When is the middle of winter according to heating degree days? January 18.

Image by TheUjulala from Pixabay

I mostly heat by burning firewood and my wood pile has shrunken quite seriously already this year. I was wondering when the middle of the winter is from an HVAC perspective and I was surprised that I couldn’t find the answer, so I downloaded data from DegreeDays.net for the Findlay Airport weather station for the past three and a half years and did the calculations to discover that yesterday, January 18, was the middle of the winter for Ohio according to the local data.

This year has been a milder than the average for the past couple years, so I’ve just been burning through our firewood faster than usual. Anyhow, if you are wondering how much more firewood you will need for the rest of the year and you know how much firewood you have burnt so far this year, it should be about half of the total amount you will burn for the entire heating season although the rest of this year is more likely to regress to the average temperatures (which are a bit colder) and so we probably aren’t really quite half way through the fuel we will burn this particular year given that the first half of the heating season has been particularly mild.

So we just passed the median day of winter’s heating needs.

Posted in statistics

Ikigai

In 2017-18 there was an ikigai fad in the West. Several new books were simultaneously published and numerous news articles were written.  Even the World Economic Forum got caught up in the fad and published an article about it.  They define ikigai (prounounced ee-kee-guy) as “your reason for getting up in the morning”.  It is, “the idea of having a purpose in life” or “value in living”.


…To find this reason or purpose, experts recommend starting with four questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • What can you get paid for?

Finding the answers and a balance between these four areas could be a route to ikigai for Westerners looking for a quick interpretation of this philosophy. But in Japan, ikigai is a slower process and often has nothing to do with work or income.

In a 2010 survey of 2,000 Japanese men and women, just 31% of participants cited work as their ikigai. [Which makes sense given that less than half of the Japanese population is working and only 59% of adults are working.  So the majority of Japanese workers got ikigai from their work if that survey was representative.]

Gordon Matthews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of What Makes Life Worth Living?: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, told the Telegraph that how people understand ikigai can, in fact, often be mapped to two other Japanese ideas – ittaikan and jiko jitsugen. Itaikkan refers to “a sense of oneness with, or commitment to, a group or role”, while jiko jitsugen relates more to self-realization.

Matthews says that ikigai will likely lead to a better life “because you will have something to live for”, but warns against viewing ikigai as a lifestyle choice: “Ikigai is not something grand or extraordinary. It’s something pretty matter-of-fact.”

Doing things for other people (“what the world needs”) is a particularly important hole in how most Americans think about happiness.  Harvard researchers surveyed over 10,000 American students and about 80% said they valued their own happiness over caring for others.  Most kids thought their parents had the same priorities.

The irony is that seeking happiness isn’t necessarily the best way to find happiness.  It is partly by caring for others that we find happiness and purpose in life.  Happiness is one of those things that you can’t get by striving to be happy.  It is produced as a byproduct of how you live your life and if you only do things for the world because you want to be happy, it won’t work as well as if you do things for the world simply because you want to contribute.  It is the joy of contributing to others that brings a happiness that cannot be produced by merely striving to be happy.

Yukari Mitsuhashi reported for the Huffington Post that

There have even been attempts to link ikigai to longevity. Studies have found a correlation between longevity and having a life’s purpose, or ikigai, and Japan has the world’s longest life expectancy, 83.7 years ― five years longer than the U.S. (78.7 years).

In another article, Yukari Mitsuhashi wrote in the BBC that

There are many books in Japan devoted to ikigai, but one in particular is considered definitive: Ikigai-ni-tsuite (About Ikigai), published in 1966.

The book’s author, psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya, explains that as a word, ikigai is similar to “happiness” but has a subtle difference in its nuance. Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.

Hasegawa points out that in English, the word life means both lifetime and everyday life. So, ikigai translated as life’s purpose sounds very grand. “But in Japan we have jinsei, which means lifetime and seikatsu, which means everyday life,” he says. The concept of ikigai aligns more to seikatsu and, through his research, Hasegawa discovered that Japanese people believe that the sum of small joys in everyday life results in more fulfilling life as a whole…

In a culture where the value of the team supercedes the individual, Japanese workers are driven by being useful to others, being thanked, and being esteemed by their colleagues, says Toshimitsu Sowa… That’s not to say that working harder and longer are key tenets of the ikigai philosophy… Rather, ikigai is about feeling your work makes a difference in people’s lives.

How people find meaning in their work is a topic of much interest to management experts. One research paper by Wharton management professor Adam Grant explained that what motivates employees is “doing work that affects the well-being of others” and to “see or meet the people affected by their work.”

In one experiment, cold callers at the University of Michigan who spent time with a recipient of the scholarship they were trying to raise money for brought in 171% more money when compared with those who were merely working the phone. The simple act of meeting a student beneficiary provided meaning to the fundraisers and boosted their performance.

This applies to life in general. Instead of trying to tackle world hunger, you can start small by helping someone around you, like a local volunteering group.

Diversify your ikigai

Retirement can bring a huge sense of loss and emptiness for those who find their ikigai in work. This can be especially true for athletes, who have relatively shorter careers… When retirement comes, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of why you do what you do beyond collecting a payslip.

By being mindful of this concept, it might just help you live a more fulfilling life.

The focus of Ikigai changes with age.  In particular, for people who live long enough to retire (or those living off of an inheritance), the last of the four questions–“What can you get paid for?”–disappears and those lucky people can just focus on other dimensions. In fact, some authors like Dan Buettner always leave the money question off of the list of dimensions and just focus on the other three. There is some overlap between what the world needs from you and what you can get paid for, but they certainly are not one and the same as the diagram shows.

Hector Garcia wrote a book about ikigai and he said that he associates ikigai with being in a flow state where, “you forget to eat and drink”. Iza Kavedžija interviewed older Japanese and she reported that they focused on the second question which is looking at ikigai as mastery.

There are other dimensions that the above ikigai diagram leaves out that are also important for living a good life such as spirituality, and an explicit recognition of the importance of relationships.  That should be one of the top factors because relationships are what makes life happier and healthier.  One study found that, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”  Perhaps the weakening of close relationships in Japan is one reason why most Japanese people say they are unsatisfied with their ikigai.

The Japanese have a word for quality relationships,  moai, and that they often use it for explaining ikigai, but somehow this concept didn’t make it into the above diagram that became popular a couple years ago.  Similarly, the aforementioned ittaikan is also frequently cited by the Japanese as being crucial for ikigai and that is also all about one’s relationship with a group and role in that group.

Relationships is sorta in the iconic diagram because there is considerable overlap between “what the world needs” and one’s relationships, but it should be stressed more because you can focus on what the world needs without building close relationships with individuals.

But there are many different ways to explain ikigai.  For example, Japanese writer Ken Mogi defines ikigai using five other ways to achieve ikigai, but the ikigai diagram above and its four questions is a great place to start thinking about it, and you will have to pick what other dimensions to add to your own personal ikigai diagram.

Posted in Labor

Why is health care so expensive in the United States

The International Federation of Health Plans publishes an international cost comparison of common medical services and its most recent compilation looked at prices in 2017. The result answers the question asked by the NYT:

Why does health care cost so much more in the United States than in other countries? As health economists love to say: “It’s the prices, stupid.”

Most procedures cost less than half as much abroad compared with what Americans pay.

On top of these prices, Americans also pay higher insurance administrative costs than people in other countries, but that only adds a few percentages to the kind of inflated prices shown here.

The UAE does pay more for Kalydeco than Americans pay, but that is one of those rare outliers. The UAE pays less than half what Americans pay for most drugs.

Many people think that Americans pay more for healthcare due to high administrative costs, and it is true that we pay higher prices for healthcare administration than anywhere else, but that is still only about 8% of healthcare spending (according to the OECD), so it is only a tiny part of the overall problem.

As you can see in the graphic, only Mexico and Costa Rica had a higher administrative burden than the US, but because they spend a lot less on healthcare in those countries, the gross administrative burden in the US is still much bigger.  

admin-cost

At the bottom of the graphic are Turkey, Norway and Finland which spend hardly anything on healthcare administration.  

Posted in Health

Median American wealth still lags many peers

Credit Suisse does an annual analysis of global wealth that I have written about in the past. Today, Paul Neufeld Weaver sent me an infographic showing the distribution produced by HowMuch.net, a financial literacy website:

(In case the html for their graphic isn’t working, below is a version from Wikipedia)

Credit Suisse caters to the super wealthy elite and their heirs, so they are never going to criticize rising inequality, but one reason why the US has lower median wealth than Canada or France is that there is higher wealth inequality in the US which means that the top 1% have a larger share of the total and the median American has a smaller share.

The US is far wealthier per capita than France or Canada according to the Credit Suisse data, but despite higher overall wealth, the US still has lower median wealth because our higher inequality in the US means that wealthy elites have a lot more of the total than in nearly all countries that have higher median wealth than the US.

Posted in Medianism

Abolish Daylight Wasting Time

Updated 11.01.2019

This Sunday begins the season of Daylight Wasting Time which wastes daylight for  most Americans. The median American gets out of bed a little after 6:30AM and goes to bed around 11PM according to Jawbone’s sleep sensors and a Edison Research poll.  American women get up closer to 7AM according to University of Michigan research.

Daylight Saving Time extends daylight into the evening hours when nearly EVERYONE is awake and more people have time to be outside because it is after work hours. Daylight Wasting Time cuts the useful evening hours of daylight and adds daylight in the early morning hours when the vast majority of Americans are still either asleep or inside their homes getting ready for the day with all their lights on regardless of how much sunlight is outside. Daylight Wasting Time shifts more sunlight to 6AM, but only about 29% of Americans are up by 6 AM.

This is a wasteful trade-off. We should stick with Daylight Saving Time all year round.

Daylight Saving Time was a great idea because it helped everyone coordinate their schedules to waste less time sleeping during the daylight. It would have been impossible to order everyone to get up an hour earlier to use daylight more efficiently, so the government moved the clock forward which caused the same effect. That was a tricky feat of social engineering.  This map of Jawbone data shows that arbitrary time systems have a big impact on sleep patterns.

If you happen to live on the left side of a time-zone border you tend to go to bed about an half hour earlier than people who happen to live a few miles away just across the dividing line on the right side.  Just be shifting the official clock time, entire populations dramatically change their sleeping behavior.

During Daylight Wasting Time, the middle of the darkness is midnight and the middle of the light of day is noon.  Daylight Saving Time was adopted to recognize the reality that noon is FAR from the middle of the time when most people are awake, and midnight is FAR from the middle of our sleep. We got more usable daylight by shifting clock one hour later so that the middle of the daylight is closer to the middle of our waking day and the clock hour of 12:00 midnight is one hour closer to the middle of our sleep.  That saves about an hour of daylight each day.  Because humans are awake more hours every day than there is sunlight, the best way to maximize our use of the sunlight is to be awake during both sunrises and sunsets, and although nearly everyone stays awake until after sunset, many people sleep through most of our sunrises and waste daylight.  That is the problem that Daylight Saving Time was invented to deal with.

That invention was a great idea, but unfortunately, the inventors thought the benefits should be temporary every year and set up a annual ritual of switching back to Daylight Wasting Time every fall which always takes us back to the problem that Daylight Saving Time was invented to fix.  Those time changes also add a host of additional costs caused by the transitioning back and forth. Joseph Stromberg wrote an excellent survey of the harms of switching time twice a year:

  • It was supposed to save energy. It failed.
  • It increases traffic deaths.
  • Contrary to the myth that it was invented to help farmers, it hurts them, particularly the dairy industry.
  • Corporations lobbied to lengthen the months of Daylight Saving Time in 1986 because Daylight Wasting Time hurts sales of everything from barbecue grills to baseball tickets and golf balls. The candy lobby succeeded in changing federal law again in 2007 to sell more candy by delaying the return of Daylight Wasting Time until after Halloween so trick-or-treating would have more time and they could sell more candy.  I say why not delay it until after the Christmas retail season! Then we’d only have to deal with a bit over 2 months of wasted daylight every year.
  • Daylight Wasting Time increases depression due to less available light for outdoor activities.
  • It reduces exercise.
  • It reduces worker productivity.
  • It even increases heart attacks!

Some people argue that we need to switch to Daylight Wasting Time so that it isn’t dark when kids go to school in the morning to keep them safe.  This is an expensive way to keep school kids safe.  It would be simpler and better for kids if we just delayed the start of school because most teenagers are not morning people and perform better if they aren’t forced to wake up so early.

The New York Times hosted an online debate about whether or not to abolish that annual switch to Daylight Wasting Time and so they rounded up a bunch of researchers who have examined its costs and benefits.  It wasn’t much of a “debate” because all the researchers wanted to abolish it. The only voice the New York Times found to argue in favor of the annual switch was a novelist who thinks it is neat because it forces us to “change our perspective” twice a year.  Well, yes, an increase in heart attacks and traffic accidents certainly does force us to change our perspective, but there are better ways.

Unfortunately, most of the voices in favor of ending the switch want to abolish Daylight Saving Time rather than keeping it permanently.  For example, Andy Woodruff argues that we should permanently keep our clocks fixed in Daylight Wasting Time because he prioritizes having sunrises before 7:00 AM as he shows in his preferred heat map (shown below), but you can pick your own preferences and see how it would look in his interactive graphic at the above link.

I agree that abolishing Daylight Saving Time is better than switching back and forth, but better yet would be to abolish Daylight Wasting Time and keep Daylight Saving Time instead.

One problem with Woodruff’s scheme is that sunrise isn’t the same thing as first light. If we switch the criteria to first light at 7:00 AM, then always observing Daylight Saving Time is far superior to always observing Daylight Wasting Time in Woodruff’s scheme. Unfortunately, morning people like Woodruff have traditionally dominated American culture and we wake up earlier in the morning than just about any other rich nation.

sleep time

The above graph just shows the earliest risers, but there are many more nations that get up even later and women in Spain have the latest schedule, going to bed at midnight and waiting until after 8AM to get up.

Morning people discriminate against night owls in America. This injustice is ultimately why we continue to observe Daylight Wasting Time. The minority of Americans who are early to bed and early to rise have traditionally dominated over the majority of Americans who get up later. Those early risers like to have the additional daylight all to themselves before the rest of us get up, and that is the real reason why we have daylight wasting time despite the social cost.

This is not inevitable. America has changed our system numerous times, most recently in 2007 when it was extended by a month. That change cost the airlines $147 million to coordinate their schedules with the rest of the world because most countries don’t have Daylight Wasting Time and it takes a lot of work to change schedules which have to be coordinated with everyone else.

This is an ongoing problem because the countries that use some kind of Daylight Wasting system don’t change their clocks on the same schedule and all those international time changes always cost money and errors every year. Below is the Wikipedia map of the countries that do not have any kind of Daylight Wasting Time system marked in either dark or light gray. They are much more civilized.

Daylight Wasting Time is uniquely prevalent in Western Europe and its cultural offshoots in North America and that’s it.  But the globe should be getting even more civilized because 80% of EU citizens want to scrap it according to a recent poll and so the EU is drafting legislation to abolish it.  There is also movement in the US.  In 2018, a California ballot initiative to abolish Daylight Wasting Time passed with an overwhelming 60% despite having zero dollars spent on the initiative (a very rare event), but the change still requires 2/3 approval of both houses of the state legislature.  That is a very high bar to pass even though it is a very popular idea.

The most harmful part of our daylight wasting system is the ridiculous ritual of changing our clocks twice a year. That switch annually kills people and measurably reduces productivity. The morning people would prefer to keep Daylight Wasting Time year round so that they can have more daylight at their favorite time of the day — in the quiet of early morning before everyone else is out and about. Fine. If we can’t save daylight all year round, then I’d settle for having Daylight Wasting Time year-round, but it would be best to abolish it and keep Daylight Saving Time.

Note this question that Brian Resnick asked:

Isn’t it “daylight savings time” not “daylight saving time”?

No, it’s definitely called “daylight saving time.” Not plural. Be sure to point out this common mistake to friends and acquaintances. You’ll be really popular.

Posted in Culture

Stuart Russell says to give up on deontologies


Stuart Russell wrote a new book about managing the coming artificial intelligence revolution called Human Compatible. He believes that the main danger of AI is not that it will become conscious and decide to maximize its own well-being at the expense of humans, but that AI will slavishly try to solve the problems that humans direct it to solve and cause disastrous unintended consequences. For example:

the problem comes from increasing capabilities, coupled with our inability to specify objectives completely and correctly. Can we restore our carbon dioxide to historical levels so that we get the climate back in balance? Sounds like a great objective. Well, the easiest way to do that is to get rid of all those things that are producing carbon dioxide, which happen to be humans. You want to cure cancer as quickly as possible. Sounds great, right? But the quickest way to do it is to run medical trials in parallel with millions of human subjects or billions of human subjects. So you give everyone cancer and then you see what treatments work.

He says we can’t write down rules for how to do this safely because laws don’t work well enough. You can declare, “Thou shall not kill” but the AI might misinterpret this (as humans often do) or find some loophole in which the AI merely causes someone else to kill humans. Russell gives the analogy of how impossible it is to write a tax law without people finding loopholes and causing unintended consequences:

So, we’ve been trying to write tax law for 6,000 years. And yet, humans come up with loopholes and ways around the tax laws so that, for example, our multinational corporations are paying very little tax to most of the countries that they operate in. They find loopholes. And this is what, in the book, I call the loophole principle. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to put fences and rules around the behavior of the system. If it’s more intelligent than you are, it finds a way to do what it wants.

Russell says that we have to stop using deontology (a rule-based ethical system) and move to a consequentialist ethical system for managing AI.

Instead, the AI system has a constitutional requirement that it be of benefit to human beings. But it knows that it doesn’t know what that means. It doesn’t know our preferences. And it knows that it doesn’t know our preferences about how the future should unfold. So you get totally different behavior. Basically, the machines defer to humans. They ask permission before doing anything that messes with part of the world. …[An AI that is trying to learn what humans want] has an incentive to be honest about its plans because it wants to get feedback and so on.

This does seem to be an improvement, but I’m still worried about AI developing its own priorities and even if AIs stay obedient to humans, I’m worried about the character of the individuals that the machines will obey. The people who own various AI could have disastrous priorities.

Russell makes the parallel with nuclear physics in order to argue that we need to be thinking about how to manage the dangers before they become a problem, but I think that is actually a scarier analogy than Russell had intended.

I think it’s useful to look back at the history of nuclear energy and nuclear physics, because it has many parallels… when Leo Szilard invented the nuclear chain reaction, he didn’t know which atoms could be induced to go through a fission reaction and produce neutrons that would then produce more fission reactions…. The only way you get nuclear safety is by worrying about the ways [reactors] can blow up and preventing them from blowing up.

Unfortunately for this analogy he first application of controlled nuclear reactions was the nuclear bomb and the physicists at the time risked the survival of the entire planet when they tested it.  They suspected that the explosion could cause a chain reaction that would ignite the atmosphere of the entire world in a global nuclear explosion when they tested it, but they did it anyhow.

Similarly, AI will eventually become dangerously powerful. Who is to say that the first AI won’t be deployed as a weapon between nations or as a weapon of wealth accumulation by a private party who isn’t worried about the wellbeing cost to humanity because of lust for power? With anything as powerful as nuclear reactions or AI, we will need to worry about the purposes of any humans who have any control over it. With AI, there is the additional worry that it will escape the control of those humans altogether and develop independent motivations.

Posted in Philosophy and ethics

Inequality & The Good Place

I’ve been watching the first season of The Good Place on Netflix which is a sit-com (with super-high ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes) about two people who are mistakenly sent to heaven and must learn moral philosophy to be able to stay. I like how the show illustrates a lot of interesting moral issues such as the fact that most of us tend to be more drawn to others who are not particularly moral and distance ourselves from the moral paragons.

It is easy to like the morally-flawed protagonist of the show and even though we admire the paragons of morality like the moral philosophy professor who is the protagonists’ sidekick, it is easy to understand why characters on the show frequently comment that, “everyone hates moral philosophy professors.”  Research confirms that most people prefer to have friends with moral flaws.  The moral paragons on the show can feel annoying whereas the flawed characters are often more relatable and it is certainly more cathartic to watch their foibles.  I suspect this helps explain why most Republican evangelicals prefer the obviously flawed Donald Trump over Mike Pence who is a paragon of virtue by comparison.  They don’t want impeachment to take away our flawed, cathartic leader and replace him with a boring, reliable one.

One of the moral philosophers who has most influenced the show is T. M. Scanlon whose philsophy of contractualism is the central guide for the show’s writers. Scanlon also argued that we should worry less about equality of outcomes and more about equality of opportunity. As Martin O’Neill wrote:

The distributive approach to equality fits with a model of egalitarian public policy that is essentially compensatory in nature. It may be seen as just a brute fact that, in the economic arena, many people lack opportunities or suffer indignities and harm to their sense of standing and self-respect. A state concerned with promoting greater equality could then come along after the fact and redistribute goods or welfare toward those who have lost out in economic life.

But, on the social egalitarian model that Scanlon advances, ex post compensation is not good enough. Instead, a state concerned with equality must ensure, from the start, that people are able to pursue lives of robust, individual agency within the economic domain, with a secure sense of their standing as equals among others. Instead of being concerned only with redistribution, egalitarian public policy should incline toward predistribution, which aims to reshape economic institutions so that they foster egalitarian social relationships, as well as more evenly distributed economic rewards.

Whether or not equality of outcome or of opportunity is the most ethical type of equality to focus on, equality of opportunity is the most politically achievable because both liberals and conservatives agree that equality of opportunity is important whereas many conservatives are skeptical about equality of outcomes. And in reality, there is tremendous overlap because you cannot have equality of opportunity without a big increase in equality of outcomes because each person’s opportunities are largely determined by what she or he inherits and inheritance is currently extremely inegalitarian because of the high inequality of outcomes in the previous generations.

You simply cannot have equality of opportunity without a lot of ex-post transfers from the wealthy of the previous generation to the children of the have nots in this generation. Because equality of opportunity requires that we stop the inequality of outcomes in the previous generation from being transferred as an unearned entitlement to their children in the next generation, there is no difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes when considering more than one generation and the welfare transfers from parents to children. And because equality of opportunity is more politically feasible since both the right and the left agree about it, we should focus on that if we want to accomplish more equality.

Posted in Philosophy and ethics

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