Pittsburgh

I’ve been in Pittsburgh for about a month now, so I’ve had time to explore a small corner of this city of rivers and penguins.

Breakneck Rocks

Breakneck Rocks is about an hour’s drive from the city in the Southwestern Highlands of Pennsylvania. I went climbing there with CMU’s club. Top roping outdoors presented challenges that I was not accustomed to from my time in sterile indoor bouldering environments. Whereas when climbing indoors, the route’s holds are clear and sparse, outdoors there are plenty of holds but they do not offer a solid grip. There was a lot of groping around to find something suitable to latch on to. Also, the bugs were annoying. A bee buzzed around the hold I wanted to use for a good minute, so I had to pause climbing. A daddy long legs crawled precariously close to my hand. Sometimes I would stick my hand in a hold and feel spider webs. Mosquitoes constantly accosted me, and I left with 10 bug bites. But otherwise, the climbs were fun. I’m amazed that humans can scale near-vertical rock faces.

Schenley Park

Schenley Park is on the southern edge of CMU. I walked along several trails, such as the upper and lower Panther trails and bridle trail. There were a lot of chipmunks and deer.

I saw the native paw paw trees. They are something of an anomaly, with a fruit tasting like something out of the tropics, yet they grow in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They are not farmed though, because the fruit is only ripe for a short period of time before quickly going bad.

Phipps Conservatory

Phipps Conservatory
Phipps Conservatory

I walked around the Phipps Conservatory a couple times because it is just a few blocks from where I live. The greenhouses are sprawling, with rooms dedicated to tropical fruits, succulents, ferns, butterflies. Chipmunks scurry about indoors, and there are frogs populating the sustainable gardens outside. There is impressive flower glasswork throughout. I enjoyed smelling the aromatic flowers.

Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History

The Carnegie Museum of Art has an impressive collection of art from a variety of artists, mediums, and eras. Like the Seattle Art Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art houses pieces made by big-name artists. The pieces are representative of their styles but not their famous masterworks.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History plaster fabrications
Carnegie Museum of Natural History plaster fabrications

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has a large collection of taxidermy, geodes, and my childhood favorite, dinosaur bones. The museum feels old-school, with lots of static displays but few interactive exhibits.

One room had facades of famous buildings. Initially, it was mind-boggling to think that they could transport those huge stone faces intact, but then I read that they were plaster models of the originals, meant to give the locals a taste of European culture back when travelling internationally was prohibitively expensive.

Copenhagen

J and I went to Copenhagen. Like other European capitals, Copenhagen is full of brick castles and historic buildings. Fire played a large role in the architecture of Copenhagen. There were two great fires in the 1700s, and both destroyed most of the city.

Christiansborg Palace, home of the Danish Parliament
Christiansborg Palace, home of the Danish Parliament

As we walked around the city, we learned a lot of interesting facts. For example, Bluetooth is named after the Danish king Harald Bluetooth. The symbol for Bluetooth is the Nordic runes for H and B combined.

The most photographed area is Nyhavn, or new harbor. The area was a red-light district for sailors. In an attempt to make the street more wholesome, the buildings were painted vibrant colors. That did not work. But allowing boats to dock there did.

Nyhavn (new harbor)
Nyhavn (new harbor)

We visited the royal palace, Amalienborg. Amalienborg is a set of mansions and was originally owned by noblemen, but after the Christiansborg Palace was damaged by fire, the royal family moved in. In contrast to other royal families, the Danish royal family is down-to-earth and tries to blend in. They are frequently seen walking their dogs.

Amalienborg
Amalienborg

At night, we watched the fireworks from the Tivoli Gardens amusement park.

My favorite thing to do was bike around on the public city bikes. They have an electric motor, and the rider can set the desired level of motorized assistance. There is a GPS tablet affixed to the front of the bike so that we knew where we were and could plan routes. We biked primarily east of the urban area, over bridges and cobblestones, admiring the architecture.

Bycyklen bikes
Bycyklen bikes

The city is beautiful, a mix of modern and historic. If Stockholm and Amsterdam had a child, Copenhagen would be the result.

Stockholm

I visited J in Stockholm for a few weeks. There, we got to do our usual hobbies. We went bouldering at Klättercentret Telefonplan, played tennis by the water, even competed in a Smash Bros tournament at Stockholm University. Back when I was working, it was not possible to go on such long vacations, so this break was special.

We tried the local foods, which were rather heavy. There was a lot of charcuterie and dishes cooked in butter. I found that IKEA meatballs are spot-on to the flavors of Swedish meatballs. I also tried herring and reindeer, which someone admonished as tourist food. The tap water was delicious. The fish dishes I tried were good too, though Seattle fish can’t be beat. It turns out that the Baltic Sea is heavily polluted, so most of the fish is farmed. My favorite meal was a 3-hour 22-course dinner at gastrologik, a restaurant that uses locally-sourced ingredients. The food was amazing, with imaginative combinations and plating.

Otherwise, I walked around the city at least 4 hours a day, and so I got to see everything I wanted to and more. I will write about the places that I went to later. By the first week, I had a good sense of direction and a general feel for each neighborhood. Even mundane tasks were a bit of an adventure for me, like walking an hour north to do laundry at the only laundromat in the city.

The Why Axis book review

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.