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Spousonomics: Using economics to master love, marriage, and dirty dishes

| analysis, book, love, reading, research

I love research-backed books that help us understand why we do what we do. Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson’s Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes was no exception. The book takes a look at common marital conflicts and situations, showing the underlying economic principles that influence our actions. For example:

  • Division of labour: Splitting chores equally may not result in the most efficient or the happiest of marriages. Specialize, remembering that payoffs can change over time.
  • Loss aversion: People hate to lose, which can result in really drawn-out fights. The advice to “never go to bed angry” can backfire. It’s okay to have time-outs.
  • Supply and demand: If you want something to happen more often, don’t make it costly or risky.
  • Moral hazard: It’s easy to take good things for granted. It’s also easy to end up trying to avoid any sort of conflict. The sweet spot is in the middle, where you’re not taking your relationship for granted, but you’re not paranoid about your spouse quitting.
  • Incentives: Think about the incentives you use and if they’re really effective. Trust can be much more useful than nagging.
  • Trade-offs: Think at the margin: consider the costs and benefits of small changes. Ignore sunk costs when making decisions. Get over the “it’s not fair” fixation.
  • Asymmetric information: Communicate clearly. Don’t play games by hiding or withholding information. Figure out the essentials of what you need to share so that you don’t overload your spouse.
  • Intertemporal choice: It’s easy to make good decisions for the future, but hard to stick with those decisions in the present. Use commitment devices to help you stick with your resolutions or good ideas.
  • Bubbles: Non-bubbly married life is normal, so don’t stress out if you’re no longer infatuated. Beware of being unduly influenced by groups – just because everyone else seems to be doing something doesn’t mean it’s right for you, too. Don’t get overconfident.
  • Game theory: Don’t let the urge to retaliate or overcompensate lead to you to wildly polarized positions. Work together to get optimal results, not just individually-optimal results, and use commitment devices to help you stick with it.

The book goes into far more depth, and is an excellent read. It’s illustrated with case studies (problem couples who usually end up patching things up) and lots of research.

Here are some thoughts I particularly like:

If there are areas you care about but you feel helpless in, put in the time and effort to develop the comparative advantage in at least one of them. The authors tell the story of one economist who put the time into at least learning how to bathe an infant so that his wife wouldn’t end up with all the child-rearing tasks – and so that he wouldn’t get tempted to take advantage of that kind of a division.

Looking for things to read? In terms of marriage research, I’d recommend “Spousonomics” and Susan Page’s “The 8 Essential Traits of Couples who Thrive”. What do you like?

Coconut buns and the economics of home awesomeness

Posted: - Modified: | cooking, family, life, love, reflection

Sometimes making things at home is cheaper than buying them. Sometimes it’s more expensive. For example, the batch lunches we prepare and freeze come out to $1-$3 per meal, labour included. They’re definitely worth it compared to eating out. The coconut cocktail buns (pan de coco?) I spent this weekend learning are cheaper at the store, but they were still very much worth making.

We followed a recipe from an book that W- had bought from a pastry store in Chinatown a long time ago. It was a different way of making dough. The first step was to mix yeast, warm water, and flour. I was a little nervous in the beginning because it was more of a slurry than a paste. Once it rose and I combined it with the rest of the flour, it was beautifully dough-like, made smooth and elastic through kneading. After several rounds of rising, I filled it with the coconut mix, wrapped the dough around it, let it rest some more, then popped it into the oven for 15 minutes. The result:

Coconut cocktail buns

The buns were scrumptious. Not too sweet. Complex taste. Yummy yummy yummy.

I had a lot of fun making the buns with W-, playing around with the voice and mannerisms we’d picked up from a Julia Child video. I also made some pie crusts for Pi Day (March 14). W- filled the first pie crust with lemon meringue. I sewed up some tea towels from the fabric that W- helped me pick out, and those passed their field test. We salvaged some wool scraps from one of my bins and repurposed an empty paper salt shaker into a dice roller for J-‘s math study sessions. It was a great weekend for maing things.

We spend a lot of weekend time doing things ourselves: cooking, baking, sewing, fixing things, even woodworking during the summer months. Some of things cost us more in terms of time and money than we might spend on functionally equivalent alternatives, but we get a surprising amount of value from these activities. For example, baking coconut buns results in yummy coconut buns (for which a reasonable equivalent can be bought for a little more than a dollar each), but the activity is also:

  • intrinsically enjoyable for us
  • a way to develop skills
  • shared relationship time
  • an opportunity to create or build on in-jokes
  • an opportunity to strengthen other relationships (friends, neighbours)
  • a way to reinforce and express our shared values
  • a good reason for a blog post =)

So although baking buns takes time, it actually pays off better than many of the other ways I could spend weekend time, such as:

  • reading
  • watching movies (borrowed from the library, but still passive)
  • programming or working (important to invest time into relationships; doing well in programming and working at the moment, I think.)
  • writing, even

There’s a reasonable limit to how much time I would spend on baking or making other things at home. I don’t want to mill my own flour (just yet). I think I’ve got a decent balance right now, and I look forward to picking up more as I get better and more efficient.

Am I trading off, say, more brilliance at work, or racking up income through side-hustles, or becoming more famous through writing? Maybe. But this is good, and all of those other aspects of life are pretty okay (even awesome!). Life is good.

Ten lessons learned from disassembling and rebuilding our washing machine

Posted: - Modified: | geek, love

This wasn't how I thought I'd spend the holidays. I planned to write, draw, and reorganize the house and my digital life. Instead, I found myself deep in washing machine parts, disassembling the LG WM2140CW so that the 27" washer could fit through our 26" staircase. It was the first time I’d disassembled anything brand-new, much less a major appliance. Here’s what I learned.

1. A great relationship transforms hard work into lots of fun. W- and I worked on disassembling and reassembling that washing machine all afternoon and into quite a bit of the evening. Because I was there, he didn’t have to do it alone. Because he was there, I not only discovered more of W-’s amazing skills, but developed my own. We worked more efficiently together than he could have on his own: another pair of hands to keep things steady or pass a screwdriver, another set of eyes to spot the spring holding the gasket in place, another person to find a free online copy service manual for our exact model (you wouldn’t believe how many ad-spam and link-spam sites there are for service manuals)…

W- and I joked that even if our gamble failed and the washing machine didn’t turn back on, it would’ve been worth it as the tuition for skills and the prevention of future couples’ therapy costs. ;)

So it was exercise AND social time AND preparation time, and now I need to find a better time-tracking system that takes into account perfect days like that when everything comes together. Not multitasking, but combination.

Even if you don’t have a significant other who can turn things like this into wonderful bonding moments, you might be able to share your hard work with friends. For example, I once held an IKEA assembly party, which was lots of fun and which resulted in a kitted-out apartment. =)

2. Before you move large things, look for anything that might scratch it, and disassemble more than you think you need. Orient it based on risky areas, too. We forgot to take off the door holder (part 1), and it scraped and dented the front part of the washer instead of the back (part 2). Learning from our mistake, we disassembled it and took the dryer through without any problems. W- hammered the dent out. The scratches can be touched up with paint (yay white washers, no colour-matching like the red ones would’ve required), but it would’ve been nice to avoid that in the first place.

3. Don’t be afraid of taking things apart. Particularly when you’re working with an electrical engineer who gained experience by taking apart the previous washing machine, and when you’ve got enough of an emergency fund so that messing up is annoying but not catastrophic. I now know way more about washing machines than I learned from How It’s Made or from the exploded parts diagrams.

4. Service manuals rock. I can understand why they’re not just part of the package (after all, most consumers won’t need them). I’m glad we found them, though. Although we were willing to pay a little extra for the features of the Samsung washer, we found the LG service manual for free, and that decided it for us. ‘Course, now that I’ve done some more digging, I’ve found a Maytag Technical Institute service manual for a Samsung washing machine we could probably have used, but ah well. =) I like the LG service manual a bit more because it uses clear diagrams, although the photos in the other one are good for general orientation.

Retailers or sales representatives who sell appliances could keep a copy of the service manual so that they can answer questions from people about how far the machines can be disassembled in order to get it through a narrow opening, although I suppose that’s a very niche thing. ;)

The service manual’s disassembly guide pointed out screws we might’ve taken a long time to find, the spring holding the bellows closed, and the sequence in which to take off the panels. It didn’t go as far as removing the drum, but we figured that part out easily.

5. Watch out for sharp bits on the interiors of machines. Yes, the washing machine was all rounded corners and smiles on the outside, but boy, there were some sharp edges on the inside. Move carefully.

6. Keep track of your screws by screwing them into the empty places. Make rebuilding easier by returning screws to the proper location after detaching whatever needs to be detached. It’s hard to label everything correctly or to remember where each type of screws go. Let the machine remember for you. If you don’t rattle things around too much and the screws are fairly secure, you probably won’t lose any screws when you move the machine.

7. Use magnetic screw-holders to keep your other screws together. If you can’t leave the screw in, you can keep it in a magnetic screw-holder. This is generally a good idea, and almost a necessity if you have cats who like chasing loose things around. I’m looking at you, Luke.

8. Keep screws from old projects. If you have left-over screws from other projects (say, reassembled items that mysteriously had more screws than you started with, or optional parts you didn’t use), keep them organized. You never know when you’ll need to replace a screw after searching under the couch and all the other usual Bermuda triangles for cat toys.

9. Resist the urge to snap the plastic bits. If connectors appear to be stuck together, it could be some kind of latch you can find and open instead of snapping various plastic bits until the connectors can be eased apart. ;) Patience.

10. Celebrate. If you can’t celebrate successfully rebuilding a washing machine and hearing the sweet, sweet sounds of it turning on without any leaks or explosions, what can you celebrate? Even though we had lots of food in the fridge (such as a turkey we’ve been chipping away at since Friday), we headed out to Pho Hung for some delicious bowls of pho. Perfect wrap-up for a perfect day.

See pictures on Picasa

Book: Choose to be happily married: How everyday decisions can lead to lasting love

Posted: - Modified: | book, love, reading

Bonnie Jacobson, PhD., with Alexia Paul
2010 Adams Media, Avon, Massachusetts
ISBN 13: 978-1-60550-625-8

The book consists of short chapters that explore common conflicts and positive approaches in committed relationships. Each chapter includes one or two case studies, ways to recognize the conflict, and tips for resolving the conflict. This book is a good read for couples who are beginning to find themselves ensnared in repeating conflict patterns because they can identify and get tips for their situation. Couples who are starting out may also find it useful as a way to recognize potential conflicts before they become established.

  • Flexibility

    Responsive Reactive
    Good judgment Critical judgment
    Expressing your true self Conforming to a role
    Autonomy Isolation
    Surrender Submission
    Establishing space Neglect
    Patience Passivity
    Benign boundaries Emotional tyranny
    Awareness of limits Emotional recklessness
    Embracing change Preserving the status quo
  • Communication

    Taking responsibility Blame
    Needs Wants
    Detach Withdraw
    Speaking up Silence
    Giving the benefit of the doubt Making assumptions
    Intimate listening Hearing
    Influence Control
    Constructive criticism Destructive criticism
  • Personal power

    Deciding Craving
    Fighting fair Fighting unfair
    Support Protection
    Forgiving Forgetting
    Good selfish Bad selfish
    Family loyalty Self-interest
    Joy Happiness


Posted: - Modified: | communication, love, reading

W- and I are getting married in less than two weeks. In preparation for that (and as a way of keeping sane during the pre-wedding hullabaloo), we've been learning how to argue. You've gotta love a man whose reaction to a challenging situation is to not only figure how to address the conflict, but also to learn more about effective communication.

You might be thinking: Isn't rhetoric about political grandstanding, slick salesmanship, and mouldy Greeks and Romans? Isn't “argument” just a fancy word for “fight?”

I thought so too, non-confrontational me. It turns out that learning more about rhetoric and argument can make relationships even better. In “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion,” Jay Heinrichs points out the difference between fighting to win and arguing to win people over. What's more, he uses familiar situations drawn from everyday life: persuading his teenage son to get him toothpaste, defusing potential fights with his wife, and analyzing the selling techniques and marketing tactics that beseige us.

My first encounter with Heinrichs was when W- pointed me to Heinrichs' post on “How to Teach a Child to Argue.” It's a clever example of logos, ethos, and pathos. Reading it, I thought: Hey, this is so practical. Then I wondered: Why didn't I learn this in school? But I brought myself firmly back into a focus on the future by asking: What can I do to get better at this? When Heinrich writes about the past (forensic), present (demonstrative), and future (deliberative) tenses of arguments, I recognize my own urge to focus on moving forward–practical things we can do–during difficult conversations that threaten to spiral into blame games or overgeneralizations. Learning more about rhetoric helps me understand the patterns, working with them without being sucked in.

It isn't easy to admit to learning more about rhetoric and argument. One downside of reading mybooks on communication and relationships as a child was that people occasionally doubted if I meant what I said. As a grade school kid, I found it hard to prove I wasn't being manipulative. It's still hard even now, but at least experiences give me more depth and reassurance that I'm not just making things up. I like Heinrichs' approach. He and his family are well aware of the tactics they use, but they relate well anyway, and they give each other points for trying. I'm sure we'll run into unwarranted expectations along the way – learning about argument doesn't mean I'll magically become an empathetic wizard of win-win! – but I'd rather learn rhetoric than stumble along without it.

Besides, argument – good argument, not fights – could be amazing. In “Ask Figaro“, Heinrichs writes:

“My wife and I believed that happy couples never argued; but since we started manipulating each other rhetorically (we recognize each other's tricks, which just makes it all the more fun), we've become a happier couple.”

To learn more beyond “Thank You for Arguing”, we've also raided the library for other rhetoric books. Nancy Wood's “Essentials of Argument” is a concise university-level textbook with plenty of exercises that I plan to work on after the wedding. “Critical Inquiry: The Process of Argument” also promises to be a good read. These are not books to skim and slurp up. They demand practice.

Results so far: I have had deeper conversations with W-, had a still-emotional-but-getting-better conversation with my mom (I'm getting better at recovering my balance), and conceded an argument with Luke about dinner. (It's hard to argue with a cat who sits on your lap and meows – pure pathos in action.) I'll keep you posted. I look forward to practicing rhetoric in blogging, too.

I've won the relationship lottery, I really have. In a city of 5.5 million people, in the third country I've lived in, I found someone who exemplifies the saying: When the going gets tough, the tough hit the books.

(edited for clarity)

Love and reaction

| love

Some interns are helping my mom with a memory book for my upcoming wedding, and one asked me to write about love.

I believe that much like happiness, love is a skill that you can develop, and that the real test and triumph of love isn’t found in nouns or even actions, but in reactions.

Let me explain.

Many people want to find the perfect person to love, just like they want to find the perfect life in order to be happy. I learned that happiness has a lot more to do with you than it does with the world around you, and that happiness is a skill you can practice. Perfection isn’t necessary. Challenges help you grow. Likewise, some people make it much easier to love them than other people do, and some people can be dangerously toxic, but there are always opportunities to grow (although that may mean practicing tough love, or even getting out).

Advertisements describe love as expressed through nouns: flowers, a diamond ring, a clean house. Books often describe love through actions: going on a date, giving a massage, spending time together. I think the most interesting part of love is revealed by people’s reactions.

After surviving the Holocaust, Victor Frankl wrote:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Love is in that choice, and it is something you have a million opportunities to practice every day. For example, sometimes W- is preoccupied with work. I can feel lonely, or I can admire his concentration and look for ways to make things easier. Sometimes I misplace things. W- can get annoyed with me, or he can help me become better organized. Sometimes conversations with my mom can get awkward. I can become more distant, or I can get closer. Sometimes the cats throw up on the carpet. We can scold them, or we can accept that as part of the price we pay for their company and focus on cleaning up the mess.

You can make lists of loving actions to take, but the truth of love comes out in your reactions. When someone does something to tick you off, do you fall into a fight, or can you focus on the silver lining? When someone uses that tone of voice or that choice of words, do you get enraged, or can you mentally translate that into what was probably meant? It takes a little work, but just like happiness, love gets easier.

Reaction becomes action. I frequently tell W- that I love him, but it is not really an action—it is a reaction to the joy and the gift of life with someone like him. Far too many times, we think of love as something we initiate almost as part of an exchange: I will do this for you, so you will do that for me. Everything changes when your loving actions come from gratitude and joy.

This idea of love can go far beyond romantic relationships. To love life is to take it as it is, to throw yourself into it, to embrace it and see the best of it and choose that it brings out the best in you. My goal is to learn how to reply lovingly to everything that happens: to get better at seeing the best, and to become more deeply and more intimately human in response.

Squirrels, shop class and drafting: making my peace with high school

Posted: - Modified: | gardening, learning, life, love, sketches

The squirrels had messed with the wrong seedlings.

To entertain cats and people alike, we’d fed the squirrels throughout winter. Now we were paying for it with the consequences of population explosion: ravaged seedling beds, munched-on sprouts, and dug-up and discarded onion bulbs.

The stench of bloodmeal didn’t stop the marauding rodents from plundering our vegetable patches. We didn’t want to use hot pepper flakes and other painful irritants. We needed a plan.

We stapled chicken wire on our raised beds, which kept the scallions and other bulbs safe for the moment. When the strawberry plants grew tall enough to poke white and pink flowers through the mesh, we knew we needed something bigger.

I was about to experiment with circles of chicken wire held together with duct tape and string. But W- had an engineering decree, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.

After days of discussing diagrams on scratch paper, we decided to build a semi-permanent frame. We picked up spruce and hardware from Home Depot, and then set to work. W- taught me how to use a circular saw to cut the lumber. I told him that it felt a lot like sewing: marking my seams and following the lines. We sanded, measured, marked, leveled, measured, and fastened. We finished the frame just as the sky darkened.

This is what it will probably look like:

 garden-frame (… minus the text, of course, and liberally covered with chicken wire.)

We’ve finished the vertical and horizontal supports, and we’ll work on the chicken-wire doors this week. I’m looking forward to it.

I’m making my peace with subjects I detested in school. Now that sewing and cooking have become enjoyable hobbies, I’ve set my sights on shop class and drafting.

Working on shelves and other small projects in high school shop/tech class, I had felt awkward and clumsy. I struggled to wrap my mind around the spatial puzzles of carpentry. The classroom was full of sweat and sawdust, and the lab coats we wore did nothing for either.

Drafting classes in fourth year were more refined, but not more enjoyable. My classmates drew neat lines that intersected at just the right places. My papers were full of smudges, distortions, and impossibilities.

Now, without the pressure of a classroom and with more developed spatial skills (thank you, sewing and drawing), I can find these long-forsaken subjects relaxing, even enjoyable. Working with wood, I found myself thinking of other things I’d like to build. Drawing the structure, I though

Helps to have the right tools, too. Axonometric grids in Inkscape for drawing isometric images? Yes! So much easier than erasing and redrawing segments.

It’s great to challenge my memories. I’m learning that sometimes things are better learned the second time around. It’s great to know it wasn’t me, it was then. Who knows? I may yet revisit the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and learn how to look at fiction and poetry with a critical eye.

But first, I have some squirrels to chase off the lawn.