# Robustness is a form of efficiency

Efficiency means using the best way to achieve a goal. Mathematically, selecting the maximizer of an objective function. The goal may be anything. For example, the objective function may be a weighted average of performance across various situations.

Robustness means performing well in a wide variety of circumstances. Mathematically, performing well may mean maximizing the weighted average performance across situations, where the weights are the probabilities of the situations. Performing well may also mean maximizing the probability of meeting a minimum standard – this probability sums the probabilities of situations in which the (situation-specific) minimum standard is reached. In any case, some objective function is being maximized for robustness. The best way to achieve a goal is being found. The goal is either a weighted average performance, the probability of exceeding a minimum standard or some similar objective. Thus robustness is efficiency for a particular objective.

The robustness-efficiency tradeoff is just a tradeoff between different objective functions. One objective function in this case is a weighted average that puts positive weight on the other objective function.

Whatever the goal, working towards it efficiently is by definition the best thing to do. The goal usually changes over time, but most of this change is a slow drift. Reevaluating the probabilities of situations usually changes the goal, in particular if the goal is a weighted average or a sum of probabilities that includes some of these situations. A rare event occurring causes a reevaluation of the probability of this event, thus necessarily the probability of at least one other event. If the probabilities of rare events are revised up, then the goal tends to shift away from single-situation efficiency, or performance in a small number of situations, towards robustness (efficiency for a combination of a large number of situations).

To be better prepared for emergencies and crises, the society should prepare efficiently. The most efficient method may be difficult to determine in the short term. If the expected time until the next crisis is long, then the best way includes gathering resources and storing these in a large number of distributed depots. These resources include human capital – the skills of solving emergencies. Such skills are produced using training, stored in people’s brains, kept fresh with training. Both the physical and mental resources are part of the economic production in the country. Economic growth is helpful for creating emergency supplies, raising the medical capacity, freeing up time in which to train preparedness. Unfortunately, economic growth is often wasted on frivolous consumption of goods and services, often to impress others. Resources wasted in this way may reduce preparedness by causing people to go soft physically and mentally.

Solving a crisis requires cooperation. Consumption of social media may polarize a society, reducing collaboration and thus preparedness.

# All public statues should be removed

There is no benefit to spending taxpayer money on creating or sustaining personality cults. The same goes for all public art – the current (local) government should not decide on which people to popularise. No significant market failure exists in physical art objects. The government thus does not need to intervene in the market for statues (copying digital art is another matter). Private individuals can put almost any statues and art on their own property as part of free speech.

The materials of which the statues are made could be used for something beneficial instead, like public housing for the poorest members of society. Clearly the government’s goal in erecting statues is to provide circus to the public in order to get re-elected, not to benefit society.

If the influential people whom the statues depict were asked whether the person or the idea matters more, my guess is that almost all would emphasise the idea. Most would ask the resources to be spent on more reasonable things than statues of them.

If the goal of a statue is to signal the importance of the ideas of the person depicted, then there are more efficient ways for this signalling. For example, a scholarship, a charity or a public library in the name of the person.

# Tissue sampling by piggybacking on vaccination or testing campaigns

Obtaining tissue samples from a large population of healthy individuals is useful for many research and testing applications. Establishing the distribution of genes, transcriptomes, cell distributions and morpologies in a normal population allows comparing clinical laboratory findings to reference values obtained from this baseline. The genetic composition of the population can be used to estimate historical migration patterns in paleoanthropology and selective pressures in evolutionary biology.

Gathering tissue samples from many people is expensive and time-consuming, unless it happens as a byproduct of existing programs. Collecting used vaccination needles or coronavirus nasal swabs that have a few cells attached allows anonymous tissue sampling of almost the entire population. A few cells per person are enough for many analyses in modern biology. Bulk collection of needles or swabs has built-in untraceability of biological material to an individual, which should alleviate privacy concerns and reduce the bureaucratic burden of ethics approvals.

# Flight cameras for environmental and traffic monitoring

Recordings from the downward-pointing cameras on commercial airliners that provide inflight belly-cam views could be downloaded after landing to use for research, for example on vegetation cover, traffic density on roads, night-time light which measures economic development. The flight paths are saved on flight tracking websites anyway, which enables localising the video at any point of time to the GPS coordinates the flight was at. The recordings are not much use for military spying because countries ban overflights of sensitive sites anyway. Thus security and privacy arguments should not stop research in this case.

The resolution of the belly cameras is low and the wavelengths cover only visible light, not infrared which would be useful for vegetation measurements. The compensating upside is the frequent overflights of many parts of the globe, thus the dense temporal coverage. The videos are almost costless to obtain – just plug an external hard drive into the existing inflight entertainment system to and later upload its contents at the airport. The low cost contrasts with specialised satellite and aerial surveys.

# Food refused by the most people

Which food would the greatest fraction of the world population refuse to eat? To make the question interesting, focus on widespread food items, not „interesting” local specialties like surstromming, fermented shark, maggot cheese. My guess is that pork and beef would be the most widely refused, by Muslims and Hindus respectively. Meat in general is considered objectionable by more people than vegan dishes. Refusal of plant-based food is mostly due to allergies, so soy and wheat would be the least popular. In light of this, it is interesting that the main components of the British Airways snack box on 17 May 2020 were made of wheat and pork (Jamon Iberico and a spread made of 57% bacon and 18% pork jowl). The box replaced the usual airline meal. According to British Airways, the reason was to reduce food heating on the plane during the Covid-19 pandemic. I am not sure how reducing cooking is supposed to avoid infection, but even supposing that, the pork-based snacks do not seem optimal by any criterion.

Vegan food is generally cheaper, and among animal-source foods, chicken is the cheapest, followed by turkey. So price cannot be the reason for serving pork. Airlines may try to signal wealth or that they care about passengers by offering „premium” foods, e.g. meat, and not the cheapest kind. However, this signal is undermined by the plastic boxes for the meals, the sloppy mixture of foods in the main box and the small quantities. The goal is clearly not to feed people or to keep them healthy. It does not seem reasonable for the airline to expect that it will give passengers a good taste experience.

# 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).

# Window allocation to the rooms benefiting the most

People seem to value having a window in their office or living room, more so than in a stairwell, closet or storage. It would be efficient and simple to design the floorplans to maximise the total benefit derived from windows. However, in both commercial and residential buildings, the corners (with the best window access) sometimes have stairwells or elevators instead of offices or living rooms. For example, in the MIT economics department (building E52), the seminar rooms have the biggest windows with the best view, and one corner of the building is a stairwell. In seminar and teaching rooms, people are supposed to look at the slidescreen or speaker, not out of the window, so the benefit of windows is little. Sometimes a window even adds negative value if the sun shines in people’s eyes and they have to spend a small amount of time closing the blinds.

If building regulations require a stairwell to have windows, thus be adjacent to an outside wall, then it would still be welfare-improving to locate offices at the corners, relegating the stairwell to the middle of a side of the building. Specifically, the side with the worst view or the side most prone to undesirable glare. Another way to comply with window requirements is to construct a shaft in the middle of the building (as in some New York highrises) and put the stairwells next to the shaft.

# Ebay should allow conditional bids

Ebay should allow buyers to bid for a single item across multiple auctions: make a bid for one item, then if outbid, automatically make the same bid on the next identical (as defined by the buyer) item and so on. This increases efficiency by joining multiple auctions for identical items into one market with many sellers and buyers. It also reduces selling times, because a buyer who just wants one unit does not have to wait until being outbid before bidding for the next identical item. Buyers generally are not continuously watching the auction, so there is a delay between being outbid and manually making the next bid. Buyers are willing to pay to reduce the delay, as evidenced by purchases at “buy it now” prices greater than the highest bids in the auctions.

More generally, bids conditional on being outbid would help merge auctions into markets, gaining efficiency and speed. For example, a buyer has different values for used copies of the same item in different condition and wants just one copy of the item. Conditional bids allow the buyer to enter a sequence of different-sized bids, one for each copy, with each bid in the sequence conditional on the preceding bids losing.

Linking the bids is not computationally difficult because Ebay already sends an automatic email to a buyer who has been outbid. Instead of an email, the event of being outbid can be used to trigger entering a bid on the next copy of the item.

Faster selling times benefit everyone: sellers sell faster, buyers do not have to waste time checking whether they have been outbid and then making the next bid, Ebay can charge higher fees to appropriate part of the increased surplus from greater efficiency. Ebay can also use the data on which items buyers consider similar enough to classify products and remove duplicate ads.

A browser extension or app can provide the same functionality: an email with title containing “You have been outbid” triggers code that logs in the user (with the credentials saved into a password manager or the browser) and types in a bid on the next copy of the item.

# Free food for health and the environment

To motivate choosing vegan or environmentally friendly or healthy food, one option is to provide it for free. If people have eaten their fill, they are less likely to buy extra, whether meat or unhealthy. There are tradeoffs of course – any free resource tends to be overused.

For free food to be environmentally friendly, it should not be wasted and disposable utensils should be avoided. Food waste can be reduced by providing small portions to be eaten on the spot, with unlimited free refills of these small portions. All-you-can-eat restaurants already use this strategy by providing only small plates and bowls. The oversight of the food servers and other eaters and their disapproval of wasting food is a social deterrent.

The use of disposable dishes may be reduced by not providing any, requiring people to bring their own utensils, but some will then bring disposable and some will substitute away from the free food toward buying (unhealthy, delivered) meals in disposable containers. It is an empirical question whether the potential use of disposables outweighs the benefit of switching people to healthy and environmentally friendly eating. A dishwasher next to the food station eases the use of reusable kitchenware. Handheld foods (buns, sandwiches, wraps, whole fruit) do not require dishes.

Free food may lead to overeating and increase obesity. Any free resource tends to be over-used, especially if in limited quantity or available for a limited time. The latter overuse motives are eliminated by making the free food continuously available, but this exacerbates potential overeating. The obesity effect can be reduced by offering only healthy food without the somewhat addictive additives sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate. Foods like celery, iceberg lettuce, whole linseeds that provide fewer calories than it takes to chew and digest them (given inefficient human digestion, as opposed to the calories measured by the burn method) may actually reduce obesity when distributed for free. Again, it is an empirical question whether the potential costs of overeating and obesity neutralise the benefit of substituting towards healthier and environmentally friendlier foods.

Given how cheap basic healthy foods are (rice and other dry grains under a dollar per kilo, cabbage, bananas, lemons, dry peas and lentils two dollars per kilo), the social benefit of providing these for free may outweigh the deadweight loss of taxation to finance their purchase. In this case, the government would actually save money in the long run (over the average life expectancy) by offering free food. Cooking the foods would increase the costs slightly, but not much if it is done continuously in bulk by machines (rice cookers, bread machines). No need to wash the cookers if a new batch goes in within hours and the heat sterilises the machine. Or the machine can wash itself if it is connected to a water supply, a drain and a soap dispenser and either has a mixing blade in it like a blender or the water supply has sufficient pressure to flush out the soap residue.

# Training programs should be hands-on and use the scientific method

The current education and training programs (first aid, fire warden, online systems) in universities just take the form of people sitting in a room passively watching a video or listening to a talk. A better way would be to interactively involve the trainees, because active learning makes people understand faster and remember longer. Hands-on exercises in first aid or firefighting are also more interesting and useful.

At a minimum, the knowledge of the trainees should be tested, in as realistic a way as possible (using hands-on practical exercises). The test should use the scientific method to avoid bias: the examiner should be unconnected to the training provider. The trainer should not know the specific questions of the exam in advance (to prevent “teaching to the test”), only the general required knowledge. Such independent examination permits assessing the quality of the training in addition to the knowledge of the trainees. Double-blind testing is easiest if the goal of the training (the knowledge hoped for) is well defined (procedures, checklists, facts, mathematical solutions).

One problem is how to motivate the trainees to make an effort in the test. For example, in university lectures and tutorials, students do not try to solve the exercises, despite this being a requirement. Instead, they wait for the answers to be posted. One way to incentivise effort is to create competition by publicly revealing the test results.