Archive for July, 2008

Road rage?

July 28, 2008

A piece in today’s Albany Times-Union by Michael C. Brannigan talks about road rage, and incivility. He says that experts estimate there are 200 billion hostile exchanges annually among U.S. motorists.
Really? That works out to about two per day for every man, woman, and child. Maybe it depends on how you define “hostile exchange.” (We sometimes similarly hear about “studies” showing that some shocking percentage of wives suffer domestic violence. If you delve into the details it turns out that such studies count raising one’s voice as “violence.”)
I’ve actually rarely encountered what I’d call “road rage.” Maybe a little “road annoyance” now and then, but not rage. Meantime, I do often drive a route where a certain turn is normally impossible unless another driver lets me cut in. And someone always does, literally within seconds.
Why does that happen? It’s a small sacrifice for the other driver, yet why do it for a stranger?
The implicit idea is that if he does it for me today, someone else will do it for him tomorrow. Every time this happens, I recall Anne Frank’s writing “in spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.”
Road behavior is a actually a perfect microcosm of the larger society. The rules of the road impede completing our trips as fast as possible. Yet we voluntarily follow those rules practically 100 per cent of the time, because we know that otherwise the whole system would fail, serving no one’s interests. It’s awesome testimony to human rationality and social cooperativeness to see cars zipping along at high speeds in complex traffic patterns with rarely a mishap. And when one occurs, is there a fight? No—usually, a polite exchange of insurance information!

US vs. Them

July 17, 2008

I love the USA very much, seeing it as an historical oasis. America gives its people a uniquely good life; and it lit the torch that has illuminated the way to freedom for so many others.
But I do not see the American people as “us” and the rest of the world as “them.” I regard all of humanity as my “us.” Thus, when it comes, for example, to whether someone in America has a good job, or whether that job goes to someone in India, I don’t root for the American. The opportunity and the pay has to be earned, and if the Indian earns it better than the American, then the Indian should get it. And you know what? We are all better off if that’s how things work. Because that’s economic efficiency. That’s how the whole world becomes rich.
Of course, it’s utterly mistaken to imagine that one more job in India somehow means one job fewer in America. There is not some limited lump of work to be done in the world, with the only question being how to divvy it up. To the contrary, the work available and needed is a function of human ingenuity and enterprise, which means it is unlimited. Further, the more Indians there are doing productive well-paid work, the more wealth is produced in the world for everyone to share. That Indian can buy more things that other people produce. If he works for an American company, that American company becomes more productive, efficient, and competitive, which means it can hire more Americans too. In fact, studies have shown that overseas outsourcing does not actually result in fewer American jobs. Companies that practice such strategic outsourcing do indeed wind up with larger workforces here in the U.S.

“Margin of Error”

July 9, 2008

In the coming election season there will be a lot of polls in the news. With the Presidential election likely to be close, the words “margin of error” will often be heard. And grossly misinterpreted!
“Jones 46%, Smith 43%, but that’s within the poll’s 3% margin of error–a statistical dead heat.”
Here’s the real deal:
A perfect poll would show the true split of electoral opinion. An actual poll provides an estimate of that “true” picture. Statisticians calculate “confidence intervals” to assess the potential difference between the two. A typical confidence interval is 95%. And, with a 3% margin of error, that means we can be 95% confident that the difference between the poll result and reality is not greater than 3 percentage points.
So in our Jones versus Smith example, it’s not in any sense a “dead heat” or “statistical tie,” and it’s not just as likely that Smith, not Jones, is ahead. In fact, there’s only a 5% chance that Smith is actually ahead.
I believe the news media’s margin of error in reporting this stuff will be 100%. In other words, I’m 95% confident that they will report it wrong every time.
Why? Don’t they know better? Why don’t the polling organizations themselves scream about this? Because it’s just too subtle, too complicated, too difficult a point to convey in a soundbite. Ya gotta keep it simple for da yahoos. Or so at least they think.
(That’s how George Bush failed so miserably in making the case for invading Iraq. He thought the American public was too dumb to grasp a complex, nuanced, multi-faceted, subtle argument (which certainly could have been made). So, to keep it simple, he focused on just one thing, WMD and terrorists. Unfortunately, that one thing turned out to be the one thing that was incorrect.)