The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

lundi 22 janvier 2018

I have always been fascinated by the various ways in which our minds fail us. While we think we are very good at making decisions based on data and evidence, in fact we tend to use heuristics, or rules of thumbs, to come to quick and easy decisions when there is uncertainty involved. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered research into this field and discovered what they call "cognitive biases" which are systematic deviations from making rational decisions and judgments. I first heard about these many years ago, specifically about how the anchoring bias was used in marketing. As the years have gone by I've become more and more interested in the subject.

One cognitive bias you may have heard of is the "confirmation bias" which is where you interpret new information in such a way as to uphold your existing beliefs. This is why it is so hard to convince anyone that their opinion is wrong. When we hear information that contradicts our beliefs we tend to either dismiss it or rationalize it away. This is how Trump supporters can dismiss negative news as "fake news" and Clinton supporters can dismiss any of her scandals as "right wing conspiracy theories." There are many other biases, such as the aforementioned "anchoring bias" which is where you tend to evaluate numbers in relation to other numbers. This is why gas stations in America have three octanes at three prices. People tend to see the cheapest one at the lowest price and the premium at the highest price and think that the one in the middle is the best deal, even though it would be cheaper to mix the cheapest and most expensive octanes. You don't just the price by itself - you judge it in relation to other prices.

The list of biases and heuristics goes on and on - and they apply to PhD level statisticians as well as everyone else. Our brains are just not designed to process lots of information, so we instead use shortcuts to make judgments. Why are people scared of sharks when the chances of being attacked by a shark are less than that of being hit by lightning? Because shark attacks are dramatic and memorable, and whenever there is one it is shown all over the TV news, and we tend to remember it more. This is called the "availability heuristic" and this explains why people are more worried about terrorism than about heart attacks. 

This book is the story of how Kahneman and Tversky met and conducted their research. Like many of Lewis's books, it provides a good summary for the layperson of very complicated subjects, while not going into too much technical detail. The subject is personal for me because the deficits of human ability to analyze and process data have led me to go into data science. However this book should be an enjoyable read for anyone.

Libellés: books, economics, psychology
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More on Bilag

dimanche 14 janvier 2018

After having written that last post about the Bilag, I just read yesterday that there is a referendum coming up in March to get rid of the Bilag. While it is possible that the small size of the Suisse Romand market would place constraints on the lengths to which media will go to compete for viewers, I still think that getting rid of the Bilag would be completely disastrous. 

I assume the main driver behind the movement to get rid of the Bilag is the CHF 450 that people would save every year. Unfortunately, the Swiss citizens have no idea what they would be trading in exchange for that sum, having never witnessed American television and it's endless advertisements. Getting rid of the Bilag would put the media in the hands of corporate advertisers who have no cares at all about the quality of information or programming available - their concern is to make as much money as possible, and this pertains to media as far as getting the widest reach for their advertisements. 

Some things are too important to be left to free markets - notably healthcare and information. The theories of free markets depend on consumers having valid and comprehensive information with which to make their decisions, and putting information in the hands of the corporations will completely destroy any semblance of efficient markets. 

To date, Switzerland seems to have isolated itself from many of the drawbacks of neoliberalism. Getting rid of the Bilag would be a huge disaster and, in my opinion, would be a big step to Switzerland's losing much of the character that makes it unique and makes it a great place to live.

Libellés: politics, economics, switzerland
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lundi 08 janvier 2018

When I first arrived in Switzerland I was appalled at the level of paperwork and bureaucracy required to do even the simplest thing. When I first heard about the Bilag I counted it as another piece of red tape that needed to be dealt with here. The Bilag is a CHF 400 tax you have to pay to the government in exchange for the right to own any device capable of receiving broadcast signals - a TV, a radio, even a computer. I thought it was outrageous that you have to pay an annual fee just to have a radio or a TV - even if you don't ever use it.

After being here for a couple of years my opinion has completely changed. The Bilag is used to support the public radio and TV stations in Switzerlard, and I absolutely support that. It is a very small country and there are only 2 or 3 public stations per language, so the fees can easily support them all. The advantage is that the TV stations and radio stations do not have to support themselves with advertising, which means that they do not have to pander to the desires of advertisers or compete for viewers or listeners in order to attract those advertiser dollars. This is absolutely huge in terms of the quality of programming.

The difference between television here and how it was in the US is like the difference between, say, David Attenborough and Jeremy Kyle in the UK, or Judy Woodruff and Jerry Springer in the US. These examples also happen to be between public television, PBS or the BBC, and commercial television networks. The news is a perfect example - in the US the news is as sensationalistic as possible, full of stories designed to grab your attention at the expense of the quality of the content. The news is as dumbed down as possible in order to appeal to the greatest number of people, and everything is played up to be as dramatic and scandalous as possible. When there is a story that grabs people's attention, no matter how inconsequential or trivial it is, it is held onto for as long as possible. It is not unusual for the news to keep the same tabloid stories in the headlines for weeks on end, even if there are actual important things going on. Reporting on politics is even worse as the networks have realized that they can get more viewers by creating controversies and getting people as worked up about them as possible.

In Switzerland the news seems old fashioned and boring. They just report on the events in a calm, even-handed manner. It seems almost anachronistic compared to the bombast of American news. But the effects are noticeable. Here people can disagree on political issues without demonizing and vilifying anyone with a differing opinion. People with opposing viewpoints can discuss issues without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

The other great advantage of the Bilag is in the level of advertising in media. On the radio it is virtually nonexistent. On TV you may have 2-3 minutes of advertisements in between programs as opposed to roughly 20 minutes per hour interspered with the program in the US. Before I moved here I didn't realize just how pervasive advertising is in the US. Everyone is bombarded with messages that you need to own this brand or that brand to be the person you want to be, or that every time you feel the least bit hungry you need to fill up with a candy bar, or you can't be a good person unless you buy this product. It is amazing how much of the information people have comes from advertising. Free market economic theories are built on the idea of rational consumers making informed choices, but even if humans were more rational than we actually are, it would be impossible to make informed choices and judgements when the majority of the information you receive that is pertinent to those choices comes from corporations trying to convince that one specific choice is correct. The decisions, instead of being made on relevant data such as attributes and price of products, are instead made on the basis of which product has the most appealing advertising or brand identity. 

It is my opinion that unrestricted advertising, if not the cause of, is at least a major contributor to many of the problems in the US - from political divisions to income inequality. Publicly funded media is an easy and effective remedy to these problems, as can easily be seen in any of the European countries with publicly funded media. In the early days of US television, networks were expected to run their news departments at a loss as a public service, in exchange for their broadcast licenses, and they would make up the lost revenue with entertainment programming. Tellingly, this was back in the days when the news was more like it is here in Switzerland - boring and straightforward. 

Unfortunately I have no solutions to this problem. I don't see anyone in the US willingly giving up a penny of potential revenue no matter how great the societal benefits. I also do not see American consumers willingly trading their sensationalistic news, light on context and actual information, for more serious news. If they were PBS would have much higher ratings than, say, TMZ. I am just glad to be in a country where unbridled capitalism has not yet destroyed the utility of television and radio.

Libellés: switzerland
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Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

mercredi 03 janvier 2018

Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, is a truly amazing book. It is a scientific exploration of why animals need sleep that details a great amount of research and provides a lot of insight into the nature of sleep. While it reads like it was written for general audiences, this does not dilute the science behind it and Walker stays firmly in the area of science.

When I was reading this book and telling my wife about it she kept asking me questions like "does it say what kind of mattress we should get?" The book does not even touch on questions like this and, to its credit, does not even venture into the realm of popular self-help books. Dr. Walker has no agenda, is not trying to sell anything and he has no theories he is trying to promote. He merely lays out the results of his many years of research into sleep and interprets those results in an easily understandable manner. If, like my wife, you want to know what type of mattress to buy or what supplements or medications may help you sleep, you will find no answers here.

In fact, quite the opposite, Walker claims that most medications will actually impair your sleep. While something like Ambien may actually help you get to sleep, on average, twenty minutes faster, it seems to seriously impair the quality of that sleep, disturbing the normal sleep patterns and impairing the processes which the brain performs during sleep. He says the only supplement that will actually help sleep is melatonin, and he only recommends this for cases of jet lag, as an aid to reset your circadian rhythm. As with many people, I feel I have a difficult time sleeping and I used to take over-the-counter anti-histamine sleep aids at night occassionally. After reading this book I completely stopped taking them. I have a harder time falling asleep without them, but I wake up in the morning feeling much better than when I was taking them. On the other hand my brother continues to take massive amounts of assorted OTC and prescription sleep medication, he sleeps an awful lot in terms of hours, but he is always tired and claims he does not sleep well despite the evidence to the contrary. While this seems counter-intuitive, it fits in with the data cited in the book.

For anyone who is looking for tips on how to sleep better this book is not written for you - the only real suggestions are to stick to a regular sleep schedule every day and don't take sleeping medication. For anyone who is interested in why all animals need sleep, why we dream, and the science of sleeping - this is an amazing book.


Libellés: books, health
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American War by Omar El Akkad

mardi 26 décembre 2017

I don't generally read much fiction, but I made an exception for this book, and I was not disappointed. The book is about a second American Civil War which is fought between the North and the South, but this time over a ban on fossil fuels which is passed as a result of destructive climate change. I'm not going to reveal too many plot details, but I will say that the book presents a very plausible future based on current political, scientific and economic trends.

For me the power of the book was not in speculating on a possible future, but in shedding light on the present. The main character in the book was from the South, but ends up in a refugee camp after fleeing from her home. After the camp is destroyed in retaliation for guerilla attacks on the north, she ends up becoming a terrorist for the south.

The sad fact is that while this book is speculative fiction, the events that occur could easily be occurring today, in other parts of the world. By putting Americans at the center of the story, the book forces one to consider what is actually occurring every day in Syria, Africa, Myanmar and other places. By making the main character a refugee and a terrorist we are forced to confront the forces that create these sorts of situations. Instead of just blaming all terrorism on "Islamic terrorists" as many Americans tend to do, we are forced to realize that in the right circumstances any of us could end up doing the same things.

We are never asked to sympathize with the main character and the book never attempts to justify her actions, but we are forced to consider the circumstances that made her who she is rather than just labelling her as a "terrorist" and ignoring the forces and situations that made her that way.

This was a truly impressive book, and I very highly recommend it.

Libellés: books
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