Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Funerals

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017 | Family & Parenting, Life, Thoughts

I have been meaning to write about funerals for a while. Looking back, I think there has been quite a lot of emotional resistance, so I will probably keep this post brief.

I was only six when both my grandfathers passed away, and not much older when my uncle died. Therefore, when my grandma passed away in August, it was the first funeral I had been to as an adult and the first one where I really knew what was going on.

In a way, I was actually curious to see how I would cope with the whole affair. For years I had known that eventually, someone would die, and had no idea how it would affect me. It turns out that I coped just fine. There was no emotional breakdown, nor much in the way of tears. Nor was it a surprise, though: when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I knew we were on the clock.

Mostly, I felt bitter at the world for my own selfish reasons. Venla, who arrived two months later, would have been her first great-grandchild. I felt I had failed her in some way.

It has been a while since I have been truly nervous before giving a speech. Even my wedding was fine. But delivering the eulogy was a tough one. I always joked at my public speaking club “humour improves any speech: but I have not had a chance to try it out in a eulogy yet”. Well, now I have had that chance, and I can confirm it is a good idea. If anything, humour is even more important at occasions that are bound to include an element of sadness.

The truth is, I already had a few ideas for what I was going to say, should I be called upon to give a eulogy. Because that is what happens when you have an anxious mind that never switches off: you think about all the horrible things that could happen to everyone you love, and what you would do if it happened.

That all sounds very gloomy, and that is not the message I want to convey. Actually, funerals are fun. They are enjoyable, in a macabre way. Not because it is a celebration of life, which it is, but because it is a time when an entirely family comes together.

Over the past year, I have witnessed match and dispatch of the hatch-match-dispatch triangle. These events are important. They bring families together, using social rules and customs that other events have not been able to achieve. You get to see people you do not normally see, and bond over an emotional event, forming stronger ties between those that remain.

Funerals are always going to be bittersweet by nature. But they provide more than closure. More than a celebration of someone’s life. They are part of the social glue that help hold families together.

Happy holidays

Saturday, December 24th, 2016 | Thoughts

Wherever you are this holiday season, I hope you get the chance to take some time out to spend with the people you love.

Are Amazon reviews useful?

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 | Thoughts

I have previously written about why review sites, such as Trip Advisor, are nowhere near as good as books like the Leeds Restaurant Guide. The problem is that the reviews are inconsistent, lack quality and depth, and may be written by someone who works for the restaurant.

It occurs to be that Amazon reviews might be similarly useless.

Recently, I was searching Amazon for some cake tins. There was plenty of options. However, working out which was the correct choice was a tricky business. Some of them had plenty of five-star reviews with short comments such as “amazing cake tin”. But they would also be accompanied by the odd one-star review saying “it leaks”. The same pattern was repeated over and over.

Then other products had no reviews, so you either had to take a chance or exclude these as options.

This results in me having a huge array of options, but no quick way of deciding which was best. I had to spend time looking through the quality of the reviews to try and discern which ones could be trusted and which could not be. I had to weigh up what the required numbers of reviews were before I could assume the star rating could be trusted.

This also places a huge amount of cognitive processing time on my brain. This kind of decision making is frustrating and tiresome.

Amazon reviews certainly can be helpful in validating our purchasing decisions, or, given a sufficient number of them, helping us make the decisions in the first place. However, I think do not believe they are a perfect replacement for reviews from trusted sources and can often cause more problems than they solve.

We need to talk about Smart Decisions

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 | Thoughts

doors

When playing poker, there is a term called a bad beat. This is where you do the right thing, and lose anyway. That is poker, there is always an element of chance to it.

For example, the flop comes down and would you look at that, you have hit an ace-high flush. There is nothing else on the board: you know you are holding the best hand here by far. So you bet big. Your opponent keeps calling you.

The turn arrives. It’s a deuce. That is going to do nothing or them. So you continue to bet, but he calls you again. Finally the river: another deuce. Your opponent must be bluffing you think to yourself as you shove all your chips into the middle of the table. They call you, and turn over a pair of twos. Four of a kind beats your flush, and you go home empty handed.

What did our poker player do incorrectly? Nothing! The odds of something being a) stupid enough to call you when there is a good chance you have a flush and all they have is a pair of twos and b) being lucky enough to hit the exact two cards they need in a row are incredibly small. It is a bad beat because you deserve to win the hand.

So what do you do about it?

Nothing. You keep playing how you are playing. Why? Because statistically you are going to win more than you are going to lose. Poker is a game of chance, so if you can tip the odds in your favour it does not matter that sometimes you will take a bad beat. In the long run, you will come out on top if you keep making the right decisions.

What about when I am not playing poker?

It occurs to me that the same thing happens all the time in real life. Often, we can do the right thing, and still get punished for it. It is a bad beat in life. But the same rules of poker still apply to everyday life as well. If we keep making the correct decision, statistically we are going to come out on top.

You are not always going to win at life each day. However, if you can tip the odds in your favour consistently, you can win at life in the long term.

Give me several examples

Once of the best comes from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. He talks about product warranties. These are profit-making schemes for the companies: they would not offer them if they did not generate money for them.

However, people tend to take them out because they think it is better to insure the risk, or that they will be upset if they have to shell out for a replacement. This may be true, but what is most profitable overall? Sure, if you just have one product warranty, that you turn down, and your electrical item breaks, you are out of pocket.

But each one of us is going to buy hundreds, maybe even thousands, of electrical items over the course of our lives. If we take out extended warranties on all of them, over the long term we are going to be significantly more out of pocket than we would be if we just stumped up to fix a broken product every once in a while.

Example two: automating and passing on a task. If you have a repetitive task that drains your time in short buy annoying chunks you could automate it with a computer, or you could train someone else to do it. Both of these options come with a high setup cost (it takes time to write the computer programme or train the other person) but reduce the amount of time you have to spend on the problem in the long term.

Example three: investing in yourself. How often do you go on training courses that you pay for out of your own pocket? If you are like me, not enough. Yet what if that training course would lead to higher earnings in the long term? Or more time? Or the ability to acquire a much-desired skill? Often this is the case.

How do we apply this to real life?

Winning in the real world requires some luck. However, we can tip that luck in our favour by making sure the decisions we make are Smart Decisions. We will not always win, but by tipping the odds in our favour, we can come out on top on the long term.

How do we do this?

  • Consider the overall implications of your decision, not just the short term
  • Challenge yourself to resist automatically taking the path of least resistance
  • Understand that we have psychological biases to taking the easy route, even though it may not be in our own interest
  • When you take a bad beat, recognise it as a bad beat, and not a bad decision

Follow these principles and I guarantee you will will die a richer, happier, more satisfied person. If not, email me after that time for a full refund.

You’re reading this!

Sunday, September 18th, 2016 | Thoughts

youre-reading-this

Years ago I remember a bus advertisement that read “bus ads work! You’re reading this aren’t you?” The concept recently re-appeared on a billboard on York Road. The question is: do such adverts work?

My guess would be no, because they are so stupid.

Even if you haven’t heard of availability bias, my guess is that most people can work out that those reading it is a self-selecting group. I was reading the billboard but there is no guarantee that anyone else does. In fact, I could have been past a thousand similar billboards and never noticed them, but you would never know if you had. It’s insulting to our intelligence.

Second, I am not sure that anyone who works in marketing is so bad at their job that they use their gut instinct of driving past a billboard to pick their advertising channels, rather than relying on hard data about the audience and conversation rates of different channels.

Finally, if you are going to use this message on a billboard, at least have someone proof read it. You would be barking mad not to.

The fire alarm that cried wolf

Saturday, September 17th, 2016 | Thoughts

fire-alarm

The apartment building I live in is mixed-use apartments and office space. That means that every now and then there is a fire drill in the middle of the day. I say every now and then: give how little I am home and how often it seems to happen, I would guess at every month. This is really annoying.

We don’t get a warning, so all of a sudden the alarm will go off.

There are two ways you can react to this. One way is to panic. That makes sense, because there might be a fire. But, you are at home, so what state are you in to run out of the building? You might be naked. In the middle of a toilet visit. Asleep. In the shower. In the middle of cooking.

The second is to assume that it is just a drill. They happen so often that this is a good bet. Apartment buildings basically never catch on fire. In fact, it is so rare that even when it happens in Dubai it is a major news story over here. Which is fine, until there is a fire for real and you are burnt alive.

Not to mention that the fire alarm is incredibly loud. If you are of a nervous disposition it probably causes a significant amount of stress, and even if you are not, you are probably running for the exit with fingers in both ears as I saw someone doing today.

Fire alarms are for when there is a fire. That should not have to be something you have to state. It should be obvious. But people keep setting them off and calling them “fire drills”. That should not be acceptable, any more than yelling “fire!” in a theatre is acceptable, unless there is an actual fire.

If you do want to test the systems, that makes sense. But doing it without telling everyone is irresponsible and breads complacence about what a fire alarm actually is.

The problem with office sinks

Sunday, September 4th, 2016 | Thoughts

office-sinks

Office sinks are often badly designed. Why? Because they have the bowl, and then a soap dispenser mounted on the wall not over the bowl.

Most people will turn the tap on, wet their hands, go for some soap, and then wash it off. This means that there is water on their hands when they reach for the soap, slashing it underneath. This is not under the sink and thus water ends up on the counter.

It seems to happen in almost every office I have worked in. By the end of the way the counter is a pond. This creates mopping up for the cleaning staff to do and means if you cannot put anything down on the sink counter.

I appreciate it is not the biggest problem in the world, but I think that as a society we need to come up with a better solution to the sink soap dispenser problem. Like just having a bigger bowl, putting the dispenser directly over it, or having a dispenser bottle instead.

Reasons to read fiction

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016 | Thoughts

book-with-tulip

If you are a massive over-thinker like I am, you may well spend a lot of time thinking about extracting the maximum utility out of your reading time. If I invest the 10+ hours in a book, I want to know what measurable outcomes I will get out of it.

On the face of it, fiction does not seem to stack up. If I read a non-fiction book I will learn things and become smarter. With fiction, the path is less clear. However, if you too feel this way, there are some good reasons to get stuck in to a good story.

It’s fun

Books can be a bit of a slog. I like starting and finishing a book, but the middle can sometimes be a bit of a drag. This can occur with any book, but on the whole I think good fiction books drag less often. Instead of considering every book for its knowledge, you could just read because it is enjoyable. Time well wasted.

Stories are memorable

Good fiction often has a take-home message, and a moral. Non-fiction does too, but it can be hard to remember plain facts and figures. Stories on the other hand, are very memorable. Humans seem to be wired to sharing stories and we remember them much better than we remember stats. Non-fiction may have more knowledge on paper, but once you have forgotten most of it the gap is a lot smaller.

Part of the reason could be that fiction is often more emotional. A textbook on the Great Depression is unlikely to teach me more than John Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath because he really makes you feel the pain and frustration of those travelling west, chasing the hollow dream they had been sold.

It can explore ideas

In fiction, you can explore ideas that you cannot explore in non-fiction. You can also take ideas further and come up with contrived scenarios. George Orwell explored the dark side of communism through Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Star Trek explored the ethics of AI through Commander Data in a far more involving way than a simple thought experiment ever could.

You get references

In Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century Thomas Piketty discusses theories of economics using analogies from the writing of Jane Austen. It was a great way to explain the point, but if you hadn’t read Jane Austen it may have been totally lost on you. I wrote about this last year in a post entitled The Benefits of Austen.

They pop up in all sorts of places. There is a Gary Jules song named Umbilical Town in which he sings about Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. It is a beautiful song anyway, but understanding the background only makes it better.

Smart people have read classics

Are you so shallow that you want to me seen as well-educated among your peer group? I certainly am. How about seeming clever in front of your children? Again, yes. Why not read some Russian literature and be ready to spring into conversation with “that wasn’t my interpretation of Tolstoy!”

The so-called death of civilisation

Monday, August 1st, 2016 | Thoughts

In January, there was internet outrage regarding a photo of school children in an art gallery. They were sat by The Night Watch by Rembrandt. However, instead of looking at the artwork, they were all looking at their phones. Many described it as the death of civilisation.

children-in-art-gallery

Later, a teacher named José Picardo responded, pointing out that the kids were actually using the musuem’s app to learn more about the painting. He also posted another photo from a few minutes before showing the students diligently studying the painting.

So much for that then.

But suppose they were just checking Facebook instead of looking at the artwork. So what? As soon as old people (I include myself in this group, as I probably don’t qualify as a young person anymore) see this they ask “what is wrong with the younger generation?” However, there is no reason to assume it is young people that are broken. Maybe what we should be asking is “why is this art gallery so shit that people would rather check their phones?”

Have you been to an art gallery? It’s really boring. Whenever a group of friends and I visit a museum, we can maybe do an hour before at least some of the group are bored. Maybe the difference is that the young people, as ever, remain the most honest critics.

You can argue that young people have no attention span, because it has been ruined by the culture of immediacy. Yet somehow they manage to sit through films at the cinema, or much longer sporting events, without exploding.

I don’t know what the answer is to making art galleries and museums more engaging to a younger audience (or any audience). However, blaming the children does not sound like the answer.

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.