwell’s cherrypicked examples include Bill Gates, the Beatles, and a prominent litigator.

In the book, Gladwell claims that superstars are not innately talented, it is only by hard work that one can become an expert. Roughly 10,000 hours of practice appears to be the requirement to become an expert. He notes that people with extremely high IQs are not more likely to be successful; rather, there is a threshold where an IQ is “good enough.” The socioeconomic class of the parents contributes the most to the child’s success, more so than raw IQ.

Gladwell says there are three things that make work meaningful: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward. Children are more likely to be successful if they have parents who perform meaningful work.

While the first part of the book is how success is granted through opportunity, the second part is how legacy makes a difference. Gladwell argues that Asians are better at math because Asian cultures emphasize hard work, and the way numbers are structured in Asian languages makes it easier to perform basic math operations. On the other hand, cultural legacy can cause issues. He cites cockpit recordings from Colombian and South Korean flights that crashed, and notes how deference to authority caused the first officers to be indirect in their emergency warnings to the captains.

The self-indulgent epilogue is the story of Gladwell’s mother, and how various chance opportunities aligned so that Gladwell could become the successful author that he is today.

Amsterdam

I visited Amsterdam, the city of canals and over a thousand bridges. The city has a relaxed vibe and is bicyclist-friendly. The bridge railings were covered by locked bikes, mostly black-colored. The locals are generally patient, unless they’re biking, in which case, pedestrians better steer clear.

We started our walk in Dam Square.

The houses had hooks on them, for moving furniture. In olden times, property tax was determined by the width of the house. We saw the narrowest house along the canal.

The narrowest house
The narrowest house

We walked by several coffeeshops. In Seattle, weed is legal. In Amsterdam, weed is neither legal nor illegal. And yet, the coffeeshops somehow get stocked. But I did not partake, because I made a vow to never do drugs for my entire life. At the college I went to, the economics professors supported the legalization of drugs, to curb the violence associated with distribution, generate tax revenue, and institute quality standards.

We passed by Spui, a public square where protests often take place. Once, after a streak of rainy days, there was a protest against the rain.

Spui
Spui

We walked around FOAM, the museum of photography. The main exhibit was a William Eggleston retrospective. In the past, only black-and-white photos were considered legitimate enough to display in galleries. Eggleston changed this with his color photography. The photos on display were a selection of the thousands he took of everyday America. He used dyes to produce vivid colors and effects, as though the picture was shot with an Instagram filter.

We took a day trip to Keukenhof, where millions of flowers were in bloom. It was like the Skagit Valley Tulip festival, but on a grander scale. For example, there was a windmill like the one in RoozenGaarde, except much larger. The display gardens were elaborate. Flowers were placed into frames link 3D paintings. Tulips were arranged into a Mondrian grid. There were fields of tulips of every color, as far as the eye could see. There was even a music machine, about as large as a food stall. A man fed punch cards into the machine. Each song was a whole folded tome.

Bruges

I took a day trip to Bruges, a medieval town near Brussels. That said, most structures were rebuilt and not truly from the medieval era, save for a couple pillars. Locals still live there, but if felt touristy.

The history of Bruges is filled with rebellion and general rowdiness. An example is the legend explaining why there are swans in the canals. The people of Bruges imprisoned Emperor Maximilian, then forced Maximilian to watch the execution of his friend and advisor, Pieter Lanchals (“Longneck”). So as punishment for the revolt, Maximilian decreed that Bruges would have to keep swans, long necks, in its canals.

Bruges swans
Bruges swans

Another story is the origin of a beer brewed in Bruges, Brugse Zot, translated as Bruges fool. To calm down Maximilian after imprisoning him, the people of Bruges threw a party for him. They also wanted funding for a mental hospital. When the request for the madhouse was made during the party, Maximilian said the town was already full of fools, all they had to do was close the town gates and they would have their madhouse. Now, the nickname, Bruges fools, is a point of pride for the locals.

Brugse Zot beer
Brugse Zot beer

At the town square, Markt, there was a mix of renovated modern buildings and old-style buildings.

One prominent structure on the edge of Markt is the Belfry. The Belfry was rebuilt after fire and expanded to be taller several times. We climbed the Belfry, pausing in the middle to see the mechanical gears that controlled the bells.

At the top of the Belfry, we had a panoramic view of Bruges.

View from the Belfry of Bruges
View from the Belfry of Bruges

We walked by the Gruuthuse Museum. Gruuthuse was a prominent family in Bruges. They became wealthy from taxing gruit, an ingredient in beer.

Gruuthuse Museum coat of arms with unicorns
Gruuthuse Museum coat of arms with unicorns

In Bruges, there is a beguinage, a community of single and widowed women. The community was self-sustaining. It produced its own food and had its own church. If someone committed a crime outside the beguinage, they could enter the beguinage for safety.

The beguinage
The beguinage

On the way back to the train station, we passed by a fair. There was a ride covered in American flags. Also painted on the ride was a pirate flag, a shark, and a topless woman. I thought this was a strange choice for depicting an American beach city.

Brussels

I stayed in Brussels for a few days, sightseeing in this very walkable city.

I had to try Belgium waffles and beer. The waffles are normally eaten plain, as they are already sweetened. But like a filthy tourist, I piled on ice cream, chocolate, and berries. I ate Belgian frites cooked in animal fat. They tasted like regular French fries (burn!!!). And I sampled different varieties of beer. While Germany has the Reinheitsgebot (“German Beer Purity Law”), in Belgium there are no regulations for ingredients. The brewers can throw all kinds of random ingredients in, such as coriander.

At the Grand-Place, we saw the various guild houses and the Town Hall. The Town Hall was asymmetrical because one side was built first. So the other side has different windows. And the other side is shorter in length, to not block the road. Engraved into a wall is a monument for Everard t’Serclaes, who scaled the city walls and opened the gates to recover the city from the Flemings. People would touch the statue, since that will supposedly make sure you can return to Brussels again.

The most famous statue in Brussels is a 24-inch sculpture called Manneken Pis. It is a sculpture of a boy urinating water into the fountain. One theory on the origin of the sculpture is that it is to commemorate the boys who were piss poor. There were tanneries, and the leather making process requires ammonia. So piss poor boys would sell their pee. This beloved statue was stolen multiple times, once by a French soldier. This upset the people of Brussels, so King Louis XV returned the statue and knighted it. French soldiers would have to salute the statue when they passed it. Now the statue is dressed in different costumes each week.

Manneken Pis
Manneken Pis

There are comic murals painted on walls, such as the one below of Tintin. Belgium has the highest concentration of comic creators.

Tintin comic mural
Tintin comic mural

The comic below of Broussaille was controversial because of the purposefully ambiguous gender of the person on the left. The mayor forced artist Frank Pé to add earrings to make the person more feminine so that the couple looked like a heterosexual couple. To date, the mural is on Brussel’s gay alley. Belgium was the second country to allow same-sex marriage, after the Netherlands.

Broussaille comic mural
Broussaille comic mural

We walked by some interesting buildings, such as the Bourse (the Stock Exchange, now an exhibition hall), an indoor mall (Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert), the Art Nouveau Musical Instruments Museum.

Musical Instruments Museum in the Art Nouveau style
Musical Instruments Museum in the Art Nouveau style

We walked around Place Royale, home to museums and the Palace of Justice. We also saw the Royal Palace, extended by King Leopold II. King Leopold II exploited Congo’s natural resources, and under his authority, atrocities were committed against the people of Congo. Using the wealth obtained from Congo, Leopold II built many buildings in Brussels, earning the epithet the “Builder King.”

Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, a neoclassical church in Place Royale
Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, a neoclassical church in Place Royale

Brussels is the capital of the European Union. There were EU government buildings and embassies surrounding the center garden.

We also visited the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, which are only open to the public a few weeks a year. That said, the gardens were not particularly impressive, and we had to wait in a long queue during Belgium’s Labor Day (May Day). The glass buildings were iridescent, shaped like crowns.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

We were in town during a jazz festival and caught a jazz performance in a small jazz club. The musicians were not notable or of spectacular talent, but it was nice to sip on some drinks in an intimate environment. After each set, there was one extremely enthusiastic audience member whooping and cheering them on much louder than the rest of the audience, saying how great they were, asking for encores. I wish everyone could have their own hype man.

Paris

I visited Paris for a few days, seeing the most popular attractions in a whirlwind tour. We walked around the Seine, visited the Louvre, climbed Sacré-Cœur, took pictures of the Eiffel Tower.

I climbed Sacré-Cœur again
I climbed Sacré-Cœur again

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to study math in Paris several years ago. During the study abroad program, I visited the Louvre 5 times, versus the quick few hours I spent on this last visit. All the art is visual overload, and I appreciate the art more when I can see each room at a leisurely pace.

Apollo "Sauroktonos" (the "Lizard-Slayer"), the selfie-taker
Apollo “Sauroktonos” (the “Lizard-Slayer”), the selfie-taker

I was able to visit a few places that I had always wanted to see, but missed the last time I was in Paris. First was the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The permanent exhibit featured murals, one showing people in motion by Matisse. Another mural showed the history of electricity. The main exhibit was for Karel Appel, who made large, “violent brushstrokes” to paint globs of vibrant color onto canvas. The forms appeared to have been drawn by a kindergartner with no sense of proportion, as he purposefully went against classical styles and methods of painting.

Karel Appel exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris
Karel Appel exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris

I walked around Parc des Buttes-Chaumont for a few hours on a weekday. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a park in the northeast part of Paris, with a gazebo overlooking an artificial lake. Students playing hooky and some elderly folk strolled on the grassy hills and trails. From the gazebo, I could see Sacré-Cœur perched on Montmartre.

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

In the study abroad program, I lived at Cité Universitaire, so I would always pass by Denfert-Rochereau, the metro stop near the Catacombs. After waiting in line for two hours, I finally got to see the ossuary. There were stacks and stacks of bones, some neatly arranged, others tossed carelessly into a pile. The bones were arranged in groups, some from soldiers of a certain conflict, some were moved from overfilled cemeteries.

The catacombs
The catacombs

As I walked through the underground tunnels, surrounded by thousands of bones, I felt a chill. Each skull used to belong to a living person. Also, the tunnels were drafty.