Tuesday, June 30, 2009

public interactions

Unexpectedly running into people in public is inherently awkward. There are a few reasons for this.

First, if you're seeing the individual from a distance, you're often unsure of the individual's identity. It could very well be your friend from high school, or it could be a random dude walking down the street. You have a choice to make--either break the social law of no staring at people, or keep your eyes to yourself and hope they do the same. There are few more awkward events than walking by a friend of yours, and keeping your head down to avoid staring, while they pick you right out of the crowd. Awkward.

Second, there are no clear social norms dictating how you interact in public. What if you haven't seen this individual for some time? What if you're busy and can't stop? What if you're on a random Sunday walk and you happen upon him while he's loading his car? You can't very well just say, "see you later", because, in all likelihood, you won't. Do you stop and chat? Just ignore him or her1?

I think the solution to both cases is obvious. Keep your head down and ignore everybody. Take large strides.
Look at the ground. Wear a sombrero. Put on a trench coat. These are precautions you can take to every encountering awkwardness.

However, these precautions are difficult to take indoors, because: a) only strange people wear sunglasses indoors2, b) only really strange people wear trench coats indoors, and c) only mariachi band members wear sombreros in general.

Which is why, if you're ever tempted to go to a movie by yourself, you may want to try some face-altering disguises. Not heeding my own advice, I recently went to a movie by myself. The loyal reader will recall my trepidation at such a step, but I was determined to fulfill my goal.

Upon entering the movieplex, I decided I needed to use the restroom beforehand. As luck should have it, I happened to run into my good friend Mr. Woolley. Don't get me wrong, I love Mr. Woolley like a brother. There's just something about being caught in that situation. His first words were, "Chris! How are you doing? What movie are you going to see? Are you here by yourself?"

This was even more disheartening. Not only did I run into someone I knew when going to a movie by myself, but he immediately picked up that I was there alone. I hang my head in shame.

To make an awkward story short, Mr. Woolley was at the movie with his male in-laws, as his wife was at a baby shower. So I sat with the family. One of them was close to us in age, and I could see the disdain in his eyes as he realized I had come alone3. These are the awkward moments I live for.

In summary, it's best to keep your head down and that sombrero well positioned. You'll look dumb, for sure, but nobody will ever be sure enough to know who you are.

1. Matt Horton, I feel horrendously guilty, because I'm 80% sure I saw you a few weeks back, but I didn't stop because of my unsureness, combined with my busyness. Many apologies. I do hope you and your wife are well. And if it wasn't you, well, I feel ridiculously less guilty now.
2. However, should you encounter someone wearing sunglasses indoors or at night, DO NOT MOCK THEM. Under any circumstances. Otherwise, you'll end up like me, when I publicly made fun of that dude for wearing sunglasses in the dark, after which he loudly informed me that his eyes were sensitive to light, and he could go blind if he took them off. Not my proudest moment4.
3. More embarrassing: the movie was Star Trek. Nothing wrong with that, but I imagine going to that particular movie alone doesn't bode well for your reputation. Of course, it could've been worse. It could have been a chick flick.
4. If I recall, however, he did wear a trench coat, so I could have gone after him on that angle.

Friday, June 26, 2009


There's nothing quite like a good ol' sale to encourage the secular materialist to come screaming out of us like a savage shopper. For whatever reason, our fight-or-flight mechanism also evolved to apply to discounted items. Seeing a Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk Commemorative Plate may elicit a vomit reflex in normal situations, but discount it by 80%, and you'll find yourself using your umbrella to beat off other shoppers for the chance to spend that $4.99.

I swear that's the reason I purchased that National Jamboree Commemorative Letter Opener1. Evolution. It's all Darwin's fault. I'm not like that normally!

Recently I've noticed my amazing skill at finding items on sale. I figured this was a genetic ability passed down from my mother. She's beyond famous for walking into ridiculous discounts. I think she's never spent more than $50 to buy anything. This includes clothes, shoes, large zoo animals, cars, and several national banks.

Just the other day, though, I walked into Macy's, and I noticed there was a sale...again. It dawned on me. I've never ever been in Macy's without there being a sale. Now that I'm graduated and jobless, I'm tempted to stake them out, and stop by every day for a month, just to see if there's a sale. I think we all know what the answer would be.

Of course, this shouldn't have surprised me, as there are many institutions which are in a state of perpetual sale. I used to work on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, where there are several rug shops lining the street2. I don't think the large 'Clearance Sale' sign on the store across the street ever came down. That must be one tough business, because they have been going out of business for the past three years3.

Therefore, next time you find yourself obeying your evolutionary reaction to grab the nearest item on sale, pause for a few moments, and consider the likelihood that they're gaming the system. You need to wait for a 'good' sale, or what used to be consider a normal sale. There has been malicious sale inflation over the past fifty years. Don't fall for their tricks.

1. That's a bald-faced lie. It wasn't even discounted. I bought it for my Mom, thinking she missed me during my three week stay. That may yet be true, but with eight kids, she had forgotten my name by the end of the trip. I had to prove my maternity via a DNA sample on my return. To this day she is unable to say my name without first guessing a few others.
2. Okay, Palo Alto has a rug shop? I mean, population what, 50,000? And that's enough demand to support a Mediterranean rug shop? Would you like to know something more outrageous? There are SEVERAL rug shops. They must be making money somehow, but I don't know how--at my old place we never once saw anyone enter or exit or stray anywhere outside holding a rug. There's even a fleet of vans and new beetles all painted up rug-style continuously parked at the Bryant parking garage.
3. I really, truly, am not making this up. Go to downtown Palo Alto, and count the number of clearance or going out of business sales.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

time vs. money

Time and money have a very strong relationship. Sort of like the relationship between donuts and a coronary artery bypass. You can't really think about one without thinking about the other.

My parents first ingrained this relationship into my primitive skull as a child. If I wasted time, I was in trouble. If I wasted money, I was in trouble. Actually, I came to believe time was money, and money was lunch bags, because if I wasted lunch bags I was in trouble too1. Later in life I came to realize these paper sacks that I was carrying home to reuse were actually worth the equivalent of the fifteen used pieces of gum stuck to the bottom of my desk which entertained me between recess and the moments I thought to say something ridiculous in class2.

Also, Ben R., if you're out there, I thought it was just as ridiculous that I was using month-old lunch sacks. Which is why I always laughed when you made fun of me.

One of my favorite growing-up episodes to remember is when my brother John made the entire family wait in the van for a half hour (very typical occurrence) when he was late exiting Lagoon (an amusement park in Utah). My dad connected the time and money concept in no uncertain terms by declaring his hourly rate as a Physician, and the amount John would be repaying him. Those were some great days.

I've recently been able to solidify the relationship between time and money in a more certain manner. For example, I planned a trip home to Utah (as well as a few other locations afterwards), and purchased tickets from Delta. After buying my tickets, a job interview materialized in Dallas in the same timeframe.

"No matter", I told them, "just send me to Salt Lake straight after Dallas". I figured I could skip the first of my five flights (SFO to SLC), and catch the rest of my itinerary, no problem. This would save me about two hours.

The morning of my interview, I suddenly wondered if Delta would care to know beforehand that I wouldn't be needing my first seat, so I thought I'd call and tell them out of the goodness of my heart. This was an inspired move, as it turns out you can't just miss a flight and catch the rest. You miss one flight, and the whole reservation dies.

Somewhat bemused, I queried as to what my options were, to find out the only solution was to cancel the whole reservation, then rebook the entire itinerary, doubling the price to $700.

Those two hours I saved were pretty uneventful. You'd think that after I paid the $350 extra for them something amazing would have happened. Not the case. I spent them reading in a very crowded terminal full of angry smelly passengers.

Remember, time is money. And money is lunch sacks.

1. I am, of course, kidding. To the extent that my mother reads this, of course. If she doesn't actually read it, I'm not stretching the truth all that much.
2. I still harbor a grudge against Mrs. Jones, for the time I quoted a Muppet's film in class. She had a habit of mentioning how people were caught 'red handed'. As a connoisseur of the Muppets, I couldn't help but raise my hand one day and ask, "what color are their hands now?" This did not produce the laughs my sixth-grade mind projected, and I experienced being caught red faced as crickets chirped and Mrs. Jones made some snide comment about maturity. The nerve.

the modern family

The archetypal family consists of a father and a mother with several children. It's a self-contained unit, and has stood the test of time as the base of society, and has given structure to neighborhoods and societies for generations.

Of course, families are a little more complicated these days. Well, as a statistician I'm not sure if I'm just taking a biased sample. Maybe families were always complicated? Or maybe they were complicated up until the industrial revolution, and then got uncomplicated peaking at the 50s, and then descended into chaos? In any event, for the purpose of the guide, I'll refer to complicated families as the modern family.

What's complicated? Well, let me tell you1.

I traveled to my ancestral home last week to party with my family as I recently graduated with a Master's Degree in Stuff That Won't Really Improve Your Chances Of Getting a Job, But We Pretend It Does During the Admissions Season. At one point, I needed a car to go have lunch with my good friend Drew. As my father is known for having cars, I asked him if I could borrow one for the day.

My father replied that I could borrow his Volvo. The only complication was that it was parked at Craig's house. Craig, for those of you not in my family, is my father's wife's ex-husband. This brought up an awkward series of conversations which will not be repeated here, but suffice it to say, there was some confusion as to why his car would reside in that particular locale.

On the date I needed the car, my father was kind enough to drive me to Craig's house to pick up said automobile. On arriving at the house, we found the Volvo parked outside. My dad gave me the keys, and wished me luck. Curiosity got the better of me, and our conversation went something like the following:

Me: Is anybody driving the car?

Dad: Yes, Craig's wife's son normally drives it, on the condition that he drive [your two step brothers] to their various activities, but he's been shirking his duty, so I'm taking the car back.

Me: (nervously) Does he know you're taking it back?

Dad: (laughing) He'll figure it out when he sees it missing.

Me: (much more nervously) Well, I'll drive fast.

Dad: Not to worry, he's not home. He's at my place.

I thanked him, and skipped quickly over to the car, and sped off as fast as prudence would dictate. I spent the rest of the day worrying that this kid would stumble into my car wherever I parked it, and would re-repossess it.

To summarize, I repossessed my father's car, which was in possession of my father's wife's ex-husband's wife's son.

THAT is a modern, complicated family.

1. Apologies to my Father in the event he ever reads this, and wishes it not be so public, but I just had to document this incident for the guide and posterity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Nephews exist to inform us of uncomfortable facts.

Their powers of computation may not rival ours, and their ability to grasp details of complex processes may be sub-par compared to the average adult, but their innate ability to shed light on our discomfort in innocent ways is unrivaled.

The other day I was playing a game of chess with my nephew Justin. After a few minutes, he was visibly bored with the game, and looked up at me to pose a question.

"How old are you?"

This wasn't the worst of questions to ask, so I replied (truthfully), "27". He then followed it with this ringer:

"When do you get married?"

Obviously not soon enough. He could tell I was distressed with this question, so he went on to console me by saying, "Maybe when you're 34?"

It's a sad day when your nephew is asking you when you're finally going to settle down and get a wife. Your mom, your dad, your siblings, your neighbors, your friends, your roommates, yes, yes yes, but your nephew? A sad day indeed.

That being said, I'm not really bemoaning the lack of being married, I'll be quick to state. I'll get married when I'm good and ready, thank you very much.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

hiring managers

Hiring managers seek to hire irrational individuals. Though this may not be immediately apparent from the perfectly normal job advertisements which dot the internet landscape, if you read closely, you'll see a trend towards lunacy.

For example, I was reading job description the other day. The hiring manager was elaborating on his ideal individual, and talked of wanting to find people who have an "insatiable desire to get things right", who, in all areas of their life, seek "perfection". He went on to wax eloquent about the individual who has an inner drive to get everything perfect.

Okay, Mr. Hiring Manager. Let's take a few steps back and relive our Econ 101 course. What is one of the first concepts we learned about rational decision makers? In order to optimize outcomes, they seek to set their marginal benefit equal to their marginal cost.

So what are you looking for? That's right, you're looking for people who are incapable of understanding the idea of marginal cost = marginal benefit. You're going to hire a bunch of people who can't work on things until it's good enough. Instead, they'll spend their time endlessly rehashing projects until they're perfect. I've worked with a fair number of those people, and let me tell you, they're not all they're cracked up to be.

I can't tell you how many times I've been on projects where no progress was made, because the perfectionists didn't like the interim solutions, and the full solution required too many resources to achieve. To take a completely unproven axiom, 80% of the benefits can often be achieved with 20% of the costs. It's often good enough just to make a decision and start moving, instead of endlessly haranguing over details.

Just as bad, I've been on plenty of teams where too much progress was made. The final product could have been achieved just as well without killing the team members. But alas, there are still people out there who don't set their marginal benefit equal to marginal cost.

In my world, I want to hire the dude/female form of dude who doesn't waste his/her time, and thus my valuable resources. If an A- requires 2 hours of work, and an A requires 15, guess what? I'll take the A- student any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Please, reconsider your attempts to hire irrational decision makers. If they're irrational about every aspect of their life, they're going to be irrational in making company decisions.

Also, the fact that my GPA hit the toilet in my Master's program has in no way influenced my thinking on the subject...mmmhmmmm...and I have several bridges to sell you.