Mental Accounting for Dummies

The Bank of America’s Keep the Change program freaks me out.   Every time you make a charge with your B of A debit card it rounds the figure up to the nearest whole amount and transfers the change to your checking account.  Commercials for this service are all over the television and radio - tagline: “you don’t even have to think about saving” - and every time I see one I feel the gulf between me and the rest of humanity widening (MR readers excepted of course).

Look, I can understand Ulysses tying himself to the mast, I can understand locking the refrigerator and I can understand Christmas accounts but I will never understand how anyone can increase their savings by taking money from one account and putting it into another.  I think I will write a book, I will call it Mental Accounting for Dummies:

The secret to saving more money is simple.  In your right hand is money for spending.  In your left hand is money for savings.  Now take some money from your right hand and put it into your left hand.  Tada!  Wasn’t that easy?

Millions have signed up for Keep the Change and the program has been written up by Business Week as “a radically different product that broke the paradigm."  Sigh.

n.b. It is true that B of A tops up the amount transferred but this part of the program, the only part that makes any sense, is hardly advertised at all.


Mental Accounting for Dummies

The economics of cats

Many people have been clamoring for this topic over at the secret blog.

My views are simple: we have too few cats in the world, relative to dogs.  Dogs, for reasons of temperament, can in essence precommit to being our slaves.  (As long as they are not Irish Setters.)  That makes us more willing to create or support an additional dog.  The quantity of dogs is nearly Pareto optimal, although their emotional slavery to us raises ethical questions about the distribution of power in the relationship.

A cat cannot “promise,” genetically or otherwise, that her kittens will become your slaves, if only you don’t neuter her.  The kittens never come about, or they meet a cruel fate rather quickly.

If you must support the life of either a cat or a dog, choose the undervalued cat.  This argument requires only that the cat gets some value out of being alive, and that value should carry some weight in our all-things-considered moral calculations.

More generally, you should go around helping the (undervalued) people who insult you, or the people who otherwise signal their independence from you.  The craven are already being helped quite a bit.


The economics of cats

Featured Windows Download: Add tabs to any program with WinTabber

WinTabber.pngWindows only: Freeware app WinTabber can add tabs to any program for easy grouping. Not only can WinTabber group multiple instances of the same program into tabs, but it can also group different programs together into tabs (as shown in the screenshot). Its possible uses abound, but grouping your applications based on purpose is one idea with a lot of potential. For example, you could create two groups of tabs: one group for work-related applications and one group of tabs for your non-work-related apps. WinTabber is a free download for Windows only.
WinTabber [via One Tip A Day]

Featured Windows Download: Add tabs to any program with WinTabber

Excessive Ovation Syndrome

There’s a malady sweeping the nation that’s highly contagious to concertgoers.  It doesn’t have a name yet, so let’s call it Excessive Ovation Syndrome (EOS for short).  Those suffering from it stand and applaud at performances that aren’t good enough to deserve such enthusiasm. In extreme cases, they shout “Bravo!” during events that are best forgotten.

The more people pay for tickets, the more susceptible they are to EOS, because ovations confirm that their money was well spent.  Even those in bargain seats can easily catch it from their neighbors.  The urge to stand and cheer may be irresistible if everyone around you is doing it.

Here is more.  Is the fear that too much costly clapping goes on?  I believe most of these people enjoy the pretentious show of approval.  A more plausible worry is that audiences, if they approve all performances, can no longer signal quality to performers.  Given that other and arguably more accurate signals remain in place (critics, bloggers, the conductor, etc.), I am not sure we should be concerned by greater noise in the audience signal.  After all, the very complaint suggests that the audience cannot be trusted to judge quality, so why not neutralize them?

And if the excess clapping gives the less musically sophisticated attendees a better memory of the show, that is arguably a benefit.  Are we not, after all, committed egalitarians?

Against my better aesthetic judgment, I am on the verge of endorsing Excessive Ovation Syndrome.


Excessive Ovation Syndrome

The Last Novel

Designer name to come

Today’s question: how would you design a jacket for a novel that desperately, aggressively, willfully tries not to be a novel – a book that “does away with most narrative conventions – plot, colorful characters, dramatic conflict,” using instead “a collage of very short anecdotes, apocryphal legends, aphorisms, (and) lurid gossip…run(ning) through (a) fragmented consciousness?” And one that begs comparison to Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Shakespearean sonnets, just to name a few? (Read the wonderful NY Times review, from which the above quotes are taken.)

Here’s the answer:


The debate begins…now.
The Last Novel

Book of the week: Hollywood screenwriter trilogy

In a previous post, I mentioned how I like to read about and study Hollywood because it makes my own industry look sane and rational. The people who create and run television shows and films cope with a level of chaos and randomness that would cause most high-tech entrepreneurs I know, myself included, to switch careers faster than you can say “the deal fell through”.

Writers in Hollywood are a particularly interesting species, in that they combine a primary creative role with practically no control over the finished product.

Three great books on the television and film business as seen through the eyes of writers are:

  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by the great William Goldman who wrote such classic films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride. I think it’s the best book ever written about screenwriting. Probably the most memorable part is Goldman’s assertion that “nobody knows anything” – Goldman argues quite thoroughly that Hollywood, after 80 years of institutional experience creating movies and television shows,is still completely unable to predict which projects will succeed and which will fail.
  • Billion-Dollar Kiss by Jeffrey Stepakoff, a professional television writer who worked extensively on Dawson’s Creek. This is probably the best book on the current state of the television industry – which has changed radically in the last several years, due in large part to the rise of reality programming – from the perspective of someone who writes for television for a living.
  • Conversations with My Agent by Rob Long is one of the funniest books I have ever read. Long was a young writer on the hit series Cheers and on top of the world, until Ted Danson punched the eject button and the show shut down. He then embarked on the entrepreneurial adventure of creating his own television show from scratch. The straightforward narrative of life in the TV trenches in the 1990’s is interspersed with marvelous screenplay-like interchanges between Long, his agent, and various other Hollywood denizens.


Book of the week: Hollywood screenwriter trilogy

Worse than Viruses

Public computer surfaces are reservoirs for methicillin-resistant staphylococci.

The role of computer keyboards used by students of a metropolitan university as reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant staphylococci was determined. Putative methicillin (oxacillin)-resistant staphylococci isolates were identified from keyboard swabs following a combination of biochemical and genetic analyses. Of 24 keyboards surveyed, 17 were contaminated with staphylococci that grew in the presence of oxacillin (2 mg l-1). Methicillin (oxacillin)-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), -S. epidermidis (MRSE) and -S. hominis (MRSH) were present on two, five and two keyboards, respectively, while all three staphylococci co-contaminated one keyboard. Furthermore, these were found to be part of a greater community of oxacillin-resistant bacteria. Combined with the broad user base common to public computers, the presence of antibiotic-resistant staphylococci on keyboard surfaces might impact the transmission and prevalence of pathogens throughout the community.

Thanks to Monique van Hoek for the pointer.


Worse than Viruses