Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

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.

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.

Cadbury and their nutritional information

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016 | Thoughts

wispa-bar

This is a Cadbury Wispa chocolate bar. I am annoyed by it. Here is why…

I buy chocolate bars in multipacks. It makes sense because it is cheaper than buying them individually and I have to go shopping less often. I have recently written about my diet, which involves tracking the amount of kcals I am eating.

They’re smaller

I took a look at how the multipacks were advertised on Sainsbury’s website. They’re not actually called “multipacks” but labelled “4×30.5g”. I suspect the reason behind this is because the term multipack could be seen as misleading: given you are not actually getting a multipack of normal Wispa bars. The ones you get in the multipack are smaller.

wispa-sizes

This is a side by side comparison of a regular bar and the one I got from my multipack.

They say multipack on

I have long found the habit of companies printing on things like “multipack bar – not for resale” annoying. The reason they do this is to try and stop stores from buying the multipacks, splitting them up and selling them on separately.

However, they can’t just ban it, because splitting a multipack and selling the individual items is perfectly legal. So they write these messages on instead.

In my opinion this is an unfair business practice. I often see multipack items for sale, but never in a big-business context. It is family-run corner shops, small sandwich merchants and refreshment stalls at community events. Such practices disproportionally affect small businesses.

No nutritional information

As if this tactic is not bad enough, Cadbury also remove all of the nutritional information and ingredients list from their multipack bars. You are legally required to list the ingredients on your products, and the food industry has agreed to provide nutritional information too, but Cadbury provide neither.

back-of-packs

The way Cadbury get round this is to insist that the ingredients and nutritional information is available on the outer wrapper of the multipack. However, this is completely at odds with the way most people use multipacks. When I buy one, I open the packet, tip the bars out into my bag of goodies, and throw the multipack wrapper away.

The alternative, is to keep a stash of multipack wrappers hanging around in case I want to check nutritional information. Perhaps you could argue that it is merely industry standard to do this and that everyone does it. But you would be wrong…

lilt-can

Here is a can of Lilt Zero, a product of The Coca-Cola Company. It is a multipack can as you can see from the back bar with white writing and the top. And yet somehow, Coke remembered to put all of their ingredients and nutritional information on the can.

Summary

I will not claim to know the mind of Cadbury. However, if I was to guess at their thinking, I would say that in my opinion they choose not to include ingredients or nutritional information on their bars in an attempt to prevent local shops exercising their legal right to break multipack products, even though this means impacting the consumer and not providing the vital information that should be there.

I see no reason why this information cannot be included on each individual bar.

Nor do I believe that enough is done to make it clear to consumers that the bars they sell in the multipacks are noticeably smaller than the bars you would typically buy individually.