Archive for August, 2015

Crome Yellow

Sunday, August 16th, 2015 | Books

I was never really sure whether to call myself an Aldous Huxley fan. Brave New World is one of my favourite books but does one book make you a fan?

To find out, I went back to his first novel, Crome Yellow. The plot is about a group of artists and interlectuals that seem to live out a life as pointless as a Jane Austen character brought forward into the twentieth century.

I didn’t find it that interesting to be honest.

Crome-Yellow

The Yorkshire Shepherdess

Saturday, August 15th, 2015 | Books

Amanda Owen is a hill farmer in Swaledale, at the top of the Yorkshire Dales. Typically, I saw an advertisement for her book signing at Waterstone’s two days after the event took place. I had never heard of her, or her book, but it sounded like a good read.

Turns out that it can be pretty hard work up there. Especially when you’re on the hill tops in a slightly Wuthering Heights-esc setting, albeit in the Dales rather than the Moors.

Impassable roads, being occasionally cut-off, power cuts and bats invading my house are probably near the top of my list for things I wouldn’t enjoy too much. Free range children has it’s appeal though. Letting them run around as they wish; getting stuck into farm life.

Though no doubt still a handful when you have seven! She never had long labours, but by the end it was pretty much a slip-and-slide. She would feel “a bit off” a few hours before, no contractions, then when it came time they would slide out in a few minutes. If only all labour was like that.

The book is essentially a biography of how she got from Huddersfield to Ravenseat, with plenty of details of farm life along the way. It’s a cool story.

I felt the tag line of the book was rather misleading however.

How I left city life behind to raise a family – and a flock

She grew up in Huddersfield, which is a town rather than a city, and she was hardly a city-dweller that wanted to try country life. From an early age she wanted to work with animals and was soon doing freelance farming. Escape to River Cottage this is not.

I did enjoy reading it quite a lot though.

The family are also featured on the documentary series The Dales which I started watching a bit of after the book.

The-Yorkshire-Shpherdess

Who Gets What And Why

Friday, August 14th, 2015 | Books

Who Gets What – And Why: The Hidden World of Matchmaking and Market Design is a book by Nobel laureate Alvin E. Roth on market design.

He begins by pointing out that not all markets are money driven. Community markets commonly are. Food for example will typically rise and fall in price depending on supply and demand. It’s relatively simple. Many markets are matching markets however. These involve much more complicated transactions.

Take the job market for example. This is not simply supply and demand. You have to both want to go work for a company, and the company has got to want you. I cannot simply turn up at Google’s offices and announce I am starting work. Nor can they demand I come work for them. We have to be matched by agreement. This is common – university applications and martial partners are good examples. These are major issues in our lives.

He then states that a free market is one that works well because of strict rules. The free market is not one where people can do whatever they want but one were the players find a safe environment in which to transact.

This is often not the case in matching markets. Take school applications for example. When I was a kid we lived next to an okay school. However, I wanted to go a better school down the road. The risk was that if I put the good school as first preference and the close school as second preference, I would fail to get into the top school because they had other priority students and fail to get into the okay school because it was over-subscribed from people who had put it as their first preference.

Typically people will instead put the okay school as their first preference to play it safe. This is bad market design because it does not allow participants to express their true preference and often not to get what they actually wanted.

Can you fix this by implementing a market that allows people to express their true preference without the risk? It turns out you can!

Roth describes a multi-round matching algorithm that makes this possible. Here is how it could work for a school system:

  • Parents list their true preferences for the schools they want
  • Round one starts and each school makes offers based on the students that each school wants (typically based on proximity, or perhaps test results)
  • Each student tentatively accepts the the best offer according to their preference
  • In round two, the school makes new offers based on the places freed up from rejected offers in the previous round
  • Students can then switch their offers if they get a better one, or hold on to their existing offer
  • Rounds repeat until there is a stable match for as many people as possible

I am unlikely to have done the algorithm justice. I’m not a Nobel laureate – buy the book if you want to understand it. However, the outcome is that people can list their true preferences without the risk of losing out and everyone gets the best match possible.

Let us take continue with my school problem. I list the good school first and the okay school second. Under a traditional system I could miss out on both. Under this system, it does not matter that I listed my true preferences because the okay school would make me an offer in round one, which even if I didn’t get an offer from the good school, I could still accept. In addition it works better for the schools because the multi-round system means they get the students they most desire who also want to go attend them. Everyone comes out on top so it is in both parties interest to take part.

He also discusses unravelling. This is where a market moves further and further forward. Graduate recruitment is a good example of this. If you wait until people have finished their degree to make a job offer, they have often taken another offer. So you begin making offers earlier, and then everyone does it earlier, so you move even earlier. In the end you are making offers after their first year, without any guarantee they are going to get a good degree at the end!

The university American football bowls were a good example of this. They would often make deals with teams before the year had finished. These teams would then go on to lose a few games and thus the bowls would end up with mediocre teams in the “play-offs”. Exposing limits typically does not work. That is to say “nobody makes offers until this date” participants typically ignore it or make informal deals.

A better solution is to redesign the market so that it is not in their advantage to go early and begin the process of unravelling. In the case of the bowl series, the five major bowls combined to rotate who gets the biggest championship game each year. Getting the top teams and thus far higher viewing figures makes it well worth them only getting it one in five times.

Controls on markets rarely work as well as a well designed market. Take prohibition in the US for example. It didn’t stop people drinking, it just created a black market. Organised crime got involved. This is a big problem because when prohibition ended, the criminals didn’t stop being criminals, they just did something else.

This might be a good lesson for the war on drugs. Not only it is obviously failing to control drug use and supporting organised criminal activity, but even if we decriminalised drugs, which the evidence shows is clearly a good thing, we would also have the legacy of organised crime to mop up.

A better market is also a thicker market. One where there are plenty of buyers and sellers that can be matched. There are a number of ways to do this.

Commoditisation is one. Take coffee for example. If everyone sells individual coffee you need to build up a relationship with each coffee grower to ensure their quality is high. But if you implement national standards and grading, people can buy a specific grade coffee without this information. You can even have a futures market.

Money can be a useful tool for easing congestion in a crowded market. Ticket reselling sites are a good example of this. The ticket market is broken. Gig tickets are typically sold all at one price, even though some people want to attend an event so much that they would be willing to pay a premium. Ideally this would be done at the original point-of-sale, but it isn’t, so the ticket resale market has sprung up to fix this.

Speed is also important. eBay is a good example of this. They have transitioned from an auction format which takes time and there is no guarantee you will win. Now, most transactions are Buy It Now, matching buyers and sellers instantly. Their feedback system is also an example of an evolving market. Initially people would always leave positive feedback for sellers, because otherwise the seller would retaliate. Now, only buyers can leave feedback, so they are free to be honest about bad experiences.

Filtering can also be an issue in over-crowded markets. If you are an attractive woman in online dating, you may receive more messages than you can respond to. Or for popular jobs, a company will receive more applicants than it can sort through. Roth suggests that one way in which a degree can be valuable is almost like a peacock’s tail. If you can show you can deliver on a three year project, it doesn’t matter that it might not be relevant to the job you apply for.

In summary, many markets are not just simple money-driven commodity markets. matching markets are complex and often do not work well or safely. This is a major problem because matching markets affect huge areas of our lives – education, jobs and love! Therefore it is important that we design these markets in such a way as to make them work as well as possible for all participants. Importantly, it is possible to do this with good market design.

who-gets-what-and-why

The Dales

Thursday, August 13th, 2015 | Distractions

The Dales is a documentary, but I use that term loosely, as it was created by ITV.

It opens with rolling shots and dramatic music. Adrian Edmondson announces he is going to tell us all about this unforgiving place. “Remote communities, isolated farms.” Really? Yorkshire? I’m sure it can be hard, but I’m not convinced it is Lapland, or even the Isle of Lewis.

Despite what Google Maps might suggest:

swaledale

There is no doubt it is a beautiful part of the world though.

It follows a number of people around including a community-owned pub, a 16-year-old boy who has just quit school to work on his family farm full time, a village brass band and even the local vicar. She doesn’t take herself too seriously:

“The end of the day is feet up with a bottle of beer and a bag of crips”

Probably for the best. She had 8 people at a service, which is a good day apparently, and with no music to sing to all the hymns are a cappella.

Overall it is very light hearted. There is no serious revelations of dramatic problems, just a fun look at some of the interesting people that live in The Dales intercut with shots of Adrian Edmondson looking at beautiful scenery as if he is Brian Cox.

Conveniently, it is available on iTunes for about £8.

Snow Crash

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 | Books

Snow Crash is a science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson. The description announced Stephenson had “burst onto the scene” or something similar, which immediately put me off because who uses language like that. However, he does have a cool beard, so I decided to push on anyway.

It tells the story of the central character, aptly named Hiro Protagonist, who works as a pizza deliverer for the Mafia. As you do.

All set in a world where the government has crumbled and everything has been privatised. The police, the libraries, the roads, the whole lot. It’s Gabrielė’s liberation paradise come true.

Indeed it’s very similar to Jennifer Government, though pre-dates it by 11 years.

The plot is interesting enough. It explores themes of viruses, memes, religion, virtual reality and linguistics, on top of the political backdrop. Some of it felt a little like a formulaic essay of explanations, which I tuned out a little, but fore the most part it presented engaging ideas.

Snow Crash

Calico Jack, Skipton

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015 | Food

After our final tournament day of the season, we (Leeds Samurai) stopped off in Skipton to visit the pirate-themed restaurant Calico Jack.

It was okay. I go the steak and ribs combo. The steak was over-cooked. I asked for it medium and you might be able to argue that it was medium-well if you were being generous, but I would not have argued if you had called it well done. The ribs were reasonably tender, but not a patch on Cattle Grid of TGI. Similarly I thought the coleslaw and potato wedges were just very average.

It’s a cool place to go, and everyone seemed to be happy with their meal. I feel there is definitely room for improvement food-wise though.

Finnegans Wake

Monday, August 10th, 2015 | Books

If you’ve read Ulysses you will know that it is full of Irish vernacular, fusions of literary styles and and a fog of general confusion that makes it very difficult to follow what is going on.

Or so I thought, until I read Finnegans Wake. It turns out that Ulysses was really more of a warm up for James Joyce. I now yearn for the comparatively clear plot of Ulysses in which, for some stretches, I could follow what was going on, without the aid of Wikipedia.

I have now finished reading Finnegans Wake and I have literally no idea what happened in it. The language seems even more esoteric, the plot even more muddled. I think there was some stuff about a butcher, who used to be a baker, but is now just a butcher, and sells liver as a special. Also one of the characters was called Anna Livia. The rest is a blur.

Even Wikipedia does not know what it is about. I went to see if I could follow by reading the plot description alongside the book and here is what the article said:

Despite the obstacles, readers and commentators have reached a broad consensus about the book’s central cast of characters and, to a lesser degree, its plot. However, a number of key details remain elusive.

Thanks for that. I don’t recommend reading it. You will probably be able to make more sense of it than I did, but maybe not that much.

Finnegans-Wake

Humanist summer social

Sunday, August 9th, 2015 | Events, Humanism

humanist-picnic

For this year’s Humanist summer social we held a picnic at Kirkstall Abbey. We got lucky with the weather, enjoying a wonderful sunny day.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Sunday, August 9th, 2015 | Books

Jon Ronson sets off on a quest around the world to talk to the victims of public shaming. People like Justine Sacco who got fired from her job after the media storm following her tweet:

Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m White!

Insensitive perhaps, but it does make a good point about the imbalance of medical funding for diseases that affect the rich predominantly-white West, compared with 3rd world medical issues. Rotavirus is the classic example.

Or Lindsay Stone pretending to shout next to a “silence and respect” sign at a military cemetery. Because how dare someone criticise the militaristic culture of the United States. Those sort of people should be invaded.

Anyway, this isn’t a rant about Twitter media storms. Ronson goes in search of people who have been shamed and discusses the long history of shaming. It used to be used regularly as a punishment, think of the stocks, but was was phased out in the nineteenth century. Now, it’s back, and in a big way.

Some of them are well deserved. Jan Moir for example, Ronson quotes as a great example of public shaming to good effect. Often in today’s society however it is a hapless individual making a comment to their few hundred Facebook friends that turns into an international nightmare.

He speaks to Ted Poe, a radical judge in America that hands out shaming as punishment. He claims it radically lowers re-offending rates. Ronson doesn’t say whether that is the case or not, but it would be interesting to know.

He also explores the world of kinky sex. He goes to Public Disgrace and meets Princess Donna from Kink.com. He interviews Max Mosley, Formula One big wig caught in a sex scandal, and tries to understand how we got away with his reputation intact. Perhaps because he refused to be shamed? Or perhaps because that is culturally accepted behaviour for a man.

Ultimately Ronson concludes that public shaming might not be the way forward. It gives power back to the people. They can do something. However, all too often the victim is a hapless individual rather than a legitimate target.

so-youve-been-publicly-shamed

Galápagos

Saturday, August 8th, 2015 | Books

Galápagos is a Kurt Vonnegut novel and there are some mild spoilers below.

Told from a million years in the future, it is narrated by a ghost who was watched humanity evolve from the big brained creatures we are today into a species similar to seals that spend all day in the sun, eating and mating.

Elina promised me she could tell me all this because you get it all at the start of the novel. However, you don’t. You only find out he is a ghost half way through. Maybe I could have worked it out, but it’s hard to say given I already knew that was the case.

I’m coming to the conclusion that I am not a fan of Vonnegut’s work. As with Slaughterhouse Five, nothing is ever particularly clear, he just slowly drip feeds you information throughout the story. Good concept, and an interesting story, but I found reading it quite hard work.

Galapagos