Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thoughts on the recent violence and gun regulations

I believe that guns don't kill people. People kill people. I agree that second amendment rights should be protected, yet some types of firearms do seem excessive. But ultimately it isn't what type of weapon is available that is of concern to me. It's WHO has access to these weapons.

For example, people of all characteristics drive all sorts of vehicles. Some drive tiny electric cars, some drive your everyday sedans, while others drive giant SUVs. Then there are those who own flashy sports cars and those who command commercial 18-wheelers. And anyone who passes a driving test and has been deemed eligible to drive safely can purchase any said vehicle or at least get behind the wheel of such street-legal vehicles. What matters isn't what vehicle is being driven. You can toss me the keys to the fastest sports car and I will probably still drive like a paranoid new mom with her baby in the backseat (though sport cars don't even always have a backseat). But there are people who drive recklessly regardless of what car they drive. Those who drink before getting behind the wheel... those who speed or disobey traffic laws... those who have lost their ability to make sound judgments... those who have no regard for human life... so on so on.

Are some types of street legal super fast sports cars excessive? Sure. As may seem to be the case with the semiautomatic weapons...

But there are existing laws to keep formula 1 vehicles off the streets as there are regulations to keep some of the more military grade weapons/fully automatic weapons off the streets.

Guns aren't inherently bad. Yes, they can be dangerous. But so can the keys to your car if put in the hands of a young teenager looking for a joy ride, an elderly person with delayed responses or poor vision, or an intoxicated individual who thinks they are fine to drive.

The focus needs to be on better regulating and endorsing existing gun laws and also in tightening the regulations and strengthening the steps required for known and potential threats to purchase guns. Let's look at who is causing the violence and less at what their weapon on choice is.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Consumer Cognition

Consumers care about the meta of products they buy, and more and more are asking questions like:
  • where it came from, is it:
    • local?
    • national?
    • foreign?
  • who is responsible
    • large corporations?
    • small businesses?
  • is the company paying/treating their employees fairly?
  • what the impact of buying the product is
    • environmentally?
    • on my health?
    • in my community?

Consumers are more cognizant about their choices and actually spend their money differently based on the information answered from these questions. Consumers are putting time into research because it has become so easy to do so on the internet. While we still look for the best possible deals (, we're becoming more discerning about what we buy and who we buy from.

Label Hell
There are all sorts of trends and movements like: "Shop local," "Buy Organic," "Sustainable [insert processes/products here]," "March Against Monsanto," "Third Wave Coffee," "Craft Beer," "Live Simply." While these movements are not exactly new, it's only recently where the marketing towards these movements is so incredibly important for companies - because now it's affecting their bottom dollar. It would be a challenge to go to a major grocery without seeing "Organic," "Fair-trade," "Eco-friendly," "Wild-caught," "Local," and so on. There are now a slew of new companies dedicated to providing products that meet these criteria. 

First World Problems?
Note that the questions mentioned above are not really about the product characteristics itself. We're not asking whether the product itself will satisfy our needs, because simply, that's a given. It's analogous the Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Are our basic needs met? "It's delicious, affordable, and fills my stomach - so yes." Okay, so then does the sales tax I pay for go back into my community? "Yes" And so on... We are definitely spoiled. We are capable of customizing most things about our lives and the image we want to give off to others. The act of choosing to experience as much as the world can offer, or at least what we choose to care about - is trendy. It's a bit hedonistic, but it can also make you interesting, ...cultured, ...inspired. And it doesn't have to be expensive or completely selfish. In fact, for example the alternative-culture trend of being thrifty is growing. Not to be confused with "Anti-Consumerism", this is actually more of a "Conscious Consumerism of Experiences" if I may coin such a term. To combine these practices with the growing conscience of consumers, I believe, shows that we're not just spoiled, but that we care.

Baby Boomers and Choice
I'm not going to get into why you should care or what criteria to care about specifically, but I will say that I have always been a believer in going out of my way to support a company that I trust and which satisfy the concerns I care about. This personal conviction is due in no small part to my parents. I hypothesize that like my parents' lives, baby boomers had easier lives than their parents before them. They were born into the new world of consumerism where multiple choices existed for anything you could possibly buy. Baby boomers helped pave the way to, in essence, being picky about what we spend our money on. Their specific reasons on their spending habits have only marginally been passed on, but more critical is the fact that the meta of buying decisions themselves were passed on. For me it's sort of similar to why one would get to know the owner of a small business. For some, it's for the simple social interaction alone, but I think there's a lot of us that like that feeling you get when you know someone on a first name basis from the community you live in. It makes you feel more involved with the community and you get to learn who and what your hard earned dollar supports. I'm not talking about the snobby patrons who need to judge whether or not their business is deserved - in other words someone who thinks their patronizing a business is a blessing unto them. I'd like to think it's more altruistic than that. Whether Baby boomers like it or not, some of the hippie trends and ideals permeated into their mainstream culture. Not long before them were the Bohemian ideals which today you might call hipsters, and certainly has similarities. You take a privileged and bored group of artistry socialites in any era and give them a bit of counter culture to chase and they end up gentrifying a poor neighborhood in pursuit of the arts and simple lifestyle. Creating gatherings like Woodstock and Burning Man, and creating social clubs of like-minded people. It can be a magnetic lifestyle that seems all figured out. It's reviled by some and adored by others. Yet, in subtle ways, the average atomic American family has a culture and ethos that has been influenced by these movements. Wanting to live for experiences as opposed to amassing material things. Wanting our children to be whatever they want to be when they grow up, as long as their happy. However, we being greedy creatures, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We pick and choose when it's convenient to pursue and appreciate the arts and crafts. America seems to despise hipsters and at the same time enjoy the finer things they "rediscover" and make popular again.

Let's take our consumerism further into the meta. Why are some of these movements and trends seemingly polarizing? Why is anything polarizing? Well I think first of all, we're brought up in America to question everything. This is very academic, and it's a great way to experience life. It gives you a healthy level of skepticism, and helps you learn for yourself - rather than just taking things for granted. However, I think for many, even though it gives them that skepticism, they forget to do the hard research. So they take shortcuts by letting those they "trust" tell them what is or isn't true. It's a common logical fallacy most of us fall into when a celebrity endorses a product. They appeal to our emotion or respect or ignorance. They appeal to our desire to be correct on conclusions we've already made (Confirmation Bias). These appeals usually take place in issues that are complex, because most of us don't fully comprehend or are fully knowledgeable on a given complex issue. Let's take "Climate-change" for instance. Even after taking a college course in this very topic I still do not comprehend nor know every fact to fully argue the premise that humans are causing climate-change. So even with what knowledge I have, when there are strong views on either side I might feel like that they are unfounded. This makes it easy to disregard those with strong viewpoints in general - or maybe err on whatever side my friends have taken. I might see one "scientific" chart and base all my future beliefs on the subject from that, only to learn that the chart wasn't very scientific after all. In doing so, I might learn to be skeptical of all so claimed scientific studies from there on out - which actually might lead to an unhealthy amount of skepticism. Having an unusually high conditioned skepticism can actually leave you in an extreme position when someone presents you with new information. The same is true with being too gullible. The shortcuts we all naturally learn to use can hinder us, because we are no longer using critical thinking. Taking shortcuts means we no longer take the time to research the data and form a logical conclusion. Topics are polarizing because we use shortcuts.

Shortcuts, Lies, and Marketing
These shortcuts for decision making are what marketing companies use. They are paid to know our shortcuts, and even work to create and form our shortcuts for us. Mark a bag of chips with "Organic" and they know you will use your shortcut. You have already assumed a lot of information associated with that bag of chips. GMO-free, pesticide-free, sustainably produced, all-natural, healthier, environmentally friendly, etc., etc. Man! What a shortcut! How much of all those conclusions are true? Here's the problem. It's quite possible that none of those are true. It's also quite possible that all of those are true. There's a difference in the letter of the law between synthetic and natural pesticides, yet if an organic farm uses an extensive amount of natural pesticides, what's to say it's that any better? What makes it even harder (to find out the truth behind a particular product) is that a lot of these labels and certifications are very subjective. There are varying definitions you might have versus the companies certifying a particular consumable organic. Organizations that are accredited by the USDA can be foreign, private, or State run. Accreditation costs money, which means those farms getting certified must pay for it. Enforcing both the accredited and the certified are daunting tasks, and not all those labeled Organic are truly so.  [Another link hereThere are also a lot of buzzwords that aren't enforced, and could mean anything to nothing at all. [Another article going into the verification issues with these labels] Don't get me wrong, however, I buy most of my groceries Organic from Jimbos and Sprouts from local farms. I am against huge industrialized farms, corn subsidies, inhumane meat factories, and more due to my own research and beliefs. However, what I try not to do, is take labels for granted. I research the companies behind the brands I buy - and that's really what it comes down to. I've learned as a consumer, not to take things for granted, because I've been let down and misled before, and I don't like being swindled. It's very tempting to only listen to, read, and remember the data that supports your desired conclusions. Which is why I do my due diligence in researching opposing views.

Think Critically
When I was a young elementary student, the most profound and memorable lessons my teachers taught were those of critical thinking. One lesson in particular was a trick question that didn't have all of the necessary facts to logically form a conclusion. To make conclusions is to draw information based off of data. Sometimes you need to gather that data yourself, and validate the data from multiple sources.  It's the same for journalists. Today there is an insane amount of editorializing on news channels and as well on the internet, but at its core journalist are only supposed to report facts. We need to sharpen the skill it takes to know how to separate opinion from fact. Part of this is keeping an open mind to new data and its sources and reevaluating past conclusions. Sometimes that means not forming an immediate opinion or conclusion because the sources are unreliable or the data is incomplete. Don't take an extremist approach to making conclusions, where passion precedes knowledge. Stay smart and make being a conscious consumer of experiences as rational as possible.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Yelp?

Yelp is very popular, and for good reason. It's a convenient and comprehensive website of businesses and their hours/location/etc, and especially used for reading and leaving reviews by patrons.

Restaurant reviews are really Yelp's bread and butter, but ever since Yelp's existence restaurateurs and patrons alike have been battling it out.

It's human nature to not like criticism, especially nonconstructive. Some restaurateurs recently have taken to anonymous articles to announce their distaste for "Yelpers" and their unhelpful and irrelevant reviews. While I believe the restaurateur's opinion certainly has some merit, I also believe that Yelp is actually very helpful. Yelp is really just a tool, and like any tool, it can be misused and well wielded. The fact that anyone can leave a review means that you are almost guaranteed to get a bell curved shape of reviews ranging from unhelpful and irrelevant to insightful and accurate. I posit that it's the wisdom of the crowd and the law of large numbers that bring sanity to the insanity of open public criticism and to the outliers of undue criticism as well as undue praise.

It make sense that restaurateurs don't appreciate Yelp, because they are more likely to take criticism personally, after all it is they who are on the judge's table. They are also more likely to ignore or forget the praise and middle of the road reviews too because they don't hurt. It's similar to the saying, "You don't know what you're missing, until it's gone." The good becomes everyday but the hurt sticks around.

On the flip side, the general public is not on the chopping block. We are not the ones being criticized and are therefore not as vulnerable to taking it personally. As a Yelp user myself, I read a lot of reviews (15 or more) before deciding on where to go for the first time. I look up their website and read what their backstory. I go to Yelp read the critical reviews, the suspiciously high praise reviews, and a lot of the regular reviews. I read a lot of regular reviews, because that's what there is most of. I read them by default, not because I am looking for them. When I come across a review that is irrational, either one of those "BEST FOOD EVARR" reviews or "WORST FOOD EVARR" reviews, I ignore them. They scream: "I'VE NEVARR BEEN TO A RESTAURANT BEFARR" childishness and yes there are more of those than I'd like to admit. Yet, the general truth about a place and their essence can be formed by reading enough reviews. Yes there are exceptions - like when there just aren't enough reviews about a place yet and therefore do not qualify for the law of large numbers. Or when the wisdom of the crowd is dependent on a crowd of people in a particular city that just isn't wise about that type of restaurant (a bad example: a Filipino restaurant in Idaho). However, by and large, Yelp is useful and it's not hard to cut through the noise. How many times have you asked, "Hmm what's around here?" - opened Yelp and found a place?

To want Yelp to go away is to want our opinions to go away. There are plenty of websites that can replace Yelp, so it's not "Yelp" specifically, it's our opinions. Everyone has their own expectations of a restaurant, and articles like this help the average person learn more accurately what to expect when dining out. I think the diversity of thought allows each person offer their own take on their experience, whether reasonable or not. This is where the wisdom of the crowd works. Your own expectations and reactions allow you to determine whether someone else's expectations/reactions in their review match your own or not. A good example is: when your food comes out differently than you expect, how do you react? Do you try it out first? Do you immediately say something about it? Do you suffer through the meal, leave without a tip and leave a nasty review instead? Many people react differently, and likewise restaurants will have various reactions to your actions. There a lot of reasonable actions on both sides, and fewer actions that are not normal or reasonable. There are many restaurant etiquette guides out there, and of course a lot of what is reasonable is circumstantial and subjective.

Reasonably, most restaurants want you please you, after all, they're in the business of hospitality. They want you to tell them (the waiter or manager) when something displeases you, so they can fix it. Since most things are very fixable, it's not a big deal when something goes wrong, so we shouldn't act like it, we should just have them fix it. Everyone makes mistakes, even the most expensive of restaurants. When mistakes build up and are not addressed after being brought up, fair and constructive criticism can be made. Even when they are addressed, fair and constructive criticism can be made. Reviews should be accurate and void of wild emotions. A restaurant that is normally perfect every night, and then has a mishap with one customer, should still receive a review reflecting that experience. Oh no! Now the perfect restaurant is tarnished! Not exactly. One negative review among hundreds is just not going to make a meaningful difference. However I want to emphasize, that review has its place and should be there. It accurately shows that that restaurant isn't perfect. If it wasn't there it could actually look very suspicious and/or artificially hype a place too high.

We the users of Yelp aren't going to take a few bad reviews with much weight if the overwhelming majority of reviews are positive. So while yes, there is a lot of noise with unhelpful reviews, we generally know how to turn on our noise-cancelling reading goggles and read between it. While your hatred for Yelp and those Yelpers is somewhat valid and certainly understandable; don't fret over the outliers because that's exactly what they are: statistically irrelevant.