Investing time to gain lifetime

Exercising lengthens lifespan, but the return is diminishing in the amount of exercise. From zero physical activity, one extra hour of exercise per week gains about one year of life expectancy (doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.t003). Thus investing 1/168 of total weekly hours, or about 1% of the waking hours that are not spent on the quickest possible eating or hygiene, adds about 1/80 of lifespan in developed countries. This time investment has a positive return, because the percentage of lifetime spent on sports is less than the percentage gained.

Exercising may be optimal even for someone who intensely dislikes exercise, because one way to think about this investment is as choosing a year of being dead or a year of exercising plus some extra time living and not exercising. If doing sports is weakly preferred to being dead, then the first few hours of exercise per week are a positive-return investment.

One criticism of the above logic is that the lifetime gained is at the end of life, but the time doing sports is spread evenly throughout life. If extra time when old is worth much less than when young, then investing time in one’s youth to gain years of life in retirement may not be optimal. However, the question then becomes why is time less valuable when old. If the reason is lower ability to enjoy life (due to chronic diseases, cognitive decline, decreased libido, etc), then counterarguments are that exercise increases healthspan (quality-adjusted years of life) and the progress of medicine increases the quality of life in old age over time. If technological progress becomes fast enough to lengthen average lifespan by more than one year each year, then life expectancy becomes infinite. Increasing one’s lifespan to survive until that time then has an infinite return.

If life expectancy does not become infinite in the 21st century, then the diminishing return to exercise in terms of lifespan implies that there is a finite optimal amount of exercise per week, unless one’s utility increases in exercise no matter what fraction of time is spent on it. At 10 hours of physical activity per week, one needs to add about 10 more hours to gain one year of life (doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.t003). Spending 10% more of one’s waking time to gain 1/80 of lifetime is a negative-return investment in pure time terms, but may still be rational for the increase in health and quality of life.

In the research, exercise is defined as moderate- or vigorous-intensity activities: those with an intensity level of at least three metabolic equivalents (METs) according to the Compendium of Physical Activities. In other words, the energy cost of a given activity divided by the resting energy expenditure should be at least three (the approximate intensity of a brisk walk). The relevant weekly hours of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity and the years of life gained are in the table below.

Physical Activity Level:0 0.1–3.74 3.75–7.4 7.5–14.9 15.0–22.4 22.5+

Years of life gained: 0 1.8 2.5 3.4 4.2 4.5

Chemical vapour deposition with sound waves

Creating a standing sound wave in the chamber in which CVD occurs may generate interesting patterns in the deposited film like on Chladni plates. A strong enough compression and strain induced by the wave may even change the crystal structure of the deposit. Maybe even form freestanding filaments through the volume of the chamber, not just a flat deposit on a surface.

Firms could short the stock of competitors

If a firm designs a great new product, a more efficient production process or gains some other privately known competitive advantage, then the firm could financially profit by short selling its competitors’ stock before revealing its advantage. The revelation reduces the expected discounted profits of competitors, thus their stock price. Symmetrically, if a firm loses cheap suppliers, suffers a manufacturing breakdown or otherwise becomes less able to serve its customers, then its competitors will probably benefit and their stock will rise. The firm could mitigate its losses by buying rivals’ stocks, with leverage.

Shorting competitors does not seem to be illegal insider trading, as defined by the US courts: the purchasing or selling a security while in possession of material, non-public information concerning that security, where the information is obtained from a breach of fiduciary duty, or a duty arising from a relationship of trust or confidence. I am not a lawyer, so this is just a guess, but a firm usually does not possess inside information about its competitors and does not owe fiduciary duty or trust to its rivals. Maybe there is some other reason not to trade in competitors’ stock, but a casual web search did not reveal why.

More efficient use of rooms and equipment during the shutdown

Instead of the labs, gyms and other rooms standing empty during the shutdown, the same isolation of people could be achieved by allocating each building or other resource to one person. Equipment from gyms or labs could be lent out for the duration of the shutdown, of course keeping a database of who borrowed what and making the borrower liable for its safe return. If only one person uses each object or building the whole time, then there is no cross-contamination or infection-spreading.

Excess demand could be rationed by lottery. Only the winner of the lottery for a resource would be allowed to use the resource, with large penalties for sharing. This would improve efficiency slightly, because one person instead of zero would be using each resource.

If the heat, water and electricity were turned off during the shutdown, then it might be more efficient to let the buildings stand empty, instead of having the utilities on and one person in each building or room. However, the lights in MIT buildings are still on at night, just like before the shutdown (and it seemed wasteful back then already).

Virtual reality helmet for video calling

Current virtual reality headsets can display video calls, but the person wearing the VR goggles is filmed from outside these. A face with its top half covered by VR goggles is not very expressive, which somewhat defeats the purpose of a video call. The solution is a sphere around the head with the webcam inside it and the video of the other caller projected on the inside. An astronaut’s helmet is an analogy.

To prevent suffocation, the sphere should not be airtight – small CPU fans can be installed at the top or back to circulate air in and out. This also prevents humidity buildup. For headphones as well, I would prefer some ventilation of the area covered.

Multiple webcams pointed at the face allow for 3D imaging, so the video call could take full advantage of the 3D display of virtual reality headsets. However, 3D display relies on projecting a different image to each eye. If the video call is simply projected on the inside of the sphere, then it is a single image and the 3D effect is lost. One solution is to point a small data projector at each eye to display different images. Then the sphere is not needed, just cameras and projectors attached to a stick attached to a headband. A Dilbert comic had this idea, but I cannot find the link on the web.

Oxygenating blood directly

Engineering and biological constraints may make the following idea infeasible, but theoretically, one way to keep people with lung damage alive is to pump their blood through a machine that oxygenates it. Dialysis is an analogous treatment for kidney failure.

Blood would be taken out via a cannula, pumped through a system with a large surface area covered with an oxygen-permeable membrane. On the other side of the membrane is gaseous oxygen. After passing through, blood is pumped back into the body via another cannula.

The large surface area could be just two flat plates with a narrow gap between them. The oxygen-permeable plate probably needs to be thin, which makes it weak. Positioning the plates horizontally allows the pressure of the blood between the plates to support the top plate. The pressure of the oxygen above it could be regulated so the plate does not bulge outward. With careful pressure management, the plate does not have to be rigid, could be just a thin film.

The potential complications are in the details: ideally the blood would be taken from the arteries leading from the heart to the lungs and inserted into the veins going from the lungs to the heart, but puncturing these vessels is dangerous. Taking the blood from an arm or leg vein is straightforward, but there may be biological problems if oxygenated blood is pumped back into a vein instead of an artery.

Sudden lung failure does not leave enough time for such a system to be set up, because death occurs quickly without oxygen. However, if the lung failure is predicted with high probability in advance (such as when a disease is disabling the lungs), then the person can be connected to the oxygenation system and kept alive. This buys time for either the disease to be cured, in which case the lungs may become functional again, or for lung transplantation if feasible.

On the optimality of self-quarantine

Is self-quarantine early in an epidemic optimal, either individually or for society?

Individual incentives are easier to analyse, so let’s start with these. Conditional on catching a disease, other things equal, later is better. The reasons are discounting and the advances in treatment. A delay of many years may increase the severity conditional on infection (old age weakens immunity), but such long time intervals are typically not relevant in an epidemic.

Conditional on falling ill within the next year (during which discounting and advances in treatment are negligible), it is better to catch the disease when few others are infected, so hospitals have spare capacity. This suggests either significantly before or long after the peak of the epidemic. Self-quarantine, if tight enough, may postpone one’s infection past the peak.

Another individually optimal choice is to get infected early (also called vaccination with live unattenuated virus), although not if immunity increases very little or even decreases. The latter means that one infection raises the probability of another with the same disease, like for malaria, HIV and herpes, which hide out in the organism and recur. Cancer displays similar comebacks. For viral respiratory diseases, as far as I know, immunity increases after infection, but not to 100%. The optimality of self-quarantine vs trying to be infected early then depends on the degree of immunity generated, the quality of the quarantine, whether the disease will be eradicated soon after the epidemic, and other details of the situation.

Individual optimality also depends on what the rest of the population is doing. If their self-quarantine is close to perfect, then an individual’s risk of catching the disease is very low, so no reason to suffer the disutility of isolation. If others quarantine themselves moderately, so the disease will be eradicated soon, but currently is quite infectious, then self-isolation is individually optimal. If others do almost nothing, and the disease spreads easily and does not generate much immunity, then an individual will either have to self-quarantine indefinitely or will catch it. Seasonal flu and the common cold (various rhinoviruses and adenoviruses) are reasonable examples. For these, self-quarantine is individually suboptimal.

Social welfare considerations seem to weigh in favour of self-quarantine, because a sick person infects others, which speeds up the epidemic. One exception to the optimality of self-quarantine comes from economies of scale in treatment when prevalence is not so high as to overwhelm the health system. If the epidemic is fading, but the disease increases immunity and is likely to become endemic, with low prevalence, then it may be better from a social standpoint to catch the disease when treatment is widely available, medical personnel have just had plenty of experience with this illness, and not many other people remain susceptible. This is rare.

Herd immunity is another reason why self-quarantine is socially suboptimal for some diseases. The logic is the same as for vaccination. If catching chickenpox as a child is a mild problem and prevents contracting and spreading it at an older age when it is more severe, then sending children to a school with a chickenpox epidemic is a smart idea.

Reducing the duration of quarantine for vulnerable populations is another reason why being infected sooner rather than later may be socially optimal. Suppose a disease is dangerous for some groups, but mild or even undetectable for most of the population, spreads widely and makes people resistant enough that herd immunity leads to eradication. During the epidemic, the vulnerable have to be isolated, which is unpleasant for them. The faster the non-vulnerable people get their herd immunity and eradicate the infection, the shorter the quarantine required for the vulnerable.

For most epidemics, but not all, self-quarantine is probably socially optimal.

If top people have families and hobbies, then success is not about productivity

Assume:

1 Productivity is continuous and weakly increasing in talent and effort.

2 The sum of efforts allocated to all activities is bounded, and this bound is similar across people.

3 Families and hobbies take some effort, thus less is left for work. (For this assumption to hold, it may be necessary to focus on families with children in which the partner is working in a different field. Otherwise, a stay-at-home partner may take care of the cooking and cleaning, freeing up time for the working spouse to allocate to work. A partner in the same field of work may provide a collaboration synergy. In both cases, the productivity of the top person in question may increase.)

4 The talent distribution is similar for people with and without families or hobbies. This assumption would be violated if for example talented people are much better at finding a partner and starting a family.

Under these assumptions, reasonably rational people would be more productive without families or hobbies. If success is mostly determined by productivity, then people without families should be more successful on average. In other words, most top people in any endeavour would not have families or hobbies that take time away from work.

In short, if responsibilities and distractions cause lower productivity, and productivity causes success, then success is negatively correlated with such distractions. Therefore, if successful people have families with a similar or greater frequency as the general population, then success is not driven by productivity.

One counterargument is that people first become successful and then start families. In order for this to explain the similar fractions of singles among top and bottom achievers, the rate of family formation after success must be much greater than among the unsuccessful, because catching up from a late start requires a higher rate of increase.

Another explanation is irrationality of a specific form – one which reduces the productivity of high effort significantly below that of medium effort. Then single people with lots of time for work would produce less through their high effort than those with families and hobbies via their medium effort. Productivity per hour naturally falls with increasing hours, but the issue here is total output (the hours times the per-hour productivity). An extra work hour has to contribute negatively to success to explain the lack of family-success correlation. One mechanism for a negative effect of hours on output is burnout of workaholics. For this explanation, people have to be irrational enough to keep working even when their total output falls as a result.

If the above explanations seem unlikely but the assumptions reasonable in a given field of human endeavour, then reaching the top and staying there is mostly not about productivity (talent and effort) in this field. For example, in academic research.

A related empirical test of whether success in a given field is caused by productivity is to check whether people from countries or groups that score highly on corruption indices disproportionately succeed in this field. Either conditional on entering the field or unconditionally. In academia, in fields where convincing others is more important than the objective correctness of one’s results, people from more nepotist cultures should have an advantage. The same applies to journals – the general interest ones care relatively more about a good story, the field journals more about correctness. Do people from more corrupt countries publish relatively more in general interest journals, given their total publications? Of course, conditional on their observable characteristics like the current country of employment.

Another related test for meritocracy in academia or the R&D industry is whether coauthored publications and patents are divided by the number of coauthors in their influence on salaries and promotions. If there is an established ranking of institutions or job titles, then do those at higher ranks have more quality-weighted coauthor-divided articles and patents? The quality-weighting is the difficult part, because usually there is no independent measure of quality (unaffected by the dependent variable, be it promotions, salary, publication venue).

Learning and evolution switch the sign of autocorrelations

Animals are more successful if they learn or evolve to predict locations of food, mates and predators. Prediction of anything relies on correlations over time in the environment. These correlations may be positive or negative. Learning is more difficult if the sign of the correlation switches over time, which occurs in nature due to resource depletion, learning and evolution.

If a herbivore eats a tasty patch of plants or a predator a nest full of eggs, then the next day that food is not there (negative correlation), but the next year at the same time it is probably there again (positive correlation) because the plants regrow from roots or seeds, and if the prey found the nesting spot attractive one year, then other members of the prey species will likely prefer it the next year as well. However, over many generations, if the plants in that location get eaten before dispersing seeds or the young in that nest before breeding, then the prey will either learn or evolve to avoid that location, or go extinct. This makes the autocorrelation negative again on sufficiently long timescales.

Positive correlation is the easiest to learn – just keep doing the same thing and achieve the same successful outcome. Negative correlation is harder, because the absence of success at one time predicts success from the same action at another time, and vice versa. Learning a changing correlation requires a multi-parameter mental model of the superimposed different-frequency oscillations of resource abundance.

There is a tradeoff between exploiting known short-period correlations and experimenting to learn longer-period correlations. There may always be a longer pattern to discover, but finite lifetimes make learning very low-frequency events not worthwhile.

Affirmative action, unequal contests and incentives for effort

Firms using affirmative action policies may perform better because of a welcoming work environment, better candidates, peer effects in diverse teams, but also because of stronger incentives that are targeted better. Unequal standards in contests, such as a lower bar for promotion for historically underrepresented groups, may motivate greater effort than equal ones. The reasoning is as follows.

If people expect to have unequal performance, then equal standards may demotivate everyone, because the high performers think the promotion or bonus is almost assured even without further effort, and the low performers believe the prize is unattainable, so no point in trying. In this case, setting a higher bar for the better-performing group can incentivise both groups, like different divisions in sports. The result that equalising a contest motivates greater effort is fairly general in game theory. Contests may even motivate overprovision of effort relative to the socially efficient level.

A similar effort-increasing effect of unequal standards occurs even if the groups have equal performance, provided their preferences differ. For example, if men value winning a contest (for evolutionary or other reasons), then they exert greater effort in a competitive environment where some but not all can get promoted. If women care little about winning and focus on absolute compensation, then promoting all of them does not significantly reduce their work incentives. An employer who does not internalise the full cost of the employees’ effort wants them to overwork, thus in such an environment optimally sets a high bar for the promotion of men, but a low bar for women.

On the other hand, if there is a limited number of promotion slots, then it may be optimal to give all these to men, because this increases total effort in the firm the most, and use other compensation (salary, bonuses, flex-work) to motivate women.