The power of incentives

It’s imperative that we think very literally about the incentive systems we create.

Farnamstreet illustrates this point with three examples where incentives went horribly wrong:

The British wanted to get rid of cobras in Delhi so they started paying people for every dead cobra brought in. Result: people started breeding cobras.

Belgian soldiers in Congo were told to bring severed hands as proof that they were using bullets to kill those who didn’t meet certain rubber production quotas. The king’s concern was soldiers wasting bullets by shooting game or missing their human targets. Result: soldiers started cutting off the hands of living people to make up for the cartridges they used or for the quotas that were impossible to meet.

A socially conscious company tried to help people in Ghana by paying a premium on shea nuts in order to help them. Result: people increased shea nut production four times resulting in an excess supply that had no use and which ultimately drove the prices down.

If you are in a position where you can design a system that other people will use make sure you think through the incentives it will create.

Reading on digital devices good for details, bad for abstract thinking

#humancomputerinteraction #reading

According to a recent series of studies (telegraph.co.uk’s article) on 21 year old university students reading on iPads helps you see the trees but not the forest whereas reading on paper does the opposite, it helps you see the forest instead of the trees.

The researchers’ hypothesis is that digital devices come with a lot of distractions like games, social network apps and notifications and their continuous use primes the brain for distractions instead of deep thinking. With a piece of paper there are no distractions.

The researchers describe situations where this triggered low-level thinking is beneficial like solving problems that require attention to detail and risk analysis, but the paper is on the area of Computer Human Interaction so they have an incentive to find a positive side to the story. The conclusion I take is: minimize number of apps and disable notifications on any devices where you want to read intelligently.

Hiking from Richterswil to Pfäffikon SZ

Yesterday we decided to go hiking. We are thinking about eventually walking long trails like the Via Alpina, the Appalachian Trial and the Pacific Crest Trail but we need to start somewhere closer to what we can do today so we decided to start with Route 84 stage 4 which is a comfortable 16km hike near Lake Zürich.

We started the hike in Richterswil, a short train ride away from home.

Zurich lake.
Lake Zürich at 9am.

The first leg of our hike took us through a narrow ravine covered in a dense forest. Due to a heightened sense of confidence and adventure (I forgot to check the map) we didn’t enter the actual route 84 until about 45 minutes later but I tried to convince Loes that our detour was nicer than the official route.

Alien messages carved into wood.
Alien messages carved into wood.

Other than a couple of men walking their dogs we didn’t see other human lifeforms until we got out of the forest and into a lake.

The little lake was called Sternenweiher (“Pond of Stars”), but the proud restaurant next to it decided that Sternensee (“Lake of stars”) had a better ring to it. In that area we also saw people doing morning runs and, here and there, women riding what looked like huge war horses.

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Taking a break through the hilly prairies after the lake.

Slowly, as the sun rose, we were rewarded with views like this:

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A bit later we arrived to Samstagern, a little village west of where the actual route 84 actual passes through.

Samstagern's emblem.
Emblem of Samstagern.

Villages around here are not like the villages I remember back from Spain. At one point we a garage that looked more like a little house with a Porsche Carrera in it and, two spots away, a tractor. Most of the people we saw were old people gardening. But besides these displays of being skilled with money we also saw the coolest mailbox I’ve ever seen:

Mailbox reproduction of the house next to it.
Mailbox reproduction of the house next to it.

Also in the same village:

Fire hydrant with a personality.
Fire hydrant with a personality.

After a few more villages population density quickly dropped and, for the bulk of the next two hours, we walked alone surrounded by trees doing what Loes and most of 126 million Japanese call “Shinrin-yoku“.

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Up and up we went with nothing but grass, cows and trees.

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Something that I’ve noticed since we moved to Switzerland is a specific blend of nature and old along with order and cleanliness. For example the wall of the next photo is almost falling apart but still has some dignity about itself. However everything around it clean an in order: the pails are aligned, the interior of the room to its left is also in order and the trolley with the rolled tube is cleanly parked. The floor, both outside and inside, is as clean as a random Japanese city. And this is only one instance. Inside the various forests we passed by we saw plenty of cut wood logs neatly piled, aligned with the road and impecable.

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As we continued climbing we kept receiving larger and larger doses of beautiful scenery. Standing there listening to chirping birds and taking in the views was energizing.

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Which doesn’t mean we stopped paying attention to the small things.

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Soon after midday we reached Etzel Kulm (“Hill of Etzel”), the highest point in our day trip.

Etzel Kulm, 1098m.
View from Etzel Kulm, 1098m.

The area had some props like the following last century cart as well as a restaurant and a parking for cheaters.

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After a break where we finished our delicious home-made hummus we started our way down.

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Fresh pine leaves. First time I see them like this.

The descent felt more steep than our ascent and it was also much more crowded. We still managed to get good views of the valley surrounding the area. The snowy mountains at the back? That’s the Alps.

Descending Etzel Kulm.
View of the valley descending Etzel Kulm.
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Click on the image to see the nice details on the shiny leaves.

And from there on to Pfäffikon we were drained so nothing to report.

It was a beautiful hike, totally recommended.

Bellinzona

At around the time we visited Konstanz we also went south, to Bellinzona, literally “war zone”.

The city is known for its three castles (UNESCO World Heritage) and is located in the valley of the Ticino River. As you can guess by its name it’s recorded history is mostly battles. At several points in the past it has been independent and it also has belonged to Italy, France and Switzerland. When you see the surrounding valley it’s easy to understand how strategically important it must have been as a safe pass through the Alps.

We started the visit with the castles:

Castlegrande.
Castlegrande.
Castle Montebello.
Castle Montebello.
Castle Montebello.
Castle Montebello.
Castelgrande.
Castelgrande.
View of castle Montebello (front) and Castello di Sasso Corbaro (back).
View of castle Montebello (front) and Castello di Sasso Corbaro (back).

And after Castelgrande we decided we had had enough castles and we went down to the old town to visit the main churches. The first one, Church di S. Maria delle Grazie, had a beautiful fresco:

Church di S. Maria delle Grazie.
Fresco at the Church di S. Maria delle Grazie.

And two surprises for which I’m sure there is a rational explanation:

I'm sure there is also a good reason for wolves eating people.
I’m sure there is also a good reason for wolves eating people.
Dish of the day: beheaded children.
Dish of the day: beheaded children.

In summary: beautiful little town that feels pretty medieval with very interesting surroundings. I wonder what it was like to live here hundreds of years ago.

The ways in which we need to grow

“The ways in which we need to grow are usually those we are the most supremely defended against and are least willing to admit even exist, let alone take an undefended, mindful peek at and then act on to change. It won’t be sustaining enough to have a quixotic idea of yourself as a meditator, or to hold the opinion that meditation is good for you because it has been good for others, or because Eastern wisdom sounds deep to you, or because you are in the habit of meditating. The vision we are speaking of has to be renewed every day, has to be right out front all the time, because mindfulness itself requires this level of awareness of purpose, of intention. Otherwise, we might as well stay in bed.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever You Go, There You Are

How do we build a society when most jobs are automated?

#automations #jobs #universalbasicincome

As automation increases more people become unemployable. However we have built a society that assumes that most people have jobs. How do we prepare for a world where that’s not the case?

Bill Gross defends in this article the idea of establishing a Universal Basic Income of, eg: $10k per year per person in the US and argues that it could be paid for with 1) raising taxes, 2) issuing more debt via the private market and 3) selling debt to central banks at low interest rates that would be paid back to the government.

Can the excess productivity of a few pay people for the sustenance of the rest of the world? For example, as of 2015 in the US alone 20% of Americans have 93% of the money. Paying for the UBI sounds in principle like a solvable problem.

And, more interestingly, once something like this is feasible, what would do the world look like? What will civilization do with all the millions of new man hours per day of cognitive surplus?

Dr. Strangelove

#antimilitary #comedy #kubrick

What if a US general goes insane and orders a nuclear attack in Russia during the Cold War?

That’s the question that Dr. Strangelove, a Stanley Kubrick movie from the 60s, explores. It’s a critic against the military with a lot humor and irony. The character interactions are great and the plot, although surreal and quickly spiraling out of control, will make you think about the dangers of an arms race. The primitive special effects and the sometimes histrionic acting don’t detract from the plot. Overall I found it to be a great comedy on the human condition.

**Warning: spoiler alert**

According to Kubrick, humanity, in particular the military, is full of selfish and irrational people driven by their passions that won’t hesitate sacrificing humanity for their own good. In the movie President Merkin and Mandrake represent rationality and desperately try to prevent the upcoming nuclear winter, but everyone else is essentially lunatic: Ripper reasoned that the communists contaminated water with fluoride to weaken the Americans and destroy them, Gen Turgidson is prejudiced against the Russians and can only think about making war and making love, Major ‘King’ Kong wants to bomb something even if he has to give his life, Dr. Strangelove is cynical and nihilist scientist who tries to convince everyone else that nuclear winter is coming and that they better get a few hundred thousand people with a 10 to 1 female to male ratio into a cave and start rebuilding humanity, the conspicuous Russian Ambassador keeps trying to steal information until the very end of the movie when the Doomsday machine is triggered, the Russian president is drunk and childish. Even Turgidson’s girlfriend is so self-centered that she calls him while he’s at the war room to ask if he will marry her.

From the scene where Jack explains how he came to believe that Russians deserved to be bombed for putting fluoride in US water:

When did you first become--, well, develop this theory?
When did you first become–, well, develop this theory?

— Jack. Listen, tell me–. Tell me, Jack. When did you first become– well, develop this theory?
— Well, I… I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love. Yes, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily, I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.

In the end, though, we are all doomed, too little rationality, too much self-interest and too much animal instinct, at least in the military.

Peace is our profession.
Peace is our profession.

Konstanz, Germany

We recently made a day trip to nearby Konstanz, right on the border with Germany.

The city is a well-known shopping destination for Swiss people because of low prices and easy access but the city has more than that. Inhabited since the Stone Age, in the 1400s the town-state asked the Old Swiss Confederacy to become a member but they were weary of large members and they voted against it. It’s also the home of the Council of Constance, where the Church fixed a pesky situation with three people claiming to be the Pope. The city preserves many of its old buildings because during World War II its inhabitants let the lights on at night making bombers believe it was part of Switzerland (which would have fooled me as well). And one more tidbit: Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the inventor of eponym aircrafts, was born here.

The first thing we did when we arrived was go to the flower island, Mainau, a ten minutes bus ride away from the train station. Luckily the weather that day was on our side and we were able to enjoy all its colorful flowers.

Something to cheer you up on the way to Konstan'z flower island, Mainau.
A reminder to cheer you up on the way to Konstan’z flower island, Mainau.
Inside Mainau's butterfly house.
Inside Mainau’s butterfly house.

Besides lots of flowers and a mini-zoo Mainau had a butterfly house. Walking inside it I felt like being in a dreamy slow motion world. You couldn’t turn too quickly because you could smash butterflies coming from your sides behind or hovering near the floor. And when they stopped they hypnotically made you stop.

Flowers.
Flowers.
More flowers.
More flowers.
This is clearly a Zerg Queen unit from Starcraft.
Clearly a Zerg Queen unit from Starcraft.

All this delicacy and order reminded me of Japanese etiquette and respect. I felt like a good person for no logical reason.

And more flowers.
And more flowers.

After this we took we said by to the flowers and to the enormous Lake Constance surrounding it and we strolled around the beautiful old town. After a visit to the cathedral, churches and narrow winding streets we headed to the station and managed to catch our train with a minute to spare.

Waterfront near the old town.
Waterfront near the old town.
A recently restored building  dating from 1294. Mixed feelings about copy-pasting that fresco.
A recently restored building dating from 1294. I have mixed feelings about copy-pasting that fresco.

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All in all it was a nice place to spend the way.