2019 Week 48: Consumption

Short version: This Black Friday weekend is a relevant time to attempt to press my thoughts on consumerism into a post. A revealing ONS data set about household spending. Also some thoughts on blogging and whales’ heart beats.

A note on structure

On top of a tangled set of thoughts about consumption, there was a lot of interesting content to read, listen to, and watch on this topic. The structure of this post suffered, and so if you’re just here to skim I suggest scroll down to the bottom and just check out Trends from the data and Whales’ Heart Beats.

Consumerism

I want stuff. Lots of people also want stuff. Often, if they can, they go out and buy stuff. This is a simple thought, but the many paths it leads down have been a tangle in my mind for some time. This post is an attempt to rectify the clash between the obvious value in markets and trade with the absurdity of waste (see the two videos below) in modern developed economies. This is highlighted by celebrations of consumerism that occur after Thanksgiving.

Chasers War on Waste

The true cost of fast fashion | The Economist

People want to be rich

I think it is reasonable to presume the overwhelming majority of people would like to have more money. Money provides security, safety, and freedom (and most of lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Casey Neistat points out that for a lot of people, money will solve all problems. although people with plenty of money still have problems.

This simple desire for material wealth gets complicated by how different that desire looks at different points of time. The majority of people in the developed world have access to goods and services that were restricted to only the most wealthy only decades ago. Advances in agriculture and medicine mean even the poorest citizens have access to goods like pineapples and penicillin that would have been unimaginable to emperors and kings of centuries past. This Louis CK bit makes light of changing expectations. That desire for newer and shinier at the expense of appreciation for what we already have is, in part, created by the desire for companies to grow their sales and profits. An array of narratives are pushed through advertising. A particularly disturbing yet powerful lie is that you can change who you are simply by owning something. The idea that you can be fitter/sexier/smarter by buying something, rather than by learning or growing, sells a lot of products, despite failing their buyers.

School of Life: History of Consumerism

Black Friday

Black Friday is a day of discounted selling by retailers following Thanksgiving Day, which is observed by shops throughout much of the world. Scenes of people rushing into stores and fighting over relatively cheaper items are symbolic of a period of significant spending by consumers as the end of the year, and particularly Christmas, approaches.

A lot of people work in retail. In Australia, it is 1.3 million, nearly 10% of the labour force. This is an enormous amount of human life dedicated to the mere act of selling things (1.8 Australian lifetimes is spent per working hour by the collective in shops, life expectancy in Australia = 82.5 years). Intuitively (and so simplistically as to be utterly inaccurate) this struck me as a waste of time, given retail exists as a middle man between producers and consumers. Of course in reality at points retailers make the entire system more efficient (for example by collecting fruit and milk in bulk and distributing it to stores in lieu of each consumer visiting a farm individually), but in practice profit incentives drive this enormous work force to motivate us all to consumer more.

One way consumption is driven is through pricing. The decision to purchase an item is in part determined by the price attached to that item. Commonly items are priced at X.99 rather than X+1, because that centipoint increase is far more psychologically significant than the additional profit. A further extreme of this is quantum pricing where fewer price points mean profit margins are obfuscated. The discounts of Black Friday create the perception that shoppers are saving money by buying things at a lower price than they would otherwise, combined with a false scarcity that this is the only time to buy. In reality most consumer goods depreciate rapidly so any future time is a better time to buy. Less scrupulous stores raise prices before the sales only to mark down to pre-sale prices. One clear sign of the power of this frenzied overconsumption is the willingness for people to take on debt to purchase luxuries. Loan Sharks take advantage of Black Friday pressures to consume.

Interesting observations from some actual data

A few weeks ago I came across the BBC series “My Money“, which takes individuals and looks at their spending over a week. My fascination with how other people spend money stems from not having a good answer to “What is the appropriate/correct/optimal amount to spend on X”. There are intuitive answers to this, which is why spending £100 a week on cheese or £5 a quarter on electricity “feel” high and low, but that intuition is shaped by our relatively limited insight into other’s spending (likely dominated by our parents’ and partners’ habits) augmented by the media we consume, particularly the coercive forces of marketing.

I am consistently frustrated with the concept of normal. There are no “normal” people in the same way there is no way to roll 3.5 (the centre of the normal distribution for values) on a 6 sided die. This video featuring wrestler John Cena emphasises the difficulty in describing an “average” american. However discovering the UK’s Office of National Statistics collects and compiles data on household expenditure (among other things), and produces reports on the distribution of spending, provides data on where the distributions actually lie. I found exploring the data fascinating. I was particularly excited to find this data set breaking down typical weekly expenditure by item in pretty specific categories (e.g. “Cheese”, “Books”, and “Package Holidays – UK” are separate categories).

Here are some observations:

The big picture: income and expenditure

The distribution of incomes in the UK gives an insight into what households can actually afford.

The interactive graphic below gives insight into how the typical UK household spends (taken from this ONS report).

Trends from the data

General trends

A wealthier decile has more people per household.

Wealth increases steadily between the 2nd and 8th deciles, and sharply at both ends.

Overall spending trends

Spending in most product areas correlates with increasing disposable income on both a per person and per capita level.

Interesting specific spending trends

Food
Poultry (strongly) and beef (weakly) correlate with increasing wealth, pork and lamb are flat across groups, and bacon and ham have a weak negative correlation.

Housing
Poorer households spend proportionally much more on housing, making up 19.1 % of spending for the lower half of households, vs 11.1 % for the upper (I guess this is because of renting vs owning). This is after accounting for housing benefits to the lowest deciles.

Transport
Transport spending is correlated with income, with a sharp increase in the top decile due to the purchase of new (presumably luxury) cars.

Clothes
In the bottom three deciles women spend 2.5x more than than men on clothes, whereas that ratio is only 1.3x for the top decile.
Only the top few deciles use drycleaning services.

Alcohol and Tobacco
Spending on alcoholic drinks was correlated with income, but the trend was dominated by wine, while beer and spirits were fairly independent across the groups.
Lower income deciles spent more per person on tobacco and other narcotics.

Health and Education
Education (school fees) and sports subscriptions (gyms) correlated strongly with income.

Entertainment
There is a hump like feature in the audio-visual equipment categories in the 6th and 7th deciles.
Spending on hotels appears to have an exponential relationship with increasing disposable income.

Statistical definitions

Useful definitions from the ONS:

What is disposable income?

Disposable income is arguably the most widely used household income measure. Disposable income is the amount of money that households have available for spending and saving after direct taxes (such as Income Tax, National Insurance and Council Tax) have been accounted for. It includes earnings from employment, private pensions and investments as well as cash benefits provided by the state.

The five stages are:

1. Household members begin with income from employment, private pensions, investments and other non-government sources; this is referred to as “original income

2. Households then receive income from cash benefits. The sum of cash benefits and original income is referred to as “gross income”.

3. Households then pay direct taxes. Direct taxes, when subtracted from gross income is referred to as “disposable income”.

4. Indirect taxes are then paid via expenditure. Disposable income minus indirect taxes is referred to as “post-tax income”.

5. Households finally receive a benefit from services (benefits in kind). Benefits in kind plus post-tax income is referred to as “final income”.

Note that at no stage are deductions made for housing costs.

From Effects of taxes and benefits on UK household income: financial year ending 2017 via ONS

Amusing group names:

While looking at consumer spending in the UK, I found the following categories that the ONS uses to divide UK residents. Some of them were incredulous to the point of being amusing.

Categories:
Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers, Hard-pressed living

Sub-categories:
Farming Communities, Rural Tenants, Ageing Rural Dwellers, Students Around Campus, Inner-City Students, Comfortable Cosmopolitans, Aspiring and Affluent, Ethnic Family Life, Endeavouring Ethnic Mix, Ethnic Dynamics, Aspirational Techies, Rented Family Living, Challenged Asian Terraces, Asian Traits, Urban Professionals and Families, Ageing Urban Living, Suburban Achievers, Semi-Detached Suburbia, Challenged Diversity, Constrained Flat Dwellers, White Communities, Ageing City Dwellers, Industrious Communities, Challenged Terraced Workers, Hard-Pressed Ageing Workers, Migration and Churn.

Personal conflict: running tech

I like running, and improving my fitness more generally, I suppose because it helps me to self actualise. One of my personal weaknesses in fighting back against the commercial marketing machine has been in running tech. As such, I found this video from the New York Times both entertaining and helpful in realising the main thing I need to run faster is not a piece of equipment, but to simply run more and faster.

December blogging reflection

Lately I’ve been posting each week on Sunday come what may. There’s a pretty wide variance in how much time goes into each post, which is not always related to the quality of each post. Some topics I have a better understanding of before I start to write. Some observations are not insightful. Some posts go out unfinished.

Ideas vary in quality. Some ideas were probably not worth writing about at all, while others are so huge they could easily fill hundreds of pages. Not every idea is a good idea, and even a good idea poorly executed is not a good result.

Some topics deserve to be revisited, edited, improved, expanded etc. But writing in this weekly format is useful. Sometimes quantity results in quality. If I maintained a high expectation for each blog post I would write less, and my writing would not improve. Moreover in trying to write each week I am motivating myself to learn. I do hope to better organise myself in the next block of blogging (i.e. next year’s posts) to segregate space for tackling bigger topics less frequently, with a less structured more regular section.

As I was writing this post I received Peter Attia’s weekly email, describing his struggles with writing. It was extremely motivating to read words that felt so familiar they could have been my own. I would not wish insecurities on anyone, but it is deeply reassuring to be reminded those feelings are normal.

While on the topic of other writers; blogs I’d like to share:
Econometrics By Simulation: interesting applications of statistical software.
Beau Miles: Came across some of his films, the first content in a while to make me really miss Australia. Describes himself as “Award winning filmmaker, poly-jobist, speaker, writer, odd.”

Whales’ heart beats

A wonderful aspect of having scientists as friends is that they share exciting science with you that you would otherwise miss. One example is this paper about how the heart rate of blue whales changes as they dive for food. Their enormous hearts beat as slowly as two times per minute and as quickly as 37, which is about as fast as is physically possible. It also contains this informative figure, which I feel tells the story clearly and succinctly.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 41: Changing your mind

Short version: An interesting question to reflect on, a mantra I find useful, another reason to avoid diabetes, the Nobel Prize rejection, and making my phone less distracting.

What would it take to change your mind?

I’ve been thinking about this question recently. In many ways our beliefs about the world, what we hold “in mind”, is intertwined with our identity. How those ideas form, and how they can be changed, informs who we are and how we act. I have not spent much time thinking about what specific influences would be required to change my beliefs. I would like to think that, as a scientist, I am willing to “turn on a dime” in response to strong evidence, but what specifically constitutes strong evidence?

On a population level changing minds is critical to governance. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr gave a TED talk with some fascinating images; advertisements run on Facebook that she suggests influenced Welsh citizens to vote against their own interests on the Brexit referendum. I wonder if those citizens would be able to identify what caused them to be so fearful of hypothetical Turkish migrants (specifically) or the EU (generally), and what evidence or experiences they would now require to lose those fears.

I would suggest you try the thought experiment (and would love to hear your thoughts!). Consider what might cause you to change your mind on beliefs that you hold at different strengths. What might make you change the political party you feel aligned with? Your religious views? Views on climate change? On who you are? At the moment my own thoughts are quite confused, but I find the exercise interesting.

A useful mantra

When trying to understand why someone has acted to cause you harm, I find it useful to remember the order of these three causes:
Apathy. Incompetence. Malevolence.

I realised that it is very rare that a negative occurrence is the result of malicious intent, but often we suspect that cause. I’ve explained my thoughts (and the three word reminder above) a couple times in person in recent weeks.

First for something malicious to occur someone needs to care enough to do consider a malicious act and then act on that thought. Most people just do not give significant thought to others, and generally people err on the side of inaction. Even when a relationship is positive and significant, the frequency of thinking of doing something good translating into actually doing it is relatively low, and most people only have a small number of such intense relationships. Consider how many such strong relationships you have, compared with how many people you cross paths with regularly, and this can likely be extrapolated to others. Just as apathy may cause you to thoughtlessly inconvenience one of these people, so too might their apathy inconvenience you. (There is a related punchline in a joke about gun ownership I rather enjoy: if you are buying a gun for personal defence you must (absurdly) have a high opinion of yourself that anyone cares enough about you to try and attack you).

Second, much of the time when we try to influence the world we make mistakes and influence it in an unintentional way. Just as a good intention can produce a bad outcome, so too does an attempt to manifest a bad intention have a chance of producing a good outcome, or no outcome at all. Since most people tend not to practice malicious acts regularly (I hope), then most people even if attempting to cause harm will do so poorly. More often people trying to be good may fail, and therefore accidentally cause harm. The harm is caused by incompetence rather than malice.

Finally, only if apathy and incompetence are considered and ruled out should we consider ill will. Our mind rushes to this conclusion first, stories we learn from an early age arrange themselves around characters acting in opposition, “good” vs “bad”. It is more comfortable to consider a simple and ordered narrative where people are competent and their actions match their intentions, rather than the complex disordered reality where the two are often not coupled. We are at the centre of our own misfortune, and so assume people can see what we do and must therefore notice and care about our strong emotion. Ultimately these are misguided assumptions.

Remember, when next bitterly considering why you were wronged, the likely reason is Apathy, then Incompetence, and only then, Malevolence.

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes is a prevalent disease in the developed world, and can partially be addressed through lifestyle interventions, like maintaining a healthy diet (and hence weight) and exercising. If there weren’t already enough reasons to avoid diabetes, I’ve recently come across the term “type-3” diabetes, an alternate name for Alzheimer’s disease, due to similarities between the diseases and correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes.

Nobel Prize Winner’s Nature Rejection Letters

This week the Nobel Prizes were announced, including one for Peter J Ratcliffe, for his work on hypoxia. I’ve seen some tweets sharing a letter to Ratcliffe declining to publish a paper from him. The message is often one of encouragement to persevere in the face of criticism, or that Nature has made a serious blunder by not publishing the work.

The assumptions here are interesting. Ratcliffe’s Nobel Prize indicates a significant contribution, but it does not mean that every paper he wrote warranted publication at all, let alone publication in any specific journal. Perseverance is naturally a requirement for success in a field (trivially if you quit before you succeed you cannot succeed), but that perseverance needs to include a willingness to adapt to both criticism and praise from peers, not blindness to it (though that adaptation can also be bolstering evidence and pushing back against the criticism, rather than conceding to it). Finally the publisher here (Nature) is responding to the comments of the reviewers who would be other researchers in the field (peers), rather than merely dismissing the work, which I feel can be lost in the suggestion that Nature made a mistake not publishing the work: they were following the procedures which fundamentally led to their success and prestige as a journal.

As an aside: Ratcliffe ended up having 28 papers (to date) in Nature family journals, of which 3 are in nature itself, so I doubt anyone is holding a grudge.

Phone Distractions

I wrote about changing my search engine, and while some tasks now take longer I have adapted and think there is some improvement to the content I consume. This week, at a friend’s suggestion, I switched my phone to monochrome (greyscale), in an attempt to make it less visually alluring. I am surprised how effective such a small change is, the content is the same, but the stimulus is reduced, and it makes it easier to moderate my time mindlessly scrolling.

Oxford Half Marathon

This week I ran the Oxford half marathon, and while at the moment I am still overdue on the Blenheim Palace half race report, I’m hoping to write both and update the respective blog posts soon.

Photos from the week

2019 Week 27: Socratic method

Short version: This week I had a couple of students in the lab for work experience, and it reminded me how much I enjoy teaching. Some thoughts.

Long version:

Socratic Method

One of the joys of my education was being repeatedly challenged to answer questions that I didn’t know the answer to. I found this an incredibly powerful way to learn both information and problem solving skills. It requires capable teachers with time to be able to explore each student’s individual thinking, as well as confident students.

Students are used to being tested on content they ought to have learned, being praised for preparing and chastised for a lack of practice. Thus it can be disquieting for them to be confronted with a question they have not prepared for. Post-education this is not very useful when working in science, where questions need to be answered that have not been answered before.

A wonderful example of taking relatively common experiences and following a path of questions and answers is “Fun to imagine“, an armchair conversation with Richard Feynman.

Science through fresh eyes

There is an XKCD comic for many situations, and one such specific situation is that there will always be many people who have yet to learn something you take for granted. In the lab, my team and I get to take for granted the understanding of many scientific concepts. However, through the eyes of inexperienced students the mundane becomes new. This is easily seen as a weakness of the students, but it is also joyful to see tools and ideas I take for granted be seen as exciting and new.

A good example of this is Pendulum Waves, which was demonstrated at the Cowley Carnival (see below).

Confidence

If you play these games of asking and attempting to answer questions, often your guesses will be wrong. In order to persist and learn you must enjoy the game, and therefore you must be able to enjoy being wrong. CGP Grey summaries it well: “if you want to always be right, you have to always be prepared to change your mind”.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 15: Minimalism

Short version: I’ve been getting into minimalism lately. On the flight back to Oxford I read Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

Long version:

Minimalism

Minimalism is most simply the practice of attempting to minimise one’s possessions. Minimalism, and its popularity, is a response to the suffocating clutter many people experience. The cost of producing many items (clothes, appliances, toys) has fallen, and marketing to consume these items has become more prevalent and sophisticated, resulting in consumption beyond individual’s needs and capacity to manage possessions. Like many cultural phenomena, it is not merely a pragmatic solution to a problem, but also manifests as a set of values and an aesthetic (of which Apple Stores are an often cited example). Some of these are potentially problematic; A New York Times opinion piece opens with “[minimalism] has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice“.

My Experience with Minimalism

I have a natural urge to collect things. I inherited a sense of scarcity from parents who have escaped times of political upheaval. I detest waste, and find it easy to see potential uses for many items that ultimately I never use (scrap pieces of paper that might be handy to put down a note, packaging that might be used to carry something else someday, old electronics that I could strip for useful parts). The result is an ever growing collection of possessions that take both physical space and organisational time.

The mental problem I have with clutter is more significant. It is upsetting to wake up, and come home, to a growing pile of physical objects that correspond to tasks left undone. Books that would be nice to read, models it would be fun to build and paint, even an ever-thicker envelope of receipts that would, if analysed, give me insight into my spending habits (how much did I spend on cheese in 2017?). As this pile grows so does my sense that I am not in control of my life; if I were, wouldn’t I be able to get all these tasks done? “Maximalist” clutter becomes the physical representation of my poor time management and lack of drive. On each passing glance over this reminder, I am made a little more anxious, and my willpower is slightly sapped. Putting off those tasks trains the terrible habit of procrastination.

Minimalism provides an escape. By ascribing to the philosophy I am forcing myself through the discomfort of casting away what I perceive to have relatively low value. Through this I rid myself of the negative emotions that come from feeling out of control, and ultimately I find more time that is more comfortable. My first experience of this minimalist joy was moving to Oxford with only a suitcase of possessions. Suddenly, without distractions and incomplete projects surrounding me, I was more free to explore my new surrounds, to step up and tackle projects like this website.

Where I take issue with minimalism, particularly at the more extreme end (e.g. Fumio Sasaki’s), is the impracticality and expense. Ultimately you are outsourcing clutter to others, for example cooking and transportation. Food is a necessity. It is more affordable and often healthier if prepared from simple ingredients bought in bulk (e.g. flour, market vegetables). It is impractical to shop for food daily, and so storing groceries, the kitchen appliances needed to cook, and utensils to serve meals, are very practical anti-minimalist behaviours. Similarly while uber and bike sharing schemes can be convenient, owning and maintaining my own bicycle is cheaper and more pleasurable to ride.

Minimalist Book Report

I was given Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki for christmas in 2017, but only set aside time to read it while flying. In five chapters it summarises the authors experience in finding minimalisim, discusses the development of the problems he feels minimalism solves, lists tips on adopting a minimalist lifestyle, gives examples of ways in which minimalism has helped the author, and concludes with some brief notes on happiness. I found the individual experiences relatable, but the historical and philosophical arguments less compelling. The many short guides in Chapter 3, “55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things, and 15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalist journey” become repetitive, but I feel there is value in explaining the same concept in a number of different ways as different readers will find some phrasings easier to digest than others. Ultimately, minimalism has clearly benefited Sasaki and helped him find a coherent identity, and as such he provides useful advice to aspiring minimalists. The mix of quoted individuals in Chapter 4 (Steve Jobs, Einstein, Lao Tzu, Tyler Durden) reveal an attempt to put minimalism on a cultural pedestal that I find unconvincing. I am left feeling minimalism is a useful tool, but a shallow philosophy.

Marie Kondo

The face of minimalism, via her Netflix series, is Marie Kondo. Sasaki talks about Kondo’s influence on minimalism in his 2015 book, pointing out that her recent fame in the English speaking world was preceded by much earlier interest in Japan. Google trends supports this chronology. On the left in red, the search trends for 近藤 麻理恵 (Marie Kondo in Japanese) peak in December 2011 and May 2015, corresponding with the release of her book and being listed in the Time 100 most influential people respectively. Search trends for her name in English peak in January, with the release of her Netflix show.

Photo from the Week

Sunset over Kingsford Smith International Airport

2018 Week 5: Trolley Problems

There isn’t a unifying theme this week, just a mixture of things I’ve been thinking about.

Trolley Problems
Last night I attended a Raclette party and over deliciously melted cheese enjoyed conversing with American, British, Chinese, and Swiss friends. For most of the world, the prevalence of guns in the United States of America is frighteningly alien, and I recommended an episode of the podcast More Perfect about the history of the  Second Amendment which I found fascinating. Following speculation about situations where someone might use a gun, the discussion became a more abstract consideration of the trolley problem (there is also a relevant Facebook meme page).  I find it interesting that most people adopt the utilitarian perspective in the more foreign situation of pulling a lever to move a trolley, but if you reframe the decision where the actor is a doctor, the 5 are suffering failures of 5 different organs, and the 1 is an unknown backpacker come in for a check up, people find it intuitively more difficult to take the life of the stranger in the more familiar context. Perhaps this is an intuition about the risk of organ transplants making the lives of the ill less valuable than the life of this healthy traveller, or perhaps it is something about breaking the trust that the traveller imbues in the doctor. Clearly the characters tied to the tracks have no such relationship with the lever operator. One way in which this discussion is particularly timely is in considering self driving cars, who will need these decisions programmed into their code ahead of time. This MIT app lets you make judgements of such moral dilemmas, then gives you some feedback on your preferences, and you can even invent your own (the associated paper is here).

British Library
This week I visited the British Library. Each time I go I am struck by the scale of legal deposit. The system guarantees the British Library will hold a copy of every book (and some other text types) published in the United Kingdom, which some quick googling suggests is around 500 books a day, every day of the year. It can be confronting, particularly when I feel relatively poorly read, that such an unceasing torrent of new material is being created daily. Another perspective is several hundred hours of Youtube video are added every minute. In a world where there is so much information, it is a good reminder to treasure each unit of attention one has, and to invest it wisely. I hope, dear reader, you feel this is worth your time.

Motivation and Mental Health
This week I felt the first few cracks of trying to squeeze as many productive hours into a week as possible. On reflecting, I am reminded that positive feedback is important, and low motivation can be the result of too much focus on the negative. Setting up for “easy wins”, where you are able to make progress without much difficulty or excitement, can help build momentum to tackle more difficult tasks. I also need to improve sleep hygiene, checking the bright light of a smartphone in the middle of the night is not aiding rest and recovery.

Writing from the Radcliffe Camera