My New Tablecloth

I really like tablecloths. I first bought one a couple of years ago when I was living in the Grange. The table was very large, so I bought a blue tablecloth to fit it. It added a lot to the kitchen there, though I didn't use it as often as I expected because it would always get dirty fast. We didn't have much counter space in that apartment, which made it a lot worse. A little more than a week ago I got out my tablecloth and put it on the table in my apartment. I had to fold it over because it was so long, but it looked really good. The color complimented everything very nicely and made the kitchen a lot more pleasant to be in. I was really amazed at how well my roommates and I did at keeping it clean. It wasn't until I finally did take it off to wash it that I realized just how much I liked having it. So I decided I needed to buy a new tablecloth that was the right size for my current table. Today I went to Bed Bath and Beyond with that purpose. They had one particular style of tablecloth that I really liked, and they had it in a couple of perfect colors. The price sealed the deal: it was only $15. This particular brand advertised that it would be stain resistant and resistant to absorbing liquids (because it was made of microfiber polyester). I think most tablecloths advertise that. I'm pretty sure that my last one did. It is true that it has never stained, but I use Clorox Oxy Magic (which deserves an entire blogpost of its own) whenever I wash my clothes, which means I don't get stains on anything--so I'm not sure how much of its stain resistance can really be attributed to the tablecloth itself. Along with my tablecloth, I also found cloth napkins that were exactly what I've been looking for: bright white with a subtle yet elegant design, and made of a cloth that feels perfect: soft and well made. They were also made of microfiber polyester, so neither they nor my tablecloth would ever need any ironing. I was pretty excited about my new tablecloth and napkins. When I rang up at the register the very attractive cashier asked me if I'd ever had one of those particular tablecloths before. I said I hadn't but that I was pretty excited to get it. She said that she has several and likes them so much she won't use anything else. How could my purchase get any better? I washed my tablecloth and napkins promptly after getting home and put the tablecloth on the table. It is a very dark navy blue and looks as sharp in my kitchen as I was hoping. Several hours later, as I was eating dinner I decided I should probably see just how it behaved when I spilled water on it, so I timidly poured a very small drop of water on the tablecloth. To my absolute amazement and astonishment the water did bead up on the tablecloth and didn't soak in at all. I poured a bit more on and none of it soaked in. I wiped it off with a paper towel and the tablecloth wasn't even wet! After pouring water on it several times I was so surprised at its amazing behavior I went and got my camera. I took pictures of about a dozen different water spills ranging from a few drops to large bodies of water. Check out these before and after pictures (click on any of the pictures to enlarge them). Then I started making videos. You really need to check out the video I made below. I've watched it dozens of times and it still amazes me every time. This was filmed after I had poured several full glasses of water on the tablecloth and cleaned it off. After all that the tablecloth was still dry.
So then I had to find out how much it could take. I left a pool of water on it for over 20 minutes--it still didn't soak in at all--it just sat there in a pool. At the end of the 20 minutes it wiped right off and the tablecloth was still dry. So then I spilled some food on it (chicken curry) and let it sit for a minute. I wiped it off with a wet dishrag. It took a little bit of scrubbing, but not much. When I had cleaned it off the tablecloth finally looked wet for the first time, and it took it a little while to dry. After it had dried, the difference at the spot where I had spilled the curry was so subtle that the only way you can see it is if you stand at just the right angle and know where you are supposed to look, or if you pour water on the spot (it looks different, but still doesn't soak in). No one would notice it. I'm sure that washing it (which I am currently doing) will get rid of the spot. So now I've come to the same conclusion as the cashier: I don't intend to use any other tablecloths. I have fallen in love with this one. I am so pleased with my new tablecloth that I will be buying another one just like it early next week, only this one will be black.

The Potential of 1 Tablespoon of JetDry

Today I inadvertently discovered the voluminous potential of JetDry. It turns out that a pretty small amount (about a tablespoon) easily generates enough suds to flood a kitchen. In the time I've lived in my apartment we haven't (until yesterday) put JetDry in our dishwasher. Thus, water spots and wet dishes have been the norm. The purpose of JetDry is to combat these very effects: about 0.1 fluid ounces of JetDry is used during the rinse cycle to remove hard water deposits and helps the dishes dry cleaner and faster. My roommates and I have been talking about getting some for months, but it wasn't until yesterday that my roommate Nelson purchased some. Immediately upon his return from the store Colin and I excitedly looked on as he filled the reservoir in the dishwasher. With great anticipation we decided to rerinse the already clean dishes in the dishwasher with our newly JetDry-ed water. The dishwasher had been running only a small fraction of a minute before JetDry was streaming out of the bottom of the dishwasher onto the floor. We stopped the dishwasher and started looking for the cause. After removing the inside panel of the door and analyzing the purpose and function of various components it became clear that the design of the JetDry reservoir was such that if you overfill it the JetDry leaks prolifically into the inside of the door. It is also very difficult to tell how full the reservoir is without dismantling the door. Thus, we had probably overfilled it by at least a half pint. Closing the dishwasher door allowed all of that JetDry to run down the inside of the door and start leaking everywhere. I cleaned up the inside of the door and let it dry overnight. It looked like everything was working okay, beyond the obviously poor design of the reservoir, so I put everything back together tonight and resumed the rinse cycle we had started yesterday. When I came back out to the kitchen fifteen minutes later I discovered that foam and water had been oozing out around the door for most of that time. The lake extended out for a good portion of the kitchen. I stopped and opened the dishwasher to find about six inches of JetDry suds in the bottom of the dishwasher. It took a little bit of sleuthing to discover the problem: it turns out that a small amount of JetDry had gotten into the bottom of the dishwasher when we filled the reservoir initially. It also turns out that a little bit of JetDry goes a really long way (remember it normally only takes 0.1 ounces per cycle). It took a half dozen cycles of filling the dishwasher with water on a rinse cycle and then promptly draining out the water before all of the JetDry was flushed out of the dishwasher. In the end the dishes in the dishwasher were indeed spot free and dry. Overall, I'm pretty impressed with the difference it has made so far. No more spots. No more wet dishes. I think it's certainly been worth the hassle of filling the dishwasher with a little JetDry.

Christmas: An Economic Inefficiency

I realize that Christmas is over now, but I've wanted to address this topic so I am going to do it anyway. I have heard a number of economists (both students and professors) cite and discuss the economic inefficiency of Christmas—particularly of gift-giving. I typically think about this each year at Christmas time, and this Christmas has been no exception; however, this time I did some more thorough reading on the subject and have come to some conclusions of my own. The groundbreaking article on this topic was entitled The Deadweight Loss of Christmas and was published in 1993 by Joel Waldfogel, an economist that was then teaching at Yale University. The article is an easy read, not too long, and quite interesting. I recommend reading it if you are at all interested. In economics a deadweight loss is an inefficiency in the economy in which goods or services could be reallocated to make people better off. Christmas gift-giving can be thought of in these terms. Suppose that you want to give a gift to someone and have fifty dollars to spend. In most cases, the most optimal outcome (in terms of utility maximization for the recipient) would be for you to give the money to the recipient and let them spend it themselves. Presumably, they know their own preferences best and would be able to best spend the money to maximize their own utility. If you buy the person a gift instead, odds are that they will not value the gift as highly as what they would have spent the money on themselves. Thus, the gift is inefficient and they are not as well off as they could have been had they simply been given the money. Dr. Waldfogel researched this effect. He asked a number of people to list the gifts they received, the relationship they have with that person, the cost of the gift, and the recipient’s maximum willingness to pay for the item they received, among other things. He was then able to analyze the data to determine the amount of devaluation that occurs when giving gifts. (For example if you receive a gift that was purchased for fifty dollars and you would only pay twenty five for the same thing then the gift lost 50% of its value.) The data was analyzed in a number of ways. The results that I found most interesting are as follows:
Giver % Yield % Cash
Aunt, Uncle 64.4 14.3
Sibling 86.2 5.8
Parents 86.5 9.6
Significant Other 91.7 0.0
Grandparent 62.9 42.3
Friend 98.8 6.1
Overall 83.9 11.5
The first column indicates the percentage of the gift’s value that is retained when given; the second is the percentage of gifts in the category that were cash. Thus, we can see that the most efficient gift is from a friend (98.8% yield), then from a significant other (91.7% yield), and so on. On average across all gifts given, gifts only retain 83.9% of their value when given. Economists look at this and conclude that the economy would be better off (more efficiently allocated) if everyone simply gave cash or if people did not give any gifts and simply spent the money that they would have spent on gifts on themselves. In either of these cases, gift devaluation would be virtually nonexistent and the economy would be better off. The output of an economy is often measured by GDP which uses the final purchase prices of goods as the value of the economy’s output. This is somewhat misleading if the goods are purchased and then on average immediately lose 16.1% of their value by being given as gifts. In this case, the economy (as well as an average individual in the economy) is not really the amount of the increase in GDP better off. Thus GDP is overestimating the health and output of the economy. The level of GDP could legitimately and optimally be achieved, however, if gift-giving was cash only or simply eliminated. Then GDP would then reflect the actual increase in value of goods outputted by the economy. This perspective has a large amount of validity; however, I think there is an alternative way of looking at it. Gift-giving does have value—both to the giver and to the receiver—although this value is much more difficult to measure. Even knowing that giving a gift will cause devaluation of the gift, people still want to give gifts. In some ways, this is not much different from a shipping cost. Shipping costs on gifts do not directly benefit the giver or the receiver but are necessary costs incurred in order to give a gift to someone that is not nearby. Similarly, gift devaluation is a “gift-giving cost” that the gift-giver (and receiver) gladly pays in order to give a gift. (Although, this is different in some senses, as shipping costs are part of GDP but the “gift-giving cost” is not.) I believe that in many cases the gift-giver is maximizing utility by purchasing and giving a gift—if they simply gave money or spent the money on themselves they would not be able to achieve the same level of utility. When I think about what I could have purchased for myself with the money that I spent on Christmas I think it would be very difficult—and maybe impossible—for me to be happier spending my money elsewhere. Similarly, the receiver often gets more utility out of receiving a gift than purchasing the same thing for themselves. Even if they would not have purchased the particular item given as a gift themselves, there is still additional utility gained from receiving a gift—whatever it is—from someone you care about. So what’s the moral of this? Putting time, effort, and thought into giving a gift does count for something—at least 16.1% of the gift’s value on average. If as either a gift giver or receiver we feel like gift-giving is inefficient and that there is a deadweight loss in the gift, then I think we are missing the point of gift-giving and need to reevaluate our perspective and/or the gifts we are giving.

My Favorite Christmas Tree

Each year at work a Christmas Tree is dropped off around Thanksgiving time for our office. Each year my coworkers and I are faced with a similar conundrum: we don't have any Christmas ornaments or Christmas lights to decorate the tree. The first year this happened a couple of my coworkers brilliantly solved this problem by using CD's and PCI cards as ornaments and colored network wires as tinsel. The tree that year turned out really well and we have decorated our tree similarly ever since. Christmas Tree MiceThis year we've innovated our Christmas Tree decorating. My coworker John proposed the idea of placing mice in the tree and plugging them into a computer so that the lasers on the bottom of each mouse would light up. It didn't take long to collect all of our spare mice together and started decorating. Pretty soon we were talking about how cool it would be if we could make them blink. A couple of hours of research and experimenting later, I had the prototype program written to cycle through and blink each of the mice. It took a couple of days to swap out and arrange the mice according to hardware ID's and polish the scripts to fine tune the timing. Now the tree looks great: all of the mice blink regularly and independently of each other. The tree is served by two ultra small form factor Dell Optiplex 620 computers (you can see them in the lower right corner of the video below as it zooms in and out). Each computer has nine mice plugged into it and each is running three batch scripts that cycle through three mice each. We strategically arranged the mice so that the lasers are pointed toward the higher traffic areas: primarily the hallway and doorway; a laser that catches you in the eye really attracts your attention. Since the picture and video here were taken we replaced the star on the tree with a Linksys network switch (though the blinking lights on it are dissapointingly small and unnoticeable).
The latest idea was to place monitors around the base of the tree and have a train going across the monitors around the tree. The best way I could find to have it span multiple monitors was to create an animated gif. I recently finished creating the animation for it in Photoshop; unfortunately, both of the computers I tried using to save it as a gif run out of memory each time I try and save it (they've got 4 GB of RAM). I tried a lot of settings without any success. It is kind of understandable, since the project has over 500 frames each with a resolution of 2560 × 1024. Some people that see our tree don't realize that the lights are in fact mice. Of those that do, I think that it doesn't occur to most of them that mice don't typically blink like that. There are, however, a select few who appreciate just how cool our Christmas Tree is. If you're on campus, it's worth a trip to the JFSB just to see the tree.

An Historic Event

Today is a significant day: it marks the inauguration of my first blog. I have for a long time considered obtaining a domain and creating a website of some kind. I've done a fair amount of research into doing so, but had not as yet officially undertaken such an endeavor. This blog is the first appreciable step in that direction. I have to say that starting a blog is much more complex than I had previously anticipated. I ran into all kinds of complicated decisions: a hostname, a title, a template, various layout options, and so on. It is fairly vital to make all of these decisions correctly. Several people have tried to convince me that these are all very easy; however, I maintain that my perspective is not unfounded: if I am going to be posting to a blog then it needs to adequately represent my personality and its purpose in name, design, and content. From this perspective its a wonder that I've gotten this far. Thus far I have been very dissatisfied with the templates and flexibility of blogger.com. Therefore, I am officially citing this limitation as a significant factor in determining the present appearance of this site. I do not think that the design of my blog is currently satisfactory, but I finally gave up on trying to customize it. It is likely going to take a lot of time to get it passably perfect and I would like to start blogging sooner than it will take to get it looking right. Additionally, I am not yet convinced that blogger.com is my first choice of blog hosting services. It is convenient and relatively easy to set up (if you are not to particular) so I am using it for now. I do have a strong inclination to buy my own domain in the near future. This makes the web and blog hosting question much more significant. Thus, more research is certainly requisite prior to departing from blogger.com. With these disclaimers in place I can commence blogging.