Sunday, February 8, 2009

When Social Proof Misleads Us

While driving up to the mountains to do some snowboarding, I noticed something interesting. While the roads were perfectly clear, there were still tons of cars using chains on their tires. I quickly realized that this was a "monkey see monkey do" type phenomenon when I saw these large turnout areas with tons of cars pulled over putting chains on their tires.

It is very natural, as well as useful, for humans to take shortcuts in making decisions using social proof. When people saw that so many cars were chaining up their tires, their mind used this as a shortcut to tell them to put chains on their tires as well. In many cases, using social proof is useful, but in this case, it clearly was not. Having chains on the tires while not needed on the mountain is not that big of a deal, but it made me think of some of the more far reaching consequences of social proof.

Much of the world's consumerism is based on the concept of social proof. If everybody wants it, then I need to get it. If Paris Hilton wore it, it must be good. These types of thinking, unchecked, will inevitably lead to a rat racer type of lifestyle, where you are constantly listening to what other people tell you you need to buy or what you need to do. It is important to rationally evaluate each important decision you make and find out what your real motivation is. Social proof may be an indication, but certainly not a validation of a quality decision. Use social proof with caution.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cure the Coffee Addiction

Most grad students waste tons of time and money on coffee. Everyday, I walk by a plethora of grad students, post docs, and other scholars sitting down and wasting time drinking coffee. We have to cure this addiction. The best way to avoid coffee is to never drink it in the first place. Despite what all of your peers and professors will tell you, coffee is not necessary to being productive, awake, and social. Just like any drug, consuming caffeine in copious amounts will make you want to consume even more.

Consider this. Most grad students seem to drink coffee at least once in the morning and then again in the early afternoon. Some of them make their own which is probably pretty inexpensive, but many go to the variety of coffe carts located around a typical college campus. This costs anywhere from $2-$6 for two coffee runs per day. Let's consider that the average is $4. That means $20 per week for coffee. Or 50 x $20 = $1000 per year for coffee. Consider what one can do with $1000 a year, and ask yourself if coffee is worth it.

Some arguments against quitting coffee may be the following:
1. "It is a social drink, and it is fun to sit down, have a cup of joe, and talk with my friends"
2. "I need the caffeine"

I offer counter arguments for both of these. For the first, why distract yourself from getting what you really want to get done? One of the goals of a spicy lifestyler is to be efficient with our time and money. Going to get coffee during your productive time will distract you and force you to waste more time. The goal is not to be a workaholic, but would you rather have 4 hours a day of productive work, or 10 hours a day of distractions with the same amount of work done. I'd rather spend my extra 12 hours of free time pursuing other things. I guess it is really up to the individual. I know you enjoy time with your friends, but I would rather spend that time pursuing some adventure or chilling somewhere with a lot better atmosphere.

No one needs the caffeine. Yes, caffeine can be useful, I use it sometimes too. Here's a solution though. Green tea ($2 to $3 for 100 bags at your local asian market. Chances are that if you are in grad school, there is a large Asian community near your school necessitating the market.) Buy yourself a little water boiler (your office mates will like this too) and some green tea in bulk at your local asian market. Drink one cup of tea in the morning and one in the afternoon if you must. I can live with green tea. Yes, there is some caffeine in it, but if the Japanese are using it, it can't be too bad! Coffee usually has much more caffeine than tea, so the initial transition may be tough. Don't quit cold turkey. Do it slowly, set short term goals. For example, try "can i not drink a cup of coffee for 6 hours" instead of "can i not drink a cup of coffee for 6 months". Eventually anyone can get over this addiction.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


In an effort to become more flexible and have an overall healthier body, I have been wanting to implement stretching into my workout routine. I initially though this would be as simple as doing a few of the "standard" stretches. However, after doing some research on stretching, there are actually a lot of important factors to consider. This post will be a short summary of the article found here.

There are three important types of muscle contractions relevant for stretching. Isometric contraction is one in which no movement takes place, because the load on the muscle exceeds the tension generated by the contracting muscle. This occurs when a muscle attempts to push or pull an immovable object. Additionally, there are two types of isotonic contractions, where movement of the muscle does takes place. The first is concentric contraction where the muscle decreases in length such as lifting a weight up. The second is eccentric contraction where the muscle increases in length such as lowering a weight down. All three will be important for the various types of stretching:
  • Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion.
  • Dynamic stretching involves moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach, speed of movement, or both.
  • An active stretch is one where you assume a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist (the muscles which cause movement to occur) muscles.
  • A passive or static stretch is one where you assume a position and hold it with some other part of your body, or with the assistance of a partner or some other apparatus.
  • Isometric stretching is a static stretch in which the muscles are tensed
  • PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching combining passive and static stretching.

PNF Stretching has been said to be the fastest way to increase flexibility [Link].Typically these stretches are done with a partner actively stretching the participant. There are ways of doing it yourself however (PNF Self Stretching Techniques, Ninos, J. Strength and conditioning journal. Lawrence,Kan. 23(4), Aug 2001, 28-29.).

The benefits of stretching are numerous: reduced muscle tension, increased flexibility, enhanced muscular coordination, increased blood circulation, increased energy levels, as well as other physical and even psychological benefits [Link]. Stretching, like almost anything health related, is not without controversy and competing information. Athletes are often told to stretch after exercise in an effort to relieve soreness, but a study has shown this does not actually have any benefit and may be detremental to performance [Link]. Ballistic stretching is generally not recommend due to the increased chance of pulling a muscle due to the bouncing motion. However, a study showed that ballistic stretching provides similar gains in flexibility to other methods, without any negative side effects (Millar and Nephew 1999). Also, overstretching and putting too much strain on your muscles is potentially dangerous. It is always difficult to sort through the myriad information on these type of subjects, but the overall indication is that stretching in a safe and controlled manner regularly is beneficial.

My current plan is to implement stretching between my resistance exercises in order to be most efficient with my time. Over the next few weeks, I will try to experiment with various types of stretches and see which are most beneficial.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Life Without Compromise?

In the quest to maximize subjective life quality, we are faced with many questions and decisions on how to optimally obtain this goal. One of the questions faced will inevitably be, "When should I make a short term compromise in order to obtain this goal?" A very simple example of this is working on something boring in order to get to more interesting stuff or to make money to pay for other more fulfilling experiences. I want to talk about compromise in the social sense though. When is it good for me to do something with friends or people when I really do not want to do it at the moment?

In Late Night Adventures, cspice talks about the adverse affects of alcohol and sleep deprivation on health and how these typically accompany night life outings. Furthermore, he argues that one can get most of the benefit of the night life without these issues. While this may be true for certain people, I think for many, these could have potential adverse social affects. For example, if going to a bar or club, there is a good possibility of not having a good environment before midnight. Many people do not even begin to go out until 11 pm or so, so there may only be an hour or half hour of a good amount of people at a bar or a club. Certainly, an issue would be to find a bar or a club with a good density of people before midnight. Also, staying out no later than midnight has the obvious coordination problem of going out with friends. Most people plan on staying out until 2 am or later when going out. Either you would have to drive separately or find people who also want to be in around the same time. Your friends who like to stay out later would potentially become less likely to invite you considering the extra coordination problems.

Sleep deprivation and irregularity in one's sleep schedule can be potential problems of staying out late. However, I think for most people, these effects are pretty small. I know for myself, that getting in around 2 or 3 am and sleeping until 10 or so on a weekend will not cause me to need to stay up later and lose sleep for the work week. Furthermore, there was a comprehensive study that suggested less than 8 hours of sleep is optimal. [Link] To be exact, it suggested 7 hours was optimal. This is not a huge difference, but the point is that people probably need less sleep than they think they do. This study was done with an extremely large data set although there is no fundamental evidence to suggest that 7 hours is optimal. However,the same is true for the conventional wisdom which says 8 hours is the best. I am not suggesting that sleep deprivation is good, but studies suggest most humans do not need the full 8 hours of sleep to be healthy. Most importantly, I think each individual needs to test out their own sleep schedule and find out what works for them best, while also considering if the potential social benefits/detriments are worth it.

Alcohol is ubiquitous with socializing and partying in America. The optimal amount to drink for your health is probably zero. However, anyone who has consumed alcohol before knows that it is usually pretty fun to do so. Keeping in mind the potential health and psychological consequences of alcohol, I think that it is probably not a bad idea to occasionally drink alcohol and every once in a while to even indulge a bit. Certainly I, as well as many others, had some very memorable drunken nights. The point is that it is not just all about health.

There are many pressures from society that encourages people to do many things they do not want to. It is important to identify these things and figure out the appropriate amount of compromise to still maintain a healthy social life. Your physical health is certainly very important, but I would rather live a slightly less healthy life in the company of more fun and interesting people than in a life without compromise.