Chris Worfolk's Blog


March 29th, 2015

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is a 2008 book by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. It looks at choice architecture (that is to say how you present people with choices) and advocates libertarian paternalism in public policy, and beyond.

Libertarian paternalism is the idea that we should let people do what they want, but nudge them in the right direction. The current phasing in of enrolment in private pension schemes is a great example of this. People can opt-out if they wish, but if they no nothing, then a sensible default course is chosen for them, in this case to have a pension.

Another good example of this is organ donation. Should you have an opt-in or opt-out system? Both are libertarian by nature in that they let people choose what they want to do. However, most people do not bother to choose, regardless of whether the default is to donate their organs or not. I’ve blogged about this before.

It begins with a revision lesson on Thinking, Fast and Slow. Anchoring is a real problem for example. You will tend to fill your plate at dinner time, so if you want to eat less and lose weight – use smaller plates.

The book notes that people are human, rather than “econs”. Econs being a term of perfectly rational beings. So there is often a struggle between the planner and the doer in you. Your planner will set the alarm for 7am, but when it comes down to it, you just hit the snooze button.

For this reason, Elina now has an app on her phone that donates to charity every time she hits snooze. As it happens she never hits snooze anyway, but if she did, studies have shown that this small financial incentive would be likely to have a powerful effect.

Once you accept people are not econs, things make a lot more sense. I love credit cards. There are loads of advantages to them. However, I pay the full balance of every month. If you know you do not have enough self control to do that, seemingly irrational actions like avoiding having one suddenly makes a lot more sense.

There is also the problem that the free market does not always function correctly. It works well for soft drinks. We all drink them regularly, so can tell what is a good product, easily compare them, and choose the best ones. But how about mortgage advisors? We may not see the effects for decades, and we only buy one or two throughout our lifetime so the opportunity for learning is not there. The same is true for healthcare decisions. Also, as we are not expects, that adds an extra layer of difficulty to making sensible decisions.

Because we are human, and have these struggles, the book suggests we should nudge people into doing the most sensible thing, while ultimately giving them the choice to change it if they so wish. Hence an opt-out system for organ donation. By default, people will donate the organs, and the overwhelming majority will leave it at this, while still allowing people to change this if they want to be a completely morally bankrupt dick.

Some of the nudges you can use are incredibly trivial and effective. One of the most amusing being that if you put a fake fly in a urinal, men will aim at it. In fact, they aim so well that it reduces inaccuracy by around 80%.

There are some related topics the book touches on. Stimulus response compatibility for example. People expect things to be certain way. For example, if you put a handle on a push door, people will pull it. Even if you write pull on it. You could argue it is still there fault, but the human brain is geared up to pull things with handles. Just design a better door.

There are a number of social factors that influence people’s actions too. Priming for example. If you ask people what to do before they do it, they are more likely to actually do it. Though as Matt Cutts notes, if you go out and tell people your goals, that actually makes you less likely to complete them.

People often tend to follow others too – if you tell people the percentage of people that are compliant with their tax returns (which is very high), people are more likely to be honest. This fits with what Michael Shermer argues in that people will only follow society’s rules if they see everyone else is following them too.

Company stock options for employees. These are a terrible idea. I invest in the stock market, but I try to diversify my risk as much as possible. Not only do I use index funds that invest in a broad range of companies, but I invest in a diverse range of these – UK, North America, Europe and the developing world. Yet with company stock options, you don’t just have all your savings in one market – you have them in one company! That is super risky, and if the company goes bust, you lose both your savings and your job. Of course many companies offer incentives to invest, but according to the book, these are only worth 50% of their share price when evaluated – so the incentive better be good or you would be better investing it in the wider stock market.

Thinking, Fast and Slow convinced me that taking our extended warranties and phone insurance was never worth it. I never did anyway, but I always wondered whether I should. Nudge points out this applies to a whole host of other things too: insurance when posting items, a smaller excess on your car insurance or damage waiver on your rental car. They offer these policies because they make money, so if you can stomach the short term loses, avoiding them brings long term gains.

The book concludes with some ideas for society to consider. One is the privatisation of marriage. They argue that the state could get out of the marriage business and leave it to churches, humanists, etc or even your local diving club to do marriages. They could then be as discriminatory or weird as they wanted. However, they would confer no recognition or benefits from the state. Similarly, the state could recognise civil unions, which were independent of marriage, but allow the state to recognise your relationship.

They also address concerns about the misuse of nudging. Of course this already happens – the supermarkets do not select which products are at eye level at random. However, the book suggests that a good guideline would be that all nudges should be made public. Auto-enrolment in pensions for example is no secret, and has an opt-out, so it is difficult to argue it is anything but beneficial. Employing such a strategy means that the least well informed people in society are protected while offering the most well informed as much choice as they would like.


NUS stabs trans women in the back

March 28th, 2015

Obviously I have titled this blog post with a sensational headline. However, the irony of the NUS’s policies hurting their own members should not be lost on you.

As many of you will know, the National Union of Students (NUS) hates freedom of expression. I wish I was joking. However, student politics are so badly calibrated that Spiked now maintain an index on free speech at universities. Meanwhile, in the real world, over a million people sign a petition to prop up a man who is genuinely acts like a racist and a bigot. Is this the right way round?

Even by their own standards however, the NUS has taken some new giant leaps in curtailing freedom of expression.

According to the New Statesman the NUS recently voted to extend their no platform policy:

the NUS Women’s’ Officers and members of the NUS Women’s committee shall not offer a platform to any transphobic speaker, biphobic or Islamophobic speaker

What Islam has to do with women’s issues I’m not sure. But apparently it is in their remit to ban Maryam Namazie, women’s rights activist, who was recently forced to cancel a talk at Trinity College because of additional restricts placed on her and only her.

Not only does this suppress genuine criticism of Islam (Namazie was raised as as Muslim), but is then entirely overlooked when an Islamic speaker is invited onto campus as they are often homophobic. The simultaneous toleration of Islamic hate speech and suppression of criticism of this is mind boggling.

But it goes on. They also passed the following resolution:

  1. To issue a statement condemning the user of ‘cross-dressing’ as a mode of fancy dress.
  2. To amend the NUS Zero Tolerance Statement policy to cover all NUS events and conferences; and to encourage Unions to ban clubs and societies from holding events which permit or encourage (cisgender) members to use ‘cross-dressing’ as a mode of fancy dress

Lets pretend for a moment that this doesn’t limit people’s freedom (it does) for a completely non-malicious act and that it doesn’t do it in a discriminatory way (it does) by targeting a specific group, in this case cisgender.

What about the affect on trans people?

Realising your transgender and transitioning to your correct gender is an incredibly awkward, long and emotionally-draining experience. Imagine if you are a fresh-faced 18 year old trans woman arriving at university, still living as a man, starting to grapple with these issues.

Where do you start? In my, albeit anecdotal experience, you probably start by cross dressing at nights out. Why? Because that is the most acceptable place to start in terms of being judged by the rest of society. It’s the safest way to start. And still, I imagine it takes a huge amount of courage.

Events, such as Wendy House for example, provide a sheltered way for people to begin experimenting with gender, and perhaps take that first step towards becoming the gender they want to transition to. If we ban that, we put in yet another barrier into the lives of trans people.

If people cannot experiment with gender under the light of a disco ball, where can they? At home, in private, hidden away from society as if it is something to be ashamed about? Is that the society we want?

Solar eclipse review

March 27th, 2015

Massively disappointing.

I sat in Leeds city centre to watch it and it was so cloudy that you could look at it with the naked eye (I did try with the glasses but you could not see anything through them). If you didn’t know that the eclipse was taking place, you could have easily not noticed it was happening.

I could have taken my friends up on their kind invitation to visit them in the Faroe Islands, but there too it was cloudy. The only place you could see it without cloud cover was Svalbard, which as you will no doubt know, is a fictional place made up by Philip Pullman for his His Dark Materials trilogy.

Still, at least the wonders of modern technology allowed me to watch it live on my tablet.

I have actually witnessed a total solar eclipse before as we were in Northern France for the 1999 one, which was pretty magical. Standing on the beach as the entire sky went dark. Not quite the same set by a train track in Leeds city centre watching the sky go almost imperceptibly dimmer…

Great Expectations

March 26th, 2015

Great Expectations is one of Charles Dickens’ longest novels and tells the story of Pip as he grows up and becomes a man. It is narrated in the first person and has a good balance of happy endings, and death.

It’s only the second Dickens novel I have read. However, I have seen a lot of the films, especially ones with Muppets in, and as any literary buff knows, that is just as good as reading the book. Thus my only comparison is A Tale of Two Cities. I found this one more engaging as a novel overall; it held my interest better. However, some of the most memorable section of Two Cities outshines Great Expectations for its gritty realism and vivid descriptions.


Income inequality around the world

March 25th, 2015

Michael Shermer recently tweeted a link about income inequality in different countries. One of the most interesting graphs can be seen here.

This shows the share of income that the top 1% have. In the UK this peaked (technically it troughed) in 1977 when the level reached 6%, the lowest on record. This suggests we had the lowest levels of income inequality at this time.

From here on it goes up. The data only goes as far as 1988, but other sources shows that it has continued to increase.

Notably, 1977 is two years before Margaret Thatcher came to power. “Ah ha!” I hear you yell, “I know it all along”. To some extend, it probably is Thatcher’s fault, as the UK income equality gap has grown more than most. However, it is unfair to lay all the blame at her door (or grave) because this has been a global trend. Almost all countries in the developed world peaked in the late 70s and have since become less equal.

Country 70’s low 2010
United States 8% 15%
Canada 8% 12%
Australia 5% 9%
France 7% 8%
Italy 6% 9%
Sweden 4% 7%
Finland 3% 7%

According to an article on the BBC, the UK has reached 16% by 2005. This means that despite a decade under Labour, the income equality in the UK did not stop growing after Thatcher was gone.

Ultimately, what this tells us is that we should definitely vote Loony.

Beyond River Cottage

March 24th, 2015

Five years on from starting River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall up-scales, buying himself a much larger farm and a second one that he converts into the River Cottage HQ – a field kitchen, cookery school and vegetable garden all rolled into one.

It’s an irritatingly cool thing to do. Starting up a business or project is always an exciting thing to do, let alone the opportunity to be unjustifiably pretentious about food.

It’s also nice to see a human side to Hugh. In the first set of River Cottage series, he tends to succeed at everything. Turning up to livestock and vegetable shows and winning prizes with no experience. There is still plenty of that, but he also struggles from time to time. He burns his toffee and gets caught out in the judging. He runs out of oven space to cook all his chickens, and Gill has to save the day.

His ten bird roast was also very impressive. Goose, farm duck, mallard, chicken, pheasant, guinea fowl, partridge, pigeon and woodcock, all stuffed inside a turkey.

Beyond River Cottage

The Man Who Followed His Dreams

March 23rd, 2015

Someone to watch while you’re sat on your own, in a lonely apartment, because you abandoned your friends for a bit more cash at work… ;).

Billion Dollar Chicken Shop

March 22nd, 2015

Given the amount of discussion regarding BBC’s new documentary about KFC, I felt I had to give the first episode a watch. Having worked in the industry for years, nothing on the documentary surprised me.

Obviously, there was good and bad. There is a culture of recognition and many of the senior people were talking about how they had been there 20 years and started as a crew member. As for the chicken itself, are you comfortable that your friend chicken was grown in a shed for 35-42 days and then put into a gas chamber? It turns out, that I am.

Here are some of the best quotes…

The thing is, it’s chicken, so it’s healthy

Scientifically proven.

I don’t any meat on the bone. It sort of puts me off because it’s like that was the animal.

There is nothing I can add to this.

Unless you’re really clever, then you’ll end up in Pizza Hut

That’s my highest aspiration too.

Who will buy a house that is opposite a KFC?

I’m sure she meant to say who wouldn’t.

Potatoes Not Prozac

March 21st, 2015

Someone recommended the book Potatoes Not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons saying that it had really helped them. It describes itself as a food programme to help with depression, though what it actually turns out to be about is a guide for people who are “sugar sensitive”.

Sugar sensitivity is something that Dr MesMaisons has made up. Or discovered if you were being generous. There is nothing on Wikipedia about it. There is a stub article about sugar addiction, a topic still under research before we have any real understanding of it. However the book justifies its existence using the following phrase.

“a solution too important to wait for the approval of scientific authorities”

From there it turns to a classic self-help book that is big on claims and small on scientific references. The text is regularly interlaced with quotes from people telling the reader how good the programme is and how it has changed their lives. As long as you follow the programme to the letter of course.

It’s the classic heartwarming story – an underdog doctor without the backing of the scientific community dares to go it alone because she has seen it work for hundreds of people. She has developed a simple programme that offers quick results without pharmaceutical. It’s all our dreams come true. In fact, it’s so simple that 9 of the 256 pages can be devoted to a copy and paste of an internet chat in which people on the programme describe how they felt before and after it.

Helpfully there are also lots of references to the Radiant Recovery programme that MesMaisons runs, including which of the products you might want to buy. But who am I to say that George’s Shake® isn’t as delicious as claimed? Maybe it is. With sugar sensitivity being linked to alcoholism, there are also some references to Alcoholics Anonymous. Another programme that can boast of having no evidence of efficacy.

The programme starts by encouraging you to eat breakfast and have some protein in it. One of the example meals is a sausage. Of course eating processed meat every day will literally take years off your life (the scientific authorities have had time to approve that), but if it improves your quality of life, that is a trade off you might feel is worth making.

There is probably some good stuff in here. Eating sensible meals three times a day in some kind of routine is going to provide your life some structure and normality. The rest remains an unknown though. Perhaps it will eventually be scientifically proven. However, as it is I cannot see the evidence nor it is packaged in a way that I can describe any other way than yet another cultish self-help book.

Potatoes not prozac

Memoirs of a Geisha

March 20th, 2015

I read Memoirs of a Geisha as a kind of back-up career plan, in case things go sour with the whole programming thing.

I identified strongly with Chiyo. Sure, she lived on the otherwise of the world, came from a small fishing village, worked as a geisha, lived through World War II and spent her life dreaming of a certain man, and I didn’t do any of those things. However, on a deeper level, we’ve both faced the universal struggle of keeping our hair in place.

I had a vague idea of what a geisha was, but it was interesting to get more of an insight into their lives, even if it was a fictional story. I was also a little surprised how recent such practices as selling off your daughter were still used.

Importantly, it had a happy ending, which are the best endings.