Monthly Archives: January 2019

Compatibility with colleagues is like interoperability

Interacting with colleagues is like compatibility of programs, tools or machine parts – an individually very good component may be useless if it does not fit with the rest of the machine. A potentially very productive worker who does not work with others in the company does not contribute much.

The difference between an individual and a firm may be horizontal (different cultures, all similarly good) or vertical (bad vs good quality or productivity). The horizontal compatibility with colleagues includes personal appearance – wearing a shirt with a left-wing slogan may be fine in a left-wing company, but offend people in a right-wing one, and vice versa. When colleagues take offence, the strong emotions distract them from work, so a slogan on a shirt may reduce their productivity.

Vertical fitting in includes personal hygiene, because bad breath or body odour distracts others from work. Similarly, loud phone conversations or other noise are disruptive everywhere.

Pill testing, placebos and illegal market efficiency

Testing illegal drugs for the active ingredient differs from testing for poisonous adulterants. Both tests have opposite effects on drug use before and after buying. After the pill has been purchased, testing reduces use, because sometimes the drug fails the test, whether correctly or not, and is discarded. Before purchase, the option to test for and avoid adulterated or inactive drugs reduces the buyer’s risk, thus increases use.

In the longer term, testing benefits the dealers of purer, more predictable and less toxic drugs, putting some suppliers of fakes out of business. Pill predictability reduces overdoses – a health effect similar to lower toxicity. If old drugs can be tested, but new ones not, then buyers experiment less and the incentive to invent new narcotics decreases.

The avoidance of poisonous adulterants is good for public health, but purer pills not necessarily so. Inactive drugs undermine consumer confidence in the illegal market, reducing use, prices and casual purchases. Trust then requires a long-running relationship with the seller, which has multiple benefits. It motivates dealers to care about the health of their loyal customers, simplifies policing and gives researchers and social workers better long-term access to the at-risk population.

One claimed benefit of party drugs is that they reduce anxiety, increase the user’s confidence and social interaction, thus improving mental health. Evidence from psychiatric medicines suggests that many such benefits are due to the placebo effect. Users are quite inaccurate in estimating the purity of ingested drugs, and factors like price and place of purchase strongly influence their perception of purity. The price per pure gram is negatively related to purity in some markets, further supporting the placebo interpretation. If inactive pills boost confidence similarly to illegal drugs, then there is a clear case for flooding the market with harmless placebos. The availability of pill tests for the active ingredient reduces this opportunity to make the illegal market inefficient. Tests for toxic adulterants, however, actually favour harmless placebos.

Shoe and clothing thickness is not optimally distributed

Shoes are typically of thinner material in the toes than around the ankle, but human toes are more cold-sensitive than ankles, because toes have a greater ratio of surface area to volume (thus greater heat loss) and are further from the core of the body, so get less warm blood supply. Similarly, pants are usually thicker on the butt (due to pockets) or the upper end in general (suit pants lined to the knee), in spite of the legs requiring more warming than the pelvic region. Suit jackets are open on the chest, but overlap on the belly, which needs less extra insulation. The same suboptimal distribution of warmth characterises various V-necked upper body clothes. Jackets are also thicker on the front than the back, despite most people’s backs being more cold-sensitive than bellies.

This impractical design can be explained for men’s jackets by the desire to improve the wearer’s looks with the visual illusion of broad shoulders created by the V-shape of the front of the jacket. I have written about this in more detail:

For other clothes and shoes, there seems to be no reason for the suboptimal distribution of thickness, which would be easy to fix in the manufacturing process. The extra layers of cloth added by pockets could be balanced by using thinner cloth to make the pocket area of the pants. The pocket pouches on jeans for example are usually of thin cloth, which is a step in the right direction. However, the surface of the pants covering the pockets is usually of the same cloth as the legs. Lining could easily be added to trouser legs to make these as thick as the upper part, compensating for the extra layer of cloth by manufacturing the trousers out of thinner material overall. Similarly, adding a layer to the back of a jacket is easy.

The only difficult part to compensate in the impractical thickness distribution of clothing is the thin chest cover (relative to belly and back) of a V-neck jacket, but this difficulty only arises from the desire to preserve the look of a V-neck. A similar visual illusion of broad shoulders could be created by painting a V-shaped pattern on the garment.

A different impractical aspect of shoe design that can be explained by fashion is the pointy toes. The tapering tips create an optical illusion that makes the feet seem longer, which does not necessarily improve the wearer’s looks. However, fashion is frequently ugly, as evidenced by the web search results to the phrase: „it’s called fashion, look it up”.

Lifting weights a smaller distance may be more intense exercise

Somewhat counterintuitively, moving a part of the body a greater distance may be easier in some cases. For example, lying on your back and lifting straight legs off the floor, the muscles work harder when the legs are close to the floor than when they are close to vertical. Leg lifts lying on your back are easier when their amplitude is larger (90 degrees as opposed to 45 degrees off the ground).

In many exercises, lifting the limb to an easier position gives the muscles a rest, making the workout less intense (calories burned per unit of time) overall. Examples are biceps curls until the forearm is vertical, straight arm raises all the way overhead, deadlifts to a straight or even backward tilting posture, as opposed to stopping partway through. Slower movement may make an exercise more intense by spending more time in an effortful position, e.g. slow push-ups or squats.

Lifting a longer distance may also make an exercise easier by giving a greater opportunity to swing the limb and use inertia, which is usually bad technique. For example, standing leg lifts to the front take less effort when the leg starts from behind the body and is already moving when passing vertical, compared to starting from holding the leg slightly to the front of the body.

Easier combining of entertainment and work may explain increased income inequality

Many low-skill jobs (guard, driver, janitor, manual labourer) permit on-the-job consumption of forms of entertainment (listening to music or news, phoning friends) that became much cheaper and more available with the introduction of new electronic devices (first small radios, then TVs, then cellphones, smartphones). Such entertainment does not reduce productivity at the abovementioned jobs much, which is why it is allowed. On the other hand, many high-skill jobs (planning, communicating, performing surgery) are difficult to combine with any entertainment, because the distraction would decrease productivity significantly. The utility of low-skill work thus increased relatively more than that of skilled jobs when electronics spread and cheapened. The higher utility made low-skill jobs relatively more attractive, so the supply of labour at these increased relatively more. This supply rise reduced the pay relative to high-skill jobs, which increased income inequality. Another way to describe this mechanism is that as the disutility of low-skill jobs fell, so did the real wage required to compensate people for this disutility.

An empirically testable implication of this theory is that jobs of any skill level that do not allow on-the-job entertainment should have seen salaries increase more than comparable jobs which can be combined with listening to music or with personal phone calls. For example, a janitor cleaning an empty building can make personal calls, but a cleaner of a mall (or other public venue) during business hours may be more restricted. Both can listen to music on their headphones, so the salaries should not have diverged when small cassette players went mainstream, but should have diverged when cellphones with headsets became cheap. Similarly, a trucker or nightwatchman has more entertainment options than a taxi driver or mall security guard, because the latter do not want to annoy customers with personal calls or loud music. A call centre operator is more restricted from audiovisual entertainment than a receptionist.

According to the above theory, the introduction of radios and cellphones should have increased the wage inequality between areas with good and bad reception, for example between remote rural and urban regions, or between underground and aboveground mining. On the other hand, the introduction of recorded music should not have increased these inequalities as much, because the availability of records is more similar across regions than radio or phone coverage.

Recording speaking time to prevent meetings from running over

To prevent meetings from running over because some people like to listen to their own voice, one way is to publish how much of others’ time each participant took. Measuring the talking time and making the results public helps participants with low self-awareness realise how long they talked, and creates social disapproval of those who go on for too long, potentially motivating them to be more concise.

A related method to prevent time overruns using current meeting rules, e.g. Robert’s Rules, is to allocate each speaker a fixed amount of time in advance. The problem with this method is the lax enforcement both during and after the meeting. If a speaker goes over and does not respond to requests to stop, then the moderator or chairperson usually does not shut the speaker up (turn off the microphone, forcefully remove the waffler from the stage, clamp a hand over their mouth). After the meeting, the possible sanctions (e.g. not inviting the speaker to future meetings, monetary fine, opposing the speaker’s proposed policy) are also infrequent or weak. Of course this enforcement problem also arises when talk time is recorded and published. However, the clear measurement removes one excuse of the speakers going over, namely their flat denial that they took more time than allocated, or more than others.

Public time-recording is especially helpful in less formal meetings that have no moderator or chairperson keeping time and notifying speakers to stop, and in meetings where a speaker is powerful enough that other participants are reluctant to interrupt with reminders of the time limit. A timekeeper is not needed to record the duration of a speech nowadays, because smartphones can identify a person based on their voice and calculate the time for which each voice spoke. There is a business opportunity in developing an app that identifies the number and timing of the speakers. The resulting data could also be used for research into social dynamics, e.g. whether some age, gender or race groups speak less, whether people in positions of power talk and interrupt more.

A smartphone app can also play a notification sound when a speaker’s time is up, eliminating the problem that the less powerful participants do not remind an important speaker to stop. In large meetings with a microphone, a computer keeping track of speech durations can force a speaker to stop by cutting power to the microphone when the time is up. A computer may be attached to other means to stop a speaker from unreasonably taking others’ time, e.g. it may draw the stage curtain, turn off the stage lights or start noise-cancelling the speech.

Fundraising by exercising should be replaced with useful work

Sports events or individual trips are sometimes marketed as raising money for charity, e.g. run for a cure of some disease, cycling across the country to attract donations, climbing a mountain to draw attention and resources to an issue. While these are better than doing nothing, a more efficient way to exercise and raise money and awareness is to do useful work. Instead of running or cycling a prepared route, deliver packages for free (be a volunteer bike courier or postal worker). Other kinds of exercise useful to someone are loading cargo (lifting), stocking shelves in a charity shop, scrubbing and mopping in a shelter, picking up litter in public areas, shovelling snow, digging for public works such as repairing underground pipes. When done as rapidly as possible, these can be quite intense sports.

Most of such physical labour can also be done collaboratively, which may be more fun than an individual sport such as running or cycling. Competing on the speed and quality of the work is also possible.

The work may help the charitable cause directly. For example, delivering tissue samples from a collection point to a lab contributes to cancer research, lifting patients between stretchers and beds benefits a hospital. Building, maintaining and cleaning a shelter for a vulnerable group is an obvious way to help, as are stocking shelves, moving supplies and digging for construction and maintenance.

Spam deterrence by boycotting

The obvious reason for spam of any kind (emails, texts, phone calls, unsolicited mail) is that it is profitable. Thus spam must raise the probability that its target buys or otherwise complies with the spammer’s wishes, e.g. leaves a review. To deter spam, the incentive for it must be reversed – the targeted people should not give in to spammers, but do the opposite (not buy, not leave a review when receiving a „reminder”). I try to follow this strategy. If I remember that a business spammed me, then I try to boycott it, unless it is by far the best option (usually not, spammers are typically shady businesses and bottom-feeders).

Incentives are created by the difference in payoffs, not their level. Thus to deter spam, the buying probability should be lower for a spamming business than for a non-spamming competitor. To create this payoff difference for non-monetary actions, e.g. reviewinig, I leave a review with positive probability when not asked to do so, but certainly avoid reviewing when spammed with reminders.

If the whole society followed the strategy of boycotting spammers, then one possible concern is that spammers would start to use reverse psychology. They would spam in the name of their competitors to make them look like spammers. If customers start boycotting the competitors as a result, then demand shifts to the spammer, which is profitable.

The reverse psychology is unlikely to become a serious problem, because there are typically many competitors and the spammer would have to make most of them look bad to increase its demand significantly. Also, the law usually punishes the use of a fake name more harshly than unsolicited contacting. The competitors whose reputation is tarnished by spam under their name have a stronger incentive to sue its source than consumers just annoyed by the spam.

Formal clothing is a bad equilibrium of a coordination game

What clothing happens to be considered formal is an equilibrium of a coordination game: if most others think that a given clothing item is formal, then a person who wants to be seen as formally dressed is better off choosing that garment. If enough people who aim to dress formally choose certain clothing items, then those garments will be interpreted as formal. Different cultures and eras have considered different clothes formal, e.g. tights for men were formal in Europe during Napoleonic times, but are not now.

Current formal clothing is a bad equilibrium because suits and shirts are difficult to clean, labour-intensive to iron or press, and restrict movement. A better equilibrium would be to interpret as formal some garments that are comfortable, environmentally friendly, easy to care for and cheap. It is unfortunately difficult to change equilibria in a society-wide coordination game, because a majority of people would have to change their beliefs in a short time.

The reason why suits are seen as formal is historical: these were fashionable at the height of the British Empire, which was the richest and the most powerful country in the 19th century, thus a trendsetter in the first era of globalisation. British fashion was copied in North America and Europe, spreading to the colonies from there. Labour-intensive clothes were a way for Victorian nobility to signal wealth, because only the rich could afford to hire enough servants to make and care for their clothes. In many cultures, wearing impractical clothes (toga, long dress restricting leg movemen) has been a way to signal that one does not have to work. Similar signals of leisure were pale skin (because most work was outdoors), soft clean hands (because most work was manual and dirty), straight posture (because work often involved stooping). More extreme signals of leisure were physical changes that made most jobs of that era and region difficult or impossible: women’s foot-binding in East Asia, mandarins’ long fingernails in China.

Contrary to pale skin demonstrating leisure in Victorian Britain, in modern developed countries, a suntan is a signal of wealth, because most work is indoors and most trips to tropical places or simply outdoors are costly and time-consuming vacations. A similar reversal of the meaning of a signal is that a fat belly showed wealth when food was scarce, but in modern developed countries with an obesity epidemic, developing an athletic physique takes time and effort, so being fat is statistical evidence of poverty.

Signals of wealth have always invited cheaper imitations. For example, solariums provide suntanning cheaper than travel to the tropics. Slimness can be faked with liposuction, a corset or less drastically with a tailored waist and vertical stripes that are closer together or narrower at the waist area. The appearance of broad shoulders is achievable by wearing a suit jacket with padded shoulders.

One reason for why a business suit looks the way it does is to make the man wearing it appear taller, slimmer in the waist, and broader-shouldered, thus more masculine and attractive. The V-shape formed by the lapels uses the well-known visual perception error that an object at the open end of a V looks larger than an identical object at the tip of the V. The front of a suit jacket thus creates the appearance of a slim-bellied, muscular man. If the wearer’s belly allows, then a suit jacket usually also has a tailored waist, which further visually narrows the middle of the body. The vertical lines created by the tie and the creases of the pants make the wearer look taller and slimmer, which is often accentuated by vertical stripes on the suit. It is very rare to see a suit with horizontal stripes.

The visual illusion of attractiveness that a suit creates provides a extra incentive to stay in the equilibrium in which suits are considered formal clothing. To ease the transition to a new equilibrium in which the clothes perceived as formal are more practical, the new formal clothes should improve the wearer’s looks even more than a suit. This is not difficult, because many garments may have V-shaped patterns printed on the upper body, vertical stripes on the lower, have a tailored waist and shoulder pads. The patterns and cut may be designed based on psychology research to maximise the athletic appearance of the wearer. Anything achieved with a suit may be replicated and further optical enhancements added, for example printed outlines of muscles and puffed upper sleeves.

Automaattõlge aitab väikestel keeltel püsida

Viimasel ajal on Eesti ajakirjanduses paljud kaevelnud eesti keele väidetava väljasuremise üle, vastustanud ingliskeelset õpet ülikoolides jne. Praeguse trendi jätkudes muutub eesti keel tõepoolest kiiresti inglise laensõnadest küllastunuks ja sureb paari sajandi perspektiivis välja. Oluline eeldus on siinjuures praeguse trendi jätkumine, mis on lähiaastatel küll peaaegu kindel, aga paari aastakümne perspektiivis vähetõenäoline. Paralleel on siin eesti rahva väljarändega, millest viimase kahekümne aasta jooksul ennustati rahvale kadu ja lauldi meedias nutulaulu. Viimasel paaril aastal on aga migratsioonitrend pöördunud: eestlasi on Eestisse liikunud rohkem kui Eestist välja. On ka muid näiteid trendide muutusest: Briti Impeerium ei vallutanud 19. sajandi lõpuks maailma, ega ka Saksa Riik 1941. aasta lõpuks Euraasiat, kuigi trendi põhjal seda ennustati.

Lihtsalt väita, et trend muutub, sest ajaloos on mõnikord nii juhtunud, on muidugi tühi jutt. Tõsiseltvõetavuseks peaksid olema teoreetilised või andmepõhised argumendid, miks trendi muutus tõenäoline on. Minu argument on tõlkeprogrammide jätkuv paranemine ja vabatahtliku inimtõlke levik. Palju tekste, näiteks vaba tarkvara juhendid ja Vikipeedia, on inimesed tasuta ära tõlkinud. Google Translate suudab Euroopa keelte vahel minu kogemuse järgi juba enamvähem arusaadavalt tõlkida. Mida rohkem on tasuta tõlget saadaval, seda väiksem on motivatsioon oma keele võõrkeelega asendamiseks (ja ka keeleõppeks üldiselt).

Kui kirjalik ja suuline suhtlus suudetakse nii kiirelt ja täpselt tõlkida, et inimene ei saa aru, kas räägib omakeelse või teisekeelsega, siis lähevad inimesed kergema vastupanu teed ja suhtlevad oma keeles. Siis lõpeb trend väikeste keelte väljasuremise suunas. Pigem tekib trend keelte lahknemiseks ja killustumiseks, sest iga inimene saab rääkida nii nagu talle mugavam on, tarvitsemata järgida ühtegi õigekirja. Arvuti selgitab nagunii ühe inimese mõtte teisele, nii et iga inimene saab probleemideta enda individuaalset keelt kasutada.

Sellise märkamatu tõlkeni on veel aega, sest praegune arvutipõhine automaattõlge on nähtavalt konarlik. Praegu tõlgivad arvutid sõnakaupa ja neil on raskusi konteksti arvesse võtmisega. Arvutusvõimsuse ja andmebaaside mahu kasvades saab tõlkida lausekaupa, siis juba lõigukaupa jne. Iga tekstiühiku puhul on kontekstil teatud mõju tähendusele, aga mida pikem ühik, seda väiksem. Tõlge muutub pikematel tekstilõikudel põhineva tõlkega järjest täpsemaks, kuigi täiuslikkus on siin maailmas muidugi saavutamatu. Samas pole täiuslikkust kasutatavuseks tarvis, piisab enam-vähem arusaadavusest.

Kui tahta eesti keelt praegusele või ajaloolisele lähedasel kujul säilitada, on parim meetod arendada automaatset tõlget ja õigekirjakontrolli. Paljudes avalikes tekstides olen näinud sagedasi kirjavigu ja viletsa otsetõlke konarusi, mis keele edasikandumise huvides parandada tuleks. Keelt aitab säilitada ka rahva seas populaarsete tekstide (arvutimängud, filmid, uudised) kvaliteetne ja kiire inimtõlkimine eesti keelde. Kui meelelahutus ja tarbetekstid on omakeelsed, siis suunab laiskus rahvast enda keelt kasutama. Inimtõlge on aga oma mahult liiga piiratud võrreldes maailmas toodetud tekstihulgaga, seetõttu pole inimtõlkest ka keele säilitamisel palju abi. Enda keele eeliskasutamise motivatsiooni loob mitte oma keeles kätte saadava teksti maht (mis on praegu suurem kui iial varem), vaid omakeelse teksti protsent kogu saadaolevast tekstist. See suhtarv on kaasajal väiksem kui kunagi enne, aga automaattõlke arenguga muutub suuremaks kui ajalooliselt ja läheneb lõpuks sajale protsendile.

Valitsus saaks aidata keelt säilitada tasuta tõlkeprogramme arendades ja levitades. Ei maksaks minna nii kaugele, et teha veebilehtede automaatne eesti keelde ümberpanek vaikimisi variandiks või lausa kohustuslikuks, sest sundus tekitab vastuseisu, ka oma keele kasutamisel. Praegu Google juba pakub varianti „tõlgi see leht”, mis on tore kui seda esimest korda näha. Kahjuks selle pakkumise eemaldamine veebilehe ülaservast on pisut keeruline, mis tekitab minus teatud trotsi, eriti kuna pakutav tõlge pole veel sama hea kasutatavusega kui ingliskeelne originaal. Keelte puhul, mida ma ei oska, on aga veebilehe tõlkimine Googlei poolt väga tervitatav.