Why Brits talk so much about the weather

One stereotype about British people is that they are always talking about the weather. In the absence of any other topic to talk about, they get back down to talking about the weather.

Having lived here for a day after a half after moving here yesterday, I can offer one explanation about why Brits talk so much about the weather – the high information content. In the last day and half, the weather here has been so volatile that the information content in statements about the weather can be rather high.

Most places in the world have rather predictable weather. Delhi has hot summers and cold winters. It almost always rains in the tropical rain forests. It almost always rains in Mumbai during the monsoon. And so on. And when the weather is predictable, the information content in describing it is rather low.

For example, if there is a 90% chance that it will rain in Mumbai one monsoon day, a statement on the presence or absence of rain contains only 0.47 bits of information/entropy (-0.9 log 0.9 – 0.1 log 0.1). If the probability that a summer day in Delhi will be sunny is 99%, then the information content in talking about the weather is just 0.08 bits.

The thing with London weather, based on my day and half of observation, is that it is wildly volatile. This afternoon, for example, there was a hailstorm. And only a couple of minutes later there was bright sunshine. And then there was another hailstorm. I can see heavy rain from my window as I write this now.

Crow and fox getting married in London

A post shared by Karthik S (@skthewimp) on

So given how crazy and volatile the weather in London is, the information content in talking about the weather is rather high. As I write, there’s sunshine streaming through my window, and heavy rain outside. And I’m chatting with a friend who lives not very far from here, and whatever I tell her about the weather here is “information” to her, since it’s not the same there.

It’s this craziness and high volatility in weather in Britain that makes it worth talking about. The information content in a statement about the weather is always high. And this is not the case elsewhere in the world. And so people elsewhere get annoyed by Brits talking about the weather.

PS: What does it tell you that I’m blogging about the weather a day and half after landing in Britain?

The one bit machine

My daughter is two weeks old today and she continues to be a “one bit machine”. The extent of her outward communication is restricted to a maximum of one bit of information. There are basically two states her outward communication can fall under – “cry” and “not cry”, and given that the two are not equally probable, the amount of information she gives out is strictly less than one bit.

I had planned to write this post two weeks back, the day she was born, and wanted to speculate how long it would take for her to expand her repertoire of communication and provide us with more information on what she wants. Two weeks in, I hereby report that the complexity of communication hasn’t improved.

Soon (I don’t know how soon) I expect her to start providing us more information – maybe there will be one kind of cry when she’s hungry, and another when she wants her diaper changed. Maybe she’ll start displaying other methods of outward communication – using her facial muscles, for example (right now, while she contorts her face in a zillion ways, there is absolutely no information conveyed), and we can figure out with greater certainty what she wants to convey.

I’m thinking about drawing a graph with age of the person on the X axis, and the complexity of outward information on the Y axis. It starts off with X = 0 and Y = 1 (I haven’t bothered measuring the frequency of cry/no-cry responses so let’s assume it’s equiprobable and she conveys one bit). It goes on to X = 14 days and Y = 1 (today’s state). And then increases with time (I’m hoping).

While I’m sure research exists some place on the information content per syllable in adult communication, I hope to draw this graph sometime based on personal observation of my specimen (though that would limit it to one data point).

Right now, though, I speculate what kind of shape this graph might take. Considering it has so far failed to take off at all, I hope that it’ll be either an exponential (short-term good but long-term I don’t know ) or a sigmoid (more likely I’d think).

Let’s wait and see.

Curation, editing and predictability

One of my favourite lunchtime hobbies over the last one year has been watching chess videos. My favourite publishers in this regard are GM Daniel King and Mato Jelic. King is a far superior analyst and goes into more depth while analysing games, though Jelic has a far larger repertoire (King usually only analyses games the day they were played).

In some ways I might be biased towards Jelic because his analysis and focus are largely in line with my strengths back during my days as a competitive chess player. Deep opening analysis, attacking games, the occasional tactical flourish and so on. He has a particular fondness for the games of Mikhail Tal, showering praises on his (Tal’s) sometimes erratic and seemingly purposeless sacrifices.

Once you watch a few videos of Jelic, though, you realise that there is a formula to his commentary. At some point in the game, he announces that the game is in a “critical position” and asks the viewer to pause the video and guess the next move. And a few seconds of pause later, he proceeds to show the move and move on with the game.

While this is an interesting exercise the first few times around, after a few times I started seeing a pattern – Jelic has a penchant for attacking positions, and the moves following his “critical positions” are more often than not sacrifices. And once I figured this bit out, I started explicitly looking for sacrifices or tactical combination every time he asked me to pause, and that has made the exercise a lot less fun.

I’d mentioned on this blog a few weeks back about my problem with watching movies – in that I’m constantly trying to second-guess the rest of the movie based on the information provided thus far. And when a movie gets too predictable, it tends to lose my attention. And thinking about it, I think sometimes it’s about curation or editing that makes things too predictable.

To take an example, my wife and I have been watching Masterchef Australia this year (no spoilers, please!), and I remarked to her the other day that episodes have been too predictable – at the end of every contest, it seems rather easy to predict who might win or go down, and so there has been little element of surprise in the show.

My wife remarked that this was not due to the nature of the competition itself (which she said is as good as earlier editions), but due to the poor editing of the show – during each competition, there is a disproportional amount of time dedicated to showing the spectacularly good and spectacularly bad performances.

Consequently, just this information – on who the show’s editors have chosen to focus on for the particular episode – conveys a sufficient amount of information on each person’s performance, without even seeing what they’ve made! A more equitable distribution of footage across competitors, on the other hand, would do a better job of keeping the viewers guessing!

It is similar in the case of Jelic’s videos. There is a pattern to the game situation where he pauses, which biases the viewer in terms of guessing what the next move will be. In order to make the experience superior for his viewers, Jelic should mix it up a bit, occasionally showing slow Carlsen-like positions, and stopping games at positional “critical positions”, for example. That can make the pauses more interesting, and improve viewer experience!

What are other situations where bad editing effectively gives away the plot, and diminishes the experience?

Doctors and correlation-causation

One of the common cribs about the medical profession is that most doctors don’t have enough grounding in mathematics and statistics (subjects they typically don’t study beyond high school). Given the role of mathematics and statistics in medicine, in terms of gathering evidence, medical testing, etc. the lack of mathematical or statistical knowledge can have serious consequences in terms of interpretation of techniques and symptoms and all that.

In the field of statistics we have this adage that goes that we should “treat the disease and not the symptom”. This is no less true in the medical profession – let’s say that you have a bacterial infection which causes a fever, a poor doctor would diagnose your fever by taking your temperature, assume that it is the fever thanks to which you are sick and give you medication to lower the fever without realising that there is a “third variable” that might be causing both – your fever and your sickness. Thus, your fever might come down and consequently your sickness but both would presently appear.

I’ve had chronic pain in my heels for a few months now. It’s especially severe whenever I put my feet on the ground from a raised position. Someone had told me that it occurs due to calcification near the Achilles Tendon, and I must take medication for that. Having pushed it for a few months now I finally went to see my uncle who is an orthopaedic yesterday (this is the same guy who told me about my Boxer’s Fist).

He promptly diagnosed me with Plantar Fasciitis, and wrote down some medication, and told me what I need to do in order to reduce the pain in my feet. After a short conversation on what else I need to do, and any precautions, and all such, I asked him about the calcification thingy – whether he had ruled out that calcification of the Achilles Tendon was causing this problem.

“I’m sure there will be some calcification”, he said, “and I’m not sending you for an X-ray because I have a very good idea of what it will show and it won’t add much value”. And then he proceeded to explain that calcification is a “result” of plantar fasciitis and not a cause of it. He didn’t use the terms “correlation” or “causation” but he explained that when you suffer from plantar fasciitis you end up with both calcification of your Achilles Tendon and also shooting pain in your heels, especially immediately after waking up. The two are thus related, he said, but neither causes the other, but there is a third factor (fasciitis) that causes both, and that is the one that he is treating me for!

I was doubly impressed with him – first for understanding “information theory” in terms of understanding that the X-ray wouldn’t add much information, and secondly for recognising that there was a third factor and that correlation should not be mistaken for causation. Or perhaps I had a particularly low prior for mathematical and statistical skills of doctors!

Postscript

He refused to charge me a fee, since I’m his nephew. While on my way out I was thinking about it and wondering on what circumstances I would waive my professional fees for my consulting. And I realised it would be hard to do so for anyone! It made me wonder what made my uncle waive his medical fees, while I’m extremely unlikely to do that.

I realised it has to do with the investment. He spent about five to ten minutes with me (perhaps a bit longer), but essentially his marginal cost of treating me was quite low. And this was a marginal cost that he was willing to sacrifice in return for the goodwill he gets for treating the extended family for free. Considering the size of my engagements, though, the marginal cost is usually high and is seldom justified by goodwill!