Behaviours, engineering, History, science, statistics, STEM

PPFF #162: bias – another one

Good morning,

I work in engineering. By now most of you know that. In fact a lot of people I came to know in the past few years are unfortunately from this field. I say ‘unfortunate’ for a good reason, not to be humorous but because people are made redundant on a regular basis in engineering. Where I work in particular, I’ve seen the number of workers go from circa 1000 to 250 in the space of less than 3 years. Indeed this is what preoccupied much of my mind this week; the impending ax to be sharpened and to be deployed, the direction of its swing, the amplitude of its oscillation, the dampening effect on the oscillation etc., to stretch the metaphor. So I wondered ‘why’ naturally, and after a number of discussions with colleagues, we all agreed that it was because of outsourcing of work to those so-called ‘high value centres’, the decline of the specific industry we work in, automation and the cyclical nature of the market we depend on etc. As true and obvious as that sounds, I wondered further, if there was more to the quagmire in which we currently find ourselves, than the immediately obvious reasons that brought us to that conclusion.

Then this week, I had a pleasant chance encounter with the concept of ‘survivorship bias’. It’s an easy enough concept to understand – whatever data we have, we have (easy access to) them because something survived or succeeded. For those that either didn’t survive or didn’t quite succeed, either we have no access to their data or they are ignored. The example that best illustrates this point is the study conducted by the ‘famous’ Hungarian/American statistician Abraham Wald, the ultimate aim of which was to minimise aircraft losses to anti-aircraft attacks. The available data-set for this study was from the aircraft that had returned from missions, and survived the damages like in the image below (not mine).

Credit: McGeddon

The obvious recommendation for reinforcement/extra armour would have been for the damaged areas. However, Wald, being quite a clever chap, reasoned that since the returned aircraft had survived despite the damages, there would be no good reason to provide extra armour in those areas. Inversely in the absence of any data from the aircraft that had not survived and never returned, it would make more sense to take chances with providing extra armour in the areas with no or little damage in the surviving aircraft as it was more reasonable to assume that those were the areas of damage that might have caused them to crash. The damages in the returning aircraft represented areas where a bomber could take a hit and still survive. Wald therefore made his recommendations based on this reasoning.

Back to my original engineering/redundancy problem. I agree that outsourcing and decline in the industry are two of the few reasons why there are so many redundancies in (construction-related) engineering as well as the fluctuating nature of the market. But it is also possible that back in the days of our parents’ generation, in the post-war economy, engineers were scarce and that engineering was one of the most stable and abundant work categories to be employed in. Having spotted those opportunities (readily available data) at the time, perhaps they promoted this line of work and encouraged the following generation to be engaged in this sector. Alas, with no access to the missing data set (i.e. future) they had perhaps fallen victim to the ‘survivorship bias’ and made the matters worse by over-crowding the engineering employment market with their ill-thought-through albeit well-intended encouragement.

All this is just a conjecture with inconsistent logical fallacies but worth a thought or two especially when it comes to recommending choices for the future based on the current reality and situations. In my opinion, there’s too much emphasis on STEM subjects at the moment especially in computer-related STEM subjects. You watch this space. In 20 years time, there could be overcrowding of coders and programmers. In any case, whatever you do, remember, all the data available to you isn’t all the data there is.

Have a fully comprehensive Friday; take Saturday and Sunday into account if you need to.


london, Uncategorized

PPFF #161: Les Mis

Good morning,

Apologies for skipping last week’s – a little personal affairs hiccup. Speaking of hiccups it looks like London had something pretty major happen to her this week. Condolences to those who unfortunately lost their lives – not that I knew any of them but hey, it could have been any one of us.

Moving on. To distract myself from all this madness, I pulled out from my bookshelf, a copy of Les Miserables (abridged version, obviously – none of us have any time for that verbose gibberish in its entirety despite the book’s epic masterpiece status). When I started reading the editor’s preface to the book, I came across something interesting (so, yes, I naturally stopped pretending that i actually wanted to read the book itself). The editor claimed to have decided to edit and publish that abridged version in order to make accessible what is otherwise an extremely long book with a large amount of unrelated essays which neither advance the plot (or even subplot) nor reveal anything about its characters – he went on further to explain that this was because back in the days writers in Europe (by which he meant mostly England and France), writers got paid per word. So I was naturally sceptical. Paid by the word? Like ‘old clothes sold by weight‘?

So I did my due diligence to substantiate this claim and it turned out while there’s some truth to it, the editor probably wanted to sound deliberately provocative and sensational. Basically, Les Mis was a serial novel published in installments in periodicals – basically a 19th century equivalent of a box-set (think ‘Game of Thrones’ rather than recycled clothes). Just like the series that we see on Netflix today, back in the days writers would keep going only if the story proved to be popular, or if not, the publisher would kill off the story. Just like I might kill off this blog if no one reads it.

Have a good Friday
















Behaviours, Social science

PPFF #160: gender

Good morning,

The 8th of March was the International Women’s Day, a day singled out to celebrate women’s achievements, womanhood in general and to promote gender equality etc. For the purpose of gender equality, the 19th of November is the International Men’s Day also devoted to double-underlining their own under-represented issues and achievements, or something along that line.

Being a social dissident albeit a moderate one, I’ve never been able to pay or maintain much attention to the mainstream celebrations and events, not for lack of trying but my proclivity, whether predisposed or acquired, for all things unimportant and irrelevant, often lead me astray to something just about related but slightly offbeat. This week, I was led to articles reporting skewed gender ratios at work place, and how these drive our behaviour.

We’ve all heard this before; ‘sex sells’. The now old adage that refers to  the use of sex appeal/pronounced and exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics in advertising to help sales of products and services. But there’s a new (antithetical) phrase in town; ‘lack of sex earns’ (rubbish tagline, I know). But let me elaborate; this article published in Association for Consumer Research, with little or no significant gender differences, with regard to gender ratio in the U.S. showed that a (perceived) scarcity of available mates (in their locality) was strongly related to people entering high-paying careers and/or pursuit of monetary rewards.

One of the studies conducted for this paper involved female and male participants being (falsely) led to believe one of the following three things about their local population:

  • male-skewed
  • female-skewed, or
  • equal sex ratio.

Predictably, when asked to indicate their desire to pursue high-paying careers versus starting a family, findings showed a scarcity of the opposite sex for both genders, prioritised earning money relative to investing in family.

Where does that leave us? Well, some of us who work in gender-screwed industries such as engineering/construction, often wonder why some folks in our offices are so money-obsessed and reward-driven, (and to our dismay how we’re becoming the same as years go by). Wonder no more. Lack of sex earns.

Have a gender-ratio-balanced Friday









PPFF #159: apostrophe

Good morning,

Apostrophe. There seems to be a lot of confusion about this little punctuation device; not so much its usage to indicate omission of a vowel in a sentence e.g. “I’m” instead of “I am” but the possessive form e.g. “Paul’s car”. I remember having a moderate shouting match with someone, over who was right about where to place the apostrophe in ‘Steel Designers Manual’ (apostrophe omitted on purpose in this case to stay neutral); the discussion was about whether ‘Steel Designer’s Manual’ or ‘Steel Designers’ Manual’ was right.

Now, the UK’s productivity level is already one of the lowest among G7 countries without these silly discussions eating into our productive work hours. So I thought I’d make my contribution to the UK economy by providing this information, eliminating the need to set aside time to settle disputes each and every time this arises, and hence indirectly improving our productivity.

An hour of googling revealed that the rules are surprisingly simple. But before the boring rules, let’s go over its origin. In French an apostrophe used to (still does) replace an omitted (unpronounced) vowel letter in a process called ‘elision’, e.g. l’auberge (apostrophe in place of the missing ‘a’). In the 16th century, the English borrowed this practice from the French as it is now in English; but apparently, the Old English possessive form of the noun ‘pigs’ was ‘pigges’ (of pigs), where the ‘e’ used to be pronounced but gradually people stopped pronouncing the ‘e’ and accordingly placed an apostrophe in its place to indicate the now omitted ‘e’ (all from  this source, which I can’t vouch for the veracity of) – consistent with the logic/history behind “I am” becoming “I’m”. Pretty cool.

Anyhow, the basic rules are:

  • Add ‘s at the end of most singular nouns to indicate possession e.g. Designer’s.
  • Add ‘ only at the end of most plural nouns to indicate possession e.g. Designers’.
  • For singular nouns ending with an s-sound, use EITHER of the above two rules, whichever sounds better e.g. St. James’ or James’s at your discretion.

So it turns out that argument I mentioned earlier never had to happen in the first place as one of us meant one designer’s manual while the other meant many designers’ manual.

(You’re welcome, Theresa May)

Hav’ a good Friday


PPFF #158: look after No. 1 (or not)

Good morning,

One of the coolest things I’ve come across in the past few years as a layperson, is Game theory, the study of human conflict and cooperation within competitive situations or science of self-interest strategy. Just last night I was reading about one of the topics in Game theory, the ultimatum game.

The rules of ultimatum game are quite simple:

  1. There are two players
  2. Player 1 is given a sum representing something of value, e.g. money.
  3. Player 1 makes a proposal for how to divide the sum with Player 2
  4. Player 2 can either accept or reject the proposal
  5. If Player 2 accepts, the sum gets divided according to the proposal. If Player 2 rejects, both Players 1 & 2 get nothing.
  6.  Game ends with no further play

The results are very fascinating mainly because they reveal nuanced subtleties of self-interest, and to an extent the selfishness axiom of ‘look after number one’ in social interactions is not purely economically driven, can be political and is much more indirect and complicated than originally thought. Let me explain this. An obvious prediction is that Player 1 will act in their self-interest and propose a very imbalanced split, say 90:10. Then Player 2, logically speaking, would have to accept this proposal because they know that they would be better off than 0/0 split if Player 2 rejects the proposal.

However, oftentimes players defy the classic model of self-interest; Player 1 generally makes a ‘fairer’ proposal and Player 2 frequently reject grossly ‘unfair’ proposals even at the risk of receiving nothing at all. Here are some useful facts one can use to one’s advantage in negotiation.

  • 50/50 split is the most common proposal
  • one in five ‘unfair’ low offers are rejected
  • the longer Player 1 takes to make the offer, the higher the chances Player 2 would accept a low offer.

For those of you, who say “But this is a controlled lab experiment, far removed from reality. Where is a real life example of these low-ball offers being rejected?”, well, I have one word for you.


Have a fair Friday.




food for thought, Uncategorized

PPFF #157: Diderot

Good morning,

I came across this article about the history of so-called ‘jaywalking’, an American-invented traffic offence, committed by pedestrians traversing streets outside designated crossing locations (fascinating topic), and as a result I wasted my precious few minutes, before I eventually ended up learning about the ‘Diderot effect’.

I know. It’s very 1990s. It was a thing then apparently, to discuss Diderot effect, which I must have missed. So I’m catching up; the term is named after Denis Diderot, French philosopher, coined by a Canadian author Grant McCracken, who wrote extensively on (over)consumption/consumerism. The story goes; Diderot was poor all his life, but one day he won the lottery (not really but it’s a long story – so, read up in your own time if you want to find out what actually happened), and he now had access to better things. First, he bought a new scarlet robe, which he loved. He loved it so much that he noticed everything else in his possession looked rather shabby in comparison, and he decided that there was ‘no unity’ any more among the things he owned. Just like the rest of us, he didn’t want to downgrade. So off he went ‘in search of material unity’, to replace everything in his abode to match the beauty of the robe. This is the Diderot effect (actually there’s more to the definition than this but I have a day job. So, apologies but read up).

To be honest, if you asked me (no one did), I wouldn’t say we were ever desperate for a pretentious name for this behaviour. It seems quite natural to me that one would prefer materially harmonised/coordinated sets of things (although having names/labels in general is a quick and convenient way to call someone out on something). Before I go, I would add, it doesn’t seem to be confined to material possessions only. I almost feel like we extend this behaviour to circumstances and people too (e.g. you buy a very smart looking suit for your partner. He/she looks ridiculous in it. You get a new partner to go with the suit etc.). Anyhow, think that one over.

Have a good Friday


PPFF #156: St. Paul’s

Good morning,

The other day, a colleague/friend asked me somewhat in astonishment, a rhetorical question in slightly theatrical faux incredulity ‘did you know St Paul’s Cathedral was built without (the usual architectural) drawings?’. And I vaguely remembered from my yesteryear of dabbling in architecture education that the ancient Greco-Roman buildings were built in such a methodical way that plans, elevations or section drawings were hardly required; only the footprints/’scratching’ on actual sites, detailed templates to replicate, and exact verbal instructions to build the rest – yup, they literally built with words. St. Paul’s is a little difficult one to believe in this regard, perhaps because its construction began in the 17th century. Seeing how it was in the 13th century Renaissance Europe from which our understanding of perspective was developed and perfected, (which is still today’s architects’ modus operandi when developing/communicating ideas), it’s even more surprising. Maybe Christopher Wren wanted to have a go at the ‘verbal’ method to feel connected to the spirit of ancient architectural tradition (entirely fabricated. Please don’t repeat this anywhere. It’s an alternative fact at best).

In any case, this should put us lot in construction-related businesses to shame, as we produce design and construction drawings revision after revision. Even still, actual construction work almost always fails to go according to plan. It’s fascinating how some verbal instructions contained sufficient information to build something. Perhaps it’s just the way we ‘moderns’ use our language; more vague yet freer.

Have a good Friday. Hope that’s clear enough.