Tag Archives: efficiency

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.

Book-like screen arrangement

Office computer screens are mostly kept in the landscape orientation, but are usually used for documents, which are in the portrait format. Modern screens can be rotated to portrait mode, which makes reading print-view documents easier, or at least allows a larger fraction of the document to be displayed. Taking this one step further, for markup languages (XML, LaTeX) or programming, it is often helpful to see both the code and the compiled output side by side. This may be displayed on one large split screen in landscape orientation or two vertically oriented screens in a book-like arrangement, as in the following image.


Multifunctional layered clothing

Hiking websites recommend wearing layers, because these make adjusting between warm and cold weather or uphill and downhill walking simple. One thick garment would only work for cold, but taking it off when it gets too hot may leave only too thin clothing.

The same principle of layers applies for everyday clothes. My office is 12 degrees in winter mornings, so I wear two pairs of pants, sometimes two vests and a fleece. Instead of one thick pair of pants that would only suit cold temperatures, thin pants can be worn singly in warm weather and doubled up in cold.

For cycling in the cold, shorts can be worn under long athletic slacks. This principle should also work for hats – two thin fleece ski caps instead of one thick, but I have not tested it. Similarly, two pairs of socks. Although, just like with thick socks, if doubled socks make the shoes fit too tightly, then the reduced circulation increases the cold feeling.

Toe warmer making instructions on the internet suggest using the cut-off front parts of old socks. A more multifunctional option is to roll back existing socks halfway, so both the toe and the ankle part of the sock cover the toes, as in the following image.

Cut socks only work as toe warmers, but rolled-back socks can be used year round.

Volunteer work is less efficiently allocated than paid work

In my experience, the labour of volunteers and low-wage workers is frequently wasted, just like other free or cheap resources. Unlike for expensive market work, there are no price signals to guide people to the most important tasks first. If activities are not prioritised based on how productive these are, then randomly allocating labour is likely to select work with low usefulness.

Within an organisation, competent managers of volunteers may direct them to the most productive work, but even with the best leaders managing some volunteering opportunities, it remains unclear which organisations do the most good and thus should get priority labour. There is a limited amount of work hours available, just like other resources. Even the best volunteers cannot do everything at once, so to maximise social welfare, the most helpful tasks should be done first. In market work, the employer at which a worker is most productive is generally willing to pay the most for this person’s services. Then if people follow the money, their labour gets allocated to the highest-value tasks.

Of course, markets are not perfect and the importance of some work is not accurately measured in money, but for reasonably rational agents, a noisy signal is better than no signal. Prices carry information and help efficient allocation of resources. One way to better allocate volunteer labour is to establish a pseudo-money for unpaid work: each nonprofit organisation gets a certain amount of credits initially and can spend these to “hire” voluntary workers. Credits used for one person cannot be used for another, so the organisation willing to give away the most for a given individual’s services is probably the one receiving the greatest benefit from that person. Volunteers can then use the credits offered to judge where they would be the most productive (could do the greatest amount of good).

Free wifi lies

Many airports, hotels and other public places advertise free wifi, but in a significant fraction of them, the wifi does not work, e.g. in Doha Airport. One view about this is that you get what you pay for. On the other hand, the claim of providing free wifi makes people try to connect and wastes their time. Everyone would be slightly better off if the non-working wifi was not advertised – the advertiser would save the cost of printing the „Free wifi” signs and the visitors would save time.

It is cheap for the service provider to check whether the wifi is in fact working – just program a few cheap used smartphones to periodically try to connect to the wifi and send a notification to IT if the connection attempt fails. The connection failure may even trigger an automatic restart of the router.

Some airports may have wifi available, but only to a restricted group of people. For example, in India, connecting requires a local phone number, which most international travellers do not have. In Singapore and Shanghai airports, the wifi requires either a local number or scanning one’s passport in a kiosk, and the kiosks are sometimes out of order. Again, looking for the kiosk and trying to scan wastes time.

Intermittent wifi may be better or worse than none, depending on what fraction of time it is available and people’s average time cost of trying to connect.

Online check-in lies

Almost all airlines advertise the option to check in online and send email reminders to do so. In my experience, some airlines (Qantas, Air New Zealand and Qatar Airways) frequently do not allow online check-in despite falsely claiming that it is always available, or only unavailable to underage people and large groups. Email reminders to check in online seem like mockery in this case, but are still sent.

The false advertising of online check-in wastes customers’ time by encouraging them to start the data entry process. Often the process can be almost completed and only at the end does a message appear saying that online check-in is unavailable. To reduce the wasted time, the process should be stopped as soon as possible whenever it cannot be completed but is nonetheless started. It seems a simple IT fix to not send the automated reminder emails when online check-in is unavailable, and display the message „Online check-in unavailable” at the start of the data entry process instead of at the end.

A similarly ironic tone to falsely advertising online check-in is achieved by sending „we value your opinion” emails from a no-reply email address, or claiming to listen to customers but providing no contact email or phone on the website. Such mockery is practiced by many large companies. Sometimes the firms provide a feedback form that is user-unfriendly and requests lots of personal data. Or they may refer inquiries to a very limited FAQ section. The FAQ sometimes lists questions no real customer would ask, along the lines of „What makes your product so excellent?” These questions are in the FAQ just to let the company repeat their marketing slogans.