Mindless eating

I’ve just read Mindless Eating and it’s pretty interesting, though I’m not sure if agree with all of the premise.

The premise is we can stop getting fat by eating less and we can change our environment to make that happen without our noticing it and feeling deprived (obviously I agree with that part). In fact this is where Dan Ariely says free will comes in (Behavioural Economics Ate my Dog). We tend to rather blindly follow cues from our environment, and never notice the extremely powerful effect it has on us (countless food related experiments in Mindless eating) yet we can control our environment. And the good thing is, once you have done the upfront thinking, considering and planning to set up your environment, you can relax and mindlessly follow your new ‘rules’ (also the point in Willpower).

Brian Wansink researches how much we eat in various set ups. They have experiments in labs (which look like living rooms) and fake restaurants, with hidden scales everywhere to weigh what you eat.
I liked the one about portion sizes, where if you give someone 200 M&Ms in a bag they will eat an average of 73 in an hour but if you give them a bag with 10 bags of 20 M&Ms people will always finish a small bag, but they will eat less of them averaging 42 M&Ms. So if you want to buy in bulk you should always portion out helpings into smaller containers. So we might want ‘one’ of something (or three!) but the the size of that ‘one’ is quite flexible. I’ve found this myself with a tray bake birthday cake cut into squares which were further cut into triangles. I would have been perfectly happy to eat a square, but one triangle was one piece so I ate just one piece.

Though the book has lots of good useful strategies to eat less without feeling you are eating less, in some ways I felt the book was at cross purposes to a healthy diet because it doesn’t use my strategy. It discusses how to snack less when watching telly, but it never considered whether, maybe, we should just not snack! (to be fair it does discuss how not to snack before dinner). Because not being able to stuff our faces with sweets at all times will make us feel deprived. In fact the people in the book are faced with such a barrage of snacks (all unhealthy) you really understand how difficult it is for people in the US to eat sensibly.

This reminds me of Gretchen Rubins’ book Better than Before on how to foster good habits. One method is abstinence, avoiding something altotether, may be easier than moderation. And having ‘bright line’ rules for what you do and don’t eat can protect you even in this super-food-saturated environment. So rather than putting your snacks into small bags, you could having a rule of ‘no sweets’ or ‘only have sweets as an actual pudding after dinner’ or (my rule) ‘no snacks, except almonds or birthday cake (about once a fortnight), but also eat proper meals so you are not hungry. Faced with the absolute barrage of junk like the people in the book, I could feel how my rules would protect me and simplify my choices (just say no. I’m not saying it wouldn’t take a bit of willpower, if I was faced with the vast amounts of snacks, like the people in Mindless Eating I’d probably end up faffing more, but abstaining would protect me from the snacks).Dilbert Limit to potato chips a human can eat

I wonder if the obsession with snacks is a US thing. In one case they said that when ‘European’ researchers joined the food lab they were surprised that they could do experiments at any time of day because people were willing to eat at any time, while those researchers were used, at home, to only do food experiments at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Even Hercule Poirot agrees:

Alas that one can only eat three times a day. If one partakes of the 5 o’clock one doesn’t appreciate the dinner with the proper quality of expectant gastric juices. And the dinner, let us remember, is the supreme meal of the day.

When is your deathday?

Funnily just as I was joking about the website from the IT crowd where you enter all your details and it gives you your deathday (3pm Thursday if you don’t eat your greens, also the motherless ovens is driven by Scarper Lee’s impending deathday), I’ve found out that we can all access the system the GPs use to calculate our risks of cancers or heart disease (caveat caveat, don’t use it without your doctor…). The GP one sits inside their system and can safely use your data on your GPs database. The one we can use just sits on the website and you have to enter you data yourself, but it’s a really simple one page checklist. On the symptoms checklist, out of 19 options, blood comes up 7 times depending on where it is. It’s as if random bleeding is a bad thing. The postcode is used to estimate your deprivation. It could be an idea to compare the numbers you get with the numbers your GP gets. If your numbers are lower perhaps the GP is missing some family history. Also, who would have thought that difficulty in swallowing is more of a risk factor than a family member with type 2 diabetes and a family member with breast cancer put together? Who even knew difficulty in swallowing was a thing? These three risk factors give you a sprinkling of frowny faces on the overview panel if you are 68, but not if you are younger. The moral of the storey is that staying young is the best way to avoid cancer, it’s also good for Hollywood careers, so really, we should all follow Orlando’s example (not Bloom).

Though I was a bit dismissive of caveats above it’s interesting to note that though the system was built using (anonymised) data from 2.5 million people, it is still only sensitive enough to give meaningful risks for the ‘big 10’ cancers (the ones on the list when you click calculate) and it’s not good for rarer cancers (yet, adding more data will help). Also the tool is created with data from 25-80 year olds, so is only suitable for those age groups (I’m pretty sure bleeding randomly is bad whatever your age though! Get that checked out).

My impression of how useful a tool like this is, is influenced by a tool to predict genetic causes of diabetes (e.g. MODY). While the overwhelming majority of diabetics are now Type IIs and Type Is are next (their pancreas has been knocked out, most likely by the immune response to a mystery virus), there is a small category of people whose diabetes is caused by a mutation, and if you can identify these patients, it may change the way they are treated. For example some people just have a tiny stunted pancreas. Giving these people drugs to squeeze out more insulin from the pancreas probably won’t work and they should probably go straight onto insulin. Some people have a permanently higher blood glucose, but the body works perfectly well to maintain that higher level. A bit as if your body thought your body temperature should be 38 degrees. It is crazy hard to bring these levels down, and luckily it seems to be unnecessary, these people seem to be at no greater risk of long term conditions. so these ‘diabetics’ need to not be treated. And best of all is the condition setting in before six months (before you have a functioning immune system that could kill your pancreas) where you have the blood glucose sensing system, you have the insulin producing system but they are not connected. They can be joined back together by massive doses of sulphonylureas (basically a pill) which will eliminate your need for testing your blood sugar and injecting insulin. Almost a ‘cure’ for this tiny minority of a tiny minority. The point about algorithms here is that Prof. Andrew Hattersly who has led the research into these conditions, who can safely be considered an expert on genetic causes of diabetes has tested himself against the algorithm he built and he found the algorithm can guess better than he can. So swing on over if you’re diabetic and have family member with diabetes and want to review yourself.

So with this endorsment for one algorithm, I’m inclined to believe a different one can probably at least flag up useful pointers.

This can further be tied to the outguessing machine described by Poundstone in Predicting the Unpredictable. The machine was built in a pre digital age (the ’50s) and by simply remembering whatever you guessed the last two times a given option came up (with a 16 bit memory), it could consistently outguess anyone. Because (from Thinking Fast and Slow) multiplying lots of small numbers in our head is not a major human skill, so leave it to the algorithms.

Build character, without doing something you hate.

I was just reading Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney, which I enjoyed a lot. For some reason I had very good willpower while I was reading it. They take the idea that intelligence is supposed to be a good thing in life, but that actually ‘resisting the marshmallow’ or willpower also has a really strong correlation with ‘success’ (listed in the link). And that willpower is much more amenable to practise.

They point out that ‘willpower’ is the same thing you use for decision making and resisting impulses and we have limited supplies of the stuff. So starting 10 new years resolutions, that each require willpower, is impossibly hard. Do one at a time. They describe Franklin, who helped inspire Gretchen Rubin’s approach to her happiness project. He had a list of 13 values and each week he’d focus on one, slipping behind in the one he’d done in the previous week, but hopefully doing two steps forward in each focus week and only one step back in between, so that:

“On the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the Endeavor, a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it”.

The funny thing is that the recommendations end up really supporting religion. Lots of religious practices, meditating every day, praying every day, praying five time a day all add up to practising willpower. It seems that anything you do because it’s the right thing to do, whether or not you feel like it, is practising willpower. Or you could say that because you don’t feel like it you build character And the work done here gives you strength to do more good things in a virtuous circle.

Calvin and Hobbes build character

They also mention that the more tidy our environment, the more self control we have. In the study they quote you can be offered some money now, or more money in a week. People in tidier surroundings are more likely  to choose to wait a week.  This is funny as Gretchen Rubin studied the effect of clutter on happiness, pointing out that clutter is all over the popular press (blogs) but is not studied much, yet keeping clutter under control is an essential, foundation, habit so around 2011 the science caught up.

It might seem really obvious but I’ve also realised that reading about something, helps you think more focusedly on that subject. So while I was reading stuffocation, I decluttered (even thought the book is only partly about that) and while I was reading Willpower, I was keeping better habits. This suggests that constantly reading different books on the same subject can be useful at practising that subject, even if the books are not adding any new information. Even though I’ve decluttered reasonably well (though not as well as if Marie Kendo really came round to my house to say are you sure that brings joy to your life), it seems that reading a decluttering book every quarter would be a good way to inspire you to keep on top of things. Finally an excuse to get more of these books.

The final sentence is to point out (despite the Calvin and Hobbes strip) that I don’t think it is at all necessary to do pointless tasks to build willpower. In life and in the world, there are enough useful tasks that need doing, and helpful habits that can be built up, there is no need to build character just for building characters sake. Build character by building a habit of something useful and worthwhile (writing blogs?).

Was that something about how to beat the stock market?

In my previous post I mentioned that one of the unpredictable things Pounstone’s book can predict is the stock market. As the whole thing runs on people (not numbers) that sounds quite doable.

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/engineer_syllogism.png

The advice is

  1. buy index funds
  2. use their special patented method to figure out when to sit out of the market and keep your investments in cash, and when to buy back in (they fall down on the patented part by describing the method for free)

Poundstone doesn’t explain the first step, though Pete Comley does in his excellent book Monkey with a Pin. This book was inspired by the observation that 85% of fund managers don’t beat the market. Hence the value of index funds, which are the market.  When I first found out what an index fund is a few years ago I naively thought it was a new invention that would devastate the city. If people can get the same or better results for less money why wouldn’t they? I guess if psychics can earn money, and if there are whole professions where the experts guess right less often than chance, the fund manager doesn’t have to worry.

So Pete Comley pointed out the very important point that half of the ‘growth’ of the stock market is just inflation. Perhaps ‘just’ inflation is unfair. Inflation proofing an investment is pretty useful. Though Pete Comley showed that if you put cash in the highest interest account you could find, once  a year, then over the last 20 years (not including current low rates) you would actually also beat inflation.

So if you invest £17,250 and 23 years later you have £27,500, that looks like a respectable 4.2% per annum gain, but if inflation averaged 3.5% that was really only a 0.7% gain. Comley further calculated that overall per annum return on investment over the last century, after subtracting out inflation,  is 5% and average investement costs are 6%, giving overall returns of minus 1%, which would look perfectly respectable after inflation, say,  4%.

So beating inflation is not to be sneezed at. Actually since reading Monkey with a Pin I think Poundstone is the first person I’ve read who discusses the value of markets after adjusting for inflation.

If fund managers are not beating the market and the market is going up anyway because of inflation, which you get for ‘free’ just by owning unmanaged shares, then the next step is to minimise costs.

If you have an index fund of the market that is going up 5% a year with 0.5% annual fees (the maximum you should pay for an index fund, you might get a little less) and you compare it to a fund that is consistently beating that index (the market) by 1% a year, 6% overall, but which charges 2%, then I don’t even need to plot the graph to show you that lower fees are more important than small gains.

I like graphs so I’m going to plot it anyway.

Index fund returns

See how compounding interest doesn’t make much difference for the first 10 years and takes off after 20 years. But look at the huge difference when costs are 0.5% (red) vs costs of 1.5% (green). A mere extra 1% knocked almost a quarter off the final income. And while the expensive hedge fund at 2% interest and 20% of profits (purple) did beat the index fund, it would have to beat the market by 3% consistently for 30 years. Good luck finding a manager who is in the top 15% for 30 years running and who won’t retire in that time.

There are a lot more to the costs that I didn’t discuss (if the market goes up by 5% and fees are 0.5% you get less than 4.5%)and I didn’t even get round to the superspecial unpatented Poundstone method to beat the index funds. That’ll have to be another post.

Why I’m getting rid of my reward cards (I’m only a little paranoid)

I just finished reading William Poundstone’s: How to predict the unpredictable. It turns out we are actually quite predicable. Each chapter covers one topic and finishes with tips on how to win at e.g. rock paper scissors, tennis and the stockmarket (check out the table of contents on amazon ‘look inside’).

One point is that we really have no clue what random looks like, If you map 50 coin tosses as black and white squares, the random one (middle) looks fake and the fake one (top) looks random. In the random set, each coin toss has a 50/50 chance of being different from the previous one. In the one we think of as random, there is a 75% chance the next block will be different from the previous one. We have to go up to a 90% chance of a colour change (bottom, ) before we begin to think it looks fake.

Looks Random Sept2015

This is the law of small numbers. A pschological trick making us think the rules that govern large numbers (50/50 outcomes of 1000 coin tosses) will also govern small numbers (not really, there’s a pretty high chance of not getting a 50/50 split in 5, or 10, coin tosses).

Next up is passwords and PIN numbers, with estimates that 11% of the population uses 1234! If you found a debit card, and tried the three most likely PINs (1111 at 6% and 0000 at 2%) you’d have a hair under a 1/5 chance of getting the right number.

The tip for passwords is to find a random password generator, generate a few passwords and find one that is easy to make up a story to help you remember. Then only use it for a few important secure sites and not every time some online form asks you for a password. Personally I’m so sick of account names and numbers I’ll stop right there rather than sign up to another one. I’ve been reduced to buying theatre tickets by phone, which was actually just as easy.

Poundstone did fall down on one aspect. He describes the Target campaign where they looked at the buying habits across 25 products and found they could tell when someone was pregnant almost to the week (the list included suddenly buying certain vitamins and scent free lotion). They would then send these women flyers for baby stuff and as long as they mixed it up with lawnmowers, so the women didn’t know they had been targeted specifically, they were happy to start the new phase of their life as a Target shopper. The story includes the angry father of a sixteen year old, who then found out she really was pregnant.

Here Poundstone says the new predictions challenge not only privacy but also our illusion of free will. But I disagree, it is definitely a privacy issue. Target even agrees re adding the lawn mower ads ‘as long as the pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on‘.

It’s an interesting grey area. It is not unreasonable for the shop to have records of your buying habits, but putting them together gives them data you don’t want them to have. Maybe the moral here is pay attention to an upcoming need for new laws, get rid of your reward cards, and pay cash rather than card. I’m reluctant to do the second, but then I never do spend the points, so I’m putting it on my to-do-when-I-get-round-to-it list. Though I did just sign up to the Paperchase reward card, I’m hoping there is a limit to what they can figure out from my stationery spending. The second requires planning and effort, but is something I aim to do more often than not (I’m also going to put a big sign on my back saying ‘suitable mugging target’). The first one is on the back burner. I’m hoping someone else will set up a campaign group and start lobbying MPs to ban shops scanning our faces, recording everything we do in them, saving that data and paying attention (via algorithms) to all the data.

Finally, make sure you delete your cookies before shopping on line, you’ll probably get better prices.

Ugh, why is living in the future so tedious.

Do what’s nice and/or what’s right

I just read Terry Pratchett’s A Blink of the Screen, and only just now discovered his series with Stephen Baxter, the Long Earth, this was one of my favourite short stories on a topic I love (many worlds, though I am mildy freaked out by the idea in New Scientist last week that there might actually be many worlds. I’m happy with this idea in fiction, not so much in reality).

The story that made me think most was about Granny Weatherwax (the deleted scene from The Sea and Little Fishes). She is respected but not liked, because she does what has to be done.
So when several children were murdered she saw the guilt in the murderers mind (also where the bodies were buried), got him to confess and saw him hanged, which was a better fate than he would have got without Granny Weatherwax as the villagers were really quite upset about the child murdering thing.
Yet then, in the story, the villagers began to think, well maybe he wasn’t such a bad chap, what if Granny Weatherwas made him confess (technically she did).
So Granny Weatherwax ended up as the bad guy in this story, getting lots of dark looks.

But thinking about it there is something she is doing wrong. By organising/commanding the villagers to execute the murderer, she took away their sense of agency and ‘self’ determination. She made a decisions for the villagers, which she should have made with them.

The villagers should have had a chance to decide for themselves what to do with cool heads, it is explicit that in the heat of the moment they would have horribly killed the murderer. Talking over the issue with cool heads they might have decided to go ahead and execute the murderer, but it would have been their decision. Or they might have decided some alternative form of penance was appropriate and he might have been able to live and possibly redeem himself.
It is a pity, just because it is a fantasy world, to throw all ethics out of the window and ignore the non-death penalty we have chosen to live by in real life. Ironically Terry Pratchett usually subverts this trope. In Small Gods he explicity refused to kill off the torturers, saying it would be harder, but better to redeem them.

Anne Fine’s characters also set up this dichotomy between being nice and doing the right thing, arguing that all niceness is based on spinelessness and the people who do the right thing (care about seat belts in cars) will always be disliked.

However, I think/hope this dilemma (be nice or do what is right) is a false dichotomy. The problem was not in executing the murderer, it was in making the villagers decision for them. Even if you know the answer and the discussions are long and tedious, you end up with better decisions that everyone can get behind (not necessarily that they agree with).

Robots: better than neglect

I’ve just been reading Sherry Turkle‘s book Alone Together, why we expect more from technology and less from each other. It’s a good contrast with Jane McGonigal‘s Reality is Broken. The latter is all about how games can bring out the best in us, the former about how technology is not a universal panacea (Ok those two things are quite separate, I could have drawn a description that would have depicted the two positions as complete opposites but I didn’t).

Though Sherry argues that the effects of modern technology on children needs to be more carefully thought out, I was struck by the parents checking their e-mail so constantly that the children never feel they get any attention. Robots (hypothetical for now) are preferred because

“A robot would remember everything I said. It might not understand everything but remembering is a first step. My father, talking to me while on his Blackberry, he doesn’t know what I said, so it’s not much use that if he did know, he might understand.”

A robot would cook me a proper dinner and not give me  cereal for supper.

Speaking of robots that will exist sooner, to look after elderly people, Sherry pointed out that we seem to be starting from the assumption that, even with unemployment through the roof, we will not have the time and resources to have people looking after older people, so we should give them robot companions and robot nurses. But as Sherry quotes Apppiah: the options are shaped by the question, we need to challenge which question is posed and ask what care we want to provide.

Justice, The terrorist dilemma

I recently read Justice, what’s the right thing to do? by Michael J. Sandel.

I loved the way the book broke down a lot of moral questions to show you all the pieces that go into a moral dilemma.

One discussion covered the dilemma ‘Is it ok to torture a terrorist to tell you the location of a bomb that is about to go off in a few hours?’

Sandel points out that there are two approaches.

1) Do the maths to figure out the greater good.

2) It is never right because freedom from torture is a human right that is beyond calculation, even if the benefits are huge.

My previous thought was to go with 1 and widen the ‘maths’ consideration to show that the costs will always be higher than the benefits (people can take a lot of pain for a few hours, benefit=0, freedom from torture will encourage people to dob in their friends/family as they can be sure they will be safe from mistreatment, and such citizens information is much more valuable than information extracted under torture).

The second argument is far more courageous and hard.

Sandel then breaks down the pieces of the argument by asking: What if we don’t have the terrorist, but his 5 year old innocent child. Is it ok to torture that child to locate the bomb?

It’s the same cost for the same benefit, but this is much more awful. This shows that our question of torture ‘for the greater good’ is also mixed up with the idea that the terrorist ‘deserves’ punishment. You could say the torture is in lieu of the jail time he would have to serve anyway. Not so with the child.