More Behavioural Scientists!

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The ranks of public policy these days are predominantly run by lawyers and economists. Behavioural scientists unfortunately are left on the fringes of the public policy realm.

Are lawyers, economists and social scientists therefore the only breeds that have something useful to contribute to the efficient running of a government?

Or would rather a Council of Behavioral Scientist Advisers positively compliment the efforts of the lawyers and economists in public policy?

David Cameron seems to think so. As a result Britain’s Conservative prime minister established a tiny branch of government called the Behavioral Insights Team. The branch consists of behavioural scientists that operate according to two main principles:

  1. If you want to encourage some activity, make it easy.
  2. You can’t make evidence-based policy decisions without evidence.

In its most recent Civil Service Reform Plan , the U.K government has furthermore established “Culture and Behaviour” as one of the focal points of its research and investigation efforts.

The Behavioral Insights Team at heart relies on Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to determine whether a policy is working. Randomised controlled trials try to deduce which of two or more interventions is the most effective at attaining a specific, measurable outcome.

One of the success stories of the Behavioral Insights Team involves an attempt to collect taxes from people who fail to pay on time. Small-business owners in the U.K are expected to save up the money in order to file taxes. Subsequently some of them fail to pay on time.

The beahvioural scientists employed on behalf of the U.K. government noted that people are more likely to comply with a social norm if they know that most other people comply.

With this observation in mind a statement was added to the letters sent out to taxpayers that noted that a vast majority of taxpayers paid their taxes on time.

In order to test the effectiveness of their normative statements, various direct-mail messages were sent to 140,000 taxpayers in a randomized trial. The citizens that received the letter that noted, “9 out of 10 people in Exeter pay their taxes on time.” were more compelled to pay their taxes on time. As a result the group reflected a 15% increase in the number of people who paid their taxes on time compared with results from the old style letter, which was used as a control condition. If the initiative was emulated nation-wide the team estimates that tax revenue would be bound to rise by £30mn annually.

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David Cameron on the forefront of incorporating behavioural scientists into the public policy realm.

Maybe the most positive message coming from the Behavioral Insights Team is that its entire budget amounts to less than £1 million. In sum governments would be well advised to emulate the efforts by Downing Street and incorporate bhevaoural scineitcs into the public policy realm.

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Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Soft’ Side

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She may be known as the “Iron lady”, however Margaret Thatcher has an unknown sweet and soft side to her.

If you have ever enjoyed soft serve ice cream you may thank the staunch former prime minister who was instrumental in inventing one our favourite childhood sweet treats.

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Margaret Thatcher inspects her own invention.

Before Thatcher emerged on the political arena she put her Oxford chemistry degree to good use during a research job at food manufacturer J. Lyons and Co. Together with her colleagues she produced ice cream, which could be pumped through a machine. As a result soft serve ice cream was born

Ever wondered were the coffee variation “Americano” got its name from?

The term “Americano” was coined during WWII. American GIs would order their espresso with water to dilute the strong flavour. Hence the blend came to be known as “Americano.” Till date the blend has remained unchanged, order a “Americano” at your local coffee shop and you will get your espresso brewed up with hot water.

Winnie the Pooh goes to War

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Wojtek, the brave comrade.

Conventional wisdom tells us that bears are wild creatures best avoided by humans. The soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps however decided to defy conventional wisdom in 1942 when they adopted a Syrian brown bear cub found in Hamadan, Iran.

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Its’s cuddle time in the infantry!

What ensued was a compassionate relationship between the bear cub and the infantry soldiers, a relationship, which would last for 21 years.

The soldiers gave the elated bear the name “Wojtek.” The name itself is derived from two words: “woj” (the stem of “wojownik”, warrior, and “wojna”, war); and “ciech”, enjoyment. A new Polish “smiling warrior” was born!

Initially the bear was used for entertainment purposes. Wojtek was given daily rations of honey, cigarettes and beer, alongside the two bottles of ale the bear guzzled down a day. In addition the Syrian brown bear enjoyed wrestling with his fellow compatriots. For more formal purposes the bear was even taught to salute when greeted.

As the infantry moved up north after being stationed in Iran the soldiers were faced with a customs issue. In order to get Wojtek on a British transport ship he had to be enlisted into the army. Subsequently when the unit sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.

Even though Wojtek was viewed and treated more as a mascot for his unit he did bravely serve in his unit. His most heroic acts were centered around the Battle of Monte Cassino, one of the costly series of four battles during World War II, fought by the Allies against Germans and Italians with the intention of breaking through the Winter Line and seizing Rome. Wojtek duly helped his friends by transporting ammunition – never dropping a single crate.

After WWII Wojtek and his unit was moved to Berwickshire, Scotland. Later on in 1947 Wojtek was moved to Edinburgh Zoo where he would come to spend the rest of his life.

Wojtek’s spirit continues till date. Recently the brave and loveable bear received a humble memorial in Edinburgh, which sought to augment the efforts of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, a registered Scottish Charity that seeks the advancement of education, arts, heritage and culture.

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Wojtek with artillery ammo – sign painted on 22nd Artillery Supply Company vehicles

Aivazovsky – Master of the Seas

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Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, 1856, View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus.

Painters seem to be like rock stars: they are worth more once dead. Be it Picasso, Matisse or Monet, all their works skyrocketed in value once the respective painters passed away. Throughout their lifetimes a lot of painters, especially those of the classical eras (Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, etc.) struggled to make ends meet. However, there is a rare exception amongst them, namely Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky.

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Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, 1849, Stormy sea at night.

Of Armenian descent, Aivazovsky was born in the Crimean town of Feodosiya in 1817. Aivazovsky’s stellar career started off early as his talent earned him a sponsorship to the Simferopol gymnasium No.1 and later the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, from which he graduated with a gold medal in 1837. In addition, Aivazovsky’s rise came at the time of a flourishing Russian cultural scene with the likes of Pushkin, Gogol or Lermontov appearing on the stage.

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Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, 1878, Sea view by Moonlight.

Aivazovsky’s monumental depictions of the sea not only earned him the prestigious gold medal at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts but also the privilege of taking a prolonged course of his choice at the expense of the Academy. Having mastered the art of capturing the fierce and brute force of the sea, Aivazovsky decided to join the Russian navy, which designated Aivazovsky as the personal marine painter of the Black Sea fleet, a unique title held by Aivazovksy until his death.

Upon returning to St. Petersburg in 1840, Aivazovsky quickly became friendly with, amongst others, Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Ivanov. His epic and sublime works would go on to attract international attention, his pictures appearing regularly in Italian exhibitions. Even Pope Gregory XVI purchased his picture “Chaos” and had it hung in the Vatican, and “rival” marine painters such as the English marine painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, had to admit the genius of Aivazovsky. Turner even dedicated a rhymed paen to Aivazovsky’s “Bay of Naples” picture.

What followed were European tours, international fame and big earnings for Aivazovsky, with a finished repertoire of over 6000 works. The funds he acquired throughout his successful career as an artist enabled him to open an art school and gallery in his hometown of Feodosiya, while still living the cosmopolitan lifestyle many of his fellow painters aspired to, traveling to Egypt, New York, Venice, Washington and Niagara Falls, amongst others. Today Aivazovsky’s art continues to reel in large amounts at auctions and draw in amazed crowds worldwide. The brilliance of the Crimean painter has not lessened with age.

Le cadeau de malheur

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Gifts registry at Tiffanys? Overrated when you can have one for Obama…

Got a special milestone or event coming up?

Why don’t you forgo on your wedding presents in order to further inflate an election cycle that is already set to break all spending limits known till date.

Well brace yourself because you can now register with the Obama campaign, just like you can at Target, Tiffanys, Martha Stewart, or Wal Mart.

The Obama campaign recently came out and asked its supporters to:

“…ask for a donation in lieu of a gift. It’s a great way to support the President on your big day.”

I mean who needs cash and check filled envelopes in this economy anyway? If you could rather celebrate your special day by donating money to a president who himself has failed in drawing up a budget in four years.

Regardless of ones political affiliation I don’t know if I could take anybody remotely seriously who would ask for a political donation as his or her wedding/anniversary gift.

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Obama campaign rhetoric: Who needs fancy wedding gifts anyway?

I didn’t think it would be possible but the Obama campaign managed to hit a new low in donation drives. And remember Romney offered us a lunch with Donald Trump in return for a donation…

Would you bleed for light?

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Without electricity you wouldn’t be able to read this blog. Hence it is fair to suggest that electricity is a common occurrence in your everyday life.  Electricity might even be a pseudo human-right of some sorts to you, since you take it for granted and given. Subsequently we have become complacent with our electricity.

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Blood for light.

Be honest and ask yourself if you really limit your use of light to absolute necessities or if you rather indulge in the luxuries that light and electricity provides.

Mike Thompson, an English designer believes the latter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has noted that electricity consumption totaled nearly 3,856 billion Kilowatthours (kWh) in 2011. That’s equivalent to leaving the light on in 4 rooms for a whole year.

As a result Thompson started a debate in, which he asked how much we would sacrifice for something that is so dear to us. Would we bleed for light?

Thompson did not invoke a metaphor in this case but rather asked whether we would limit our use of light if we had to bleed for it every time.

In order to exemplify his thoughts Thompson designed a lamp that is “powered” by blood. To use the lamp, you first need to mix in an activating powder. Then, you break the glass, cut yourself, and drip blood into the opening.

Although Thompson designed and produced the lamp in 2007, he only made a video (See below) of his project this year.

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Nixon’s Soviet Pepsi Stunt

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Richard Nixon eagerly awaits the verdict of Nikita Khrushchev.

Pepsi’s love affair with Russia dates way back to the early days of the cold war. It all started with Nikita Khrushchev taking a harmless sip of the drink at an American trade exhibition in Moscow in 1959.

Donald M. Kendall, himself Former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo recalls the event as being an, “…inspiring start of a lifelong love affair with Russia…”

According to Kendall, Richard Nixon, the vice-president at the time was instrumental in steering Khrushchev to the Pepsi stand back in 1959.

After the tasting, Khrushchev revealed himself as a Pepsi ‘aficionado’. He urged everyone present to, “Drink the Pepsi-Cola made in Moscow. It’s much better than the Pepsi made in the U.S.”

Fifteen years after the 1959 Pepsi binge, the first Pepsi can was sold in the sparse grocery shelves of the USSR. Due to its horrendous price tag a Pepsi can became more of a trophy item in grocery stores rather than the mass beverage it was in the U.S.

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Pepsi label in the Soviet Union.

Even in the glasnost era Pepsi remained a rare delight. One would know to impress a date with a can or a western candy bar as it symbolized both sacrifice, some degree of affluence and genuine affection for the counterpart. So did a trip to McDonalds, which often topped of an exclusive date.

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Pepsi so far has defied the capital flight trend observed in Russia.

Pepsi or “Bebsi” as some of the Russian’s would pronounce it, quickly rose in popular demand as it become somewhat affordable to the masses in the 1990’s.

Today Pepsi is no longer an idle shelf-item but part of one of Russia’s largest and most vibrant multinational investors. PepsiCo at large has invested $19bn in Russia, at a time were increasing amount of investors are worried with Russia’s authoritarianism and at times, its volatile political situation.

Some have even suggested that the “country is going down the toilet” and that its kingpin Vladimir Putin is in ”la la land” when it comes to the budget.

More and more firms seem to share the same sentiment. Russian capital flight has been negative for three consecutive years now.

The business climate in Russia seems to have emulated the harsh Russian winter as even the most loyal of oligarchs have started to ship out their capital. Mikhail Prokhorov, the country’s third richest man recently securing a London listing for his Polyus Gold miner.

Steven Dashevsky, managing partner of Dashevsky & Partners sums up the situation in a more subtle tone when he suggests that, “…for rational investors there are just not that many reasons to invest in Russia any more.”

Yet Pepsi seems to defy the mainstream. Back in October of 2011 it announced plans to invest an additional $1bn in the Russian market. AIndra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s chief executive made the announcement after several meetings with Putin. It seems that as many western companies struggle to breakthrough in the Russian market, that PepsiCo has greased the wheels in just the right places.

The close cooperation of both PepsiCo and the Kremlin has ensured smooth acquisitions such as PepsiCo’s deal last year in which it acquired Wimm-Bill-Dann, the Russian dairy producer for a whopping $5.4bn.

Indra Nooyi applauds Russia for being a “well-managed country” a euphemism for the preferential treatment which PepsiCo seems to enjoy. Furthermore Nooyi has stressed the positive record of the Russian government in helping PepsiCo, “through regulation and licenses”.

From all these comments it has become clear that PepsiCo had devised a very effective strategy of clearly de-coupling polemic politics and business and immersing itself fully into the Kremlin community. A strategy which bears risk but has paid of well for the American multinational.

Richard Nixon may be best known for his bold China visit in 1972, yet it seems that without Tricky Dick’s Pepsi stunt back in 1959Pepsi would have not have the overwhelming success it has today in Russia.

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Tricky Dick does it yet again; opening new frontiers for American commerce.

The above data accumulated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) seems to suggest that the U.S. economy has been spasmodic for the fourth time in the past five presidential election cycles that have featured divided government.

Hence the question is whether a causality exists between divided government and slower economic growth? While its not as predictable as the data may suggest one has to consider budget balance and debt-to-GDP ratios when going into a presidential cycle since these have an impact on the degree to which government is willing to expand its deficit.

Le mardi est déprimant – Mapping Happiness

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Brands, society and the marketplace today all seem to be driven by an intrinsic hedonist desire. We want pleasure and we want it in as many ways as possible.

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Screenshot of the Mappiness application.

In order to deduce what stills our hedonist desires, George MacKerron while doing a PhD in the department of geography at the London School of Economics, developed an application that gathers data on how our surroundings and activities affect our happiness.

The end result of George MacKerron doctoral work is Mappiness, an iOS based ‘app’. The Mappiness application “beeps” phone owners once or more a day to inquire about their mood while simultaneously taking a noise measurement and tracking the participant’s GPS location.

The data gets sent back – anonymously and securely and is then processed into charts and graphs that visualize when, where and with whom the user is happiest.

Till date the application has harvested data from 3mn responses of approximately 45,000 users. The macro results are not necessarily surprising. People in the U.K. are happiest at around 8 P.M. on a Saturday night and hit happiness low-point on a Tuesday afternoon.

As a result the French newspaper Le Figaro titled, Le mardi est déprimant, that Tuesday was depressing for the Brits.

Apart from the academic publications that might come out of the application,  George MacKerron, its founder hopes that the data might prove useful in future public policy debates, as city councils and governments try to deduce the prime city environment that will lead to maximum happiness utilization.

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