Friday, March 20, 2009


Much has been said of the mistakes that teenagers make. The prevailing idea is that teenagers generally don't think about the consequences of their actions before doing something stupid that gets them in trouble. Studies, however, have shown that not only are teenagers aware of the risks behind their actions, they actually spend a considerable amount of time weighing the risks vs. perceived rewards before finally making their (bad) decision. Here's an example of what might go through their heads:

Action: Going to a party, getting drunk, and driving home afterward.
Risk: Might be grounded/get arrested/kill somebody.
Reward: Social acceptance/pretty popular girl might actually talk to me.
Verdict: Party on!!!

I've observed that this sort of risky behavior may start much earlier than the teenage years. Here's an example from my observations of the three-year old twin boys I talked about in my last post:

During a holiday gathering, these twin boys found themselves standing around a bowl of peanuts and decided to have an extended snack before dinner was served. Not wanting the boys to spoil their appetites, several adults told them to stop eating, yet they still continued, saying, "but I have to eat it!". To get them to stop, their great-grandfather decided to make up a story. He told them that if they ate any more, the big scary dog who was staring in from beyond the sliding glass door would charge in and eat them up.

There was no doubt that the boys believed everything that was said to them. You could see fear in their faces every time they tentatively turned their heads to glance at the dog, assuring themselves that the glass door was securely fastened before turning back around and grabbing more peanuts to put in their mouths. So here's what probably went through their heads:

Action: Eating peanuts.
Risk: Dog might eat me.
Reward: I'd get to eat more peanuts.
Verdict: Eat more peanuts.

Perhaps this sort of risky behavior has a purpose. After all, early man would have had a hard time evolving without taking a few risks. Here's another example:

Action: Forsaking life in a tree and stepping around on the ground.
Risk: Bear might eat me.
Reward: I'd finally get to see what's beyond that bush over there.
Verdict: Walking on four legs is SO last millennium!

Of course, risky behavior will ruin us every now and then. Here's what probably went through the mind of more than one AIG employee:

Action: High-risk credit swap.
Risk: Might default- company loses millions/people lose jobs/economy pulled into downward spiral.
Reward: Company stock goes up by a cent/big bonus.
Verdict: What could possibly go wrong? The government will bail us out if this backfires, anyway.


Ever since I found out that I'm getting one of my own, I've started to look at those little poop-making troublemakers in a different way. Lately, I've had a few opportunities to observe a pair of 3-year old twin boys. Here are some observations:

1. Kids' personalities really come through early. I didn't expect to see much difference in behavior in these twin boys. Although not identical, they've been subjected to the same developmental conditions since birth, yet they couldn't be farther apart in personality. One is precocious, constantly in search of praise and recognition, and already has a grasp over certain social faux-pas. He watches people with a silent intensity, fascinated by the behaviors and mannerisms of adults, though he clearly still does not understand everything that goes on around him. The other twin gets distracted easily- not by the behavior of people, but by the constant source of puzzles that surround him. He seems to have an instinctual need to put things together in a coherent fashion. He is indifferent to praise and is unembarrassed, though still doesn't like being scolded.

2. I'm not sure whether to call it cute or scary when a 3-year old points a toy gun at you and says: "BANG! Now you're dead!" Admittedly, it does sound much cuter in Chinese than I imagine it would in English.

3. Kids learn everything they know from those around them. This fact should be obvious, but becomes excessively clear when you observe their social interactions- especially when they're upset with people. For example, these twins like to use the same threats that they hear from their parents on a regular basis, such as:

"If you don't stop, we're going to the hospital to get a shot!"
"Keep doing that, and I'm going back to China!"

Those sentences don't sound very threatening from a toddler.

4. Kids believe everything they're told, but are still rebellious. I'll say more on this in my next post.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I'm a geek

Yes, I am a geek. I'm sure you all knew this fact- especially if you've read some of my earlier posts. I'm aware that the fact that I study physics (and enjoy it) is enough to include me in that category.

Let me share with you the moment that I realized that I was a true geek. I suppose I knew it long before, but this is the first time that the fact really hit home.

The moment came when I was watching the movie Spiderman II. If you're familiar with the story, you know that Spiderman's alter ego, Peter Parker, is also a geek. Now you see, in a movie it's not enough to tell the viewers that Spiderman is a nerd, you have to show it. And what better way to show that the story's superhero is just a supernerd is there than to show him in a lecture hall, completely infatuated with the strange symbols written on the board by an old balding nerd of a professor.

If you saw the movie, this short scene probably made you think, "wow, that guy is a geek!" However, the thought that popped into MY head was, "Hey! We just covered that material last week in Quantum Mechanics!"

Wow! I'm just as nerdy as Spiderman!!!

Now all I need is a radioactive spider....

Of course, not all depictions of geeks in motion pictures are quite as flattering as Spiderman. I must say, however, that I still enjoy watching them- but not for the reasons you might enjoy them.

Let me give another example to illustrate. This one comes from the movie Transformers. I've never actually seen the movie, but a friend told me about this scene and it had me practically rolling on the floor with laughter. The scene goes something like this:

Two nerdy scientists are in a lab, and one turns to the other and says, in a British accent: "Why don't you STOP thinking about Fourier transforms and START thinking about Quantum Mechanics?!"

Now, you might not think that this sentence is particularly funny, but my friend and I both did, and for the same reason. You see, whoever wrote this stupid dialogue obviously has no idea what the terms 'Fourier transform' and 'Quantum Mechanics' even mean. If you are intimately familiar with these two terms, you would know that no scientist sitting in a lab would ever utter that sentence.

This sort of dialogue is the kind that I hear all the time in movies and on tv. It's the kind of dialogue that just screams, "this is the smartest sounding sentence that the writer could come up with".

It just goes to show that while you're making fun of nerds for their lack of athletic ability and social grace, they're probably making fun of you for being an idiot.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"Political Economics"

There is something in the study of economics that's been bothering me for a bit. Now, I don't claim to really know ANYTHING when it comes to economics, nor have I stepped foot in an economics class or opened an economics textbook since high school. Nevertheless, the subject of today's economy has been too pervasive in the media to ignore, and I've been bothered by a few things I've found troubling- not relating to the economy itself, but by how people deal with it.

Now, let me explain something I've learned about physics research. Physicists always know what to expect from an experiment. That isn't to say that they always know the outcome, since that would make the experiment useless. Physicists use the accepted laws of physics to predict the outcome, and when the outcome does not agree with the laws, they know that something is wrong with the theory. Predicting outcomes is no easy task in today's large-scale experiments, but the standards are just as high. Doing so usually requires the use of sophisticated modeling algorithms and lots of computing power.

Let me give you an example: One professor I talked to at Berkeley gave me a sneak peak at some of the software that was developed for one of the projects in development at the LHC called ATLAS. The ATLAS detector is about the size of a mansion, and the laws that govern the interactions between particles are in no way simple. Nevertheless, software that incorporates all these parameters have been developed since long before the actual detector began construction. Through the computer simulations given from this program, my professor was able to show me exactly what we would see from the detectors, with charts, graphs, and everything you might expect from a large scale experiment. She even showed me the bump on a particular graph that would prove the existence of the Higgs boson. These graphs and charts were made a long time ago, and yet to this day they haven't even started colliding particles at the LHC.

No matter how much a certain experiment costs- from a few thousand to several billion- researchers are held to the same rigorous standards. They must show exactly why the experiment will work, and exactly what the experiment will establish (or no funding!).

Now, to see why I'm a little peeved, let me ask this question: What did Obama do to show that his $3/4 trillion stimulus package would work? All I've heard is a few political sound bites- from both sides of the aisle.

I'm not saying I'm against the package. I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic about it (I voted for Obama, after all). I, however, am concerned with the fact that I've never seen a shred of evidence relating to economic policies. I've heard arguments, but evidence is apparently hard to come by.

I'm aware that economics are quite a bit different from physics. It's definitely harder (maybe impossible) to simulate an economy inside a computer; the variables are uncountable, and people as a whole are unpredictable- even in a statistical sense (that's probably what separates us from animals).

However, economics is a real area of study. People get PhDs in the subject. Papers are published on a regular basis. A Nobel Prize is awarded in economics EVERY YEAR for crying out loud!!! I can't imagine that there isn't a shred of evidence out there that supports the conclusions they make. Why don't they let us see it?

The reason why, I think, is that the people who talk to us about the economy aren't economists- They're politicians. The burden of proof no longer exists when good salesmanship will achieve the same end.

This, coincidentaly, is the other thing I don't like about economics: It's impossible to separate it from the politics that drive it. I can't help but draw a parallel between today's economic theories and the phrase "Christian science". No scientific theory is viable if it is influenced by ideas taken from religious beliefs. In the same way, I won't believe in an economic theory if its purpose is to back up someone's politics.

In other words, I won't believe anyone when they say that tax cuts are the key to fixing the economy. It could be true, but I can't shake the feeling that the theory behind it was just drummed up to get a few more votes. I'm sure there are a lot of smart people with PhDs that can show me exactly why tax cuts will fix the economy, but then again, there are probably smart people with PhDs that will show me exactly why they won't.

And here's another thing: If Nobel prizes are awarded in economics every year, why is it that I haven't heard any new economic ideas in the last decade? I'd use a longer time frame, but I don't think I was politically aware enough more than ten years ago to formulate a comparison.

Maybe my views on economics are merely a result of my ignorance. I'm sure there are those who can prove all of the statements in this post wrong, but you know what? I'd rather hear it from Washington. Then maybe I'd think that those losers actually know something.