April 30th, 2007


[culture] Risk and probability: the school bus problem

Lots of great stuff in comments on the risk post from this weekened. kadath identified the issue of risk transfer as the free rider problem. I'm not sure I agree with her, or if it is the free rider problem, it's a special case of it. Nonetheless, that link is a fascinating read.

There's a problem related to risk transfer which lies in how we conduct risk assessment. Untrained humans are notoriously bad at inuiting the probability of events. If we had a decent grasp of probability, Las Vegas would be a grubby mining town in the middle of the desert. (This, incidentally, is another argument against Intelligent Design/Creationism, if there were any point in arguing logically with those viewpoints -- like the knee, the spine and the reproductive system, our wired-in grasp of mathematics and probablity leaves a lot to be desired.)

I had a friend years ago in Texas who at the time was the father of two grade-school aged kids. G insisted on driving his kids to school every day, because as he said to me, "Do you have any idea what kind of people drive school busses?" He was convinced his children were far safer in his Toyota than in a school bus. This despite the fact that school busses have an incredibly low death rate per passenger mile. Insofar as I can tell, most school bus deaths happen when the bus falls off of or into something (a bridge, a quarry, a lake).

(School bus design is also a fantastic example of the risk transfer discussed in the earlier post. In the case of school busses, the risk transfer is highly deliberate as the result of a social decision making process that values protection of the children on board more highly than the protection of any third party involved in a school bus accident.)

I tried to point out to him that a random vehicle running a stoplight had a far better chance of injuring or killing his kids than pretty much anything that could happen to a school bus in Austin traffic, regardless of how incompetent the driver. G said, "Yes, but I'd be able to avoid the accident."

People evaluate risk in terms of their perceived ability to control the situation. G's fears for his kids when his hands weren't on the steering wheel trumped any logic or statistics. This is also why so many people are afraid of flying. Airplanes are far safer than automobiles, but as a passenger, we're utterly passive. We can't even back seat drive an airliner.

Again, I find the school bus problem, and risk/probability assessment in general, fascinating for its own sake, but this kind of thinking also bears on everything from gun control to healthcare spending to tax policy. It's profoundly illogical and profoundly human to think this way -- we all do it. The fact that statistics are so malleable and so poorly understood by the vast majority of people only reinforces the tendency, because we can cherrypick data to suit our prejudices, whatever they may be.

So what would a society be like where everyone had a firm grasp of risk and probability? Should the mathematics and sociology of the school bus problem be taught early and often in the schools? I dunno, but there's plenty of food for thought here.

[clockpunk] Clockpunk voting poll results

The clockpunk voting poll is now closed. We have a winner in the Mainspring Powell's | Amazon ] ARC contest!

With 11 votes, it's:

coolmajaka — "A literary work that shows up on time but calls you wanker."

Tied at 8 votes each for runner up are:

snickelish — "Clockpunk is a hymn to determinism, an aria to all that is mechanistic, a chant spoken to the rhythm of the clockwork processes of the universe."

deangc — "Clockpunk is what everybody is tocking about."

coolmajaka receives the last Mainspring ARC. snickelish and deangc, I've got a sekrit prize for you guys as well. All three of you please contact me via email with your shipping info, jlake(a)jlake.com.

Thanks for playing, everyone!

[books] Favorites - I'll show you mine if you show me yours

pauljessup mentioned my favorite book in comments earlier. That would be Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe Amazon | Powells ]. Granted there are a number of other books (or series) I love, some of them beyond reason, Shadow is still my favorite.


Because it was the book that opened my eyes to what could be done with story telling, with language, with erudition and wit. Because every time I read the book and its in-series sequels, they challenge my intellect, expand my vocabulary, make me think about both the largest questions and the smallest, and most of all, give me the chills. Because it's a damned good book.

Other stories/books/series which have set barbs deep in my reading mind:

"Story of Your Life"
"Theo's Girl"
City of Saints and Madmen
Miles Vorkosigan
A Song of Fire and Ice
The Einstein Intersection
Fifth Head of Cerberus
Vellum and Ink

What's your favorite book (or series)? Why?

[links] Link Salad, lunchtime edition

When Shakespeare really mattered — a review of Nigel Cliff's The Shakespeare Riots Powells | Amazon ] (thanks to goulo)

The Antikythera Mechanism — Ancient Greco-Roman clockpunk (thanks again to goulo, for reminding me of this)

Bendable light — nomads making use of nanotech "light batteries"...the applications for this stuff if it were widely available are boggling

Dinosaur skin fossils

Steampunk computer mouse — please sire, may I have another one?

ETA: martang sends this video of the Kaye Effect. Fascinating video, and further examination proves that tdj makes a lot of very cool science, technology and culture posts.