Category Archives: Uncategorized

“What if” is a manipulative question

“What if this bad event happens?” is a question used as a high-pressure sales tactic (for insurance, maintenance, upgrades and various protective measures). People suffering from anxiety or depression also tend to ask that question, which is called catastrophising. The question generates vague fears and is usually unhelpful for finding reasonable preventive or corrective measures for the bad event. Fearful people tend to jump on anything that looks like it might be a prevention or cure, which sometimes makes the problem worse (e.g. quack remedies for imagined rare disease worsen health).
A more useful question is: “What is the probability of this bad event happening?” This question directs attention to statistics and research about the event. Often, the fear-generating event is so unlikely that it is not worth worrying about. Even if it has significant probability, checking the research on it is more likely to lead to solutions than vague rumination along the lines of “what if.” Even if there are no solutions, statistics on the bad event often suggest circumstances that make it more likely, thus information on which situations or risk factors to avoid.
These points have been made before, as exemplified by the aphorisms “Prepare for what is likely and you are likely to be prepared” and “Safety is an expensive illusion.”

News are gradually biased by re-reporting

The (science) news cycle occurs when the original source is quoted by another news outlet, which is quoted by another outlet, etc, creating a “telephone game”, a.k.a. “Chinese whispers” familiar from kindergarten. Each re-reporting introduces noise to the previous report, so the end result may differ diametrically from the original story. This news cycle has been identified and mocked before, e.g. by PhD Comics.
The telephone game of news outlets has an additional aspect that I have not seen mentioned, namely that the re-reporting does not add random noise, but noise that biases the previous source deliberately. Each news outlet, blog or other re-poster has a slant and focusses on those aspects of the story that favour its existing viewpoint.
A single outlet usually does not change the story to the complete opposite of the original, because outright lying is easy to detect and would damage the outlet’s reputation. However, many outlets in a sequence can each bias the story a little, until the final report is the opposite of the original. Each outlet’s biasing decision is difficult to detect, because the small bias is hidden in the noise of rephrasing and selectively copying the previous outlet’s story. So each outlet can claim to report unbiased news, if readers do not question why the outlet used second-hand (really n-th hand) sources, not the original article (the first in the sequence). A single manipulator thus has an incentive to create many websites that report each other’s stories in a sequence.
The moral of this text is that to get accurate information, read the original source. Whenever you see an interesting news article, work backward along the sequence of reports to see whether the claims are the same as in the first report. The first report is not guaranteed to be true, but at least the biases and honest errors introduced later can be removed this way.

Restaurant learning what food people like

A restaurant chain can collect data on what food people like by examining the plates collected from the tables – the more leftovers given the size of the dish, the less popular the food. However, looking at the plates and entering the data takes time. It would be much faster to automate the process. For example, there could be a small conveyor belt for dirty dishes brought back from the eating area. The dishes would be weighed to record the amount of leftovers before scraping and washing. To detect which food was left over, one option is that a camera above the belt photographs the leftovers and then a computer tries to identify the food. This is a complicated machine vision and machine learning problem. A simpler option is to serve different dishes on plates with different shapes, or patterns such as lines and circles that are easily distinguished by computer. Then the plate identifies the dish for the camera, similarly to colour-coded plates identifying the price at sushi-train restaurants.
Even less costly in terms of computation (and without any camera requirement) would be to put RFID tags or other remote-id technology in plates. Each dish would have to be served on a plate with a dish-specific RFID, so the returned plates can be exactly matched to the food served on them. Each plate becomes more costly, but not by much, because RFID tags are cheap.
A single restaurant could also collect data on leftovers, but a chain of restaurants would get a larger dataset faster, thus useful information sooner on which dishes to keep and which to discontinue.

App to measure road quality

The accelerometers in phones can detect vibrations, such as when the car that the phone is in drives through a pothole. The GPS in the phone can detect the location and speed of the car. An app that connects the jolt, location and speed (and detects whether the phone is in a moving car based on its past speed and location) can automatically measure the quality of the road. The resulting data can be automatically uploaded to a database to create an almost real-time map of road quality. The same detection and reporting would work for bike paths.
Perhaps such an app has already been created, but if not, then it would complement map software nicely. Drivers and cyclists are interested in the quality of the roads as well as the route, time and distance of getting to the destination. Map software already provides congestion data and takes traffic density into account when predicting arrival time at a destination. Road quality data would help drivers select routes to minimise damage to vehicles (and the resulting maintenance cost) and to sensitive cargo. This would be useful to trucking and delivery companies, and ambulances.
A less direct use of data on road quality collected by the app is in evaluating the level of local public services provided (one aspect of the quality of local government). Municipalities with the same climate, soil and traffic density with worse roads are probably less well run. For developing countries where data on governance quality and spending is difficult to get, road quality may be a useful proxy. The public services are correlated with the wealth of a region, so road quality is also a proxy for poverty.

Spam call deterrence

Time-wasting marketing calls to my cellphone are a bit of a problem. I have developed the habit of checking any new number against online spam call reporting websites, and if the number turns out to be a spammer, then saving it under “Spam call” in my phone. Then in the future, any call from the same number shows up on the phone as Spam call. There are probably apps for blocking numbers, but as an economist, I would prefer a tax to a ban. I would like to make callers pay me for calling me, to compensate for my time spent answering or blocking, and also to deter spam calls. In principle, charging a fee for receiving a call is possible, because there are already 1-800 numbers and others that are pricier to call than an ordinary phone.
If it was costlier to call me than most numbers, then I would refund the extra calling fee to my friends and other legitimate callers, so they would not be deterred from calling me. This is easy, because I can see the list of calls, their durations and numbers online, so can calculate how much extra each caller paid to call me. Spammers of course would not get a refund.

Sugar-free, fat-free and low-salt claims

The three main ingredients of unhealthy food are sugar, salt and fat. The packaging of junk food often has claims of sugar-free, fat-free or low-salt in big colourful letters on the front. The trick is that the absence of one of the three ingredients is compensated by a larger amount of the other two, as can be checked from the nutrition information label.
Sometimes the claims on the front of the pack directly contradict the nutrition label, so are downright lies. I have seen packaging with the claim “sugar-free” on the front, with sugars listed in significant quantity on the nutrition label. There are some legal sanctions for falsifying the nutrition information label, but almost no restrictions on what can be claimed elsewhere on the pack, so any contradictions should almost always be resolved in favour of the nutrition label.
I have seen a sugar-free claim on a pack on which the ingredient list included brown sugar. This suggests the existence of a legal loophole (brown sugar not equalling sugar somehow) that the manufacturer wanted to use.
If the manufacturer does not want to outright lie, then a trick I have seen is to claim “no added sugar” or “no sugar or artificial sweeteners” on the pack, but add other sweeteners, e.g. sugarcane juice, molasses, high fructose corn syrup. Similarly, “no added salt” can be bypassed by adding salty ingredients, for example dried salted meat or bacon to a snack mix.
Another trick is to create the sugar in the food during the manufacturing process. For example, heating starch for a long time or adding the enzyme amylase breaks the starch into smaller-molecule sugars. So a manufacturer can claim “no added sweeteners” and yet produce sugars in the food by processing the starch in it.
A similar trick for salt is to add sodium and chloride in other ingredients and let them combine into NaCl in the food.

Joining together detached houses saves energy

Suburbs in many countries consist of detached houses that very close to each other – I have seen neighbours’ walls half a metre apart. Both houses could save energy by joining their adjacent walls together, which reduces heat loss in cold weather and heat entry (thus the need for air conditioning) in hot temperatures. Ideally, the joining should happen at the construction stage, but it is not difficult to do after the houses are built. Just enclose the space between the sides of two houses by extending the front and back wall and the roof of each house. It is not a load-bearing construction, it just has to keep the wind out from the space between the houses and provide some insulation to the space.
An added bonus is the creation of a covered storage area (a door to the space between houses should be created if the houses don’t already have a door on that side). A possible downside is that to get from the front of the house to the back, now one has to pass through the house or the storage area. But given the narrowness of the typical walkway between suburban detached houses, passing through the house may be the best route anyway. Also, when enclosing the walkway, a door can be made in each end to keep it open for passage.
Another downside is that windows on the side of the house now look into a covered storage area, not outside. But if the houses are so close together, then the only view from the window is the wall or window of the neighbour. After enclosing the side, this view becomes darker, but that does not seem a great loss. If it is, then energy-efficient lights can be installed in the enclosed area and kept on during waking hours, so people can admire their neighbour’s wall or window. Really, windows with such views can be replaced by a poster-size print-out of a photo of the view, because if the window looks into the neighbour’s window, then the neighbour probably keeps the curtains closed to prevent spying. And a wall through a window looks pretty similar to a photo of the wall stuck over the window.
The real reason to not join the houses is probably marketing and the desire to show off that it targets. People want to boast of owning a detached house, even if it is less than two metres from the neighbour’s. Knowing this, property developers construct such dwellings and market them as detached (“own your own house”, really owned by the mortgage issuer for 25 years). This is similar to the reason why McMansions are built, only the income of the buyers differs. Also similar are the pride and marketing that make people buy large SUVs, pickups and all-terrain vehicles for driving solely on paved roads.

Signs with strong language are not enforced

Various prohibiting signs are posted in many places, saying for example “No smoking”, “No trespassing”, “No skateboarding”, etc. The language of a sign with the same message can be stronger or weaker, e.g. “Smoking prohibited” vs “No smoking. Strictly enforced” or “Trespassing forbidden” vs “Strictly no trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” It seems that there is a negative correlation between the strength of the language and the strength of enforcement. The rules stated on signs threatening strict enforcement or prosecution seem not enforced at all. Non-enforcement is certainly the case for the “Smoke-free campus. Strictly no smoking” signs around the Australian National University and for similar signs around other universities that I have visited.
Why might stronger language of the sign indicate non-enforcement? Stronger language is also longer, requiring a larger sign and more paint, which makes signs with stronger language slightly more expensive to put up. So why pay more for signs that suggest non-enforcement?
Local people learn the rules and their actual level of enforcement over time. For them, signs are not really necessary. Therefore, signs are put up only for first-time visitors or for legal reasons. Legalities usually just require some legible sign, not a long and strongly worded one, so to satisfy the law, the optimal choice is a shorter and simpler text that fits on a smaller, cheaper sign.
First-time visitors are either uncertain about the enforcement level or know it. If they know, then they are effectively locals – for them, there is no need for a long sign. If the visitors are uncertain, then they might infer the enforcement level from the strength of the language. This can go two ways. If the visitors are rational and the strength of the language is negatively correlated with the level of enforcement, then a shorter sign signals stronger enforcement and deters rule-breaking better. Then all signs would optimally be short. If the visitors are irrational and interpret the signs literally, then more strongly worded signs deter rule-breaking more. The negative correlation between strong language and enforcement suggests that people are irrational and take threats literally. Or that those putting up signs are irrational and for some reason choose the less effective strongly worded signs.
An alternative explanation is countersignalling (Feltovich, Harbaugh and To 2002). In this model, there are three types of sign-posters. The first type does not care much about whether the text of the sign is obeyed (may post the sign only for legal reasons). The second type cares a little bit, but not enough to pay for much enforcement. Still, the second type slightly enforces, so there is a small positive probability of some kind of punishment when breaking the rules. The third type really wants the rules to be followed and invests in enforcement correspondingly. The potential rule-breakers quickly learn from punishments whether they are dealing with the third type. So the third type does not need any particular kind of signs to distinguish himself from the first two.
The first two types are harder to tell apart. The first type is not interested in distinguishing himself from the others – in fact, being confused with the others is beneficial, because it is more likely to make people obey the rules. The second type would like to distinguish himself from the first type and be confused with the third type, but this desire is not strong enough to pay the same enforcement cost as the third. So the second type will settle for distinguishing himself from the first type. This is done by paying for slightly larger signs with stronger, longer language on them. In this case, in the absence of experienced enforcement, the potential rule-breakers respond more to strongly worded signs than to short ones.
For an external observer, it is difficult to distinguish a small amount of enforcement from none, so the perception arises that enforcement goes together with short signs, but non-enforcement sometimes with long, strongly worded signs and sometimes with short signs. So there is a negative correlation between the strength of enforcement and the strength of the language. This correlation is stronger if the fraction of the first type in the population of sign-posters is small, for example because some first types do not post signs at all. People posting signs are a selected sample from the population of those who want some rule obeyed. The selection oversamples those who care more.

Silly sunglasses

Most sunglasses do not cover the eye fully. For example, any design where the lenses are close to flat (aviator, retro) or small does not protect the eye from rays coming from above or the side. Sunlight commonly comes from above, so these sunglass designs do not block a significant part of it. If the lenses are tinted (not clear), then they worsen the outcome for the eyes, because the dark glass in the centre of the visual field makes the pupils expand. When that happens, the pupils let in more light from any direction, including sunlight from the unprotected top and side directions.
In comparison, the polycarbonate safety glasses that currently cost 2 AUD in a construction shop have a wrap-around design and large lenses that leave only a small gap between the forehead and the glasses. Light from the side and nearly all other directions has to pass through the glasses before reaching the eye. The material for the safety glasses is polycarbonate, which block 99.9% of UV light. In order for sunglasses to provide better UV protection than the safety glasses, they have to block a larger percentage of UV light or cover more ray paths into the eye.
Suppose that sunglasses were made from a material that blocks 100% of UV. Then to improve on the safety glasses, the sunglasses would have to cover at least 99.9% of the ray paths into the eye that safety glasses cover. In other words, the sunglasses would have to have the same wrap-around design and as large or larger lenses.
An improved design for both safety glasses and sunglasses would take the wrap-around design one step further: cover the eyes from top to bottom as well as from side to side. One way to achieve such cover is a half-dome over each eye that touches the forehead above the eye and the cheek below, as well as the bridge of the nose and the temple.
A brimmed hat that blocks light coming from above compensates to some extent for flat-lensed or small sunglasses. The hat does not protect the eyes from light coming from the side and below the brim, so the classic sunglass designs are still inferior to wrap-arounds even combined with a hat.

Adding anticipation to automatic transmission

Some of the downsides of automatic transmission in cars are that it does not anticipate hills or overtaking, and does not respond to slippery conditions appropriately. The technology that could enable the transmission to anticipate hills or overtaking is already available and incorporated in some cars, namely GPS, maps and sensors that look ahead of the car. If the map data includes altitude, then the location and movement direction of the car on the map predicts the slope that the car will be on in the near future. This information could be sent to the automatic transmission to enable it to shift gears in anticipation of a hill. A forward-looking sensor that has a range of a few hundred metres can also see a hill if the road does not curve too much. The sensor data could also be sent to the transmission. Similarly, a sensor could detect the nearing of the car in front and shift to a lower gear to prepare to accelerate for overtaking.
Slippery conditions can be predicted using the car’s thermometer, perhaps with the addition of a humidity sensor, or detected using a wheel slip sensor. This information could also be sent to the computer controlling the automatic transmission, to prevent it from spinning the wheels too fast when there is little grip. The GPS or forward-looking sensor could also tell whether the car is moving relative to the landscape. Comparing the movement data with the wheel spinning speed reveals whether the wheels are slipping.