Thursday, December 24, 2015

Everyday interactions

One of my friends posted this on Facebook recently and I thought it was very in the spirit of this blog:

Last night while taking the "G" train in Brooklyn, I observed New Yorkers interacting with one another. There was a Japanese-American woman talking to her infant child in a pram and standing next to her were three smartly dressed business men. The men began to interact with the baby and appeared to be competing to see who would be the first to make the baby laugh. On the opposite side were four teenage girls laughing and talking about their afternoon school concert. When we reached the end of the subway line and everyone departed the subway car, I saw one of the teenage girls walk over to the mother with the baby to help her lift and carry the baby pram up a flight of stairs.
My experiences with New Yorkers are no different then my experiences with folks from anywhere else. In lieu of recent horrible remarks made about certain ethnic groups, I want to mention that the teenage girl and one of the business men were of Middle-Eastern descent.
After spending the day with my three month old grandson, it was delightful to watch the three handsomely dressed adult men trying to make a baby laugh in a loud subway car and heartwarming to see the teenager reach out to help carry a stranger's baby pram up a flight of stairs. There is so much goodness in the world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What do you wish for this year?

The holiday season and New Year are the traditional time to re-examine what we want in our lives. When you're thinking about which gifts you want and what gifts to buy your loved ones, keep in mind that everyone's deep, core desires are basically the same - all around the earth.

Here's a heartwarming Wait But Why video that proves that point well.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Are terrorists going to kill us all?

It's easy to be worried when shockingly dangerous events happen. From 2002 to today, an average of 31 Americans were killed by terrorists each year. Well sure, you say, I purposely excluded 2001. Ok fine, including 2001, it's an average of 270 Americans a year.

270 Americans a year sounds like a lot until you realize that:

  • 11,000 Americans are murdered by guns every year (excluding accidents and suicides)
  • 33,000 Americans are killed in car accidents every year
  • 38,000 Americans are killed by accidental poisoning every year
  • 58,000 Americans die due to a diet too low in fruits and vegetables every year
  • 90,000 Americans die due to alcohol every year
  • 467,000 Americans die due to smoking every year.

There needs to be a way to advocate for fewer resources to fight terrorism without sounding like an advocate for zero resources to fight terrorism. We should put up a fight proportionate to the problem. We should definitely have lots of money and teams of experts devoted to fighting terrorism, and we should have even more devoted to fighting, say, car accidents.

We also need news headlines that reflect, not distort, life's true risks. Not only is violence not likely to kill us, it's less likely than it's ever been.

So remember, the next time you see someone who you suspect may be a terrorist, play it safe by not accepting any cigarettes from them.

Here are some illuminating charts:

Sources / related articles:

Deaths from gun violence vs. deaths from terrorism, in one chart

The things most likely to kill you in one infographic

Smoking, high blood pressure and being overweight top three preventable causes of death in the U.S.

The World Is Not Falling Apart

Monday, August 31, 2015

Women get the right to vote

If you thought 1920 was a reprehensibly late date to get the right to vote, what about 2015? This December is poised to be the first time that Saudi Arabian women will finally be able to vote and run for office.

According to this Time article, an estimated 70 women are looking to run as candidates in the country's municipal elections.

I liked this stock photo since it clearly showed Saudi women
plotting to overthrow the government via their newfound powers.

Lest you think that this means everything's hunky-dory in one of the most conservative and restrictive countries in the world, remember that Saudi woman still can't drive cars, go out in public without a male chaparone, wear whatever they like, and many other common, sensible tasks. Hopefully, they will soon vote to relax these rules.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Colorado's startling success in curbing teenage births

From Futurific Leading Indicators, August 2015: "Over the past six years, Colorado has found that if teenagers and poor women were offered free intrauterine devices and implants that prevent pregnancy for years, women will choose them in a big way, and the results are startling."

"The birthrate among teenagers plunged by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, while their rates of abortions fell by 42 percent. ... There was another similar decline in births for another group particularly vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies: unmarried women under 25 who have not finished high school. The changes were particularly pronounced in the poorest areas of the state."

"Teenage births have been declining nationally [see my previous post from two years ago], but experts say the timing and magnitude of the reductions in Colorado are a strong indication that the state's program was a major driver. About 20 percent of women ages 18 to 44 in Colorado now use a long-acting method ... compared to about 7 percent nationwide. ... About half of the 6.6 million pregnancies a year in the United States are unintended."

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who are worse drivers, women or men?

I was out for drinks with coworkers and talking about last week's blog post, which complains about cars. Being New Yorkers as well, most of my coworkers were sympathetic. But then the conversation took a surprising turn. One guy mentioned that there was one thing he would never do: get in a car with a woman behind the wheel. Women are terrible drivers.

This made me livid, and I immediately lambasted him for such a sexist claim. Perhaps that's something you would hear when hanging out with a group of friends, but with coworkers? And there was a woman in the group, as well! Most of us can see that this would normally be considered inappropriate.

I immediately took out my phone and started looking up stats to prove that, in fact, men are worse drivers. I didn't know this already, but assumed it must be the case. And it was. In nearly every measurable factor, men are worse drivers than women:

  • Men tend to have more crashes
  • Mens' crashes tend to be more serious
  • Men are more likely to speed
  • Men are more likely to drive while intoxicated
  • Men are more than twice as likely to have fallen asleep at the wheel

And this is why, naturally, men's insurance premiums cost more than women's. Like many "secret" trends, it's surprising how straightforward these stats are, and how simple to find. (You can trust that a subject will be well-measured and analyzed whenever there is money riding on it.) Yet, many people still insist on holding inaccurate beliefs.

(There are many stats about this online that agree; here is the source for those above. And, despite what my coworker tried to rebut, the stats are based on rates, not absolute numbers, so the number of drivers doesn't matter.)

Trouble is, in retrospect I realized that I argued the case all wrong.

It doesn't matter that men are in reality worse drivers than women. Knowing this, would someone now make the decision to never get in a car with a male driver? No, that would clearly be absurd.

The reason it's absurd is that we've all been trained to think of men as individuals, not as a group. Some men may be bad drivers, but we can all realize that this doesn't mean ALL men are, and we can all think of examples of men who are good drivers.

That line of thought is a logical, good thing. What's sad is how much harder it is for some people, such as my coworker, to apply the same logic to women. It's unlikely that there are any women who "would never get in a car with a man behind the wheel", even though - surprise! - they would be at least a bit more justified in that than my coworker is with the opposite.

My coworker's worst crime, his biggest flaw in logic, was not in thinking women were worse drivers than men - they very well could have been, on average. It was extrapolating an average characteristic of a group to apply to every single member of that group.

This is the root of all sexism, racism, and prejudice of any kind. There are always two flaws in logic at work - the details of the assumption, and the fact that you're making an assumption at all. Of the two, the latter is worse. After all, the details of the assumption may very well be positive, but it would still be incorrect to make an assumption. Even if a statement about a group is true on average, you can't extrapolate that to individual members of the group.

Our mission should not be to inform people that, in fact, men are worse drivers than women. They are, on average, but it doesn't matter at the individual level. Our goal should be to realize that assumptions never apply to individuals. Group-level information is still useful, of course, to identify trends and work on solutions. But if I'm about to get in a car with a male driver, there is no way I can correctly guess if he is a good or bad driver based solely on his gender, or aggregate statistics about any of the groups he belongs to.

What's the Secret Peace trend here? Just the trend that more and more people are making this realization and refraining from group stereotypes (you can reference the equality chapter of my book for lots of stats on that.) It was nice when out at the bar to hear that none of my other coworkers joined in the sexist argument; in fact, the only reason it was so notable is that it was an anomaly.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cars are terrible ... but there is hope

I read an Earth Institute report recently, "Transforming Personal Mobility", that, well, transformed the way I think about personal mobility. (Also known as: cars.)

Last week, an Amtrak train derailed spectacularly, and this was rightly treated as huge news, an unbelievable disaster. The death toll was 8 people, sadly. Meanwhile, cars kill 35,000 people a year in the US alone, but this is never news. That terrible number is actually a huge improvement over previous decades, believe it or not, and other countries have it worse. In total worldwide, cars kill 1.2 million people a year (and injure countless others). No one seems to think this is a problem. There are no news stories about it, no one is in front of the White House picketing cars. We all just accept that this is a totally normal price to pay for the convenience of personal transportation.

The sheer inefficiency of cars is a huge contributor to global warming, wasted energy, and air pollution. Manufacturing them uses huge amounts of energy as well: building one for every person, and then every few years, building another one for every person.

In addition, cars are also extremely expensive per person, not least because of the insurance required (due to all that aforementioned death). If subways or trains or buses were available and efficient everywhere in the country, an individual doing a cost/benefit analysis would rarely opt to own a car.

Cars also have more subtle consequences that are no less awful. Increasingly, evidence is showing that long commutes make people miserable. These commutes are long (even if they're not by car, though most are) because our suburbs have been designed based on the concept of cars. I just finished the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, which examined the deadly consequences of destroying urban communities to put highways in cities, as we did throughout the twentieth century. The book posits that over-investment in highways (and thus, less funding for schools, hospitals, and police) and their disruption of communities contributed to New York's decline and crime wave in the 1970s and '80s. Only recently have we started learning better ways to organize cities and undo that damage.

Wait, there's more. Think of all the space wasted by parking garages, and the ugly blight of street parking. Cars line every street in every city, doing nothing but taking up space. The vast majority of people who own cars use them primarily for commuting, meaning they sit idle 90% of every day, decaying.

Lastly, consider the geopolitical implications if we weren't as reliant on oil. At a minimum, several dictators worldwide might have a harder time holding onto power, and we wouldn't need to help them. The people who argued that the Iraq war(s) were ALL about oil never made sense to me, but nor do those who deny it played any part at all. Oil is always at least a factor.

To sum up, self-owned, self-driven cars:

  1. Kill and injure millions of people.
  2. Are a huge contributor to global warming.
  3. Are responsible for much of our air pollution.
  4. Drastically increase our energy needs.
  5. Are unecessarily expensive.
  6. Make people miserable.
  7. Take up lots of room.
  8. Destroy cities and communities.
  9. Encourage wars and prop up terrible regimes worldwide.

So how can we transform this dire situation? Well, one possibility emerges as a plausible solution if the following trends continue:

  1. Right now, ride-hailing apps such as Uber (ugh) and Lyft are booming. They make it easy to just press a button and get a car to appear at your doorstep and take you where you want to go.
  2. Other alternatives to owning a car, such as ride-sharing and temporary rentals like Zipcar, are emerging as well.
  3. Self-driving cars, advocated by Google, are finally on the cusp of availability. Eventually, they will likely become mainstream.
  4. We are all now addicted to social media and entertainment and would much rather watch a movie and tweet about it than drive. (I enter as evidence all the car accidents now caused by people texting.)
  5. We are also pretty desperate for more free time.

Where do those lead us? Let me walk you through one way the future might go:

  • Once self-driving cars become legal, companies like Uber jump on them. Their expenses will go way down if they don't have to pay drivers, nor do they have to worry about variable quality.
  • Individuals buy self-driving cars, too. It's much more pleasant to watch a movie on the way to work (or even do work) than drive. This change alone doesn't help the environment or our energy needs, but it will quickly improve safety. Once perfected, self-driving cars will be much better drivers than us humans.
  • Once a critical mass of self-driving cars are on the streets, accidents decrease, and as a result, insurance premiums could go down. With the money saved, more people can afford new, self-driving cars (ideally, in the form of upgrades to existing cars.)
  • Now accustomed to not driving cars themselves, people grow less attached to them. If they are no longer an extension of our wills and decisions, they will no longer seem like extensions of ourselves.
  • This creates an environment ripe for many companies, or even the government, to offer self-driving on-demand rides like Uber and Lyft. Without drivers, these organizations could afford more cars on the street, making their service even better. They would be able to extend their service to more suburban areas, not just city downtowns.
  • The cost of using that service is so much less than owning a whole car, that many people switch.

Here's the epiphany: Eventually, we have a world in which no one owns a car, but just requests a driverless one on-demand whenever they need a ride.

The streets would be filled with these cars; there is always one available instantly. The interior of each car adjusts to each person's personal settings, and is a rolling workstation/entertainment center. You could watch a movie or conduct a meeting in one; some might even offer lunch. No one will ever waste time commuting, since commuting will just consist of doing whatever we were doing anyway, but in motion. Regular commuters would have pickups scheduled, with no risk of unavailability. The number of cars on the streets would be the same as today, but each car would be more energy-efficient than a mistake-prone human driver. One-person trips would use smaller cars, that don't have to be larger based on the off-chance four people need a ride. There would be no need for parked cars at all - just like how you don't see many parked taxis today - the fleet is always in motion. So the total number of cars manufactured would be much fewer. This would free up millions of acres of room and just plain make all our streets look better.

The main downside is that self-driving cars would put a lot of people - taxi drivers, chauffeurs, truck drivers - out of work. Hopefully the transition would be gradual. And the savings would be equally spread to all car users. Only the world's richest people can afford to have drivers waiting on them today; soon, an equivalent could be available to all of us for a fraction of the cost.

At no point would we need to make people-driven, individually-owned cars illegal, of course. Compelling incentives to voluntarily change are always better than a ban. A few eccentric people would probably continue to own and drive cars, just like today's vinyl record-collecting hipsters or the few superstitious writers still using typewriters. Eventually, these drivers would be shunned for the risk they put everyone else in.

I haven't driven a car in almost ten years. I'm excited for the possibility that by the time my daughter reaches driving age, this will have become the norm instead of the exception.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Children are much safer today

From The Week, April 3, 2015:

Despite the fears of modern parents, children today are much safer than they were two decades ago. The physical abuse of children declined by 55 percent between 1992 and 2011, while sexual abuse declined 64 percent. From 1997 to 2012, abductions by strangers also went down, by 51 percent.

Think about that. There is LESS THAN HALF AS MUCH physical abuse, sexual abuse, and abductions of children as there were in the nineties.

What I find encouraging, even more encouraging, perhaps, than knowing how much better today's children are doing, is how much better tomorrow's adults are going to do. These less-abused kids are going to grow up. What other negative indicators decrease when the adult population has a much lower history of abuse in their past? Is there even less crime, less sickness, less unhappiness?

And then think about how much less likely these healthier adults are to pass down more abuse than were their parents. This is an incredible trend that should pay dividends for generations.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Amputee makes history

A few months ago in a post, I mentioned a new type of prosthetic arm that can touch and feel. Suddenly, it seems like news on this front is everywhere. It's thrilling to be living in a moment when this technology is breaking through and advancing at an astonishing pace. Here are some more reports:

First, an amputee made history by becoming the first person to control two shoulder-level prosthetic limbs. As the Youtube description says:

A Colorado man made history at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) this summer when he became the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and simultaneously control two of the Laboratory’s Modular Prosthetic Limbs. Most importantly, Les Baugh, who lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago, was able to operate the system by simply thinking about moving his limbs, performing a variety of tasks during a short training period.

This is the world we live in now, where this is possible. The video needs to be seen to be believed:

Secondly, this video blew up social media last week. In it, Robert Downey Jr., channeling Tony Stark, delivers an Iron Man arm to a charming young boy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We will never have a perfect world ...

Pleasant surprise to run into a Steven Pinker quote randomly in Chipotle today.

"We will never have a perfect world, but it's not romantic or naive to work toward a better one."

If you're looking for a great huge book to tackle in 2015, you can't go wrong with Pinker's brilliant The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Don't take our parks for granted

I'm reading the classic Pulitzer-Prize-winner The Power Broker, a history of New York City as seen through the biography of Robert Moses. Moses was the most important figure in the city's 20th-century history, having built much of the infrastructure of the city (and Long Island, and elsewhere) that we use today - for better or for worse. His legacy is a fascinatingly mixed bag, and that includes some serious caveats with his masterpiece, Riverside Park. But on the whole, it's easy to appreciate how far New York's parks have come. Here's a passage describing Riverside in 1914:

Sometimes, of course, Moses would tell the cab driver to take him straight home. But often he would ask to be dropped off across the West Side, on Riverside Drive, at the end of Seventy-sixth Street near the Hudson River. And as he climbed out of the cab there, he climbed out into a scene far different than the doormanned serenity of Central Park West.
He would be standing on the high bluff that was Riverside Drive, behind him, if he looked up, stately apartment houses would appear to be swaying over him against a backdrop of moving clouds. But he would be looking down. Below him, along the edge of the river, was a wasteland, a wasteland six miles long, stretching from where he stood all the way north to 181st Street. The wasteland was named Riverside Park, but the "park" was nothing but a vast low-lying mass of dirt and mud. Running through its length was the four-track bed of the New York Central, which lay in a right-of-way that had been turned over to the railroad by the city half a century before. Unpainted, rusting, jagged wire fences along the tracks barred the city from its waterfront; in the whole six miles, there were exactly three bridges on which the tracks could be crossed, and they led only to private boating clubs.
The engines that pulled trains along the tracks burned coal or oil; from their smokestacks a dense black smog rose toward the apartment houses, coating windowsills with grit. The smog had an acrid odor, but people who lived in the apartments hardly noticed it; it was scarecely worth mentioning alongside the stench that seemed to hang over Riverside Drive endlessly after each passage of a train carrying south to the slaughterhouses in downtown Manhattan carload after carload of cattle and pigs. When, despite the smell, Riverside Drive residents were driven by the heat to open their windows, they were kept awake at night by the clank of the couplings which hooked the cars together.
Walking in the park was an adventure; the walker sank at intervals into the landfill of which it had been constructed, for water has eaten away much of the fill from below. In many spots, it had broken through the crust of the fill to form little lakes. Every year the park grew smaller, as its edge crumbled into the river.
Areas that were still solid had been appropriated by the railroad for wood-lined pits in which coal was piled. Lying along the river were heaps of rotting timbers, stored years before by some city department and forgotten. At Seventy-ninth and Ninety-sixth streets, untreated garbage mounded toward the sky; the Sanitation Department used those areas as dumping grounds from which the garabage was transferred to scows which towed it out to the open sea, but somehow the rate of transfer was never fast enough to clear the refuse away entirely. Other solid spots held human refuse: derelicts who had built tar-paper shanty towns considered so dangerous that the police stayed away from them. At night, the open fires over which the derelicts cooked flickered in the darkness below the Drive.
Looking south, Moses could see the bluff sink and the park narrow until both disappeared, and houses, factories and warehouses crowded close to the waterfront. The railroad tracks wended their way between the buildings, making several sharp curves, and then emerged on Eleventh Avenue, along which, at street level, trains inched their way in a straight line down to the foot of the island. In front of every train, to warn away pedestrians and drivers, rode a cowboy on a horse, waving a large red flag. Since the trains came at frequent intervals and moved extremely slowly along the avenue, traffic was frequently backed up for blocks. Often, a driver would become impatient and ignore the warning flag. For that reason, Eleventh had become known as "Death Avenue." For years, the city had tried without success to find a solution to the problem posed by the presence of the railroad along the West Side.

The passage particularly struck me because I've been planning a sketch meetup to sketch the park soon. For those who don't know, here's what that exact spot described above looks like today, as seen from Google Streetview: