Fantastic Read: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely is a truly fantastic read. I haven’t read a book this insightful and captivating in quite a while. Even though it’s a non-fiction book I was sucked into it like by a good thriller.

In this book Ariely describes several experiments from his research that revealed some very interesting insights into the way the human mind works. even though I consider myself a pretty rational personal there a couple of situations described in the book that I too would have fallen victim to. Here are the two experiments I found particularly striking.

The first was about pricing and how objectively irrelevant pieces of information influence our decisions (I can’t recall the exact numbers and have lent my copy of the book to a co-worker, so this example may not be exactly as described in the book). Suppose a magazine offers two types of subscriptions: either (A) online-only for $80 or (B) online and print for $125. Given these options, some people would chose option (A), others would chose (B); The exact numbers are irrelevant. In a variation of the experiment, a third option was introduced: (C) print-only for $125. Obviously, (C) is inferior to (B) so nobody would ever choose (C), as they can get more value for the same price with (B). And this exactly what happened, when people were asked to choose between the three: nobody chose (C), but – and here is the interesting part – this seemingly irrelevant offer made people more inclined to pick (B) and less people ended up opting for (A). Even though the decision people had to make – whether the print edition is worth an additional $45 to them compared to the online-only option – thanks to the newly introduced option, (B) now looked more appealing in relation to (C) and this in many peoples minds also made it look better overall.

The second experiment I found most noteworthy is concerned with cheating. Ariely set out to see what students would do when given an opportunity to cheat on an exam. On the exam, four different groups of students were given a list of questions to answer. For every correct answer they were paid a small amount of money. The first group had their answers checked by the proctor, so they had no chance to cheat (this was the control group). On average, this group got x% right (again, the exact numbers have escaped me, but they don’t really matter anyway). Group #2 graded their answer sheets themselves and then destroyed them. Consequently, the proctor could not verify their claims of how much they got right and just paid them for what they claimed they had gotten right. As one might expect, on average they claimed to have given more correct answers than the first group. The set-up for the third group was the same as for group #2 (self-grading which allowed cheating without a chance of detection), except that they were asked to recite the Ten Commandments before taking the test. They didn’t have to get them right (that wasn’t part of the test), but apparently merely thinking about these moral guidelines made this group more honest and they reported scores approximately equal to that of the first group (who had no chance to cheat). Even more surprising were the results for group #4: Instead of reciting the Ten Commandments – which might not be a workable solution to cheating in a secular school or university setting – they were asked to sign that the test was subject to their school’s honor code. And again, the results were about the same as for the non-cheating group #1, thinking of honor made the students more honest. The interesting bit is that MIT, where the experiment was conducted, doesn’t even have an honor code! The mere thought of one apparently made the students more honest.

These are just two examples of the great and often surprising experiments Ariely describes in Predictably Irrational. There are plenty more in the book, so I recommend you order your own copy; the paper back is currently on sale at Amazon.co.uk.

February 2011 Update: I can also highly recommend Ariely’s follow-up book The Upside of Irrationality.

YouTube “Feather” for more instant video playback

I just came across YouTube’s Feather Beta. Once activated, you will get watch pages that are somewhat reduced in functionality, but where the videos start playing nearly instantaneously. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on all videos yet, but once you have activated feather here, you can try it out with this video on how to lose weight with AYDS [sic]. Enjoy!

A quick Shout-Out to LibraryThing

In addition to watching TV shows I also spend a lot of time reading. I actually try to set aside half an hour every night for reading. I have by now assembled a small library of some 200 books that I’m very proud of. It is currently growing at about three books a month (see below for how I know this).

If you know me, you know I am a super organized person and a total sucker for statistics. Hence I had been looking for a way to properly organize my books for quite a while. One of the ways I pondered for doing this was to set up a little Excel spreadsheet and write down title, authors, year of publication etc. for every book I owned. Even though my library was considerably smaller back then, this approach was too laborious. I briefly toyed with using Amazon Web Services for retrieving my books’ authors, titles etc. in order to reduce the amount of manual work required, but this solution would still not offer the kind of rich statistics and analyses I was looking for.

Thankfully, I stumbled upon LibraryThing last year. This site is truly amazing. For one, it reduces the amount of cataloging one’s books to simply typing in a list of ISBN codes. Once you have input (and possibly tagged) all your books, LibraryThing generates a cloud of the authors showing how many books you have from each of them. There are a bunch of other cool statistics, too: like a distribution chart of when your books where originally published, what languages your books are written in, when you added them to your library and many, many more.

But what really makes LibraryThing great are its social features. For instance, you can see which other LibraryThing users have libraries similar to your own. I have found a couple of interesting books as I was looking what other books people with libraries similar to my own have. Also, you can compare your library to “legacy libraries” such as the library of Thomas Jefferson. Apparently, he and I share six books. Didn’t know that. Finally, other users can add your library to their “interesting libraries” list. I’m not quite sure what that entails, but it appears there is one LibraryThing user who thinks my library is interesting. Thank you, Doug Cornelius, I guess.

So, if you are interested in what books I have, check out the picture below (not my complete library, though) or simply go to http://www.librarything.com/catalog/StefanH which contains a complete and regularly updated list of all my books.

Book Shelf

No more Household Chores for Me

Household chores suck. Seriously. They are tiresome and I’m not very efficient performing them, so it takes me forever to clean my apartment, even though it’s not that big. Also, I don’t see a lasting benefit to me cleaning, as soon enough the apartment will be dirty again. Thankfully, somebody at iRobot felt my pain (I assume) and invented the Roomba.

I don’t know why I have been waiting this long to get one, but a week a go I finally took the leap and ordered a third generation Roomba 555 from Amazon. This isn’t the high end model, so it doesn’t support the Lighthouse mode on the virtual walls, but it does have all the features I think I am gonna need: it can be programmed with a schedule to clean during the day and when I come home from work, my apartment will be clean. Also, it automatically finds its base station and returns to it when it is done with its work or it is running out of power. Its infrared sensors detect obstacles reliably, so it touches them gently instead of bumping into them like early generation Roombas. So basically, I should be able to have it do its thing automatically and never again worry about vacuuming.

And the best part, unlike some cheaper robots I had read about in reviews that promise all this too, the Roomba actually makes true on these promises. The other day, I just turned it on and went a way for an hour. When I came back, it had cleaned all rooms whose doors I had left open and was back docked to its base station recharging. In fact, it had done a much better job at cleaning than I would have with my old vacuum cleaner in a couple of hard to reach spots under the kitchen table. After its first tour through the apartment, it had already collected much more dust than there could possibly have been on the floor. So either the dust bin came pre-filled with some dirt (possible, but unlikely, I would say), or the Roomba is much better at cleaning than I am.

Additionally, the Roomba has made vacuuming fun again. I mean, just watching this thing work its way around obstacles and finding its way around the apartment is worth it. Vacuuming has never been his enjoyable before. Thank you iRobot.

The iPod shuffle – My First Purchase of an Apple Product

Even though I am Windows guy (I think we have established that by now), I try keep up with what Apple is up to, as they do have some fine products. They have these pretty cool “guided tours“ showcasing the latest and greatest of their offerings. This is were I first stumbled upon the latest generation iPod shuffle (see the guided tour here).

Originally, I never wanted to buy an iPod (or any other music player for that matter), because I already have a smartphone on me all the time and it plays music and video just fine. The iPod shuffle was so tiny and unique in the way the one interacts with it, though, that I had to see for myself what it was like. So when I saw the 2GB model for less than 55€ on Amazon the other day, I decided to get myself one.

Overall I must say I am very satisfied with my purchase. The device itself is excellent. It’s super tiny but thanks to the strong clip on the back it stays securely fastened to a shirt or jacket. The playback controls are on the headphone cord so one only needs to touch the device once to turn it on. No need to dig around in your pocket to pause or skip a song.

One comment on the playback controls: even though Apple prides itself on making products that are so easy to use, this claim is simply ridiculous with regard to the iPod shuffle. Aside from the volume controls, there is just one button. All functions of the iPod are accessed by one or more clicks of varying durations on this button. Click once to play/pause, twice to skip to the next song, three times to go back one song, press once and hold to hear the artist and song title read to you, press once and hold for a longer period of time to access… and so on. I mean, seriously, this isn’t really ease of use, but rather a strange fixation on putting ever more functionality into these devices while at the same time reducing the number of buttons; thus making the products less and less intuitive. While adding more features is a natural tendency in most industries and consumer electronics in particular, the fact that Apple feels it needs to make their products ever thinner, lighter, and with less controls seems unwise, to say the least.

The real drawback, however, wasn’t the device but the software, since using an iPod also means I had to install iTunes, even though I have been a very satisfied user of Windows Media Player since version 7 that shipped with Windows Millennium Edition (the most underrated release of all time, if you ask me). Compared to the current version of Windows Media Player, iTunes really looks a little dated. I mean, a UI that basically consists of long lists of songs with all the functionality buried in a menu at the top of the window, come on, that is so 1990s. Again, I didn’t find much ease of use here, as most of the functionality to make the user interface even half decent and usable was hidden behind multiple levels of fly-out menus under the View menu item. Even after changing a bunch of settings for the UI, iTunes was missing the two most crucial buttons any application to browse one’s media library must have: the back and forward buttons that web browsers have had since the mid 90s (see Microsoft Internet Explorer 1.0). Windows Media Player has have them for quite a while and it also includes cross references from every song to the artist, album, year and genre. I find these so helpful when I don’t really know what to listen to and just aimlessly wander my music collection. In this area at least, iTunes is of no use to me. There are a bunch of other things that drive me crazy in iTunes, but I don’t want this post degenerate into an Apple rant, so I’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, things did work out in the end and I can now fully enjoy my iPod without having to use iTunes thanks to a little piece of software called MGTEK dopisp (hat tip: M). It’s a plug-in for Windows Media Player that allows me to sync my iPod with Windows Media Player just like I do with my Windows Mobile phone. Really neat. So in the end I am a happy Apple customer after all.

Bonus link going with the theme of this post: Apple introduces the MacBook Wheel, a laptop with a single giant button

Visit to the Windows Café in Paris

As I spent these past few days in Paris, I couldn’t help but look up the Windows Café I had read about on TechCrunch.

The café is located at 47 Boulevard de Sébastopol in the 1st district. Here’s a picture of what it looks like from the outside. French site Le Journal du Geek has more including some shots of the inside.

Windows Café in ParisI ordered the only thing on their menu I knew how to pronounce properly: jus de pomme. The irony of ordering an apple juice at the Windows café, however, didn’t occur to me until much later.

There isn’t much to say about the café itself, it’s pretty much your standard café/coffee shop crossbred with a small electronics store. Unlike regular coffee shops, however, they do not only offer wifi, but also a bunch of laptops and PCs running Windows 7 to play with this latest goodie from Redmond.

Besides your everyday laptops and PCs they also had one other machine that immediately caught my attention: the Microsoft Surface (see also this hilarious parody). I have been excited about this device ever since it was announced back in 2007. Priced at roughly $10,000, it’s a bit more expensive than I can afford to spent on a computer, but it is nonetheless a pretty cool toy. Finally, I got a chance to play around with one myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one there interested in this device so I only got to play two games of chess with this French gentlemen who was kind of hogging the Surface.

Playing chess on the Surface was very intuitive and the touch interface worked very well. Pieces are moved by “grabbing” them and moving them to their new spot. One can even use two-finger gestures to rotate and/or resize the board. The only irritating thing about it was that it was sometimes interpreting the heel of my hand as I was moving a piece as an attempt to move the board. I guess this isn’t the machines fault, however, as in a real-life game of chess this same action would have probably moved the board to or even have knocked over some of the pieces as well.

Going to Paris in November

I will be going to Paris, France for a couple of days in mid-November. Naturally, I checked Joobili to see if there was anything going on while I would be there. Alas, there is nothing for that period of time(*). This is really a shame, because the Paris tourism office has a lot of information on their site. Too bad, that information is presented so poorly that doesn’t really help me find the inspiration I was looking for. I mean, why does the tourism office still advertise events from September 2009 and how does a plain list with the names of more than a thousand events and exhibitions help me, when I am looking for events between Nov 11th and 14th? On the plus side, they do have a page listing museums where under 26-year-olds have free admission, which is perfect timing for me.

I was wondering if there were any other travel sites you guys would recommend to prepare my trip. For booking hotels and flights I like opodo. It was founded by Lufthansa and several other European airlines in 2001, which means I am comfortable with entrusting it my credit card information. I also found tripadvisor.com to indispensable when looking for reviews on hotels.

However, none of these sites helped me with my initial problem, which was to narrow down the large number of hotels to those that I would even consider staying at. While most sites can filter hotels by various criteria (price, distance to city center etc.), this doesn’t help me with my most paramount question: what are affordable hotels in a good part of town? I wish there was a site that would show like a map of a city indicating what areas in town are “good” and which one might want to avoid. I was lucky this time to be provided with detailed information about the different arrondissements (districts) of Paris by my friend, but I think this would be a common problem more travelers should be faced with, no?

 

(*) Ok, that’s not entirely true, since there is the BNP Paribas Masters, but I’m not that into tennis, thank you very much.