Thursday, April 26, 2012

Happiness is a warm gun - to fewer people

Great article in The New Yorker about America's gun culture, and almost in passing it mentions some superb statistics:
  •  The bad news first: The U.S. is still the country with the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. Second place is Yemen, so that tells you the kind of company we keep. And they have half the rate. However, there is good news:
  • In 1973, there were guns in roughly 1 in 2 U.S. households; by 2010 that had dropped to 1 in 3 households.
  • In 1980, nearly 1 in 3 Americans owned a gun; by 2010 that had dropped to 1 in 5.
  • "One reason that gun ownership is declining, nationwide, might be that high-school shooting clubs and rifle ranges at summer camps are no longer common." 
Now if, unlike me, you're a gun advocate, you might be disappointed at these numbers. For one thing, more guns in civilian hands allegedly helps prevent crime. However, since crime has been dropping precipitously in the same time period as the stats above, that link would seem extremely difficult to prove.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Is bullying a crisis or a myth?

I haven't seen the movie Bully yet, but I've read plenty about it, including this article in last week's The Week. I love the format of The Week, which summarizes all media stories from each week. In this article, it presents opposing viewpoints about the issue.

So, in the first paragraph, it mentions USA Today's claim (and the movie's) that there is a bullying "epidemic" going on. It also describes a Reuters article that agrees with that dire assessment and goes further by describing the terrors of cyber-bullying as well.

The next paragraph describes the counter-point to that claim, from The Wall Street Journal. "This 'bullying crisis' is largely a myth … kids today are 'safer and better-behaved than they were when I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s.' Adolescent mortality, accidents, sex, and drug use are all down from their levels of a few decades ago. Acceptance of homosexuality is up, and the percentage of students who reported 'being afraid of attack or harm at school' has declined from 12 percent in 1995 to 4 percent in 2009."

The final paragraph provides a counter-point to the counter-point, bringing it back around to the original claim, with high-school student Katy Butler writing in that she was bullied a lot. She says 43 percent of teens say they've been bullied. Mike Huckabee agrees with her, too.

So, is Bullying a crisis or a myth? Well, why are those the only two options? Can it be neither? It's a real problem, of course, and not a myth. But "crisis" is an overblown term, since it's probably always been a problem and has most likely even gotten better recently. (And Katy Butler's touching testimony is mostly useless as evidence since it is only one anecdote.) I wish there was an easier way for the media to convey, "Hey, this is a problem and we should pay attention to it, but that doesn't necessarily mean the world is ending." Instead we get the default black-or-white views, with no sensible middle ground setting.

It's obvious bullying has always existed. But perhaps the reason we are just noticing bullying as a problem now is that our standards for violence keep changing - what we are willing to tolerate keeps decreasing. This is what Steven Pinker shows in his excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature. Basically, the same amount of bullying in the past would not have been upsetting to us.

PS. In other teen news, rates of teenage pregnancy, births, and abortions in the U.S. have fallen to their lowest level in nearly 40 years. The number of teen girls getting pregnant dropped 42% from its peak in 1990; teen births declined 35% since 1991; and teen abortions declined 59% from their peak in 1988. Also, the percentage of children experiencing unwanted exposure to online pornography declined from 34% in 2005 to 23% in 2010. So, maybe the kids are alright.

Source: The Futurist, May-June 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Smoothies reveal: Things work better now

My wife Rachel got this smoothie maker as a gift. (Yum!) It's hard to read in my fuzzy phone photo, but the company's name is Back to Basics and their tagline is "Back to Things that Work."

The smoothie machine does work well, but why wouldn't it? Their slogan irks me. I don't know why we tend to think otherwise, but things work much better now than they ever did. There are several reasons for this. One is the increase in government regulations over products. You can argue that this sometimes leads to more expensive products, since extra work needs to be put in to ensure they meet standards, but the result is that products much more often meet the standards. This is really important in cases where safety is an issue.

Another reason things work better now is the whole concept behind the Secret Peace - compounding information. It's in every company's best interest to make their products better, and the longer a certain product has been around, the more it has been improved. And as one company improves a product, its competitors often have to make the same improvements in order to keep up and remain competitive. New features are often introduced at luxury prices before economies of scale and increases in efficiency make them cheaper and they become standard.

Cars are a great example of this. Think how many features cars have now by default that would have been considered luxuries a few decades ago - CD players, automatic locks, air bags, and tons more. Even windshield wipers and seat belts were not a given, if you go back far enough. I don't drive ever since I moved to NYC, so in the rare cases when I get in a car, it seems there's often some new feature I hadn't heard about. Car people probably take these for granted, but I am amazed at the fact that the car seat warms up, for example. That just strikes me as absurdly futuristic. Or even unlocking the doors remotely. Back in my day we used keys - remember those?

Another reason for today's improved products is the ability for the market to make better decisions because of the availability of online reviews. Bad products can't fool us for long, and they all eventually get weeded out. Paul Adams, in his great book Grouped, describes this: "Online, people are overwhelmingly positive about businesses. One reason for this is in the last 50 years, product quality has dramatically increased. Today, most products meet basic manufacturing quality codes, and they work for a long time." (p. 141)

The next time you use any product, think back to if it would have worked better a few years or decades ago. If Windows is giving you a headache, think, "Was my Commodore 64 better?" If plugging your iPod into your car stereo is on the fritz, think, "Was it better when I had a cd player in the trunk?" (Yes, I had this.) And if you have to wait an extra ten minutes at the laundromat because one of the washers is broken, ask yourself, "Would I prefer washing my shirts down in the river?"

Things work better NOW, Back to Basics.