Driving Me Crazy

After a recent conversation at work about driving, traffic jams, the lingering effects of excessive braking and stopping, a colleague sent me a link to this
article
that purports to have finally solved a mystery of traffic jams mathematically.

To me, this was nothing new or exciting. I recalled reading this much better set of pages years ago. The author made many of the same observations, and reached many of the same conclusions, that I (and I’m sure many others) had done independently.

The basic idea is that the efficiency of the flow of heavy traffic can be dramatically affected by sudden stops and blockages, and these can have long-lasting effects (the wave of stopped cars often grows from the back faster than it shrinks from the front…). If even a fairly small percentage of drivers would change their driving habits to leave more room in front of their cars and slow down more gradually, to reduce complete stops and allow others to change lanes more smoothly, we would see much better traffic flows.

I think that this is yet another case of people’s intellectual laziness preventing them from making a simple change to their behaviors that would improve things dramatically. In this case, we can create a huge positive externality (save people’s time, gas, stress) with no real cost to ourselves (other than changing how we drive).

Many people will never do this. I know people (and have observed many others) who drive as though it’s a race that they will lose if they don’t pass other cars, or if they let someone in front of them. So, they make abrupt lane changes that causes others to brake, they follow too closely and have to brake quickly and cause those behind them to do likewise, they refuse to let others into their lane which causes people to stop to make their change, and/or to let a car in. Not only is this stupid, and dangerous, and stressful; but it also makes life worse for everyone else. These people are exacerbating the situation that made them enraged in the first place.

I certainly don’t expect to get enough readers of this blog to change their driving habits and make a noticeable change to traffic congestion. But, perhaps if each of you who agrees will not only change your habits, but will also encourage others to do likewise (and so on, and so on…), perhaps it might help.

And even if that doesn’t happen, just changing your own habits will help traffic to some extent. And, you’ll be beating most other drivers in a more important dimension than being further ahead in traffic: living intelligently.

I Don’t Believe in Mitt Romney

I’ve tried to like Mitt Romney.

He strikes me as a smart, decent, presidential-looking guy with a sense of humor and good instincts. His past has certainly seemed pretty socially liberal, even if it isn’t feasible to appear that way to the Republican base now. He also seems to understand economics, and talks like someone who wants to liberalize things in that sphere as well. And, his kids seem to think he’s great.

His Mormonism doesn’t bother me. I don’t think it’s an order of magnitude more silly than the more popular religions.

But, it’s tough for me to tell where his obligatory pandering to the Religious Right ends, and his actual craziness and intolerance begins.

I found a lot about his recent speech about religion to be disturbing.

Not only did he mischaracterize the positions of the founders with respect to the relationship between religion and the government (this is common), but he seemed to exclude the non-religious from the picture entirely.

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

And…

Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

And…

It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust.

And…

And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.

I’m not the only one who noticed this. Romney didn’t explicitly say that he hates people like me, but he certainly implied that I’m not included in his sphere of friends and allies.

I found it interesting that this speech took place at the George H.W. Bush Library and included praise of the former president. That’s because George H.W. Bush once said:

No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.

Romney seems intent on following the same, stupid, tradition.

[UPDATE] To be fair, I was recently referred to this Meet The Press interview in which Romney clarified his position, saying “Oh, of course” atheists can be moral (on an individual basis), and wouldn’t be excluded from opportunities in his administration.

The Good, The Bad, and the Perfect

I keep seeing people who are generally libertarian write about how crazy it would be to vote for Ron Paul for president, and cite reasons like his votes against “free” trade agreements. They understand that he supports free trade and has principled reasons for opposing these agreements, but they say that he should recognize that the agreements are better than the status quo, and that he’s a fool for letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

I just find it interesting that these people seem to be making exactly that sort of error by favoring candidates who are much worse for liberty, because Ron Paul isn’t perfect.

He sometimes makes me cringe when he talks about immigration, or the gold standard, or some other issues. But Ron Paul is so much better in terms of libertarian principles than any other candidate that he’s obviously the best choice for someone who would like to use his vote to express support for those principles.

So, should we let the perfect become the enemy of the good, or not?

I’m Thankful For The Way Things Are In China

I haven’t posted much lately, so I thought I’d take you on a tour of a recent stream-of-consciousness of mine.

It was Thanksgiving, recently, and I started thinking about what to be thankful for, and to whom. Then, I thought about whether it made sense for an atheist, like myself, to celebrate Thanksgiving, since most people thought of it as an occasion to thank God. I decided that it was appropriate, and that I was thankful for The Enlightenment, and for the ideas of political liberty that have helped to free so many of us from all sorts of tyranny, and for the explosive growth of knowledge and wealth and happiness that civil and economic liberty have enabled. I was thankful that people in many places in the world (like China) that have recently been severely oppressed are now starting to experience the fruits of liberty as well.

Then, I thought about what sorts of things people were expected to express thanks for. It seems that we say we’re thankful for things that we are not responsible for. You don’t often hear people saying that they’re thankful for things that they have created or cultivated through their own hard work; i.e., for things that they’ve earned. It seems to only be appropriate to express thanks for things that others have done, or for random luck.

Then, I thought about the flip-side (sort of) of expressing thanks: apologizing. When people demand an apology, they won’t be satisfied by someone just saying “I’m sorry” about the fact of their unhappiness. They are expected to be sorry that they screwed up, made poor choices that caused the unhappiness.

So, we’re supposed to be happy (thankful) about things that we didn’t do, and sad (sorry) about things that we did do. That seems pretty twisted and unhealthy to me.

Then, I started thinking about famous examples of people apologizing, and remembered how strange I always found the lyrics to the John Denver song: “I’m Sorry.” Especially this line (the first time in the song that he says “I’m Sorry”):

I’m sorry for the way things are in China.

That’s bizarre! If he was trying to win points with his girlfriend for a romantic apology, he just undercut it by making it clear that when he says “I’m sorry” he can mean that he’s sad about a circumstance that he may have had absolutely no part in causing. That’s not what she wants to know. And, some of his other examples are of this sort (I’m sorry things ain’t what they used to be, I’m sorry for myself cause you’re not here with me). But, then, he equivocates and starts being sorry for things that he is responsible for (I’m sorry for all the lies
I told you, I’m sorry for the things I didn’t say, I’m sorry if I took some things for granted, I’m sorry for the chains I put on you
).

So, when he finally repeats:

But more than anything else, I’m sorry for myself for living without you.

We can’t be sure whether he’s taking responsibility or not (I think we’re supposed to believe he is).

Leave Barry Alone!

A few days ago, a federal grand jury indicted baseball great Barry Bonds, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

I haven’t been following the situation very closely, but the whole thing reminds me of the ridiculous Martha Stewart persecution, where a public figure is punished for lying about something that the government could not prove to be a crime (certainly not one with victims).

Regardless of whether Bonds took steroids, or knew he took steroids, this does not warrant $1 of resources for the government to pursue. If it’s true that this is the most valuable use of federal crime-fighting resources of all available opportunities, then we should start cutting budgets dramatically, and start celebrating the end of serious crimes and threats to safety.

A lot of people seem to hate Barry Bonds, and want to minimize his accomplishments. It seems to be a common trait to want to tear down someone (or some company) that achieves dramatic success. I wish this trait was more widely recognized as a problem. We should certainly criticize actions that warrant it, but we should also praise great achievements.

Whether or not he took steroids, Barry Bonds is a great baseball player whose success on the field should be admired, and not despised.

Maybe he’s not a great role model in terms of character or personal choices (I’m not saying that this is true, I just don’t know). But, he can and should be admired as a great athlete anyway.

Eeny Meeny Miny Moe

I started this blog by writing about a common thing that I had thought about in a way that most people I know don’t seem to have.

Recently, I was reminded of something else like that from my childhood.

When I went to kindergarten, I first encountered a rather strange procedure that kids used to choose “randomly.” When they were choosing from a small set of things, they’d point to them alternately while reciting:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe (4 beats)
Catch a tiger by the toe (4 beats)
If he hollers let him go, (4 beats)
My mother said (3 beats)
To pick the very best one (6 beats)
And you are it (4 beats) or And you are not it. (5 beats).

And it wasn’t just kindergartners who were doing this! First graders, second graders, third graders, and more were doing this!

I remember thinking initially that it must be some kind of a joke. Were these people idiots?

I didn’t know the term “deterministic,” but I knew that this was a terrible process. It seemed obvious to me that if one used the same process each time, then it would follow the same pattern. Simple experimentation would surely indicate which choice would win. So, I did a few trials and realized that when choosing among 2 or 3 or 4 things, the choice pointed to on the first beat would always win (or with “not it”, the second one would lose). Later, I figured out that there were 25 beats which is 2n+1, 3n+1, 4n+1. I could have figured out the cases for 5, 6, etc., but 2, 3 and 4 were by far the most common cases.

But, nobody I knew gave any indication that they had figured this out. Did it not occur to them? Did they choose to remain willfully ignorant in order to preserve the efficacy of the procedure? Were people phenomenally incurious? Was there an unspoken agreement that figuring out the pattern was cheating (or breaking the spell)?

Eventually, I accepted the fact that many people didn’t think about things the way I did. They were happy to share common beliefs and practices without even wanting to know how they worked or if they made sense.

I know it now, but it still bugs me a little.