Archive for July, 2016

SuperFreakonomics

Sunday, July 31st, 2016 | Books

SuperFreakonomics is a non-fiction book published in 2009. It is written by Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt as a follow-up to their 2005 book Freakonomics.

I had this book vaguely on the back-burner of things I wanted to read. However, while holidaying in Wales I found, to my surprise, a copy lying around in the cottage we had rented. So I sat down and had a read.

It is a short book, weighing in at just over 200 pages plus an extensive notes section. It is also a fun book. I read through it in about 24 hours. While enjoyable, I find it less enlightening or informing than their first book. I enjoy their writing style. There is a short rant about how people say things were better in the old days, even though on almost every metric things are better today. I often have this exact same rant.

The most interesting statistic they produce is arguably in the introduction. They discuss the risk of fatal accidents while driving drunk. It turns out that you are actually more likely to die if you walk home than if you drive. Walking home is dangerous: you might wander out into the road for example, or, if you’re in Leeds, into the river (sadly people frequently have).

It makes sense that drunk driving is illegal, because you are more likely to take an innocent victim with you, but actually it would be safer to let people drive home. Or, if you are the drunk trying to work out what method of transport to take, the best option would be to take a cab.

While the book is on the subject of vice, it next moves onto prostitution. Prostitution pays comparably well compared to many other professions, but used to be far better paid. The problem: increased competition. These days, pre-martial sex is acceptable, and so you don’t need to pay a woman to have sex with you, you can just go dating instead.

They suggest this has implications for fighting drugs. If you go after the dealers, more will pop up, because the demand exists. Prostitution reduced because demand reduced, and so perhaps the way to deal with drug dealers is to go after the users and reduce the demand. This ignores the complexities of addiction, but could be a good way to think about many other problems society faces.

They also discuss whether child car seats save lives. I blogged about this last month after watching Steve Levitt’s talk at TED.

While on children, they talk about how increased access to television correlates with criminal convictions later in life. This is something I am also reading about in The Village Effect, a book that stresses the importance of face-to-face communication over raising a child in front of the TV.

The book ends with a discussion on climate change. They note that food transport makes up only 11% of carbon emissions. Therefore, buying locally can actually be bad for the environment because large farms are typically more efficient. Rob Lyons talks about the same thing in Panic on a Plate: local farms might be closer, but in third world farms far more is done by hand, as opposed to carbon-polluting machinery.

I am less convinced about their solution for climate change though. They suggest that a technique called Budyko’s blanket could solve the problem. It would be nice if there was a simple solution that we had overlooked. However, a quick check on Wikipedia seems to rule this one out.

SuperFreakonomics

The Essential First Year

Saturday, July 30th, 2016 | Books

The Essential First Year is a parenting book by Penelope Leach. On the whole. I found it an irritating book.

It is difficult to say how useful the advice is at this stage, not having a baby yet. However, I found much of the tone very patronising. Maybe I will feel like it is obvious that I would want to sacrifice any free time and happiness for my baby. But maybe I won’t, and if I decide I want some kind of balance between caring for my family and looking after myself, that is fine too.

I think this comes from the premise that the book is baby-centric. It is about how to give your child the best possible start, at the cost of sacrificing the parents. This is a complex issue though. For example, the book recommends not letting father’s get involved with feeding.

You may hear that bottle-feeding is better for modern families because the father can share the joy of feeding his baby and the mother can sleep while he does some night feeds. Oh please! Every parent knows that feeding is the baby’s basic need and has to come before father’s joy or even mother’s sleep.

There are two possibilities here. One is that I will feel as I do now: that having a family is a compromise involving the welfare of all parties. That sometimes getting some desperately needed sleep, or bonding with your child, might equally weight in on what is best for the child, beyond the obvious.

The other, is that I accept I could feel differently after the baby is born, and that I will then agree with the sentiment expressed above. Even in this case, Leach’s writing is still amateurish and offensive. Some basic thought on the topic would suggest that people may feel this way for perfectly valid reasons, such as I have stated above, and that there is a far more effective way of winning people to your side than yelling “oh please!”.

Conventions are a bit annoying too. The book mostly uses the pronoun “she” when referring to the baby, but then seemingly randomly switches to “he” instead, and flips back between them. What pronoun to use for a gender-unknown baby is a genuinely difficult question, and perhaps it is asking too much of a book to solve it.

There is a lot of useful stuff in here: reasons for find out the gender for example, and any book that says some moderate alcohol intake is okay, which the evidence says it is, gets some points for that. Understanding what stages babies go through and a rough guide to when they will do what is also very helpful. However, this could probably have been presented in two or three pages of charts rather than a hundred pages of prose.

The production of the book itself is high quality. There are lots of full-page colour photographs to illustrate the stages of a baby’s first year.

Overall, I do not think this book was worth reading. It’s just too irritatingly patronising and long-winded. This is a shame as it does have a good evidence-based grounding. Time will tell as to whether I refer back to it after the baby arrives.

essential-first-year

Does weather affect your mood?

Friday, July 29th, 2016 | Science

Recently an internal poll at Sky asked employees whether the weather affected your mood. Responders overwhelming said that it did.

weather-mood

However, this is people self-reporting in a poll. When you get into the science, the picture is far less clear.

The Huffington Post reported on all kinds of maladies that studies suggest are caused by weather. The list includes changes in empathy, violent crime and mental health problems.

In contrast, a 1998 study by David Shkade and Daniel Kahneman suggested that people’s hapiness was unaffected by weather. Their conclusion was clear: better climate does not make you happier. They conclude…

It is not unlikely that some people might actually move to California in the mistaken belief that this would make them happier. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.

The same BBC article also quotes a 2008 study by Jaap Denissen that concludes…

The idea that pleasant weather increases people’s positive mood in general is not supported by the findings of this study.

These findings cannot be generalised to everyone. Some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder. It comes with the acronym SAD, just like social anxiety disorder does, suggesting that mental health professionals would benefit from improved coordination.

Seasonal affective disorder is a genuine and widely-accepted condition and is one that should not be taken likely: it is a serious mental illness. However, it only accounts for a small amount of the population. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry puts the prevalence at 2.4% of the population.

So are the rest of us just imagining it?

Well, maybe. But a study by Klimstra et al. fought back. They suggested that some personalty types may be affected by weather while others may not be.

Their figures suggest that around half of people are unaffected by weather, while others are affected by summer, and by rain. They conclude…

Overall, the large individual differences in how people’s moods were affected by weather reconciles the discrepancy between the generally held beliefs that weather has a substantive effect on mood and findings from previous research indicating that effects of weather on mood are limited or absent.

So does weather affect your mood? Probably less than you think. But, as ever, more research is needed.

Can restaurants discriminate when hiring staff?

Thursday, July 28th, 2016 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

restaurant-staff

Whenever I dine at one of the many fine Thai restaurants in Leeds I am always struck by the fact that the staff are all Thai people. Why is this? How does a restaurant get away with this? Surely it is discrimination to exclude all other races?

My assumption was that they got round the legislation by insisting on language skills. If you run a Thai restaurant, all you need to do is specify applicants must speak Thai, and without saying anything about race you have filtered almost everyone else out. I’ll come back to this point later.

Economist Steven Levitt suggests that it probably isn’t that much of a problem. There are lots of different restaurants from lots of different cultures, and so the fact that you are less likely to get a job at one restaurant is fine because you are more likely to get a job at another. If anyone loses out it is the majority population (British people in the UK) which you could argue is also less of a problem because many restaurants are not themed and minorities generally need more protection than majorities.

He also suggests that restaurants may not be directly discriminating at all. In the fictional Swedish-themed restaurant he and Stephen Dubner discuss, he says you could advertise for staff in Swedish magazines, and write the job advert in Swedish. In the restaurant Dubner visits to do some interviews, they say they also hire extensively from friends and family of existing staff. Thus the restaurants are not refusing to hire white people, they just don’t apply.

Levitt also notes that customers prefer authentic staff. Which is probably true right. It’s nice to go to a Chinese restaurant and have Chinese people working there. The experience loses something when someone clearly British is serving you. This is silly when you think about it though. This is just your waiter; they’re not the chef. They’re almost like dressing for the restaurant. And even if the chef was Chinese too, that doesn’t mean they are automatically a better Chinese food cook.

Dubner also gives the example of airline hostesses. Back in the day, airlines would specifically hire attractive, unmarried stewardesses, and after they married they were expected to give it up. This proved popular with their business clientele (middle-aged businessmen) but the court ruled against it saying part of fighting discrimination was challenging these ideas of preference. Just because we’re all a little bit wired to prefer authentic staff, doesn’t mean we should promote that as an acceptable social value.

Not to mention these groups are often lumped together: Mexican restaurants are often staffed with Spanish and Portuguese waiters, Indian restaurants are often staffed by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Thai restaurants are often staffed by Vietnamese people.

Language could be a genuine reason. In a Latin restaurant that Dubner interviews, they say the orders are called out in Spanish in the kitchen, so you can make a case for requiring that. However, when speaking to an equality lawyer, they talked about a restaurant chain that was successfully sued because the plaintiff argued language requirements were just being used as a proxy for discrimination.

In summary, the answer is no. Restaurants cannot, and should not, discriminate to get authentic staff. However a combination of indirect discrimination and language requirements may allow restaurants to primarily hire such staff without any direct discrimination.

An economist’s guide to parenting

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016 | Family & Parenting, Thoughts

parenting

In the podcast episode An Economist’s Guide to Parenting Stephen Dubner discusses the ROI of putting time into your parenting. How much should you give?

In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker discusses the nature vs nurture argument. He makes the claim that your child’s life success and personality and predominantly determined by generics (50%), social environment (40%) and parenting (10%). Based on twin studies, you find that twins turn out very similar regardless of environment, whereas a similar environment (adoptions) do not homogenise adopted siblings.

This suggests parenting is not that important. Dubner agrees. There is no evidence that extensive extra-curricular activities or culture cramming provide measurable benefit to your child. If anything, it might do damage as the sacrifices a parent has to make to ferry their child around to all of this nonsense may reduce the quality of the relationship: obsessive parenting makes parents less happy.

This contrasts Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in Outliers in which he argues that a large part of people’s success is a result of the structured activities organised by parents. Though it could be that success is due to the parental time, and Gladwell has simply interpreted this as the structure providing benefit.

Some things do matter, mostly setting an example for your child. For example if you are a smoker or heavy drinker, your child is more likely to adopt these characteristics too. The other example given is how you treat waiters in a restaurant, which presumably really extends to how you treat other people in general.

The other thing that matters, and seems to matter a lot, is love. The time you spend with your child doesn’t have to be “constructive” as long as it constitutes quality time. So picking an activity you both enjoy is the best way to make this work, and you shouldn’t be afraid to change it if it isn’t. Less structure, more love makes for a happier parent and a more successful child.

Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 | Science, Thoughts

language-school

In an episode of Freakonomics Radio I recently listened to, the show discussed whether learning a foreign language was really worth it.

I wrote a post back in May about whether we should teach foreign language in schools. My main point was that it was essentially a failed system: children simply do not learn to speak a foreign language, despite spending hours of school time per week on it. That is a big opportunity cost when they could be doing other subjects.

The show agrees with me. Not only are most people unsuccessful, but it really does not provide that much benefit. If you look at the economic benefit for example, which if it was giving you additional skills or even just increasing your IQ, we would expect to see big gains here. However, a study in America showed that learning Spanish gave you can economic benefit of around 2%. French was a little better at 2.7%, but there are certainly other things you could do and other skills you could learn that would give you a much greater benefit with the same time input.

This is not true of countries where English is not the primary language. If you live in a country where a relatively obscure language is spoken, and then learn English, you’re economic outlook significantly increases: perhaps 20%. Therefore it makes sense for other countries to continue to teach English as an additional language. However, for English-speaking countries to continue to teach other languages makes far less sense.

There was one benefit the show discussed that did pick up my interest though. Thinking in another language seems to make you more rational. For example, if you are offered a coin toss: heads you get £15, tails you lose £10. The rational thing to do is to take this bet. However, many people don’t. It is called loss aversion and Daniel Kahneman talks about it in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

However, if you get people to think about it in a different language, they are more likely to take the bet. Similarly, if you give them a moral dilemma, “do you switch the train tracks to save five people but kill one”, they are more likely to take the utilitarian view in a second language. Dubner suggests this is because we attach a lot of emotion to the worlds in our mother tongue, but do not have this baggage when thinking in a different language.

Why get married?

Monday, July 25th, 2016 | Thoughts

wedding

I have always been a lot uncomfortable with the fact I married.

Am I unhappy with Elina? No. I left the wording that way for comic effect. What I am talking about here is what is the point of actually getting married? We’re not religious, so we could simply cohabit and that would pose no barrier to us having a relationship or starting a family.

So why marry? Here are some suggestions:

It’s a pleasurable thing to do

A lot of these reasons might be post hoc. I tried to put a reason to what I was doing after I had decided to do it. So lets start with one that eliminates all of that: I just wanted to emotionally, because it’s a pleasurable thing to do.

Which it is. It’s a fun day. Planning it is fun too. It’s a ritual, and humans love rituals.

You get to have a party

A wedding is big party that everyone makes the effort to turn up to. You get to see people you haven’t seen in ages, and celebrate with the people you love. Nothing brings people together like a hatch, a match, or a dispatch. In some ways, a wedding is a service we reciprocally provide to our family and friends so they can see each other.

It could add sticking power

How much a marriage causes people to stick together is debatable. They are quite easy to get out of these days. You can divorce. Lots of people do (though interesting, divorce rates have actually been falling for the past 40 years).

However, my hunch is that they do some good. For example, when we campaign for an election, we get people to sign a pledge card to say they will vote. Getting them to do that significantly increases the changes they will vote. Making a commitment in front of your family and friends is likely to create some social pressure.

Also, as Tim Minchin points out in If I Didn’t Have You, relationships are more about building shared experience than love at first sight. Having an experience, such as a wedding, could be a powerful emotional building block in your relationship.

Legally, it makes sense

First, it clears up a lot of inheritance issues. If you are married and your partner dies, you get their stuff. You can write a will and do other legal things without marriage of course. However, just the act of getting married gives you all of this stuff out-of-the-box, which keeps things simple and easy.

Second, because partners have certain rights, it makes it more worth making sacrifices for your partner. You can take choices with your family, educate, career, etc, knowing that you will have some legal recourse if it does all end in divorce.

Social pressure

We are all affected my social pressure to some degree. Perhaps I am less than most: I mostly married because people did not expect me to. One acquaintance, who kept nagging Elina and I to get married doesn’t know we have: I take off my wedding ring and pretend we’re still just boyfriend and girlfriend, just to annoy her.

However, other people may feel a strong social pressure. Maybe their parents or grandparents really want them to get married. Is it irrational to do something you don’t personally care about to please someone you love? I would suggest probably not (especially as such people often pick up the bill).

Visa reasons

I know friends who have married for visa reasons. That does not mean they are not in love. It just means they were happy cohabiting, but then the legal issues got in the way and the only way they could continue their relationship was by getting a piece of paper. That seems a legitimate choice to make in a world that only recognises loving relationships when you sign an official form.

How to have more productive teams

Sunday, July 24th, 2016 | Success & Productivity

team-work

A few years ago Google set about to find out what made their best teams so effective. There were loads out outcomes and I won’t do justice to many of them, but below I have pulled out a few of the ones I found the most important, or most surprising.

Gossip is good

Ever walk into a meeting and find the first ten minutes are just people gossiping and talking about their weekend? It feels incredibly unproductive. And you would be correct in thinking that: in the short term. However, it turns out that bonding time like this is actually good for the team in the long term.

Having time to chat and discuss each other’s personal lives builds better team relationships, which makes the team more effective in the long run.

Psychological safety

This is super important. Julia Rozovsky from Google ranks it has the number one factor in building effective teams. It determines whether people feel they can speak out and suggest ideas without being made to feel like an idiot.

If you can foster this atmosphere then everyone will contribute ideas and you will get more of them. If not, people will not want to speak out, and you will not get the same range of experience or creativity.

Regular one to ones

Effective managers sit down with their colleagues on a regular basis for one to ones. This allows feedback to pass both ways in an environment away from the rest of the team, allowing people to air their concerns and be a bit more honest than they might want to be in a group situation.

Include everyone in meetings

In many meetings, you will find one or two people who sit there for the whole meeting without saying anything. This does not mean that they have nothing to contribute: they almost certainly do. Prompting them to get involved.

How to have more grit

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016 | Success & Productivity

woman-running

One of the most common things people would like to improve about themselves is having more self-control. Sticking power. Or, as Stephen Dubner puts it, “grit”. In a recent episode of his radio show, he interviewed a number of experts to find what the common factors were for people who had good sticking power.

Interest

It sounds obvious, but you really have to have a passion for what you are doing. You can force your child to take piano lessons, but they are only ever going to be a great pianist if they fall in love with the piano. Interest does not have to be immediate, but it does need to develop over time.

Deliberate practice

To learn a skill you need to do plenty of deliberate practice. See my recent post about what makes good practice. The secret: you don’t have to love it, but you do have to love the field. I often feel like piano is pointless because I dislike practising. However, I do enjoy playing piano overall, I just don’t like the hard stuff. That’s okay apparently, even experts don’t love the hard stuff that much.

Have a purpose

This is more than just a goal: it is a reason for doing what you are doing. Ideally, this should be outside of yourself. For example, running would seem like a selfish thing to do. However, if you put a goal on it that involves other people, and wider society, you are more likely to stick at it. After all, there is benefit for others. A healthier, longer-lived you is a good thing for the people who love you, and it may be beneficial to remind yourself of that.

Replace nuance for novelty

I love this phrase. It is easy to get bored of something and move on to the next thing. The experts in a field are often the ones who manage to replicate that sense of novelty in the nuance of what they are doing. If you can find new fun in refining and exploring small sections of your craft, you will go far.

Maximising your veg-based vitamins

Friday, July 22nd, 2016 | Food, Health & Wellbeing

tomatoes

Recently, I wrote about Freakonomics Radio and all the good stuff on there. One was a show entitled “Food + Science = Win” and contained some interesting information on maximising the amount of good stuff you get from vegetables.

Tinned tomatoes are the best tomatoes

Well, almost the best. Tomato paste is even better. But this seems the wrong way round. Usually, fresh is better. Asparagus for example should be eaten as close to harvesting as possible. Other vegetables are less time-sensitive. With the case of tomatoes, the process used to tin them is actually beneficial as it helps build up the lycopene. The Guardian go into detail on it.

Iceberg lettuce is bad lettuce

Especially in the US, where the podcast is based, iceberg lettuce has been bred for flavour rather than nutritional value. As a result, it has lost a lot of the latter. Comparing it to basically any other kind of lettuce, such as romaine, the other lettuce has much more nutritional content than the iceberg lettuce does.

Lightly cooking veg is good

So much for raw food being amazing. Raw food can be good of course, but typically lightly cooking vegetables makes them even better because it actually boosts their nutritional content. The best way to do this? A microwave! It may not do wonders for taste, but it is actually the best way to give vegetables the light steaming they need.

Let your garlic sit

Heating garlic can destroy a lot of the good stuff in it. However, there is some evidence that if you crush it, and then let it sit for ten minutes, more of the benefit will be retained. The jury is awaiting more evidence on this one, but there are some studies that indicate there is a benefit. The Huffington Post have summarised the case.