Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Tim Harford on Toilet Seat Etiquette

(Financial Times, April 1/2 2006)

Dear Economist, Should I leave the lavatory seat down, as my wife demands? Or, with gravity on her side, should she be lowering it herself? 

Michael Govind, Cirencester

Dear Michael,

Jay Pil Choi, a (male) economist at Michigan State University, has demonstrated what men find obvious and women seem unable to grasp: that the “status quo” rule (leave it how it was when you finished) is more efficient than the “down” rule (put it down afterwards) under most plausible assumptions. The reasoning is that the seat should be moved only when necessary – just before someone uses the lavatory.

If a man visits the WC twice in a row, the “status quo” rule saves the cost of lowering the seat when leaving only to raise it when returning. Choi also shows, using some fancy maths, that the “status quo” rule is still superior even if the inconvenience cost to your wife of moving the seat is nearly three times the inconvenience cost to you.

Why, then, the continued controversy? Richard Harter, a (male) mathematician, has calculated the incremental costs of moving from bachelorhood or spinsterhood to connubial bliss. Since men sometimes need the seat down, they are used to bearing the cost of moving it. Women who live alone or with other women need never move the seat at all; therefore the incremental costs of moving to a mixed household are obvious.

Yet I feel that these thinkers have missed the bigger picture. Assume two types of man: the considerate gentleman and the selfish pig. It is famously difficult for women to distinguish them at first sight. Nevertheless it is easy for the gentleman to signal his “type” by returning the lavatory seat to the horizontal. This is a profitable lesson, and one that I learned early.

Tim Harford

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

What you'll never learn at school

There's a popular urban myth about a certain speech Bill Gates is said to have given, setting out 11 rules kids won't learn in school. He didn't. The text originated from an article by Charles J. Sykes. It first appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune on the 19th of September 1996. This is what it said:

Unfortunately, there are some things that children should be learning in school, but don't. Not all of them have to do with academics. As a modest back-to-school offering, here are some basic rules that may not have found their way into the standard curriculum.

Rule #1: Life is not fair. Get used to it. The average teenager uses the phrase, "It's not fair" 8.6 times a day. You got it from your parents, who said it so often you decided they must be the most idealistic generation ever. When they started hearing it from their own kids, they realized Rule #1.

Rule #2: The real world won't care as much about your self-esteem as much as your school does. It'll expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. This may come as a shock. Usually, when inflated self-esteem meets reality, kids complain it's not fair. (See Rule #1)

Rule #3: Sorry, you won't make $40,000 a year right out of high school. And you won't be a vice president or have a car phone either. You may even have to wear a uniform that doesn't have a Gap label.

Rule #4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait 'til you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure, so he tends to be a bit edgier. When you screw up, he's not going to ask you how you feel about it.

Rule #5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grand-parents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity. They weren't embarrassed making minimum wage either. They would have been embarrassed to sit around talking about Kurt Cobain all weekend.

Rule #6: It's not your parents' fault. If you screw up, you are responsible. This is the flip side of "It's my life," and "You're not the boss of me," and other eloquent proclamations of your generation. When you turn 18, it's on your dime. Don't whine about it, or you'll sound like a baby boomer.

Rule #7: Before you were born your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way paying your bills, cleaning up your room and listening to you tell them how idealistic you are. And by the way, before you save the rain forest from the blood-sucking parasites of your parents' generation, try delousing the closet in your bedroom.

Rule #8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Life hasn't. In some schools, they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. Failing grades have been abolished and class valedictorians scrapped, lest anyone's feelings be hurt. Effort is as important as results. This, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to anything in real life. (See Rules #1, #2 and #4)

Rule #9: Life is not divided into semesters, and you don't get summers off. Not even Easter break. They expect you to show up every day. For eight hours. And you don't get a new life every 10 weeks. It just goes on and on. While we're at it, very few jobs are interested in fostering your self-expression or helping you find yourself. Fewer still lead to self-realization. (See Rules #1 and #2)

Rule #10: Television is not real life. Your life is not a sitcom. Your problems will not all be solved in 30 minutes, minus time for commercials. In real life, people actually have to leave the coffee shop to go to jobs. Your friends will not be as perky or pliable as Jennifer Aniston.

Rule #11: Be nice to nerds. You may end up working for them. We all could.

Rule #12: Smoking does not make you look cool. It makes you look moronic. Next time you're out cruising, watch an 11-year-old with a butt in his mouth. That's what you look like to anyone over 20. Ditto for "expressing yourself" with purple hair and/or pierced body parts.

Rule #13: You are not immortal. (See Rule #12.) If you are under the impression that living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is romantic, you obviously haven't seen one of your peers at room temperature lately.

Rule #14: Enjoy this while you can. Sure parents are a pain, school's a bother, and life is depressing. But someday you'll realize how wonderful it was to be a kid. Maybe you should start now.

You're welcome.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Iron Lady

The other day, my son and I were invited by Xenia Coudrille and Peter Smallwood, a pair of young Conservatives from the Brunel University (and Hillingdon Conservative Future group and their friends. Most of them were barely born when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and this was going to be a pivotal moment for them - they were going to see a visual representation of the icon of modern British politics. They were going to look at a full-colour, moving-picture of a person admired - and loathed by the generation that raised them.

I went in, sceptical. Sadly for most part, I was right.

The Iron Lady doesn’t do enough to capture any of Thatcher's dynamism. Instead what I saw was a caricature of a frail woman reduced to a schizophrenic has been. I was not impressed by Phyllida Lloyd's voyeuristic emphasis on the fictional rather than the legacy. The account of a delusional woman battling dementia while she hobbles along, living out the remainder of her days is hardly the impression I wanted to my son to get. Less than half the film depicted the Margaret Thatcher that we would like to remember. As Margaret Thatcher would say, "No! No! No!"

The film is interspersed with clips from her past - her origins as a grocer’s daughter, her fight to enter the male-dominated political arena and her rise to national power. Little thought is given to thought processes behind her actions. The labour strikes, the IRA bombings, the Falklands War, the controversial taxes come and go in a confusing stream of flashes - the kind you'd find in a Quentin Tarantino film. Not that there wasn't enough time to bring out the flamboyance of her life and legacy, there was, had the movie not lingered on the so-called 'artistic' aspect of her conversations with an imaginary Denis. I failed also to see the relevance of a scene where she is  leaving in a cab, while her children are screaming for her.

To a generation who doesn't know, the sinking of the Belgrano appears as a shoot-from-the-hip decision with little consideration. I'm not sure that was accurate (although the depiction of her grief at the loss of lives was handled well). There was no background to the major events that defined her premiership. There was little exploration of her ideology, her mindset and what drove her to become the one of the most influential leaders in the modern world.

Having said that, the film is a cinematic delight. Meryl Streep is in her element, bettering what she does best. Beyond the questionable account the film pretends to be, Streep comes out with the performance of dare I say, a lifetime. I'd recommend the film for that reason alone. Alexandra Roach, as the young Margaret Roberts/Thatcher was superb. I just wish there was more of her.

What did shine through though, in spades was that Margaret Thatcher was not afraid. She was not afraid of what people thought, she was not afraid of the people that surrounded her and she was not afraid of being hated. She knew she was right and she knew that someone had to do what needed to be done. She was not afraid that it would have to be her.

You must see this film, if only for its artistic, not factual merits. Here's the official trailer.