Republicans are Happier than Democrats

Harvested the February 27, 2006 issue of TIME magazine at the MIT gym (as nice as you’d expect given that it cost more than $50 million, but with surprising shortcomings such as the lack of soap in the showers).  TIME does a good job covering the happiness news.  Some statistics:

  • 34 percent of Americans report being “very happy”
  • 45 percent of Republican Americans report being “very happy”
  • only 30 percent of Democrats report being “very happy”

This could be explained by the fact that our current rulers are Republican.  People have been told that we have a democracy and expect to have some input, but in a country of 300 million people none of us is likely to be consulted or to have any way to influence the federal government.  When Clinton was in power, Republicans were bitter and angry.  Maybe it is W’s existence that rains on Democrats’ parade?

An alternative theory is income-based.  People become happier as you stuff their pockets with money, though supposedly the effect becomes quite small once people have enough for a basic lifestyle (far below the current American median income).  Typing “median income Republicans versus Democrats” into Google doesn’t yield any conclusive answer.

A theory that gets better support in the psychology literature is faith-based.  People who believe in God are happier.  People who believe in God supposedly tend to vote Republican.

Finally there is the “fat, dumb, and happy” theory.  Republicans don’t notice all the problems that beset us.  They fight global warming by turning up the A/C in their monster SUVs.

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Family-friendly rap music from Rhapsody

I’m in love with the Rhapsody music service.  A friend was having a birthday party and wanted “old-style lounge music” by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, and a couple of other crooners.  We typed these names into Rhapsody and it made us a custom radio station playing songs by these folks.  With one username/password it is possible to run Rhapsody on multiple computers, so I plugged my laptop into a stereo and we had the desired music for the entire party.  So painless that you’d wonder why anyone would want to collect, inventory, and manage a music collection from iTunes or on physical media (unless you are a sound quality snob, in which case SACDs are nice).

Rhapsody is also good for serendipitous discovery of new music.  Today, for example, I stumbled upon a track by “Nitty”.  Rhapsody describes him as follows:

Nitty makes family-friendly rap music that can be enjoyed by little kids and older listeners alike.

The first sentence of his song (for little kids) contained the words “nigga” and “fuck”.

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Nobel laureate explains how to be happy

This from the February 27, 2006 New Yorker Magazine, an article on happiness research:

Layard cites a study, by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, reporting that people’s top four favorite parts of the day feature sex, socializing after work, dinner, and relaxing. Their bottom four involve commuting, work, child care, and housework.

The article opens by explaining many folks’ predisposition to unhappiness.  The happy-go-lucky cavemen all died from eating poisonous plants and attacks from which they did not bother to take precautions.  We inherit our genes from the timid fearful cavemen.

Now to write a Nobel-prize winning article finding that people are happier when eating chocolate and walking Golden Retrievers than when using Microsoft products…

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Opinions Sought: Should my students be allowed to document using LaTex/PDF?

This for the Internet app nerds among the readers…

The student teams in 6.171, the software engineering class that I’m teaching this semester at MIT, are required to document their servers.  By the end of the term, they are supposed to have something more or less like (doc dir for my personal Web site; rather bloated because it is based on a toolkit that is much more powerful than the features I’m using).  I would have expected them to write their documents in HTML.  One team has chosen to do their documentation in LaTex output to PDF.  I personally hate it when information is only available in PDF, but can’t really say why.  They don’t need equations or anything fancy.  HTML would suit them fine, but they apparently find it easier to write in LaTex.

I always think that if a Web developer can’t write HTML by hand in his or her sleep that he or she probably isn’t very good.  So the use of Microsoft Word or some other tool to author is a telltale sign of incompetence.  Is this just prejudice?  On what grounds can I tell these folks that a Web site should be documented in HTML?

[Fun experiment:  Do a Google search for “latex” and compare the pages returned with the ads on the side…]

[Update after a few days of reflection:  I think I finally figured it out.  The first and most obvious answer is that documentation for Web systems need a lot of hyperlinks, and therefore HTML is better than PDF.  The deeper answer is that the students don’t realize that they are supposed to be software engineers and not students.  The student turns in a paper.  It will never be updated.  LaTex is great for that, as it was designed for journal papers that were never updated, except maybe by the author.  Internet applications are fluid, however, and they get updated frequently, which requires corresponding frequent updates to the documentation.  The students who decided to use LaTex are implementing their service in Microsoft ASP.NET.  Eventually it will be taken over by some Microsoft certified programmer.  Even supposing that they provide the LaTex source (right now they just have the PDF on the server), what are the chances that this person will have heard of LaTex or know how to use it?  By contrast, if you document a Web service in HTML, you know that whoever takes it over will be able to edit it because nobody ignorant of HTML would be touching a Web service.  (Of course, if the HTML was originally authored in Microsoft Word, the person needing to edit it would curse you because there would be so much extraneous garbage to wade through.)

So… LaTex/PDF good for a student turning in an assignment.  Hand-authored HTML good for documentation that you expect some future programmer to take over and edit.]

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We should be glad that big organizations can’t handle people like Larry Summers

The departure of Larry Summers from Harvard should encourage us all to spend a moment giving thanks that big organizations are generally commanded by bland, uncreative, risk-averse folks.  If big universities were typically home to hard-charging, plain-speaking, creative men and women like Larry Summers, new and small schools such as University of Phoenix would never stand a chance.  The same goes for big corporations.  The only thing that saves entrepreneurs from irrelevance is the fact that so many steady and boring executives clog the hallways at the Fortune 500.

Why are people near the top of big organizations typically so risk-averse?  They’ve got a lot to lose.  If you’re making a big salary, enjoy big prestige, and have all the perks, you want to make sure above all that you don’t blow it by taking a risk.  This is why most stock mutual funds don’t perform that differently from the S&P 500; the managers want to make sure that they don’t do so poorly that they get fired or that investors make substantial withdrawals.  They won’t place big bets, even ones that they think are very likely to succeed, because any big bet entails some risk of dramatic underperformance relative to the index and therefore the end of the personal gravy train.

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Larry Summers resigning the presidency of Harvard

I was saddened to hear that Larry Summers had resigned as Harvard president.  Some friends and I had been wondering how large a donation it was going to take to get Larry to change his name to “Professor Dumbledore” and the name of the school to “Hogwarts”.  Now it may never come to pass 🙁

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JavaScript Slide Show software ready for release (and someone to give us better icons)

Shimon Rura and I have developed a JavaScript (Ajax)-based slide show program.  You can test it out at and the comments in the code explain how to adapt it for use on another site.  Unlike some other programs that we have seen, this one downloads all of the images in the background so that changing from slide to slide is instantaneous for the user, with no time spent looking at an “image loading” screen.  The thumbnail feature seems kind of nice too.  That is done with browser-resized images.  We’re looking for design experts who want to write skins for this system.  Basically we need some styles and buttons (the ones you see were done in GIMP in a few minutes by Shimon and don’t work very well with MSIE).  Credit will be given.  Comments would be appreciated on any aspect of the program and its interface.

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Best packaged online community software?

A friend at Boston Children’s Hospital wants to establish an online community for 400-1000 people who are either working at the hospital or are parents of children with a specific disorder.  He basically wants a discussion forum, but with state-of-the-art features for moderation, spam-proofing, and karma-assignment.  His main concern is quickly identifying people who are negative contributors and getting rid of them or changing their behavior.  Is there a good free and open source software package that he can simply install and run? perhaps?

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Examples of online communities in which people use real names?

Folks:  We’re teaching 6.171 again this semester and need some examples of online communities.  We would appreciate comments containing URLs of interesting online communities to check out and cite as success stories for the class (don’t bother citing slashdot or other well-known ones).  I’m particularly interested in online communities in which people are identified and authenticated with their real name and city (Amazon has this going to some extent in their reader reviews).

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