Let there be light

I’ve come across this a few times over the years, and been meaning to post it the next time I saw the numbers somewhere. And today I have, here:

In 1800, a candle providing one hour’s light cost six hours’ work. In the 1880s, the same light from a kerosene lamp took 15 minutes’ work to pay for. In 1950, it was eight seconds. Today, it’s half a second. In these terms, we are 43,200 times better off than in 1800.

The 1800 number I think is too high (I reckon you can go and find some wood in less than 6 hrs, or buy some for an amount smaller than 6 hrs of labour). Order of magnitude correct though.

I also think it takes less than half a second, by the way, today, plugging in average salary and electricity kw/h numbers for the UK.

But the thrust of the point is clear, we are massively better off than generations before because we have gotten more efficient at producing things. Four of the basic human needs, food, clothing, fuel, and housing, are now far cheaper in terms of the average wage.

And given it’s Easter, remember, stars died so that you could live.

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Stop [reading] the press

Earlier in life I spent a year backpacking around the globe, covering 27 countries, including out-of-the-way places such as Mongolia and Easter Island. I didn’t keep up with UK news stories, but surprisingly didn’t notice any real gaps during conversations with friends once back. Perhaps they were just being polite…

I began to think that consuming news media every day was inefficient. Time spent reading a newspaper, surfing a news site, or watching the 10 o’clock news could be better spent doing something else – and that’s because most of what is in the news is not relevant in any way to you. In these examples you’re just passively pulling information to you.

It’s better to have stories pushed on topics that do interest you, and to supplement that with an occasional, curated digest from something “all-encompassing”. For that I choose The Economist, even if it “is written by young people pretending to be old people.” Of course, there could be a whole separate discussion on whether your source of news has an agenda to publish certain kinds of stories that appeal to their readership or get things a little muddled, but we’ll leave that for another day.

I had an analyst visit the BBC website once a day, for a week, and compile a list of the stories appearing on the UK news page. I was curious to see whether reading any of those stories would have been important or useful to me.

Of the 222 links found, 31 were articles which had already been showing on the site on a previous day. Removing these left 191 unique articles over the course of a week. 30 were links to sports stories, such as Gerrard admits to career doubts. Of course, sport can be entertaining and enjoyable, but learning that Steven’s “groin packed in on [him]” is not going to change my life, although it might make my bar chat a bit better. That probably wouldn’t be hard though.

Also shown separately are 29 articles on crime and deaths. Specifically, by crime I mean stories covering trials and investigations into single-event, past incidents. Examples include Three held over birthday murder and Coronation St’s Betty Driver dies. Sad that it is that Betty has died, this does not change my life. Stories about crime trends / local crime could be useful (burglaries around my postcode, muggings in this street) and be something I might want to take action on, but a random selection of more “newsworthy” stories about people being killed from the background rate of 2 (ish) murders per day is not.

This leaves 132 unique articles that I could have read.

14 articles charted the development of the UK Defence Secretary’s rough ride regarding his friend, resulting in Dr Fox’s resignation. But why read 14 articles, when you can just read one final, considered article at the end of the week once the story is settled? The Economist provided one. A running theme in the news this week was the price of UK energy bills, a topic that the Economist also covered, along with protests against capitalism. I would have missed Oliver Letwin putting papers in the bin though. Oh well.

The 107 stories were classified into 5 categories:

  1. End date for analogue TV is set Glad I caught that one.
  2. UK inflation rate rises to 5.2% I could have decided to take action regarding investments, etc. This information could be found in The Economist anyway
  3. G20 meeting discusses eurozone Likewise, given I have assets denominated in euros. Typical story summarised weekly in The Economist anyway.
  4. Cheapest energy deals ‘ignored’. Apparently profit-maximising energy firms don’t always offer you their cheapest deal, so you had better investigate independently yourself. Who knew?! Covered by The Economist anyway.
  5. Lasers beams shone at two planes Given I travel a lot by plane, and this could be a precursor to a new form of terrorist attack, I might choose to change my lifestyle. I believe by this point I am scrapping the bottom of the proverbial barrel in trying to find stories that contain actionable information.

So I think I’m justified in largely ignoring news media. Instead, I use Google Reader to consolidate and read blogs on topics that interest me, such as this pilot’s journal, Ben Goldacre on dodgy science, Tim Harford on dodgy numbers, and opinion pieces from smart people like Seth Godwin, Scott Adams, and Simon Moore.

I have tried though to identify a small number of events and items that could substantially impact me, and for these have done one of two things:

  1. Found a site which deals with it. If it publishes as a blog, great, it goes into Google Reader, if not then I use ChangeDetection.com to identify when the site is updated, and be notified of that automatically via a unique feed into my Google Reader account.
  2. Add a Google Alert, sent to me by email, when a news story or web page is published containing certain keywords.

The point being that relevant information is being pushed to me, in a timely manner.

So, unless you’re a day trader, stop reading the news – you won’t miss much! Use your new-found time (191 articles/week x 2 minutes/article = 6hrs/week) to set your own agenda to get into subjects that interest you.

Motivation to go

An article on Pret a Manger on how to motivate low paid staff. Their staff turnover is around 60% per year, compared to an industry average of 200%. Most of their techniques appear to be on rewarding the group rather than individuals.

Some excerpts:

New hires are sent to a Pret a Manger shop for a six-hour day, and then the employees there vote whether to keep them or not. Ninety percent of prospects get a thumbs-up. Those who are voted out are sent home with £35, no hard feelings.

Pret also sends mystery shoppers to every shop each week who give employee-specific feedback. (”Bill didn’t smile at the till,” for instance.) If a mystery shopper scores a shop as “outstanding” — 86 percent of stores usually qualify — all of the employees get a £1-per-hour bonus, based on a week’s pay.

Every quarter, the top 10 percent of stores, as ranked by mystery-shopper scores, receive about £30 per employee for a party.

When employees are promoted or pass training milestones, they receive at least £50 in vouchers, a payment that Pret calls a “shooting star.” But instead of keeping the bonus, the employees must give the money to colleagues, people who have helped them along the way.