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Book Review: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

Despite the title, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, the “why you should have more kids” part feels tacked-on. The interesting part of the book reviews twin and adoption studies, making the case that parenting style doesn’t matter much in the long run.

The book’s argument in brief is:

  • in twin studies and adoption studies, most variation in how adults turn out can’t be explained by what their parents did. “Normal” variation in first-world parenting (i.e. excluding abuse, malnutrition, etc.) does not affect how people turn out in adulthood very much.
  • parenting affects how kids act while they are kids, but once people move out of the house they bounce back to their “natural state.” (“As an adult, if I want a cookie, I have a cookie, okay?” — Seinfeld)
  • one long-run thing parents can strongly affect is whether their kids have fond memories of them and enjoy having them around.
  • parents should be more relaxed and invest less time in “kid improvement,” more time in everyone enjoying themselves even if it’s by watching TV.
  • discipline is mostly for the benefit of the parents (“keep kids from being annoying around us”) not for the benefit of the kids (“build character”).
  • (the conclusion in the title) since parenting can and should be less unpleasant, people should consider having more kids than they originally planned (i.e. the cost/benefit analysis is better than they were thinking).

Can you tell the author is an economist?

I get annoyed by “nature vs. nurture” popular science writing, and have a couple thoughts along those lines about this book.

Thank you for skipping the just-so stories

There’s a mandatory paragraph in nature vs. nurture articles where someone speculates on the just-so story. Something along the lines of “such-and-such behavior evolved so that women could get their mates to bond with them and hang around to care for children,” or whatever. Bryan Caplan 100% skips the silly evolutionary speculation. Thank you!

Cultural and genetic factors

However, I did find the book a little quick to jump to the genes. In “Appendix to Chapter 2,” Caplan explains that twin and adoption studies try to estimate three variables:

  1. fraction of variance explained by heredity (similarity of twins raised apart)
  2. fraction of variance explained by shared family environment (similarity of biologically unrelated children raised together)
  3. fraction of variance explained by non-shared family environment (the rest of variance)

Caplan (to his credit) goes to some lengths to point out that the twin and adoptions studies are virtually all from first-world countries and typical homes in those countries. For example, one of the studies was done in Sweden, likely even more homogeneous than the ones done in the United States.

Obvious point, I’m sure Caplan would agree: when something correlates with genes, that doesn’t mean “there’s a gene for it.” For example, attractive people have higher incomes; attractiveness is mostly genetic. So one way income can be genetic has to do with your genes for appearance. Most people would find it misleading to say there’s a gene for high income, even though income correlates with various genes. This is a pretty simple example, but it can be much, much more complicated. Look at this diagram for how genes might get involved in autism, for example.

An outcome such as income often involves genes interacting with culture — say, standards of appearance. The ideal genes for appearance change over time and around the world.

But income isn’t just affected by appearance. Who-knows-how-many genes get involved: countless genes affect appearance, personality, intelligence, and then all of those factors in turn affect your income… in ways that depend on your culture and environment. Make it more complicated: there are also genes that affect how we react to certain appearances or personalities. If standards of attractiveness have a genetic component, then you’d expect that there are also genetic variations in what people find attractive, and then cultural variations layered on that.

Genes and culture also interact with what I think of as tradeoffs or “physical properties of the world.” All I mean here is that you can’t combine behaviors and traits arbitrarily, they tend to come in clusters that make sense together or work well together. This seems true to me for both personalities and for cultures. If you slice-and-dice your time or your concepts in one way, then you didn’t slice-and-dice them another way. Some ways of thinking or doing work better than others, some are more compatible with each other, etc. There’s a source of universals here that need not point to genes.

Finally, culture, like genes, gets passed on between generations. A very simple example: if you had a culture that was fundamentally anti-natalist, it would not last very long. And in fact most cultures are very enthusiastic about having children. This is a cultural universal (other than short-lived sub-groups), but just its universality doesn’t connect it to genes; it could be cultural rather than genetic evolution. Humans inherit so many ways of thinking and doing, and so much background knowledge, through interaction with other people, rather than through DNA.

Getting back around to the book. If you do a twin study in Sweden, then you might find that twins raised apart have similar outcomes. But it’s important to recognize that there aren’t (necessarily) genes for those outcomes; there are genes that cause the twins to have (likely unknown) traits which somehow result in those outcomes, in Sweden.

A couple thoughts:

  • This probably doesn’t matter so much for the book’s practical conclusions. Parents can’t change the culture surrounding their children any more than they can change their kids’ genes.
  • But from a wider perspective, it sure would be interesting — and perhaps useful at times — to know the mechanism for hereditary outcomes. i.e. the causality and not only the correlation.

When Caplan says “it’s genetic” I would say that’s true in that there appears to be a Rube Goldberg chain of causality, such that somehow certain genes are resulting in certain outcomes. However, my feeling is that the mechanism matters.

There’s a difference between a gene for unattractiveness/low-IQ/bad-personality (or sex, or race, for that matter) resulting in low income because the world (including culture) works against high income for people with those traits, and saying that “income is genetic.” Does it really feel accurate to say that “such-and-such percent of variation in income is explained by genetics” here, without mentioning the intermediate traits that are genetic, which in turn affect income?

I’m not sure Caplan would really disagree, but I do think the “nature vs. nurture” genre, including this book, glosses over a lot of complexity that kinda matters.

(The mistake is inherent in the phrase “nature vs. nurture”; if you start spelling out the mechanisms, it’s pretty clear that the two interact and the real question is how specifically in this case, right?)

Bottom line, when talking about the “fraction of variance explained by heredity” I’d add the footnote in this physical and cultural environment, because the background reality, cultural and otherwise, shared among families in the study — or even shared among all families on Earth — has a lot to do with which genetic traits matter and exactly how they matter.

More hours spent parenting

Caplan talks a bit about how people spend a lot more time parenting these days than they used to, and mostly blames increased parental guilt (people thinking they have to “improve” their children).

I’d wonder about other trends, such as the decline of extended family ties and the tendency for people to move across the country. If you’ve had a child, you may have noticed that they’re designed to be raised by more than two people. (The fact that some single parents raise them alone blows my mind.)

Missing from the book, I thought, was research into how other social/demographic trends were affecting parenting. More geographic mobility, more tendency toward social isolation, more tendency to need two incomes to achieve a “middle class” lifestyle, etc. — I have no idea which trends are most important, but surely some of these factors go into parenting decisions.

Caplan kind of implies that changes in parenting are almost all “by choice,” due to beliefs about the importance of parenting, and I’m not sure I buy it. It seems plausible to me that changes in parenting could be mostly by choice, but also plausible that they could be mostly due to socioeconomic trends.


The book has several semi-related side trails, which may be interesting:

  • some discussion of safety statistics, probably familiar from Free-Range Kids
  • some discussion of the decades-old Julian Simon vs. Paul Ehrlich “will population outstrip resources” debate
  • editorial in favor of reproductive technology
  • thoughts for grandparents or future grandparents on how to end up with more grandchildren

Child services risk

On the Free-Range Kids tangent, I always wonder about “child services risk,” the risk that some nosy neighbor gets incensed and creates a whole traumatic drama with child services. To me this risk seems plausible.  In the book, Caplan says they let their 7-year-old stay home alone; which seems fine to me for the right 7-year-old in the right context, but I’m pretty sure a lot of state governments say it’s not fine.

I’d sort of like some “child services screwing up your child’s life” statistics to go along with the stats on abductions and drownings. Should we worry about that?

It’s one thing to say you don’t care what other people think, but when people can turn you in and just the fact of being reported creates a nightmare, I can understand why one wouldn’t want to appear unconventional.


I found the review of twin and adoption research interesting (and practical, for parents). Can’t hurt to remember that your kids are mostly going to do whatever they want anyway, once they move out of the house, and that chances are they’ll do a bunch of the same stuff their parents did. Caplan follows through nicely with implications for discipline, family harmony, and so on.

Some of the rest of the book wasn’t as interesting to me; I’ve heard the Free-Range Kids and Simon vs. Ehrlich stuff for example many times before. But you can skim these bits if you like.

Buy on Amazon — I get money if you do!

Keith Pennington

My Dad died from cancer one year ago, today I’d like to write something about him.

Dad liked animals, (certain) children, the woods, hunting, fine guns and knives, books, history, sharing his knowledge, strong coffee, and arguing about politics.

He grew up partly at my grandparents’ summer camp in Michigan called Chippewa Ranch, and partly on their cattle ranch in Georgia.

With brother Kenny

Keith On Poco

Dad’s favorite book, The Old Man and the Boy, is almost a blueprint for how he wanted to live and what kind of father he wanted to be. Robert Ruark’s epigraph in that book says “Anyone who reads this book is bound to realize that I had a real fine time as a kid,” and we spent our childhood weekends doing all sorts of things other kids weren’t allowed to do. In my copy of the book when I was 15, Dad wrote “This is all you really need to know, all you have to do is ‘do’”.

Havoc hunting

With my sister

I inherited a lot more of Dad’s reading-a-book-constantly side than his outdoor adventure side, but a little of both rubbed off.

Dad signed up for Vietnam, and while he never talked about it much, I’m guessing in some ways it was the last time he mostly enjoyed his day job.

His closest friend summarized his military career:

Diverted in 1968 from assignment to 5th SFGA to the Americal Division he was a LRRP Platoon Commander for his first tour. He extended in country to serve with the II Corps Mike Force in their separate 4th Battalion in Kontum. He chose to command a Rhade company in preference to available staff positions and was wounded severely during the Joint Mike Force Operation at Dak Seang in 1970 sufficient to require medevac to Japan with a severe leg wound from taking a grenade at about 4 feet while leading an assault on an NVA position. He was awarded three Silver Stars if the third one ever caught up with him–he certainly never searched it out.

with a dog in Vietnam

explaining something in Vietnam

Dad wasn’t one to define himself by military glory days, though. I think the adventure in Vietnam was just one more adventure, preceded by others, and he continued throughout his life.

One of the themes running through Dad’s life was his dislike for convention, and people who were too conventional in his eyes. He wasn’t afraid to name his son Havoc, for example. He loved revolutionaries and adventurers of all stripes, right-wing or left-wing. His military dogtags list his religion as “animist.” As we were growing up, he had nothing to say about religion one way or the other; he felt we ought to figure it out for ourselves. That was another of his parenting philosophies, he wasn’t going to tell us what to think. The fastest way to earn Dad’s contempt was to have an opinion just because other people had it, or to have an ignorant opinion because you hadn’t read enough books.

Another quick way to earn contempt was to be unprepared or incompetent. We had to have enough equipment at all times; I still have a basement full of equipment and a house full of books. Some old friends may remember laughing about my pile of assorted axes and hatchets. Dad could never remember for sure whether I had enough, including the several necessary varieties, so he’d send another one along every so often.

Whenever we got into some activity, whether cycling or leatherworking or hunting or backpacking, we’d end up with several times more equipment for that activity than we could ever use, as Dad tried everything out to be sure we had what worked best. We’d also have a complete library of books on the topic. And we got into a lot of activities.

Dad loved anything he thought was neat, which included most animals. We had a lot of crazy pets, from a squirrel to a 500-pound wild hog. As I’m looking through old photos, he’s always hanging out with a dog.

With a hunting hound

With another hound

It turned out that he more or less killed himself with cigarettes. He’d always rationalized bad habits saying he didn’t want to get old and dependent anyway, but in the end I think he’d rather have lived to see his grandchildren grow up. He died at home with family and friends, and was only confined to bed for his last day or two.

When he died my own son was six months old, and I stood outside the house where I grew up and hugged my son for all I was worth. Whenever I start to think about my son knowing my Dad, learning some of the things I learned as a kid, that’s what brings on the tears. I wish we’d had some adventures with the three of us.

I know my son and I will have some adventures anyhow, and I’ll think about Dad every time, and tell my son what advice Grandpa would have had, as best I can remember it.

At Horace Kephart’s grave in Bryson City, September 2009


Individual mandate and the power to tax

I happened to stumble on this Yale Law Journal Online article yesterday. I hadn’t realized what the court cases about the individual mandate were (at least in part) arguing.

Credits and penalties

The individual mandate is structured as a tax penalty (i.e. an extra tax hike) if you don’t have health insurance. Those of us who have lived in Massachusetts know what it might look like, since it’s modeled on “Romneycare.”

The thing about a tax penalty, as far as I can see, is that it’s economically identical to a tax credit plus a tax hike. That is, say I’m the government and I want people who do not buy child care to pay $500 more tax than people who do buy child care. I can either increase taxes across the board $500 and then offer a $500 credit if you buy childcare; or I can increase taxes by a $500 penalty if you don’t buy childcare. In either case, if you don’t buy childcare, you pay $500 more than before, and if you do buy it, you pay the same as before.

Certainly the credit and the penalty are a different “spin” — I’m sure people have a different reaction if the tax forms say “you must do this or pay a penalty” vs. “you can do this to get a credit.” There’s a psychological difference. But if people were completely rational and didn’t look at the wording, the fact is that it doesn’t matter to their pocketbook what the tax forms call the rule. The rule is simply “you pay less if you buy X and more if you don’t.”

The tax code is already full of credits for buying stuff. Well-known ones include child care and the temporary first-time homebuyer credit. And… you can even deduct health insurance costs already.

The new law’s penalty for not having insurance is identical to raising taxes by the penalty, and then allowing anyone who has insurance an additional credit, on top of the existing deduction, equal to the penalty.

The penalty means you pay less on taxes, partially offsetting the cost of insurance, if you buy insurance. That’s all it means.

In the same sense, the tax code already requires you to buy insurance (if self-employed anyway). The new penalty increases the incentive somewhat, but there’s a tax incentive to buy insurance today.

(I realize there are complicating elements to how this works — phase-outs, credits vs. deductions, refundable vs. nonrefundable credits, etc. — but I don’t think they matter for this discussion.)

Some implications

  • There’s a claim in these cases that the government has never required people to actively buy a certain product. However, at least the enforcement of this requirement, i.e. a tax savings if you do buy, is precisely equivalent to all the credits and deductions you can already get for buying various things. Go into TurboTax and look at the credits and deductions available. You are “required” to buy all of that in exactly the same sense that you are required to buy health insurance under the new law — at least as far as enforcement goes. The punishment is the same, you pay higher taxes if you don’t buy.
  • In fact there’s a popular argument “can the government make you buy GM cars?” — and yes, there have been tax credits for buying certain kinds of car (hybrid, electric, whatever). Which means you pay more (you are penalized) if you don’t buy those cars. The government can, under current law, punish you through taxation if you don’t buy the right car.
  • Because there’s not an economic difference between the penalty and a hike+credit, and people don’t want to argue all the existing credits are unconstitutional, the legal argument in these court cases seems to be that it’s unconstitutional because Congress called it a penalty and not a tax. “No calling it a penalty when it’s a tax!” is some kind of grammar-nerd point, not something that should inspire throwing crates of tea into the harbor…
  • The Yale Law Journal Online article makes two points on this, first that the statute does call it a tax in many places, and second that Supreme Court precedent since the 1860s is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s called a tax or not, when judging constitutionality.

Laurence Tribe’s argument

Laurence Tribe predicted an 8–1 vote to uphold the individual mandate. He says:

There is every reason to believe that a strong, nonpartisan majority of justices will do their constitutional duty, set aside how they might have voted had they been members of Congress and treat this constitutional challenge for what it is — a political objection in legal garb.

He feels that the law is so clearly constitutional according to precedent, on both interstate commerce and tax power grounds, that the Court will have no coherent way to strike it down.

I see his point, based on the power to tax. Interstate commerce may be a fuzzier issue, I don’t know. But the government only has to have the power on one ground. If it’s constitutional using the power to tax, it’s constitutional.


There’s no need to post comments about whether the government should have a taxation power in the Constitution, or whether the health care law is a good idea, or any generic debate like that.

In this post I wanted to raise the issue of whether a tax incentive to buy insurance is constitutional following existing precedent, and whether it can be legally distinguished from other tax incentives (whether framed as credit or penalty) that involve buying particular goods and services. I don’t see where the distinction can be made. Anyone have any good theories?

I am not a lawyer, if you are one, please add your thoughts!

Update July 2011

The Sixth Circuit discussed this topic in their ruling, here’s a new post on it.

Update June 2012

The deciding vote from John Roberts was based on this same tax power argument.

Some stuff I like

As you may have noticed, this blog is a big old grab-bag of random topics. In that spirit, here are some products I enjoyed lately, that people may not have heard of. In several cases these products are from small companies and I think they deserve a mention for their good work.

I’m going to affiliate-link the stuff, because why not, so be aware of that if it bothers you.


The computer geeks reading my blog have probably seen this, but for the rest of you, I’d recommend it if you do any kind of desk work.

GeekDesk lets you use a standing desk part of the day without committing to standing up always. It has a little motor so you can quickly raise or lower the desktop.

(Why a standing desk? Sitting down all day is really bad for you, even if you exercise daily.)

I’ve found that I almost always stand, now that I’m used to it. But it’s nice to have the option to sit.

I have the GeekDesk Mini which is still large, about 3 laptops wide by 2 deep.

When standing, a laptop screen is too low for me and requires hunching over, so I had to get a monitor with a stand, and then I had to pile some books under the stand. With the monitor, I can stand up straight and look at the screen directly.

You can also buy only the motorized legs and put your own top on the GeekDesk if you have a nice piece of wood in mind.

The desk has decent cable management, but I also screwed a power strip to the bottom of the desktop so only one power cord goes to the floor.


Quakehold is a removable museum putty that makes things stay put.

As the name suggests, one use of it is to keep stuff on shelves during an earthquake, and I’m guessing those of you who live in an earthquake zone already know about it. I didn’t know about it.

It’s useful in a duct-tape kind of way. Some examples in our house:

  • making our lamps harder for kids to knock over
  • keeping a power strip on the bottom of my GeekDesk from slipping off its mounting screws
  • sticking down a diaper changing apparatus to keep it from sliding around
  • keeping our toddler from sliding an anti-toddler fence across the room

In most cases you could also use duct tape, I suppose, but the putty is easier to remove without damaging surfaces, and avoids looking too There, I Fixed It.


SimpliSafe is an alarm system we installed in our house a few weeks ago, and it’s a Boston startup, for those of you in Boston wanting to support local companies.

I’m very impressed with the product, but boy was it hard to discover. I just Googled “alarm system” for example, and they aren’t in the ads and aren’t in the first 8 pages of organic results. (If you’re an SEO consultant you might want to get in touch.)

SimpliSafe uses completely wireless (battery powered) sensors that stick to your wall with 3M Command. When you get the system it’s preloaded with the codes for your sensors, so there’s no pairing process. All you do is pull the plastic tab blocking the battery from each sensor, stick it to the wall or put it on a shelf, and then plug a USB stick they provide into your computer. On the computer there’s a simple setup process to tell the monitoring service who to call and so on. After setting up, you put the USB stick in the base station to transfer the settings, and that’s it.

It takes about half an hour to install and set up. Maybe an hour if you’re the kind to read the (clear and excellent) instructions.

Here’s the comparison:

  • ADT: you have to talk to a salesperson on commission. They are selling a 3-year contract that auto-renews if you don’t cancel in time, and it costs almost $50/month if you get cellular monitoring. The up-front equipment can be expensive (they have free or cheap packages, but those don’t include what you probably need).
  • SimpliSafe: you order online and self-install in half an hour. There’s no contract, and cellular monitoring is $15/month. No need for a land line. The up-front equipment is reasonably-priced.

As a middle ground, I guess there’s a whole community out there of people who roll their own alarm and home automation systems, and it looks possible to get a lot cheaper than ADT that way as well. However, it looked way too time consuming for me. I think you can also switch your ADT equipment over to a cheaper monitoring service, at least after your 3 year contract expires if you catch it prior to autorenew.

SimpliSafe’s industrial and interaction design are great. The web UI is simple, and everything is pre-configured as much as possible. (For example, the base unit already knows about your sensors when you get it.) They really thought through the whole experience.

The product is marketed for apartments (because there’s no permanent installation), but it seems to be fine for our house. If you live in a large enough place or have metal walls, it may not work for you.

Other possible downsides:

  • I’m guessing the system uses ZigBee or something similar, but they don’t say, and they don’t claim to support any sensors they don’t sell. Basically it isn’t an open system, you have to buy components from them.
  • They only have basic sensors right now, for example no fire alarm or glass break detector yet, though they say they will in the future.
  • There’s no “home automation” stuff, it’s purely a burglar alarm.

By the way, in researching this two other interesting companies I saw using low-power wireless were VueZone and AlertMe (UK only). I have not tried either one, but they seem to be similar in spirit to SimpliSafe (i.e. low-power wireless technology with decent industrial design).

SLS-Free Toothpaste

This product won’t be relevant to everyone, but if it is and you don’t know about it, you might thank me.

At the risk of too much information, I used to get canker sores, anytime I bit my lip or flew on an airplane or just had bad luck. These would make me miserable and grumpy for days, every other week or so. (Yeah, more grumpy than usual, haha.) While not life-threatening, it was unpleasant.

Now I use some stuff called Biotene which has been essentially a miracle cure. Instead of being in pain on a regular basis, I never have a problem. It isn’t some placebo effect “maybe it’s a bit better” kind of thing, it’s a change from “have constant chronic problem for years” to “never have the problem at all.” If I travel or something and don’t use the miracle toothpaste, I can get a canker sore again, but on resuming the toothpaste it will clear up.

Biotene claims to have magic enzymes. I don’t know if the enzymes do anything, or if it’s primarily the SLS-freeness that works. You may have luck with other toothpastes as well. Anyway, I pay for my overpriced toothpaste and it is worth every penny. Most drugstores, Target, etc. carry it.

GoGo Babyz Travelmate car seat wheels

The biggest problem here is the name, GoGo Babyz Travelmate. Bad name.

If you take your baby or toddler on a plane, this eliminates the need for a stroller, giving you one less thing to check and one more free hand. If you’ve taken a baby or toddler on a plane, you understand the value of that.

The gadget adds roller-bag wheels and handle to your car seat, so you can push or pull your kid like a roller bag. Comical but it works.

We gate-checked the GoGo Babyz, but I think you could get it in the overhead bin especially if you pop the wheels off (which is pretty easy).

Keep the JVM, dump the rest (Scala+Play+MongoDB)

I decided to try three new things at once and get back into some server-side development.

  • Scala uses the JVM for the hard work, but feels more like Ruby or Python. It’s statically-typed, but for the most part infers types rather than making you type them in.
  • Play ignores the Tomcat/J2EE legacy in favor of a more modern approach — “just press reload” to see changes.
  • MongoDB dodges the ORM problem by storing objects in the first place. People like JSON, so the database should store JSON. Done!

I was curious whether I could lose all traces of Enterprise Readiness and use the JVM with a nice language, a nice web framework, and no annoying SQL/ORM gunge.

TL;DR Answer: Promising, but lots of rough edges.

Some disjointed thoughts follow.


Before starting, I read Programming in Scala and MongoDB: The Definitive Guide. Also the free Programming Scala but I would recommend the Odersky book instead.

I like Scala a lot.

If you aren’t familiar with it, Scala is a pragmatic language design.

  • it compiles to Java bytecode and runs on the JVM. Thus, no headaches for operations team, no need to port it to new architectures, quality JIT and GC, etc. A Scala app looks like a regular Java jar/war/ear/*ar.
  • you can use any existing Java library from Scala with no special effort, just import it.
  • it’s statically typed, but sophisticated generics and type inference keep the code looking clean and concise.
  • it supports both functional and OO styles, sanely mixing the two.
  • it has multiple inheritance (mixin traits) that works properly, thanks to linearization.
  • it has a basket of features that save typing, such as pattern matching and automatically creating accessors for fields.
  • language features give you ways to avoid Java’s preprocessor/reflection/codegen hacks (think aspect-oriented programming, dependency injection, Kilim, and other extralinguistic hacks)

While C# fixes Java by adding a bunch of features but keeping a pretty similar language design, Scala fixes Java by trying to bring the conciseness and fun people find in Ruby, Python, Haskell, or whatever onto the JVM.

There’s a popular controversy about whether Scala is too complex, and just reading about it I had the same fear.

  • I found I could get a web app working without hitting any complexity hiccups. You don’t have to design a DSL or understand variance annotations to write a web app.
  • I didn’t get any mystery error messages of the kind I used to get all the time in the early days of C++.
  • I’m not sure it’s more complex than Java if you include the usual stack of extralinguistic hacks in Java, and I doubt Scala is a larger language than C#.

Scala’s Option type wasn’t very helpful.

Scala has thing called Option, which I believe Haskell calls a Maybe type. It’s a container that contains a single value or else nothing. While Scala has null (for Java compatibility), Scala encourages the use of Option instead to clearly indicate in the type system whether a value can be missing.

In a web app, this was often used to check whether data store lookups returned anything. And in most cases I wanted to show an error page if not, accomplished in Play by returning a special object from the controller method.

While I’ve read posts such as this one, I couldn’t find a great pattern for using Option in this context. It was leaking up the call stack like a checked exception (code using an Option value had to return another Option value and all the way up). I found myself wanting to do:

val foo = maybeFoo.getOrThrow(WebErrorPageException(“whatever”))

then I wanted the framework to globally catch that (unchecked) exception and show an error page. For all I know Play has such an exception. You can unconditionally Option.get, but that will turn up as an internal server error, which isn’t nice.

Without using exceptions, Option tended to produce nested if() (or pattern match) goo just like null, or creep up into calling functions like a checked exception.

Play itself is very polished, but Play with Scala is not.

Play’s big win, which you get with Scala too, is to bring “just press reload” development to the JVM. You change either code or templates, then go to your browser and test. There’s no pressing build or even waiting for Eclipse to build, and there’s no creating a war file and deploying it.

Play brings other niceties, using convention rather than configuration (in the Rails style). Its template engine is much nicer than JSP/JSF/etc. ugliness, and you get quick and easy mapping from URLs to controller methods. If you’ve used Rails or Django or whatever Play will feel pretty normal. But this normal is a prettier picture than the traditional Tomcat/JSP/blah setup.

Originally, Play was for Java only. The Scala support is marked experimental, and I hit some issues such as:

  • The docs are spotty and sort of outdated.
  • The docs talk about using JPA (Hibernate) with Scala, but Googling around I learned it’s broken and not recommended. Some of Play’s magic convenience is lost if you aren’t using Play’s database and ORM. I started out trying to use JPA with SQL, but when I learned I’d be manually doing DB stuff anyhow, I switched to MongoDB.
  • Some bug in the MongoDB driver makes it break if you also use Joda Time.
  • The template engine sometimes couldn’t find object fields from superclasses (my guess, I haven’t tested yet, is that adding @BeanProperty would work around this).
  • File upload support only works via a temporary file (a File object) and not streaming.
  • Some hacky-feeling conversion from Scala to Java collections/iterators was sometimes needed for the benefit of the template engine.

Little bugs aside, I did get a simple app working and I enjoyed it a lot more than writing in Java.

The stack isn’t nonblocking by default as node.js is.

Play supports suspending an HTTP request and returning to it later, without tying up a thread. Scala, especially in combination with Akka, offers some nice primitives for concurrency while avoiding shared state.

node.js gets huge mileage because the core platform defines what the “main loop” looks like and has primitives for a nonblocking file descriptor watch, nonblocking timeout, and so on. All libraries and modules then work within this framework.

In theory, Play and Akka would let you do the same thing, but since it isn’t the default, you’re going to suffer. You would have to manually write little stub controller methods that always suspended the request and forwarded it to an actor. And your persistence layer probably has a blocking API (such as MongoDB’s blocking API) that would need another bunch of glue code and a thread or actor pool to encapsulate. It’s even an issue, though a simple one, that Akka doesn’t come with Play or Scala, and the Play module for it seems to be well behind the latest Akka version.

I suspect that in a real-world project, you’d start finding blocking IO all over the place, hidden in every third-party jar you tried to use.

It would be great if I could write an actor, annotate it as a controller, and it would receive web request messages and send back web reply messages. Similarly, it would be great if there were a MongoDB-via-actors kind of nonblocking API.

Play’s philosophy is that most controller methods should block because they should be fast; this is likely true, but it’d be nice if the framework overengineered it for me. BTW, here’s a comparison of Play and Node.js.

(I can’t decide whether I like the idea of this Play/Scala/JVM stack or node.js more. I think I like both. The simplicity of node.js, the nonblockingness, and the same language from client to server, make it appealing. But sometimes I like the idea of JVM solidity, the full-featured statically-typed loveliness of Scala, and the giant ecosystem of Java tools and libraries.)

Eclipse support isn’t great yet.

I’ve heard the Scala plugin for Eclipse was recently improved, and honestly I’m not sure whether I have the important improvements in the version I’m using. But it was not great.

  • I had an error “class scala.annotation.implicitNotFound not found” that just wouldn’t go away, though it seemed harmless. Suspect that it’s some version mismatch.
  • Perhaps because Scala is less verbose and redundant than Java, it’s much easier to get the editor confused about your code.
  • Autocomplete/intellisense/whatever-you-call-it rarely worked, the IDE didn’t seem to know what methods my variables had most of the time.
  • Refactorings and code generation shortcuts you’d be used to from Java weren’t there (though they were also far less necessary).

All this said, with Play and Scala you’d be fine with an editor instead of an IDE. Working autocomplete would be nice, though.

MongoDB is the Right Thing.

I love MongoDB (disclaimer: I haven’t deployed it, only coded to it). From a development perspective, it’s exactly what I want.

If everyone wants objects anyway, and in particular they want objects with JavaScript’s type system since they’re eventually going to display in a browser (or use node.js), then the data store should freaking store objects! Figure it out for me.

If the data store’s native representation matches the form I really want my data in, then it should (at least eventually) be able to store and query that data intelligently. JPA/Hibernate is a very, very leaky abstraction. I don’t need part of the storage engine inside my app, trying to convert what I really want into SQL. Then the SQL engine has to optimize without high-level information.

As far as I know, MongoDB is the “NoSQL” thing that adapts to how my app works, instead of vice versa. Nice.


There’s a lot of promise here, but if I were building a real app on this stack, I’d be tempted to hack on the stack itself a fair bit (always dangerous!). Play defaults to Java+SQL, and Scala+MongoDB isn’t the well-traveled path.

Disclaimer: I’ve done a lot of Java in the old school Tomcat/JSP/Hibernate style, but Scala, Play, and MongoDB are new to me. Your corrections and elaborations in the comments are very welcome.

Why I hope my kid won’t like The Phantom Menace…

… because it’s a terrible movie, but I have one other reason.

We have a young child and I read parenting books. More than one talks about agency and effort. If you emphasize innate attributes rather than choices and habits, people get messed up.  They value themselves in terms of something they have no control over.

In real life, effort gets more reward than inborn attributes. (There are studies on it, aside from common sense.) Believing that what you do matters more than who you are is a freeing idea. It creates optimism that it’s worth trying and learning, rather than pessimism that you and the world are what they are.

Who knows if parents can affect how children think about these things, but one can hope.

Like a lot of nerds, I enjoy science fiction and fantasy. These books and movies tend to involve heroes, frequently young, who save the world or some such.

Consider some classics everyone knows. In The Lord of the Rings, the hero’s virtue is perseverance. The book hammers you with just how long it took to walk across Middle Earth. (A good movie version had to be 3 movies.) Frodo doesn’t have any special talents, other than finishing the journey. Even then, he fails at the end and has to be rescued by luck.

In the original Star Wars trilogy, sure the force is strong with Luke, but he has to do a bunch of training, and when he leaves Yoda without enough practice he gets his hand chopped off.

Not exactly fantasy, but take Seven Samurai. A bunch of old pros illustrating character and experience as they save a village, with one young samurai bumbling along for the ride. Some of them get killed.

Now consider some less-classics. In the Phantom Menace, an annoying kid saves the day more than once, using his inborn scientology midi-chlorians.  Even though he’s a little punk, everyone praises his midi-chlorian count. No wonder he turned out to be evil.

I recently finished and didn’t enjoy The Name of the Wind in which some kid is the best at everything without doing any work at all, and while having no character at all. (I could go on about other problems with this book, let’s just say this sort of praise seems baffling. Forgive me, I know this book has a lot of fans.)

Aside from a bad message, there’s no interesting story in these. Someone is born special and then they do special things and … whatever. Where’s the meaning? To me that isn’t a good story. Jar Jar is an extra insult — the real problem is bad story and characters.

I’m still debating how Harry Potter fits in to my argument.

NY Times Digital Pricing: It’s Strange

As the Times rolls out its paywall, their message is that quality content should cost money. Their price segmentation undermines the message.

In theory, price segmentation can be arbitrary. In practice, consumers want it to be logical and feel that it’s fair.

  • content + phone app = 15
  • content + tablet app = 20
  • content + both apps = 35
  • content + dead trees = 30-ish

At $15 for phone and web, $20 for tablet and web, or $35 for all three, the Times has several problems.

The algebra doesn’t solve

The price structure can’t be rationalized. If the algebra doesn’t work, then it should be because of a “bulk discount” where buying more gets you a better deal.

Instead, buying more appears to charge you twice for the content. The most loyal customers are punished.

The prices imply that apps are worth more than content

If the Times wants to ask people to pay for quality content, charging $20/mo to add a second device but only $15/mo for all the content is nuts. Talk about undermining your own argument.

It doesn’t relate to costs at all

People resent paying to evade a restriction that’s unrelated to true cost structure. Failure to match costs with revenues can be a mess from a business perspective as well. Does the tablet and phone app division get credit for all the pricier subscribers? Can a competitor get an edge by pricing more sanely?

Limiting which devices can be used to read the paper is a daily annoyance for customers, but not one worth $180/year to solve.
It’s an opening for the competition.

The Times pricing may also evolve poorly as technology evolves. Tablets barely existed just a year ago!

Better approaches

Most of these ideas would be better:

  • have a single price — KISS
  • charge more for access to more sections
  • charge one-time prices for apps in app stores
  • don’t split tablets and phones; a single monthly charge for all non-web access, on top of the basic web subscription
  • have an ad-free tier that costs more
  • have a tier that ups your limit from 20 views but is not unlimited
  • have a tier that bundles some kind of third-party content or other valuable offer
  • put some content on a time lag unless you pay more

What the Times did instead is just… strange. It seems like one of the worst options to me.

Boolean parameters are wrong

Today’s simple way to improve your code.

Say you’re reading a program and you see some lines like this:

new ArrayBlockingQueue(10, false);
box.pack_start(child, false, true);

You don’t know what the booleans mean. Say you’re reading it and you see this:

new ArrayBlockingQueue(10, Policy.FAIR);
box.pack_start(child, Packing.FILL);

Which is better?

There’s only one time that a boolean is OK, and that’s when the name of the method (or keyword, in a language that has keyword args) already describes it:

box.set_expand(child, false);

Otherwise, no booleans. I know you’re too lazy to create an enum or flags type, but do it anyway.

Numeric types, for APIs where the number is expected to be a literal rather than a variable name, often have the same problem. But it’s a bit harder to solve in that case. The best solution may be for API users to use named constants.

Mystery-booleans are easy to avoid, though, so just do it.

Nice photo


Asheville, morning 2011-01-11 by skippy haha on Flickr

Asheville, Off the Tech Hub Grid

Software developers often find themselves considering a short list of west coast “tech hub” cities when they think about where to live. As Richard Florida points out, “the world is flat” theories are at least partially wrong; industries tend to concentrate in certain cities, where people can find each other, hire talent, network, and launch companies. This could not be more true in the software world.

Last summer I posted about moving to Asheville, NC.  There’s not much tech industry here, and that sucks. In fact, there aren’t a lot of jobs at all, in any field.

In every other way, though, it’s wonderful, and ought to be on your list of places to visit (or even consider living). If you’d like to stay on the Eastern side of the US, restricting yourself to only tech hub cities leaves few options. If you can figure out how to work outside an industry hub, your choices expand.

West coast and Northeastern US residents often haven’t heard of Asheville. Let me tell you why you should have a look. (Hey, if I convince enough people, we can get a tech industry going!)

View of Cataloochee area in Great Smoky Mountains

Less than an hour west, Great Smoky Mountains National Park


I’m not trying to argue which is the “best” city. Obviously: your happiness has more to do with friends and family, fulfilling work, and attitude than with location. And the best location has to do with what you like and best fit for you. There’s no beach near Asheville, if you’re a beach person, for example. Anyway don’t get defensive!

I thought I’d write something up because: Asheville isn’t as widely-known as it ought to be, it’s amazingly hard to find useful discussion of places to live, plus you might want to check the city out as a vacation spot.

The Quick Bullet List


  • Located in a mountain valley at 2400ft, surrounded by national forest and parkland. Natural beauty visible from downtown. Outdoor recreation everywhere.
  • Economy powered by tourism attracts a vibrant artistic/creative class, leading to food, shopping, cultural events, and other city amenities you’d expect from a much larger city.
  • Typical commute into center of downtown during “rush hour” takes 5–10 minutes.
  • Milder summers than lower-elevation southern cities, milder winters than northeastern cities. Has four distinct seasons, with nice leaves in fall, a few good snowfalls in winter, typically 75–80 degrees in summer.
  • Much cheaper than big cities.
  • There isn’t the same “cramped condo near city stuff or big house out in boring suburbs” tradeoff you’d find in most big cities. You can live near downtown, and also near outdoor recreation, and have a spacious house, all for a reasonable price. In a big city you need a lot of cash to have space and be close to city amenities.
  • Airport is large enough to have regular flights to the hubs, but small enough that you can go from car to gate in under 10 minutes. Quick parking and total lack of lines more than compensates for lack of nonstops. (I rarely got a nonstop from say Boston Logan, anyhow.)
  • On the East coast. This may be a pro or a con for you. It’s a pro for us since we’re closer to family, and I like my mountains on a smaller scale, Appalachian-style.


  • No tech industry. The economy is tourism-based. (It is entrepreneurial, but the entrepreneurs are creating food, hotels, art, etc. rather than high tech products. Starting a business may be your best bet for work, in fact.)
  • Public transportation isn’t good. The condo-in-city-with-no-car lifestyle doesn’t work well here. Though you don’t have to drive far or deal with much traffic, you have to drive at least sometimes.
  • There’s a school of thought on message boards comparing Asheville to non-cities; common points made include: there are lots of people with “hippie” clothes and tattoos, lots of traffic, crime, and stuff is too expensive. If you are comparing to any large city, I doubt you’ll take these criticisms seriously. However, yes, Asheville is a (small) city and has city things (on a small scale).
  • If progressive bumper stickers, everything-organic vegans, art installations, and things along those lines annoy you, you’ll be annoyed.
  • It’s small enough that some may find it claustrophobic.

Mountain State Fair

Comparable Cities

Here are some of the more-similar places you might compare Asheville to, to give a sense of how they differ. I won’t try to make a comprehensive list; just trying to locate Asheville among its peers.

  • Chapel Hill / Carrboro, NC, another small east-coast place with good amenities and low costs. Chapel Hill proper is much smaller than Asheville, but it has easy access to the larger Raleigh-Durham. Unlike Asheville, there’s a tech industry here. You’ll do more driving and see more sprawl in the Triangle than in Asheville, and you won’t have the 15-minute access to parks and forests. You’ll be hotter in the summer, too. In short, no mountains, but a lot more local economic opportunity. I’ll lump Raleigh-Durham itself into this bullet point.
  • Northampton, MA is a little college town in the mountains that has a similar “feel” to Asheville in some ways. It is a tenth the size, though.
  • Athens, GA is a larger southern college town, still smaller than Asheville. Unlike Chapel Hill, Northampton, and Athens, Asheville is not a college town; it’s a tourist town. But Asheville has some of the same creative-class feel you’d find in a college town.
  • Boulder, CO is half the size of Asheville. It’s far colder (the Rockies are much higher mountains!) and far more expensive. But it has a thriving tech community, great amenities, and better skiing.
  • Portland, OR is about four times the size of Asheville, with great public transportation, food, beer, and a lot more tech stuff going on.
  • Austin, TX is about eight times the size, but it’s a pretty inexpensive place to live with lots of great amenities and of course a tech community. It feels like a big city, though it’s smaller than the Northeastern cities.
  • Nashville, TN and Knoxville, TN are west of Asheville on the other side of the mountains. I haven’t spent much time in these cities but people say good things.
  • Charleston, SC might be the beach equivalent of Asheville, similar in scale, also a tourist town, about 4.5 hours southeast.
  • Greenville, SC is an hour south of Asheville, just below the mountains, and worth a visit. It has a nice downtown with a lot of effort behind it, including a lovely park around a natural waterfall.

Asheville deserves its spot in this book, it’s a yuppie/progressive/etc. kind of city. If you can’t handle it when people talk about sustainable, organic, crafting, etc. then you can’t handle Asheville.

(If it isn’t clear, I’m describing only one aspect of Asheville from a yuppie kind of perspective, because that’s what I know. There’s a lot of poverty here, too, and the city looks pretty different from that standpoint. And of course there’s a “tourists and yuppies go home!” point of view to be found.)

Getting Oriented

You have the bullet points, now here’s some detail.

Asheville is a small city in Western North Carolina (“WNC”), about 80,000 people in city limits, 400,000 in the statistical area.  In any direction you look, there’s a mountain vista Eastern-style: covered in green, 4,000–6,000 foot peaks, rather than the 10,000–20,000 feet out west. Asheville itself is in a valley, around 2,100 feet, but there’s a 2,600 foot mountain ridge running straight into the middle of town. You’ll see this mountain, rather than the downtown skyline, anytime you’re south of it.

Asheville has a tourism-based economy. As the largest city in the immediate area, it’s also the home of a regional hospital, the largest employer in town.

The city is surrounded by areas that aren’t open to development; Pisgah National Forest, Biltmore Estate, and  Blue Ridge Parkway, are some of the larger ones. Past Pisgah to the West, there’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

If you’re used to a larger city with actual traffic, understand the scale of Asheville. Driving from one side of the city to the other takes around 15 minutes.

My family’s approach to Asheville is to live in the city for daily proximity to what it offers, and then drive 15 minutes out to do outdoor stuff. Another approach is to live outside the city (cheaper) and either save money on housing or spend your money on having some land. I’ll focus on the in-city option because there are lots of places you could live in the country, this post is about the city of Asheville. Another option, btw, is to live in one of the charming smaller towns in the area, such as Hendersonville or Waynesville.

Biltmore House

Vanderbilt’s house


In the 1890s,  George Washington Vanderbilt II decided to live like European nobility and built what remains the largest house in the United States here in Asheville. Today it’s a tourist attraction, with the house, a winery, restaurants, hiking trails, a resort hotel, and so on. (If you live here, you can get a cheap annual pass to visit the estate unlimited times, treating it as a giant city park.)

Asheville was a resort town in the last big credit bubble, in the 1920s. Downtown is packed with fabulous Art Deco buildings, and a number of neighborhoods are full of houses built in the 20s. It was a Great Gatsby kind of place (midway through the Great Depression, F. Scott Fitzgerald showed up and drank himself to death).  Post-1929, the city went into stasis for fifty years; they didn’t even have enough money to tear down or renovate the old 20s stuff — historic preservation through poverty.

asheville downtown from the southwest

Aerial photo of downtown Asheville in Fall


Twenty years ago Asheville’s downtown was a wasteland (you’ve probably visited many cities that are still this way). All the great old 20s architecture boarded up and empty. Now, when I walk out of my office downtown on Friday or Saturday night the place is just swarming with people. There are an outrageous number of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, with heavy competition pushing quality up. There are loads of art galleries. There are clothing boutiques and gift shops and a place that sells 900 beers. A great thing about downtown Asheville (and one reason it’s a tourist destination) is that most of the businesses are local and unique.

Chimney Rock State Park

less than an hour south, Chimney Rock State Park


For those who’ve been to Western Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the overall feel of Western North Carolina is similar to those mountain areas. The Berkshires are lower-altitude than the WNC mountains, but they’re also farther north, so their climate comes out colder.

East coast mountains are green and different in scale from those out West.

I don’t ski, and by all accounts it’s far inferior in the East. However, we have great whitewater, backpacking, mountain and road biking, trail running, leaf peeping, camping, fishing, and so on and so forth. You could spend years and never run out of new trails, rivers, and waterfalls.

When it’s nice out we go hike up a mountain or something on a moment’s notice. It’s not a trip you have to plan, it’s just as convenient as going to a movie.


You can’t beat Asheville’s climate while still having seasons.

North Carolina isn’t in the same heat league as Georgia or Texas, even in Raleigh/Durham. Western North Carolina moderates things further because of the altitude; Asheville is around 2400 feet. Spring and Fall are mostly perfect in the 60s and 70s, Summer tends to be 70s to 80s. 2009 had zero days above 90, though in most years there would be a few. On a 90-degree day, a short drive up a mountain can take 30 degrees off, plus offer a scenic picnic.

In the winter it snows a few times, so it feels like winter. Snow doesn’t stay on the ground for a couple months the way it does in the Northeast; within a few days there will be highs enough above freezing to melt snow. Asheville mostly lacks bitterly cold days, not venturing too far below freezing.

Some won’t like rain and humidity, but they are about average compared to the United States as a whole; while say Seattle (in winter) or Miami (in summer) are well above average. In the mountains, it often rains in short bursts, as wet air from the coast slows down.

asheville city from afar

Downtown, below it the mountain dividing downtown from South Asheville


You can split the city up into two broad categories. North, Center, and West are older areas with many houses from the 20s (and 40s,50s,60s; pretty much none from the 30s). These neighborhoods tend to be an older style with sidewalks, etc. For the most part these neighborhoods are in the city school district. East and South are newer areas and have sprawl tendencies (gated communities, box stores). These areas are in the county school district. In all directions things eventually fade into a more living-in-the-country feel. Of the older areas, West Asheville has had less gentrification and remodeling, so it’s cheaper. The old houses in the west often have no more than two bedrooms, while many old houses in northern and central neighborhoods have been redone and expanded. There’s a fair bit of new construction mixed into the older neighborhoods, as well.

Here’s a map of neighborhood names (only useful if you’re looking for a place to live).

International-style house in our neighborhood, set up for Halloween

Food and Beer

Asheville has an outrageous number of bars and restaurants for its size, thanks to tourist traffic. It’s competitive enough that many of them are very good, and often not even expensive. While the town has Friday’s and Chilis and so on, we haven’t been to those places since moving here: they are more expensive than the twice-as-good unique local places.

Food here tends to be honest, simple, and fresh, rather than showy fine dining or molecular gastronomy. Local ingredients are more common than exotica.

Craft breweries are big. Typically, restaurants have several of the local beers available.

I’d say the “restaurant rotation” near my office downtown beats the one near my old office on Boylston Street in Boston.

There are quite a few farmer’s markets that set up temporarily, in-season we visit a couple of them regularly. Plus the permanent WNC Farmer’s Market. There are four different “crunchy/organic” grocery stores, including Whole Foods, Fresh Market, the regional Earth Fare chain (my favorite), and the French Broad Food Coop. We have regular grocery stores as well, of course.

The quality food options are way ahead of those in most similarly-sized cities, they tend to be relatively cheap compared to large cities, and as always in Asheville, you can get there in less than 15 minutes.

Drinking a beer, watching the weather

Beer with a view

Tourist Attractions

Lots of people have written tourist guides for the area, here are some:

I’d tend to do some shopping/eating/drinking downtown in between visiting the surrounding mountains for your choice of outdoor adventures. There are some great hotels and spas though if you aren’t up for anything active.

But it’s in the South!

Lots of people just can’t handle the south. You’re being silly, people. Also, there’s a good chance you’re basing this on Atlanta. Livability-wise, Atlanta is a sprawl nightmare with superheated summers. Give the rest of the region a chance.

Asheville isn’t very “Southern” in the stereotypical way; lots of people relocated here from other parts of the country, and those who are from the South are often fleeing small towns where they didn’t fit in. Like Chapel Hill, Asheville is a little “blue” island in a red state.

That said, there’s plenty of Western North Carolina tradition in the area, including friendly people, good food, and all the rest.

An Incredible Value

Asheville excels in livability, with a bit less excitement than a condo near downtown in a large city, but far more excitement and convenience than a typical large city suburb. You get easy-to-visit-daily convenient access to both downtown amenities and outdoor recreation, which means in practice taking advantage of all those things.

When I lived in a Chicago apartment, I did city things but rarely left the city; when I lived in the suburbs of Boston, I rarely went into the city (and the suburbs are a wasteland!). In a typical Asheville week, we’ll do some stuff outdoors, and we’ll go downtown, because it’s all less than 15 minutes away.

Purple Aster

Town Mountain Road, just north of downtown