Blog Moved

This blog has now moved to my new domain andrewferrier.com. You shouldn’t notice any change if you are using a web browser or a well-designed feedreader to read it, as all parts of the old blog (including permalinks, RSS feed, etc.) should permanently redirect to the new one. You might just want to check that your RSS reader is pointing to the new blog though, or alter your browser bookmarks. The redirection will disappear in a few months. I’d appreciate it if you can let me know if you see any problems with the new blog.

Update 2007-01-13: I should add that some feedreaders will treat all the items in the feed as new, because the GUID will have changed. Just mark them all as read. Apologies for the inconvenience.

Does the Web Decrease Attention Span?

I’ve recently taken to reading a lot more on-line - particularly as services such as del.icio.us have helped me to find high-quality content and more high-quality blogs come on the scene. This, of course, is the long tail of written content. One of the things I’ve noticed, though, is that as I read more and different things, I get more impatient with long articles. I hardly read non-fiction books any more, and fiction books almost never (preferring film).

I suspect I’m not the only one suffering from this decreased attention span, but the question is - is there anything we should do about it? Insofar as lots of shorter information diverts people from a few bits of longer information (reading 100/articles/week, say, rather than 2 books/week), it probably indicates that we simply don’t get as much value or entertainment from the longer stuff as we thought we did (or should). This is called revealed preference - what you prefer is shown by your actions, not by your words. So I suspect the simple answer is no.

Seth Godin certainly seems to agree with part of this theory - he has a theory that books, in many cases, have now become a ‘takeaway’ for shorter essays and other written pieces. I don’t think it’s fair to go as far as to say that they are simply fluff, but Seth nevertheless makes a good point - that many books simply expand on shorter ideas - and it is questionable, sometimes, what the marginal value of that is over consuming something completely different (everything you do has a time-driven opportunity cost).

The problem, of course, is that building up habits like this may make it harder to concentrate for sustained periods of time on reading/viewing/listening when that is necessary.

I’m interested in what your experiences are - do you suffer from decreased attention span? Is it a result of increased volumes of information, or do you think it’s something different?

The Time is Ripe for Innovation in Lenses

It’s plain that the camera industry has seen a significant degree of disruption in the last 5-10 years, almost all of it driven by digital cameras. On the back of this, we’ve seen a huge explosion in pictures on the web (most obviously on sites like Flickr), as well as other interesting changes (such as print-it-yourself kiosks in photo shops and chemists). Amateur photography seems to be going through a resurgence - I have started taking a lot more photographs, as have many of my friends and colleagues. Whether that resurgence will be permanent is unknown, but of course the increase in the convenience of cameras (no more waiting for development, easy digitisation) is not temporary.

However, whilst digital has brought innovation to the back-end - what do you do once the picture is taken? - the front-end is still as much hassle as ever. I own a Canon Powershot S80, a high-end compact camera which aims to provide many of the facilities of an SLR on a compact. Canon have done a good job - it pretty much does this - since a lot of those facilities are only in software anyway, it’s not hard. However, it still doesn’t match up to an SLR in one fundamental way - the picture quality is simply not as good (not as clear, fringing round the edges), mostly a result of a smaller CCD and a smaller, cheaper lens. Accordingly, I plan to buy an SLR at some point in the future once I can get what I want (>12MP for less than £500 - I’m betting on two years).

It’s painfully apparent that cameras themselves haven’t changed much in size or ease-of-usage since digital photography came along. Compact cameras have got slightly smaller than later-generation 35mm ones, partly because CCDs don’t need to be 35mm in size, and partly because many viewfinders have been eliminated in favour of an LCD screen. SLRs, however, are still basically the same size they always were - and I would assert this is mostly because of the large physical size of high-quality lenses (I’m sure high-quality CCDs could be reduced in size with a bit of investment).

The problem, of course, is that there are fundamental physical limitations to do with light that affect the quality of the lens. I’m no physicist, but I suspect from what I remember learning in physics at school that these are likely to be the biggest problem. However, I’m sure that there must be more one can do to shrink SLRs (and presumably their lenses). There is of course a huge pre-existing investment in lens mountings by consumers and professionals (for example, Canon have their EOS system), which is bound to slow down the rate of change and adoption, but I for one would love to see some investment going into shrinking the whole camera. I’d pay a lot for a high-quality SLR that fits in my pocket.

Updated 2007-01-11: Bit of a simple treatment perhaps, but this guide might nevertheless be useful when determining megapixel requirements. Of course it does make a (partly) abritrary choice of 300dpi resolution.

Climate Change, Free Trade, and Money

TEDTalks has hit a home-run again (seriously, I can’t recommend this series of videos highly enough - whatever you think about whatever else I’ve written here, you’ll find something you like). Bjorn Lomborg, who’s not a stranger to controversy, explains in this 2005 TED presentation why climate change, relative to the world’s other great problems (e.g. disease, sanitation), isn’t an efficient problem to solve. This is a finding of the Copenhagen Consensus, who expended no small amount of effort on the exercise. He makes very clear what the ranking means - not that it isn’t desirable to ‘solve’ climate change (it is) but simply that it’s inefficient - there’s more bang for the buck in ‘solving’ free trade or controlling HIV/AIDS than in solving climate change.

Bjorn is an economist (my favourite type of -mist) and I know this doesn’t bode well for the acceptance of this theory: primarily because economics has never done a very good job of publicising what it’s about, and so there’s a frequent misconception that it’s something to do with money. The typical reaction to the conclusion above is that economists only are only looking at the monetary side of things. Well, yes, that’s true, but it’s also the whole point. Economists put prices and costs on all kinds of things that many people don’t (life or death, polluted air, a loving relationship, etc.). Of course one can argue until the cows come home about the what those prices and costs are: and everyone does (even when they aren’t quoting them in dollars or pounds). But the money is only used as a number, as a symbol.

If we were to try and rank which we wanted more, an orange or an apple, we could probably do that. In fact, we could probably say how much more we wanted one than the other (twice as much - give me two apples, and I’ll exchange you an orange). Introduce a banana and the decision becomes more complex, but the principle doesn’t. This is all prices are - a way to trade off one alternative against another and allocate resources (which is similar to the definition of economics you’ll find in any textbook).

This is why it isn’t really callous to rank the world’s big problems and say that maybe climate change doesn’t deserve so much attention. At the end of the day, the world only seems prepared to spend so much time and money solving problems. Doesn’t it make sense to solve the ones that gives humanity the greatest degree of progress, health and prosperity?

Rational Dating?

Economists approach things in weird ways. I’ve noticed several posts on the more popular economic blogs recently discussing marriage, relationships, and sex: Are Husbands Really Like Potatoes? being a good example, as well as a discussion of polygamy. Tyler Cowen has even briefly looked at how nudity affects human behaviour (arguably not directly related to relationships, but it’s a fun read anyway).

Given that I like the economic way of thinking (given my limited training), I thought I’d take a look at dating, something close to my heart as a bachelor. This arguably makes me so far unqualified to discuss the subject - but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Most relationships go through three simply described phases:

  1. Establishment - the fun part - getting to know a new person.

  2. Established - the sometimes fun, sometimes not part. Most couples are in this phase right now.

  3. Break-up - the not-so-fun part - upsetting, perhaps anger-generating. At the very least, not fun.

Successful long-term relationships, one hopes, never reach phase 3.

Most people enter relationships, I would assert, because they want a piece of phase 1 - it sounds like fun. Phase 3 is far away, and hopefully not going to happen anyway, so they downplay its significance. The question is - if phase 3 could be time-adjusted - expressed in the immediacy of today’s hurt rather than 3 years’ time - would people, on average, assess the situation any differently?

In fact, this comes down to a question of rationality. Economists like to assume that everyone is rational (or at least more rational than most people would). This means that people make optimal decisions, given the information they have. Without this, it’s hard to make markets make sense. Commonly expressed sentiments from friends after a break-up include: ‘at least you learnt something; remember the good times; it’s good you went through that relationship’. If cynical, one could dismiss those as simply statements designed to console and soften the blow. But the presumed implication of those words is that your choice was rational - it was worth the emotional upset in phase 3 for the enjoyment in phases 1 and 2.

I’m deliberately not going to come to a conclusion - I find rationality to be one of the hardest parts of economics - whilst I can understand people making rational choices about where to buy cornflakes from, it’s much harder to map it onto emotions. But it’d be nice to think that we do make sensible choices when it comes to dating, and that we do learn from our mistakes. I wonder if that’s so?

(NB: I know I’ve oversimplified the situation. But I think the same principles hold even if you develop dating into a more complex model)

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