Tag Archives: efficiency

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.

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.

The obsolete PhD degree

Let’s distinguish the knowledge from the degree first. The average skill requirement of jobs (measured in years of education for example) is rising over time, so people need more knowledge before entering the labour market. What is obsolete is the packaging of that knowledge into degrees and perhaps its teaching in universities.
The PhD takes six years on average (http://gsa.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Improving%20Graduate%20Education%20at%20Yale%20University.pdf) and during that time the student is guided by one or at most a few advisors. Working on the same topic on years is often necessary to become an expert, so unavoidable. But being tied to the same advisor is a throwback to the medieval guild system where the apprentice and journeyman work years for the master. It means seeing only one viewpoint or set of techniques. Most importantly, the topic of the thesis is limited to what the advisor is competent in (sometimes a laissez-faire advisor allows a dissertation on an unfamiliar subject, which is even worse – incompetent advising follows). Taking courses from other faculty in the same department or university broadens the horizons a bit, but there may be an institutional culture that introduces biases, or expertise in some fields may simply be missing from the university. Attending conferences again broadens the mind, but conferences are few and far between. Suggestions that run counter to the advisor’s views may be interpreted as wrong by a novice graduate student.
Ideally, a trainee researcher would be advised by the whole world’s scientific community, mostly but not exclusively by people in the same discipline. Electronic communication makes this easy. Many different viewpoints would be explained to the graduate student, interpersonal issues would be easier to resolve by changing advisors (no lock-in to one person who determines one’s career prospects). People who just use students as free labour without providing much in return would suddenly become lonely. The problem is moral hazard – if no specific person has responsibility for a student, indefinite postponement of advising effort may occur. Credit for useful advice would be spread between many people, which dilutes incentives. In short, advising is a public good.
Still, public goods are sometimes provided, despite the difficulty of explaining this with a rational agent model. People write free software, answer questions from strangers in forums, upload advice and instructions on many topics. This suggests some volunteer advisors would step forward under a shared responsibility system. The advisor pool may become more ideologically biased than now, because people who want to spread propaganda on their strong views have a greater incentive to volunteer advice. They do this on the internet, after all. Similar incentives for shrill prophets operate in universities, but if each faculty member is required to advise some students or if there is a cap on how many disciples one can take, there is less scope for indoctrinating the masses. Such restrictions can be imposed online to some extent. There could be a reputation mechanism among the advisors, so the crackpots are labelled as such. The larger pool of opinions may balance the biases.
The economies of scale in advising one student are reduced with sharing. A single advisor per student means that during most of the PhD program, the advisor is already familiar with the student’s work and only needs to read the new part each week. With many advisors, each would need to devote time to the same material. Some sharing of responsibilities (one reads the introduction, another the conclusion) is possible, but the interdependence of the parts of the research does not permit full splitting.
Another medieval aspect of the PhD is paying for the received teaching in labour, not money. Graduate students may be free from tuition and may even get a scholarship, but in return have to work as teaching assistants or do the advisor’s research in their lab. Less ethical help also occurs, such as reviewing papers the advisor is officially the referee of. Inefficiencies of a barter economy are introduced. Instead of paying for the program with money earned in the job the student is the most productive or happy in, the student is forced to work as a teaching assistant and essentially pay the difference between a fair market wage and the teaching assistant wage to the university. Further, the teaching work is restricted to the university of the PhD program, even if other universities need teachers more and offer higher wages. This gives the university market power and allows it to depress grad student salaries.
A doctoral program may lose money directly, in the sense that teaching the grad students is more expensive (due to small classes, advanced material, so more professor time per student) than their TA work. The fact that universities still keep the PhD programs suggests the existence of indirect benefits. One is reputation – attracting paying undergraduate and Master’s students. In some countries, an institution is not allowed to call itself a university if it does not teach at the doctoral level. Altruism by the higher education sector is possible, even if John Quiggin’s quote “never stand between a Vice-Chancellor and a bucket of money” suggests otherwise.
One utopic proposal is an online system where graduate students and advisors sign up and can talk over video calls, send emails etc. It keeps a record who communicated with whom and how much. Later, data on the academic achievement and job market performance of students can be added, so advisors can be rewarded for their students’ success. There may also be some popularity index, meaning students rate their advisors and vice versa. But in the end, an advisor’s contribution should matter more than popularity, so the latter is optional. Advisors may look at and rate each other’s advising sessions to limit the spread of bad advice. Students can collaborate and may decide to meet in person.
For experimental science, lab space can be rented by student cooperatives. Instruction in the use of equipment can be given via video. Classroom space can also be rented directly by groups of students if needed. The students may pay advisors. Some people may only advise conditional on payment. Students may teach other students (including TA jobs), whether for money or pro bono. The system would cut out the middlemen – university administrators – making education cheaper for society. Of course, in the lab and classroom rental business, other middlemen would appear and take their share.

Putting passengers on earlier flights

If the first leg of a multi-hop flight is delayed, then the passengers on it may miss their connection. Then airlines put them on the next flight to the same destination. Or if the next flight is full, then the one after next, etc.

On the other hand, airports recommend that passengers arrive hours before their flight departs, in order to leave time for getting through security and to the gate. If the security line is short, then some people arrive at the departure area before the previous flight to their destination leaves. They would benefit from switching from their original flight to the previous one, because the wait at the airport would be shorter and they would arrive at their destination sooner. Currently, switching to an earlier flight is not allowed. However, the airlines would benefit from putting passengers on an earlier flight (if not full), because this leaves more seats open on the later flight. These seats can then be allocated to the delayed passengers from connecting flights.

The obvious question is, what if the delayed passengers need seats on the earlier flight, not the one from which people were switched to the earlier flight? The switch to a preceding flight can be decided at the departure gate just before this preceding flight leaves. In this case, any delayed passengers would already have been moved to this flight. Any optional switches of early-arriving people would have lower priority and a later decision time, so would not take seats away from any original or delayed passengers.

For the first flight of the day, the delayed people from previous flights are known hours in advance. The passengers booked on the second flight of the day to a given destination may be put on the first flight there, if they arrive before it departs. There is no worry about last-minute arrivals who may need additional seats on the first flight.