Barry Cullen v. Rajsic: When Warranty is Just Not Enough

The image below is related to a Google review posted here. It may be of interest to people dealing with car repair warranties. Usually, I don’t discuss individual businesses, but this infuriating experience warrants an exception. If you are interested in the details, please read the review first, as it comes chronologically before the correspondence in the image below.

Facebook is rigged to feed your addiction

If you know how drug dealers work, you know that, the more frequently you ask them for drugs, the more frequently they will check if you want more drugs. Facebook does the same thing with its notifications. It gives you more notifications the more you check them.

You might think that this is logically impossible because the number of notifications you receive depends on the number of times people actually like, comment on your posts, photos or comments or when they tag you. This is only partially true. It is true that, if no one likes, comments or tags you in his posts or comments, you will not have any notifications. But, if someone does react to your posts, Facebook has different options for reporting on this. You may get just one notification which “folds” more notifications or you can get each of the folded notifications separately. For example, instead of a single notification “Jimmy and Johnny liked your photo”, you may receive two notifications: “Jimmy liked your photo” and “Johnny liked your photo”. Thus, Facebook can reduce the number of notifications that you will receive by folding more notifications into one.

How do I know that Facebook gives you more notifications if you check them more frequently? I did an experiment. I stopped checking my notifications six months ago. I describe my reasoning here. What was the outcome of this experiment? Several thousand notifications by now? Nope. If you ever try to ignore Facebook notifications, the number of your unchecked notifications (that little red number by the globe) will grow up to about 100 and then it will oscillate between 90 and 100. So, it takes 100 unchecked notifications for Facebook to give up bothering you with new notifications. It “quits” at around 100 notifications. When the algorithm detects that you stopped checking your notifications, it starts folding new notifications into the old ones so that the total number doesn’t exceed 100. Only for brief moments during these six months, my notifications exceeded 100 and then they returned to about 95.

This means that the fact that you get new notifications every day depends on the fact that your are clicking on that little globe frequently. Once you bring the number of new notifications to zero, Facebook will be quick to tell you that someone liked your photo or replied to your comment or whatever.

But, this is not the only way Facebook feeds your addiction by giving you more notifications if you ask for more. On a few occasions I did click on my notifications by mistake. After that I would maintain my policy of not checking the notification again for weeks. What happened then? The number of unchecked notifications climbs back up from 1 to about 100 in a few days. But, it climes faster in the beginning and then slows down. The first day of not checking, I would have accumulated about 30 notifications. The next day the would be about 55 notifications. The third day there was usually about 75. The next day the number climbs to about 85, and in the next days it stabilizes at 95 to 100.

What this tells us is that Facebook is programmed to give you more notifications if you check them frequently. Just like the dealer on the street, it is programmed to feed your addiction.

Poverty is a state of mind

Have you noticed that the phrase “pissing on the poor” is mostly used by people with above-average incomes? I deliberately use the term “people with above-average incomes” and not “people who are not poor”. If someone called me poor in the 1990s, I would never have looked at him again. Why? Because to label someone as poor means to not recognize his control over his own life. As long as we don’t consider ourselves poor, there is hope for us.

Some would argue: “Don’t you think that our wealth depends on the system in which we live? For example, a slave is poor because the system has made him poor.”

First, wealth and being poor are two different categories. Wealth is an objective category that can be measured in dollars, or any other monetary unit. Being poor is a subjective category. It is a state of mind. A person is poor when he perceives himself only as a victim of external circumstances. This person does not believe that he has any power over his own life.

A slave has very little wealth, but this does not prevent him from choosing how he is going to view the world. Put yourself in his position. Imagine that you know that you will spend your entire life as a slave. Are you going to choose to spend your only chance at being alive on viewing yourself as a victim of the system or will you choose make the best of what you have? I would have opted for the latter. That’s why I gave a figurative “f… off” to all the UNPROFOR soldiers who pitied me as a victim of war and to all those who later pitied me as a refugee.

One might argue that this worldview does not motivate us to change the system. But, this interpretation would be wrong. When is the likelihood that people will change the system greater: when people are depressed and convinced in being complete victims of the system or when people are full of life energy? The fact that a slave may be full of life energy does not mean that he loves being a slave. It just means that if there is an opportunity for him to change his position, he will likely notice and take that opportunity. He will not wait for others to rescue him from his misfortune.

I know many of Canadians who could not fathom that someone could be happy in the conditions in which I once lived. When I told them that I was not desperate at the time and that I did not feel inferior to the people who lived in better conditions, they looked at me in disbelief. In fact, I was quite happy during that time. To them, I looked  like a slave who chose to view himself as the master of his domain.

Since the sense self-ownership, even in the worst of times, is still fresh in my memory and it feels quite real, I have no problem imagining, say, an American slave at the beginning of the 19th century, who feels this kind of self-ownership. I can fully understand his deliberate refusal to be “poor” even though his wealth and his freedom of movement were very limited. A person who is a slave in his own mind can not fight for physical freedom, and a person who is poor in his own mind can not fight for financial freedom.

My debate with a CNN journalist who was justifying wars

This e-mail exchange was a response to the article “World’s Right to Intercede,” an editorial  
posted on Monday, May. 28, 2007 in Philadelphia Inquirer. ( The article has been removed from the original address, but I am copying it at the bottom of this post.  

The author of this article is Frida Ghitis, a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. She is a former CNN producer and correspondent.

My view, which I explained here, is that any justification for any war is just a nice wrapper in which to put the bodies of innocent victims. Unfortunately this is not the claim of those who start wars or those who support them or justify them. It is also unfortunate that many people don’t have the time, energy, or necessary information to unwrap this nicely wrapped package. We often support, or simply fail to oppose, something that sounds good from the mouth of a politician, while not being aware what it really entails. I have seen the suffering and death of the innocent who felt the military “humanitarianism,” and I fail to understand how one person’s misery can be justified by claiming it was a necessary means for preventing another person’s misery. Well, it can’t, but the “wrapper” in which this claim is packaged looks nice and shiny. And, we humans tend to like shiny things. 

The email exchange between Ghitis and I:

On 5/28/07, PREDRAG RAJSIC wrote:
Dear Ms. Ghitis,
I was in Serbia in 1999. I don’t find the humanitarian bombing argument convincing. One of the reasons is: Croatia was not pressured not to expel 250,000 Serbs August 4th – 7th, 1995. There was no bombing then. There were no serious consequences to Croatia.
The other reason are civilian targets and casualties of NATO bombing in 1999. One murder does not justify another. You have probably seen the pictures.
The third reason is that most of the Albanians killed in Kosovo before March 24th 1999 were members of KLA, thus, not civilians.
The fourth reason is that the real exodus of Albanians started after March 24th, 1999.
The fifth reason is that there are much bloodiest conflicts in the world > that are not being addressed. If we follow the principle of human rights protection, there should be no discrimination among regions.
All this is not to say that there were no crimes against Albanians in Kosovo but these crimes, in my opinion, had little to do with the reasons for the bombing.
If you could please explain the humanitarian nature of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, that would be greatly appreciated. 
Predrag Rajsic
Rresponse by Ghitis:
Dear Mr. Rajsic,
I too was in the region during that time and, as you know, my view is different.
The fact that action should have been taken in another place during another time, doesn’t mean it was wrong to take it later. If it was wrong to do nothing in 1995, it doesn’t make it wrong to take action in 1999.
The fact that there were civilian casualties from NATO also doesn’t mean it was wrong for NATO to intervene. Every war has innocent casualties. But war is sometimes justified to stop even worse atrocities. That’s the humanitarian rationale.
Humanitarian intervention is an evolving concept and it is definitely not applied evenly. You are certainly right about that. That doesn’t mean it is wrong to apply it at all.
 My response to Ghitis:
Dear Ms. Ghitis,
You say:”But war is sometimes justified to stop even worse atrocities. That’s the humanitarian rationale.”
This implies that you can predict the outcome of non-action and compare it to the outcome of action. Furthermore, this implies that there is a unit of measurement of atrocities.  It looks to me than the question whether bombing of Yugoslavia was right can never be answered because it is not known against which alternative outcome it would have to be measured…and how it would be measured. 
Following the same argument, the operations of the YU army and police were of humanitarian nature because they were trying to protect Kosovo non-Albanians from the KLA. And as evidence they could use 200,000 Serb refugees and about 3,000 killed after 1999.
The question is not whether the bombing was right or wrong but whether the humanitarian argument was the real reason for the bombing.
The same way the killing of Franz Ferdinand was not the real reason for WWI, I don’t believe that the Racak “massacre” was the real reason for bombing of Yugoslavia.
I received no response from Ms. Ghitis after this.
The article that prompted my comment was this:

World’s right to intercede
NATO’s intervention in Serbia in 1999, to rescue ethnic Albanians,
established a new doctrine: Genocide trumps sovereignty. That’s why the
U.N. will likely make Kosovo independent.
Frida Ghitis
writes on foreign affairs
In a few months, a new 10-foot statue of Bill Clinton will take its place
overlooking Bill Clinton Boulevard – in the city of Pristina, capital of
the breakaway province of Kosovo. Remember Kosovo? For a few months, it
captured our attention. Now, while the American public looks elsewhere, the
province is again becoming a test case for how much say the international
community will have within the borders of a sovereign nation.
The surprising answer – in Kosovo as in Darfur, and perhaps elsewhere – is
that this community can and must have a say. Kosovo may be the turning
point that lays noninterventionism down to a quiet sleep.
In 1999, the United States led a NATO force in a bombardment that
“persuaded” Serbian forces to leave the ethnic Albanian enclave in a
crumbling Yugoslavia. Kosovo was a province of Serbia. Unlike the Serbs,
however, the Kosovars were ethnic Albanians, Muslims, who had resented the
central government in Serbia for years. When ultra-nationalist Slobodan
Milosevic took Yugoslavia by military storm after the end of the Cold War,
separatist guerrillas in Kosovo came under ruthless attack from his army.
The world had done too little too late to protect civilians in other parts
of the now-defunct Yugoslavia, allowing thousands of Bosnians and Croats to
die and millions to become displaced in independence wars against Serbs.
Faced with renewed carnage in the Balkans – Serbian forces had killed about
10,000 Kosovars – Clinton finally decided to act.
With its NATO allies, the United States went to war to protect Muslims.
After a 78-day bombardment, Serbian forces withdrew, and Kosovo became an
international protectorate.
Now, eight years later, the time has come to decide whether Kosovo will be
an independent nation – as the overwhelming majority of its population
wants – or remain an autonomous region in Serbia, as the Serbs demand, with
strong support from Russia.
Serbia considers Kosovo a spiritual, historical center of the nation. But
ethnic Albanians have always made up the vast majority of the population.
In a tragic, ironic turn of events, ethnic Albanians, the beneficiaries of
Western help, have expelled 200,000 ethnic Serbs from the province since
war ended.
In March, U.N. Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of
Finland, proposed granting de facto independence to Kosovo under European
supervision. The plan envisions full independence and acceptance of both
Kosovo and Serbia into the European Union.
The Serbian government has emphatically rejected the plan. With the
exception of Russia, which holds veto power, it appears that all other
members of the U.N. Security Council plan to vote for approval.
The principal objection from Belgrade and Moscow is that the plan sets a
dangerous precedent. If the international community can vote in favor of a
separatist movement, slicing away a big piece of a country, what’s to stop
it from doing it elsewhere? Moscow worries about places like Chechnya,
where Russian forces have waged a brutal war against separatists.
Russia may be justified in worrying about Chechnya, but the larger worry –
about international interventionism – is probably a decade too late. The
fact is, the international community already has accepted that
interventionism will be part of its future. When NATO took on what was a
domestic conflict in Serbia in 1999, it was breaking one of the cardinal
rules of international politics: Never interfere in a country’s internal
affairs. A new doctrine is evolving. When a central government engages in
the massive slaughter of its own people, it loses the right to be left
alone by the international community. Genocide trumps sovereignty. That’s
why Kosovo deserves independence from Serbia. Incidentally, this is also
why Sudan, the tormentor of Darfur, has lost the right to keep foreign
forces off its soil.
The threshold for foreign intervention in another country’s domestic
affairs should be high, but not unreachable. Kosovo already served as a
test case for military intervention. It now stands as another marker in the
history of international affairs. The fact is that despite Serbian and
Russia opposition, everyone knows that Kosovo will become an independent
nation – a Muslim nation with streets, statues and people honoring an
American president. How’s that for unusual?

Why I stopped checking my Facebook notifications

Ever had a neighbour or an acquaintance who is a gossiper and likes to cause tension and conflict among people? I am sure all of us can find one of those people around us. They usually come disguised as a friend. They approach you as if they are trying to help you by telling you what someone somewhere said about you behind your back. They are presenting themselves as your allay, your guardian angel.

But, this, of course, is just an illusion. What they really want is conflict and restlessness. They feed off other people’s fears and insecurities. Whenever I think of them, I think of this song by Susan and Terry Jacks.

But, what does Facebook have to do with your evil gossiping neighbor? In my view, a lot. Facebook notifications are like that psychopath manipulative neighbour gossiper who follows you around with: “Hey, those people who you talked to a few days ago, they said something about you behind your back. Do you want me to tell you what they said?”

Even if you don’t want to know what someone said about you, it requires mental effort to make the decision not to read what they said. And then, if you read, it requires mental effort to decide not to respond. Imagine making tens of such efforts in a day. That can become quite tiring. Most of us don’t actually make that effort, but we check each and every notification. We read all the responses to our comments. We check each reaction to our comments in other discussions. We are made aware of every snarky remark or insult someone made about us. This too can be tiring and damaging.This is why I stopped checking my notifications. It has been about a month now since I last clicked that little globe in the top corner of my Facebook ribbon, and it feels great.

This might sound a bit extreme. Why would you avoid all notifications? Some might be benign or even nice or encouraging. This is true, and while you might for a brief moment enjoy seeing that positive feedback, if it is really important to those people who want to give you this feedback that you actually receive it, they can contact you directly in your inbox or on your wall. You don’t need your gossiper neighbour to tell you that someone said something nice about you in your absence. This applies to negative feedback as well. If someone really feels strongly about some comment you left in a discussion last week, they can always contact you directly.

Avoiding Facebook notifications can act as a filter, a screening tool. Having to contact someone directly is usually more costly in terms of time and effort. Thus, only those who think the benefits of contacting you directly outweigh the costs will contact you. This way, you will increase the likelihood of talking to people who actually think they will benefit from talking to you in a serious and committed manner. You will also reduce the likelihood of having to deal with trolls or people who don’t think through their claims before they post.

A decision to not check notifications does not mean that you will never respond to other people’s comments in some discussion. It simply means that this discussion needs to be important enough to you and that you know on whose wall you can find it again, so you can go back and check the discussion. This way, you are filtering out those discussions, topics, and people who are not important to you and you are focusing on the important ones.

Thus, not checking Facebook notifications can serve as a filtering tool in two directions. First, it would tend to put you in contact with people who sincerely care about you and your views. On the other hand, it would put you in contact with people for whom you have a deeper respect and who you take seriously. Some golden rules of communication from the real world still apply in the digital world, and this is one of them–you don’t have to throw a stone at every dog that barks at you. In fact, you don’t even need to be aware of the barking most of the time.

Why everyone should know some economics

As a child, I was a billionaire. I used to own a few of these.      

This is my welcome letter for my first and second year economics students in which I explain why everyone should know some economics.

For many of you, this is the first time you are studying economics in a systematic way, and the most important question at the back of your mind is probably this: “Why am I doing this?” There are many reasons why you might be taking this course, and for some of you the desire to understand economic phenomena may not be the main motivational factor. This is perfectly fine. But, when one decides to dedicate most of his life to studying economics, one usually does this because of the desire to learn. I would like to share how I became interested in economics.

Sometime in the early 1990s, I lived in the former Yugoslavia, a country torn by war and extreme economic hardships. This was also the time of one of the worst episodes of hyperinflation in human history. I remember the days when my parents would get their paycheques from their employer. People would run to the store to spend their paycheque quickly, before the prices of everything doubled the same day. If you waited for more then one day, all you could buy for your monthly salary was maybe a kilo of sugar.

I, a high schooler at the time, was quite puzzled by this situation, especially because I saw a rapid decline in people’s well-being. I wanted to know why all this mess was happening. When I turned on the TV, our politicians were repeating that they needed to keep printing more money to help the citizens keep up with the rapidly rising prices. Many of you already see that there is something fishy in this story. I did too at the time, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the logical inconsistency in this story. There was nothing in my high school curriculum that could help me either. I loved chemistry, physics, and math but none of those disciplines could explain inflation or why people are living so miserably in my country. I also liked art, history, sociology, and geography, but I found no explanation for our economic hardships there ether.

Only after I started studying economics, I realized its tremendous power to explain why some societies are poor while others are prosperous. I also learned that our Yugoslavian politicians in the 1990s were lying to us. It is not the rise in prices that prompted the politicians to print more money. The causality run in the opposite direction. It was the politicians’ desire to fund the failing government programs that prompted them to print more money. Once the market was flooded with new money, consumers started competing over the dwindling stock of products, which caused a surge in the prices of everything.

This is only one social issue which can be vastly clarified using the economic way of thinking. For many of you, this will be the only economics course that you will ever take. But, in your future you will be deciding on important economic matters. For example, some future politician may tell you that introducing trade restrictions will be good for Canadian economy, and he or she may ask for your support in introducing laws that restrict trade. If I can teach you how to use the economic way of thinking to determine whether this, and many other proposed economic policies, will bring the promised consequences, I consider my mission accomplished.

Your past doesn’t determine your future: or how Rogers persuaded me to stop using their data services

Do you get annoyed when someone tells you that you are not capable of doing something just because you never did it before? Most people make this mistake even when they judge their own future. For example, many people get discouraged after a few unsuccessful attempts to quit smoking or to change some other behavior pattern. They think that their past offers information about their future. This is a common mistake that most of us sometimes do.

But, if it is true that we make choices, then our past is simply a series of choices that we made before. it is a historical record, not a causal relationship. Just because we made the same choice over and over again in the past doesn’t mean that there is something deterministic about our behavior–it doesn’t mean that we had to make that choice because if we had to do something, then that something wouldn’t be a choice.

Now when we have the theory laid out, let me share an experience where a sales person tried to use the historical record of my past behavior to support the idea that I had to behave that way in the past and that I have to keep behaving the same way in the future. The following is my conversation between me and a Rogers sales person.

Sales person: We have a data plan that would give you 2.5 GB of data on your phone. The only thing we would need to do is to change your bill from the current $60 to $100. 

Me: I don’t think I am interested in that. The only thing I would be interested in is that Rogers gives me more data without increasing what I am currently paying. But, since Rogers is using its oligopoly position, I know it will not do that. 

Sales person: But this is a great plan for you; you are already accumulating over $50 in extra charges for exceeding your data limit. Why don’t you want to take this great plan?

Me: Because I like to make mistakes. 

Sales person: I am trying to help you not to make a mistake. Why not take this plan? 

Me: Because then I would not have an option to spend less than $100 on my phone bill, an option that I have now. 

Sales person: You have been exceeding your data limit for the past three months and accumulating more than $100 in total charges.

Me: My past doesn’t determine my future.

This conversation persuaded me that Rogers doesn’t deserve my money. I thought that they are capable of respecting their customers’ free will and intelligence, but I was wrong. This is why I decided to stop using my phone data for anything other than emergencies. No more Facebook on the phone! This is what happened to my data usage history after the unfortunate conversation on June 16th. The flat part of the graph below starts on the same date.

So, there you go, Rogers. You lost about $50 per month from me. It may not be much for you, but given the persistence by which your sales person tried to sell your plan to me, maybe it is much.

Is Djokovic “the greatest Serb” after Tesla?

Large Caption: Two Greatest Serbs

It is well known that Novak Djokovic is somewhat of a national hero for many Serbs. Recently, people started calling him “one of the two greatest Serbs,” the other being Nikola Tesla. I find this unfortunate for two reasons.

First, why is it so important that Djokovic comes form Serbia? This seems to be his defining feature according to the proud compatriots. His Serbianness has nothing to do with his greatness as a tennis player. It seems that this is not so much about Djokovic as much it is about the commentators. and this leads me to the second reason why I find this whole “the greatest Serb” thing troubling.

If being Serbian is not what caused Djokovic’s tennis greatness, then it seems that the emphasis on Djokovic’s nationality signals the desire of other Serbs to say to the world “see, he is one of us; he represents us.” But, why would I want to use Djokovic to represent myself instead my own achievements? Well, if I feel that my own achievements are insignificant, then it would make sense to use someone else’s achievements as if I am part of them.

This is saddening. The Djokovic obsession seems to signal a very low self esteem level by many Serbs. I am curious to see the reaction when Djokovic is not at his peak any more. One potential outcome is that he becomes a source of anger for many of those who now see him as a source of their pride.