1. Can Money Buy Happiness?

    April 26, 2008 by Craig

    We in North America love to say that money can’t buy happiness. Justin Wolfers has writen a six-part blog post describing how that is not necessarily true — in fact, money and happiness are in fact strongly correlated.

    The facts about income and happiness turn out to be much simpler than first realized:

    1. Rich people are happier than poor people.
    2. Richer countries are happier than poorer countries.
    3. As countries get richer, they tend to get happier.

    Moreover, each of these facts seems to suggest a roughly similar relationship between income and happiness.

    There’s a lot of great facts, data, and analysis in his series — far to much to explain here. Instead, I’ll simply link to the articles and recommend that you read them if you’re interested. They’re quite an easy read and have some great graphs.

    1. Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox
    2. Are Rich Countries Happier than Poor Countries?
    3. Historical Evidence
    4. Are Rich People Happier than Poor People?
    5. Will Raising the Incomes of All Raise the Happiness of All?
    6. Delving Into Subjective Well-Being

    Also, here’s the original research paper. (Note: PDF)

    I would like to post two significant quotes though. Firstly:

    When we plot average happiness versus income for clusters of people in a given country at a given time, we see that rich people are in fact much happier than poor people.

    It’s actually an astonishingly large difference. There’s no one single change you can imagine that would make your life improve on the happiness scale as much as to move from the bottom 5 percent on the income scale to the top 5 percent.

    Also:

    There’s another striking finding in this graph: the relationship between happiness and log income appears nearly linear.

    Thus, a 10 percent rise in income in the United States appears to increase happiness by about as much as a 10 perecent rise in income in Burundi.

    Even so, it is worth noting that a 10 percent rise in income in Burundi requires one-sixtieth as much income as a 10 percent rise in income in the U.S. Thus, even if the slope is three times as steep for rich countries as poor countries (as we estimate), this still means than an extra $100 has about a twenty-times-greater effect on happiness in Burundi than it would in the United States.

    I think that this last one plays a significant role when discussing fighting terrorism (and foreign policy in general). If terrorism does have its roots in unhappiness (which is not proven but quite likely true) then the most effective means of combating it may be to take the money spent on rich-nation soldiers and arms producers and sink it directly into improving the lives of poor-nation civilians. That may have a better bang-for-your-buck ratio than trying to attack terrorists directly.

    Lastly: these data show correlations, and correlations are not causations. It is not possible (yet) to say that money does cause happiness. It may very well be the opposite effect: happiness causes productivity and thus higher GDP. However, there is some evidence that it really is the former situation (see the articles for full details), and I think that we’ll see a stronger causal link in the future as more research is done.


  2. Meta-Accuracy

    April 25, 2008 by Craig

    Paul Graham writes about his heroes: people who have significantly influenced his life. One of those people is Robert Morris:

    Robert Morris has a very unusual quality: he’s never wrong. It might seem this would require you to be omniscient, but actually it’s surprisingly easy. Don’t say anything unless you’re fairly sure of it.

    Here’s the insightful bit though:

    He’s not just generally correct, but also correct about how correct he is.

    You’d think it would be such a great thing never to be wrong that everyone would do this. It doesn’t seem like that much extra work to pay as much attention to the error on an idea as to the idea itself. And yet practically no one does.

    This is a quality I’ve tried to develop recently: don’t just try to get the right answer, try to estimate how correct that answer is, and act accordingly.

    In fact, I usually try to go one step further: improve confidence in the answer by testing, verifying, getting second opinions, etc. It ends up being a lot of work, but in many cases it’s well worth the effort — in fact, it’s the only way to achieve success for many complex problems.


  3. .NET, Generics, and Wildcards

    by Craig

    Java’s generic system (with all of its type erasure horror) is generally regarded as being bad, but it does have one feature that is very useful: wildcard generic types. The lack of wildcards in .NET trips me up time and time again.

    Today, the culprit was Nullable<T>. I want to have a method that will effectively do a ToString() of the Nullable’s value, but return some other string if the Nullable does not contain a value. (I happen to want to make it an extension method, but that’s irrelevant here).

    I want to do this:

    int foo? = null;
    foo.ToStringNullable("No Value"); // returns "No Value"
    foo = 42;
    foo.ToStringNullable("No Value"); // returns "42";
    

    The code I want to write is this:

    public static String ToStringNullable(
      this Nullable<?> nullable, 
      String inCaseOfNull) {
    
      String value;
      if (nullable == null || !nullable.HasValue) {
        value = inCaseOfNull;
      }
      else {
        value = nullable.ToString();
      }
      return value;
    }
    

    Note the <?>: this is a Java-ism that does not work in .NET. Java has the wildcard type “?” for generics: it means accept any type. .NET doesn’t have this. Instead, I’d be forced to write:

    public static String ToStringNullable<T>(
      this Nullable<T> nullable, 
      String inCaseOfNull) 
      where T : struct
    

    …which in turn means I’d have to redundantly specify the type of the first parameter, like so:

    int foo? = null;
    // returns "No Value"
    foo.ToStringNullable<int>("No Value"); 
    

    …which in turn gives me the opportunity to makes mistakes like:

    int foo? = null;
    foo.ToStringNullable<bool>("No Value"); 
    

    (although this does generate a compiler error, so it’s not so bad — just tiresome).

    (Also note: The “where T : struct” at the end is an additional requirement for the use of Nullable; it’s not important to the argument.)

    One would legitimately think that you could use <Object> in place of <T>. However, this is not allowable in .NET. The problem is that some, but not all operations are necessarily typesafe when doing this. Consider:

    // This is conceptually sound, but problematic
    List<Object> aListOfObjects = new List<String>();
    
    // This won't ever work 
    aListOfObjects.Add( -1 );
    
    // However, there's nothing conceptually wrong with this
    aListOfObjects.Contains( -1 );
    

    This unsolved problem is why I didn’t tag this post as a “Stupid .NET Trick.” The .NET language team made a reasonable decision to forgo wildcards so that they could avoid the erasure mess of Java. It was a tradeoff, and probably a good one overall — but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cause problems.

    I’ve come up with one way around this problem:

    1. Declare an interface
    2. Give this interface a name like [Type]Typeless. For example, if you had a type Foo<T>, you might name your interface FooTypeless
    3. Let your generic-typed class implement the interface (ex: Foo<T> : FooTypeless)
    4. Create signatures (methods, properties) in the interface for all of the members in the implementing class that happen to not use the generic type parameters. (ToString() is an example, although a bad one since it’s inherited from Object. I’ll provide a better example below.)
    5. Whenever you need to access the non-generic-type members of the class, use the interface instead.

    Thus, I would do something like this:

    public interface NullableTypeless {
      bool HasValue { get; }
      // Not necessary, but provided for example purposes
      String ToString(); 
    }
    public struct Nullable<T> : NullableTypeless {}
    

    Note that NullableTypeless does not have any type-specific members such as <T> Value { get; }.

    Then my extension method could be written like so:

    public static String ToStringNullable(
      this NullableTypeless nullable, 
      String inCaseOfNull ) {
    
      String value;
      if (nullable == null || !nullable.HasValue) {
        value = inCaseOfNull;
      }
      else {
        value = nullable.ToString();
      }
      return value;
    }
    // This would work fine:
    int foo? = null;
    foo.ToStringNullable("No Value");
    

    This works acceptably well in my own code. Unfortunately, since I can’t rewrite .NET, this option isn’t available in the case of Nullable.

    Ideally I’d like to see some sort of modifier to methods that says “this method is safe to use if the value supplied to a generic argument is higher up on the inheritance tree than the type that was actually used to create the class”. You could use this on a method-by-method basis. For example, List<T>.Contains(<T>) would be tagged with it (since it doesn’t matter what the argument is; everything has Equals()) but List<T>.Add(<T>) would not (since it can only accept members that are the same or lower down than the List’s inherent type). I don’t think this ever will happen in .NET though.


  4. Issues Vs. Political Parties

    by Craig

    I don’t much like quoting myself, as it seems immodest — but in this particular case I like what I wrote on another site well enough that I’ll violate that principle.

    Marco and I enjoy political discussion, and on occasions that we end up on opposite sides we generate some good debate. There’s lots of good stuff in this thread (and in many others on his blog; I recommend subscribing). Here’s part of what I just posted:

    [Voters] are not so much Republicans/Democrats as voters who have a personal laundry list of issues, each with a position and a priority. Since your voting options are extremely limited (two viable options at best), you choose the one who you hope will serve your interests best.

    Many (most?) people do not always consider current [political party] policies when placing their votes — they just see the party name, think “they’ve felt the way I do in the past; they probably still do”, and mark their ballot. The parties can exploit this by shifting their actual behavior one way or another to acquire additional voters / influence while still (undeservedly) retaining their core.

    I’ll go on to add that this condition is far worse in a lot of other parts of the world than it is in the U.S. or Canada. Latin America seems to be particularly bad. Laura has described Costa Rican voters as voting strictly for their “chosen” party over multiple generations (i.e.: your family votes for party X so you do too). Paraguay just ended a 61-year reign; Mexico had the same party in power for over 70 years. These happen in the context of war, poverty, and famine. At least in the U.S. you can be sure that bad economic times mean a power shift.


  5. Everyday Freedom

    by Craig

    Quick, in which country do you have greater freedom: China or the United States?

    The answer is definitely the U.S., where the laws ensuring freedom have been on the books for over two hundred years. Freedom is at the core of the American legal and political system.

    However, take away all the laws written on paper for the moment. How free are you in real, every day situations?

    Elliotte Rusty Harold just got back from China, and he says that he felt freer on the streets of Beijing:

    Entering China, I was prepared to be polite to cops, show my passport as necessary, and explain as best I could just why I was walking around sewage treatment plants with camera and binoculars. To my surprise I never had to. The simple fact is that I could walk absolutely anywhere I felt like in Beijing without being hassled by anyone. … There were surveillance cameras, but fewer than in the U.S. or London. Getting on the subway, no one wanted to look inside my bags. All transactions were cash.

    I saw fewer traffic stops, arrests, and police actions against other citizens than I do in a typical week in the states. In fact, I think I saw a grand total of two, both related to car accidents; and neither looked very serious.

    Somehow I thought a one-party, authoritarian state would be more oppressive than this. At least in the capital, Beijing compares favorably to major U.S. cities. To be honest, that doesn’t speak well for the U.S. If we can’t be less of a police state than a one-party, nominally Communist nation like China, then something has gone seriously wrong.

    Disclaimer: the plural of anecdote is not data — and this is only a singular anecdote. But I thought it was interesting and postworthy nonetheless.

    What important here is that actions speak louder than words. I think that it’s very important to have freedom built into the laws (one thing that the U.S. does better than Canada). However, those laws are only written on goddamn pieces of paper, and if they’re not enforced / respected, then they’re meaningless.


  6. Wikipedia Tourism #7

    April 23, 2008 by Craig

    Revision history of Revisionist history


  7. Movie Plots

    April 22, 2008 by Craig

    As a rule, the quality of a movie is inversely correlated with how long it takes to explain the entire plot. That’s why I stay away from movies with titles like Volcano, Inferno, Titanic, and Snakes on a Plane.

    From Dilbert Blog.

    I’m trying to think of counterexamples and thusfar can’t. Perhaps some of my more movie-centric friends can find an example.

    Update: Haha, one of Adams’ posters points out that that should be directly correlated, not inversely correlated. -1 to Adams for writing it and -1 to me for posting it.


  8. Stealing Projectors

    April 21, 2008 by Craig

    Twelve years ago, Homer Simpson said:

    I got kicked out [of the audio-visual club] ’cause of my views of Vietnam. Also, I was stealing projectors.

    Ben Stein and the intelligent design movement are also trying to “steal some projectors” with their new movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Besides trying to promote the validity of intelligent design / creationism over evolution and tie Darwinism to the Holocaust, it also claims that the mainstream scientific community has persecuted those who do not believe in evolution — including firing various academics for publicly making anti-evolution statements.

    Depending on your exact definition of “persecute”, part of that last statement may well be true. The major problem is that the cases that the movie cites as examples are basically exaggerated or otherwise misrepresented.

    It’s important to see Expelled for what it is: a propaganda piece intended to win converts in order to gain power (and probably not a little bit of money). The evidence for this lies not only in analysis of the movie’s content but in analysis of the marketing campaign for the movie:

    “Expelled” is spending millions to succeed, huge for a documentary. It’s hired four PR firms. It’s running a sweepstakes for church groups, offering a cash prize to the one that sells the most tickets. It’s paying up to 10 Grand for schools to send their students. The movie even staged a songwriting competition.

    SONG: If you challenge evolution, you get expelled!

    Oh, and Ben Stein traveled across the country on a bright red bus for “Expelled, the Road Show.” This is mostly the work of Motive Marketing’s Paul Lauer. He’s the guy who made “Passion” [ed: “of the Christ”, the Mel Gibson movie about Jesus] into a phenomenon by harnessing the power of this country’s 160 million Christians.

    PAUL LAUER: How do you get this big amoeba to flex its muscle? When it flexes, it’s enormous. The challenge has always been, How do you get those people to activate.

    Expelled‘s message is that the scientific community is using indoctrination, obfuscation, and coercion to push it’s agenda. The irony (hypocrisy?) is that, in reality, those are the very tactics being employed by Expelled and the rest of the intelligent design movement. Skepticism and rebuttal are the ways to counteract this, and those are the goals of the scientific community — not its opponents.


  9. How’s the Weather?

    by Craig

    Another good Freakonomics article states what you probably already knew: weather forecasters are pretty much full of crap, especially when making predictions past “tomorrow”.

    For all days beyond the next day out, viewers would be better off flipping a coin to predict rainfall than trusting the stations on days where rain was possible.

    This was a U.S. study, both of TV stations (i.e.: “We use Doppler Radar even though we have no idea what that means.”) and the NOAA, the official government weather service. I would very much like to see the same study done in Canada; Environment Canada gets a lot of respect out here, and it’s important to see whether it’s actually deserved.

    In related news: Calgary has been hit with yet another April snowstorm.


  10. Nonprofessional Investors

    April 19, 2008 by Craig

    There’s a fair amount of evidence and for the Efficient Market Hypothesis, which states that it’s impossible to achieve better-than-market returns (when adjusted for risk) on a regular, repeatable basis.

    However, if there’s one person who can disprove the EMH, Warren Buffett is that person. Not only has he very consistently done better than the market for decades. Not only does his existence create some evidence against the EMH, but he can cite other real-world examples too:

    We bid on this particular issue – this happens to be Citizens Insurance, which is a creature of the state of Florida. It was set up to take care of hurricane insurance, and it’s backed by premium taxes, and if they have a big hurricane and the fund becomes inadequate, they raise the premium taxes. There’s nothing wrong with the credit. So we bid on three different Citizens securities that day. We got one bid at an 11.33% interest rate. One that we didn’t buy went for 9.87%, and one went for 6.0%. It’s the same bond, the same time, the same dealer. And a big issue. This is not some little anomaly, as they like to say in academic circles every time they find something that disagrees with their theory.

    Buffet has also said:

    Observing correctly that the market was frequently efficient, they went on to conclude incorrectly that it was always efficient. The difference between these propositions is night and day.

    Unfortunately, frequently efficient is enough to force most of us to give up on dreams of making it big in the stock market. It’s been shown time and time again that most investors cannot beat the market (after adjusting for risk) on a regular basis. (Keep in mind that this includes most active mutual fund managers too).

    Buffett knows this, and gives some advice for us unwashed masses:

    Well, if they’re not going to be an active investor – and very few should try to do that – then they should just stay with index funds. Any low-cost index fund. And they should buy it over time. They’re not going to be able to pick the right price and the right time. What they want to do is avoid the wrong price and wrong stock. You just make sure you own a piece of American business, and you don’t buy all at one time.

    He also said:

    …for most people, the bulk of their income is going to come from earning power in their chosen profession. Therefore, from the standpoint of building wealth, free time is better spent sharpening one’s professional skills rather than studying investing.

    Personally, I’ve seen a lot of people at a lot of different jobs spend their time chit-chatting about stocks and investing rather than working or finding ways to enhance the business they’re already in. And consider this: how many people do you know that have made the bulk of their fortunes investing their own money in companies that they didn’t also have a hand in managing? Keep in mind that most professional financial investors make their money from commissions, not investments, and most capitalists, entrepreneurs, and executives make their money from growing their own companies. There’s only a handful of Buffetts that make it big in stocks.

    (Inspired by this Lifehacker post.)