Failed Projects

As (social) scientists, sometimes we all experience a project that just never works.  Sometimes I underestimate the initial investment and it never really gets off the ground (e.g., I thought I could get these resources but I can’t).  Sometimes you do the whole thing and it looks great, but when you try to replicate it you can’t.  Sometimes the data just don’t tell a coherent story and you need to go back and think about your methodology, predictions, theory, etc.  I have had each one of these happen to me, some more than once.

How do you recognize when a project is failing, and what do you do with it afterwards?

Possible things to do with it:  set the data aside, maybe they will be useful for something later on.  Revise your procedure and start over.  Let a student have it for a small project that you know won’t get published anyway.  Shrug and chalk it up to a learning experience, taking the long view that my career is decades long and not every study has to pan out.  These are all painful, but necessary in the case where you don’t want to lose more time throwing good effort after bad data.

One more choice:  write an article about the methodology instead of the results, giving advice to other researchers who may want to do something similar.  This approach has worked for me at least once.

Each time something fails after an initial investment of time and energy, it hurts.  It sucks.  I could always just choose to do projects with lower initial startup costs and lower risk of total failure (p.s. design your study so you will still get some usable data even if your main hypothesis is uninterpretable).  However, I don’t want to stick with the safe and easy all the time.  I did a study my first year on the tenure track that was easy, fast, data collection went great, it looked simple — but then the data analysis turned into a bear and we’ve just now gotten the manuscript out.  I want to keep trying new things.

I’m trying to think that if you don’t fail at some projects, you aren’t trying enough things.  If you don’t get rejections on your paper, you aren’t aiming high enough.  (Thanks, CPP, for reinforcing this idea!)

I tell myself, you are allowed to suck.  Indeed, you must suck.  Get all your sucking out of the way so you can move on.  Fail better.

Any advice from the Grumpeteers on when to cut your losses?

What is a dollar worth?

Min Hus is doing an online YMoYL book club.  Totes check it out. This week they’re on chapter two, calculating their effective wage– the idea of converting the cost of stuff into life energy that’s expended so you have a better idea of whether or not that stuff is actually worth the price.

Economists do this all the time– our effective wage rate includes not only the cost of things you buy in order to get to work, but also the unpleasantness or disutility of the work.  We make assumptions that wage rates are higher when the costs and disutility are higher.  We call these compensating differentials.

But we also value money in terms of how much of one good you have to give up by buying another good.  Money is simply fiat– something that allows you to buy goods and services.  You have a budget constraint and that means you can only buy so much of everything.  If you buy X widgets, you can’t buy as many sprockets as you would be able to if you hadn’t bought any widgets.

Folks who aren’t economists (or who aren’t economists *yet*) also use these kinds of metrics to get at the idea of how much their money is worth– what they have to give up if they buy one thing instead of another.  Specifically, this comment by Debbie M about how she used to measure purchases in terms of how many boxes of macaroni and cheese she could buy reminded me of how I determined whether or not something was worth purchasing during most of my childhood.

I was really into the candy-bar metric.  When I started it was 3 candy bars = $1.  Later it became 2 candy bars = $1.  (My allowance was pretty small by national standards according to my Penny Candy (?) magazine– 10 cents per year of age.  I couldn’t imagine people who got the average allowances worth 10 candy bars/week.  How did they eat all that candy?)  I’m not really sure how much a candy bar costs these days.  :|

Later, through college and graduate school (after we got rid of DH’s debt– there was no need to buy anything because the answer was always “no” until that was gone), my general metric was 1 meal out = $5.  Everything was calculated in terms of a meal out.

These days I don’t really do that anymore.  Pretty much anything I want under $200 I just buy.  (Which makes it sound like I’m a spendthrift, but my natural inclination is not to buy anything, so when it gets to the state where I want it now rather than sticking on my Amazon list, I might as well buy it.  Mainly it means I don’t stress at 3 figure grocery bills.)  I don’t know what I *would* use for an appropriate metric these days.  Maybe time to mortgage payoff (though Debbie M was not impressed with that idea!).  When I was thinking about flying DC’s relatives out here, I calculated how much tuition the flight would pay for (answer:  a full semester at CC), and just put that money in a 529 instead.

How do you figure out how much a dollar is worth?  Do you have a metric like this where you trade off in terms of salary or in terms of other goods you can purchase?  Have you had such a metric in the past (or would it help you in the future?)

link love

We’re moving a bit slowly this week due to the time change.

and remember, this is for science, so, be honest.

and remember, this is for science, so, be honest.

Femomhist discusses the family dynamics of chores.  Also her son is a specific kind of profoundly gifted that has its own challenges… if you know stuff could you give her some info… I know her son, though rare, is not unique in how he thinks, but I can’t remember much more about it (vague memories of a book that was really into the PG, HG, etc. labeling talking about how important it is to get a good tester for these gifted tests because some kids answer like her son did).

Assnard.  By Scalzi.

We were in this week’s carnival of personal finance.

Donna Freedman talks about some of her darker past and getting past it.

Scattered and Random with a powerful post about her own past and how things have changed, for the better.

CNN on cookies and Hillary Clinton.

I thought I was the only one who read this book!   Of course, I read it several years ago, but I loves me some Hugh Laurie. I agree with the reviewer.


Neil Gaiman on writer’s block.

Big ups to Glenn W. Smith: Where the Boys Aren’t.

Your googled questions answered

Q:  im 22 is this a good time to have a baby?

A:  probably not

Q:  will i ever love my second child as much

A:  As much as what?

Q:  why people are offended when asking a follow up question

A:  Was the initial question inappropriate to begin with, and is the follow-up even more intrusive?  (Ex.  If your husband makes enough to support you, why aren’t you a SAHM?  How can your career be more important than your children?)

Q:  should i knock the door when entering the professor office

A:  You should knock on the door BEFORE entering the office and you should only enter if invited to do so.

Q:  should you email teacher if youre sick

A:  Won’t hurt.  Just don’t say anything like, “Did I miss anything important?”  In fact, the appropriate etiquette is something like:

Dear Professor Awesome,
I’m sorry I had to miss class today.  Unfortunately I am sick.  If you need one, I can furnish you with a doctors note.  I will get notes from the lecture from my fellow classmate and gave my homework to my friend to turn in. If I have any additional questions I will be sure to attend your next office hours once I am better.  Thank you for your time and I look forward to the next class!
Stu Dent

Q:  how minorities feel about majority

A:  Unless it is a minority of one (or a very small Borg), then within the minority people’s feelings are varied and different because minorities are people too, not just some block that all thinks alike.

Q:  for jobs do “graduate school” grades matter?

A:  For professional degrees they sometimes do for your first job placement.  Generally they don’t otherwise.

Q:  i was charge a level 3 er visit can i dispute this

A:  Yes.

Q:  what to do when you have extra money in dependent daycare account/

A:  We’re wondering this ourselves.  It seems silly having it go to the university rather than getting daycare out of it!

Q:  is wedding band appropriate push present

A:  Depends on whether or not she already has one (from you).  Definitely something to discuss with her.

The Bitch Face

Who here has a bitch face?  I’m talking about the face you make when you’re thinking about something, or just relaxed, or trying to figure something out, or listening attentively, and then people think you’re mad at them.

Only women have to modulate our facial expressions when we’re trying to figure out some important scientific theory or risk being called a bitch.  WHAT THE HELL, YO.  Stupid patriarchy.  Only in a patriarchy can we not even think without enacting femininity, or else.  My thoughts are my own and not everything is about you.  Students expect women faculty to be expressing care for them, in a way that I don’t do and in a way that is not expected from men.

If I am mad at you, I’ll tell you.  If my face seems to be scowling, I am probably just thinking.  It’s not your right to have women smile at you all the time!  When I’m thinking hard, I’m really not monitoring my facial expression, because that takes processing power I don’t feel like stealing from my thoughts, and also I don’t care about whether you think I’m nice.  (Except, sadly, my tenure committee does.)  I’m not a rude person and I don’t behave inappropriately at work.  But I do, on the good days, think about things at work.

This is just what my face looks like.  It is here for me, not to make you happy.  In what world would a man be criticized for what his face looks like, and it would have any effect on his career?  Grrrr.

and in other news:

Believe it.

Who’s with me on the rage?

Yeast Extract

I shake my tiny fist at Whole Foods.

MSG is nasty nasty stuff that gives me a headache.  I hate it.  I can always tell when I’ve ingested it because the headache is pretty distinctive… similar to both a pressure headache and a dehydration headache but not quite the same as either.

We went to Whole Foods and got a whole bunch of wheat-free junk food, including some nummy cheese flavored nuts.

Nummy, addictive cheese flavored nuts.

That gave me a nasty headache.  At a time I had to stay at work for several hours.


So, looked at the label.  Yeast Extract strikes again.  The “healthy food” version of MSG to fool people who are checking the labels for MSG.  I hate it when we forget to check for that.  We’re good about not buying the few fru-fru products our local grocery store offers that have it, but totes forgot to check when we looked at the ingredients at WF.  For shame, Whole Foods.  For shame, addictively nummy nut company.  I could eat your damn nuts if they didn’t have that yeast extract crap in them.  Luckily we also got some equally nummy but not-headache-inducing imported nut mixes from Spain (now labeled “Mine” rather than “Ours”).  You don’t need MSG to be nummy, just to be addictive and to give me headaches.  Grrr.

Note:  #2 loves MSG and is totes unaffected by it.  Lucky her.

Do you ever screw up when you buy food?

Our parenting philosophy

Laziness wins

Evolution usually knows what it’s doing

Culture is different all over the place, and can often be ignored

Kids are resilient

Wow… that’s really it in a nutshell.  I guess I can expand on each of these points.

Laziness wins

Our rule has always been:  do whatever works.  Don’t do what’s hardest, do what’s easiest.  With a note that screaming babies are not easy to deal with.  We didn’t have a napping schedule because it was easiest to just let DC nap whenever DC was tired.  DC ate when hungry because that was easiest for us.  When DC wanted to start solids, we started solids and didn’t fret about forcing them before that.  We coslept when that was easiest and transitioned DC into hir own bed when that was easiest.  Our methods of discipline etc. changed with age and DC’s changing needs, and if something didn’t work we tried something else.  What’s easiest for DC2 will probably be different than with DC1 (although enciente, DC2 seems remarkably like DC1, perhaps even more so) and we’ll go with that.

Evolution is pretty cool

Evolution doesn’t solve everything, or else breast-feeding and natural childbirth would be a lot easier.  But… an infant’s cries force immediate reaction from most mothers (not so much for mothers who were themselves neglected as infants :( ).  It’s natural to want to pick up a crying baby and comfort it.  A toddler’s cries don’t set off that kind of reaction and are much easier to ignore.

Readiness for solids is linked to their gut flora, something called a tongue-thrust reflex, and their desire to put foods in their mouths.  If you put the food in and it comes straight back out, then that’s a sign the tummy isn’t ready for solid foods yet, and that’s ok.  And different tummies are ready at different times.

There are many other of these links that evolution built up.  These links help with the laziness theme… you’re not a bad mom if you pick up your crying baby no matter what your neighbors say about spoiling an infant.  It wouldn’t feel so bad not to pick up the baby if you weren’t meant to pick up the baby.  If your kid isn’t ready for solids yet, you’re not losing some sort of parenting war.  The kid just isn’t ready for solids yet.  By kindergarten that tongue thrust reflex will go away (actually, by age 1… if it’s later than that consult your pedi).

Culture is different depending on where you live

A lot of parents, especially on the internet, seem to want to make parenting harder for themselves.  Around here that means forcing your kid to a schedule even if the schedule doesn’t really work for your individual kid.  In other parts of the country, that can mean checking off some list that your Non-Violent Parenting instructor gave you at your weekly 8 hour Saturday class.

Extremes about what to do seem to ignore individual differences, and these individual differences can result in a lot more screaming and crying, and who wants to spend precious childcare time with that?  Once you’re confident that laziness is ok and evolution can mostly be trusted, then feel free to follow your own path.  Just try not to get into any heated arguments with other moms, or their mother-in-laws.

Kids are pretty resilient

Even kids whose parents brought them up with one extreme or the other will probably be fine by the time they hit college.  Obviously kids who are abused need help, but the majority of parenting philosophies don’t call for true abuse.  Time-outs will not cause kids to become convicts later in life, even if some philosophies call them violent.  Even if a kid is a holy terror as a toddler because hir parent is learning how to not discipline at child-centered parenting classes, once ze gets to school ze will straighten out.

More to the point, anything I do (within the reasonable universe of things I do) will probably not scar DC for life.  Ze will learn just as much from my “mistakes” as from my perfections.  When I snap at DC, ze learns that sometimes behavior is inappropriate or ill-timed and even when people snap, that doesn’t mean they love any less.  I try not to, and I generally apologize after (another good lesson by example), but when it happens I don’t beat myself up about it.  That’s as much a learning lesson as our (more mature) frank explanatory talks about appropriate behavior.

So… bottom line:  If something works, why change it?  If something isn’t working, why keep doing it?  Parenting should be fun.  Everything is a learning experience.  There’s no place for guilt in parenting.

When do you need targeted saving?

Targeted savings is when you have separate accounts (or separate mental accounts) for each of your savings goals.  For example, you may have separate accounts for annual expenses and emergency funds.  You could have separate accounts within that for your car fund, house fund, insurance fund, etc., and these can either be annual expenses or targeted emergency funds depending on the nature of the savings.

Some people get a lot of use out of targeted savings, with it helping them with their budgeting and their goals.  We don’t do it, and neither do many folks who are doing just fine but no longer formally budget (according to a fantastic Liz Pulliam Weston article, “When to ditch your budget” that no longer appears to be available from MSN Money).

When you don’t have very much money, you can probably only afford one emergency fund ($500/$1K, etc.).   You’re more likely to have to do the monthly billing for large purchases even though it’s more expensive, or you are more likely to have to rely on debt (credit card balances or late payment fees) rather than your emergency fund when you make a mistake.

When you have a high income and relatively low fixed expenditures you only need one emergency/slush fund because your income next month will refill emergency funds with very little sacrifice.  You’re never in danger of not being able to pay off the balance of your credit card.  (Obviously even high income people can over-extend themselves with fixed expenses, but they don’t really do so well with the saving idea whether targeted or not.)

For the folks in the middle, the mental accounts must help a lot with planning.  They have enough money that they get to make choices (unlike lower income folks) and the targeted savings account help to prioritize those choices in advance (unlike prioritizing on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis as the higher income might do).

For the most part, we’re in the one large slush fund category.  But, when deciding how much we need in savings each summer (since we’re on 9 month salaries), even though it’s one account I have to mentally tag it: 3 months regular spending + 1 month “emergency” + school tuition for next year (because there’s a discount if we pay upfront, but we don’t get paid until October). So I guess that even though most of the year our income is high enough not to need those separate tags, when regular income isn’t coming in, we do.

Do you have targeted savings accounts?  Has your use of targeted savings accounts changed over time and over life circumstances?

Link Love

We’re kind of snowed under this week.  I, in fact, would like to cry when I think about next week.  *Sob*

Get a life phd talks about how she published 3 books in one year.

donna freedman has been busy

Femomhist has a whole bunch of links about how to do it all in her blog carnival.

Check out this online book club for Your Money or Your Life from minhus (inspired by oilandgarlic).

Stole this awesome link about 6 things rich people need to stop saying (by cracked) from wandering scientist’s link love.

We were an editor’s pick in this week’s carnival of personal finance!

Note to people who use blogspot:  If you only allow Google Account and OpenID, we cannot comment on your blog.  It’s nothing personal, blogspot just won’t let us comment with our wordpress login anymore like it used to, even in IE (for a while we could do it in IE and not firefox).  If you want more comments from us, we need the Name/URL option.

Ask the grumpies: Retirement planning

Bogart asks:

how much do you need to retire? I’m not interested in dollar amounts (well, not mostly), more in % of current income or some other generalizeable formulaic approach.

Quick and dirty answer:  If you’re young, at least 10% of your income.  If you’re older and haven’t been saving much, then more like 20% of your income (unless you’re really close to retirement… in which case you should be saving as much as possible to avoid eating catfood!).  If your company gives you a 100% match, you should contribute up to that match because in general even if you take the penalty for taking that money out early you will still be ahead.  (And of course you shouldn’t be taking the money out early.)

Of course, that’s just the quick and dirty answer.  In truth, there are a lot of retirement calculators out there on the internet that will help you get a better answer.  Personally I like the ones that give you a range of scenarios… the ones that say, “You have a 70% chance of outliving your income under this scenario” rather than the ones that say “You will need $2.5 million dollars saved.”

All of these calculators are wrong in some way.  They all ask for different inputs and all have different assumptions.  In reality, the future is uncertain.  Things will change.  Our salaries and health will increase or decrease with whatever life throws at us.  Tax rates will increase, laws will change, public programs will become less generous… It’s hard to know how much money we will really need.  (And often we will make do with what we have, so long it’s above a subsistence minimum.)

So if I were to give general advice, I’d say to play around with those retirement calculators.  Put in money up to your employer match, and more if you can.  Max out your IRAs if you can.  Save at least 20% of your income in retirement accounts if you make a middle-class salary.  Max out your tax-deferred savings if you’re a member of the 5% (or 1%), even if that is more than 20%– that will give you more freedom later if your options change.  If you’re poor, government contributions replace more of your income, so feeding your kids a healthy diet today may be more important than being able to eat fancier food in retirement… in that scenario you would want to do your best to hit the employer match if you are lucky enough to have one.

Who has better advice for Bogart?