Over at the New Yorker Adam Gopnik draws an interesting paralell between drunk driving and guns:
If one needs more hope, one can find it in the history of the parallel fight against drunk driving. When that began, using alcohol and then driving was regarded as a trivial or a forgivable offense. Thanks to the efforts of MADD and the other groups, drunk driving became socially verboten, and then highly regulated, with some states now having strong “ignition interlock” laws that keep drunks from even turning the key. Drunk driving has diminished, we’re told, by as much as ten per cent per year in some recent years. Along with the necessary, and liberty-limiting, changes in seat-belt enforcement and the like, car culture altered. The result? The number of roadway fatalities in 2011 was the lowest since 1949. If we can do with maniacs and guns what we have already done with drunks and cars, we’d be doing fine. These are hard fights, but they can be won.
Like many, I’ve been reading everything I can find since I heard that Aaron Swartz had committed suicide. He’s not someone I knew, but certainly someone I paid attention to and read pretty frequently. He also had one of the best definitions of blogging I read:
So that’s what this blog is. I write here about thoughts I have, things I’m working on, stuff I’ve read, experiences I’ve had, and so on. Whenever a thought crystalizes in my head, I type it up and post it here. I don’t read over it, I don’t show it to anyone, and I don’t edit it — I just post it. … I don’t consider this writing, I consider this thinking.
Anyway, of all this stuff I’ve been reading about the case, his impact on the world and everything else, I found this description of where he, and more broadly cultural activist hackers, fit into the historical context very interesting:
I knew Swartz, although not well. And while he was special on account of his programming abilities, in another way he was not special at all: he was just another young man compelled to act rashly when he felt strongly, regardless of the rules. In another time, a man with Swartz’s dark drive would have headed to the frontier. Perhaps he would have ventured out into the wilderness, like T. E. Lawrence or John Muir, or to the top of something death-defying, like Reinhold Messner or Philippe Petit. Swartz possessed a self-destructive drive toward actions that felt right to him, but that were also defiant and, potentially, law-breaking. Like Henry David Thoreau, he chased his own dreams, and he was willing to disobey laws he considered unjust.
As I was digging through my old Instapapers while I was away (I read like a madman and hardly got through any), I came across this article about Obama from 2010. This little story about trying to make fewer decisions really struck me:
Rahm Emanuel tells a story. The time is last December, when the White House was juggling an agenda that included the Afghanistan troop surge, the health-care bill, the climate talks in Copenhagen, and Obama’s acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize that threatened to do him more political harm than good—one issue on top of another. It got to the point where Obama and Emanuel would joke that, when it was all over, they were going to open a T-shirt stand on a beach in Hawaii. It would face the ocean and sell only one color and one size. “We didn’t want to make another decision, or choice, or judgment,” Emanuel told me. They took to beginning staff meetings with Obama smiling at Emanuel and simply saying “White,” and Emanuel nodding back and replying “Medium.”
It’s especially interesting when you add this nugget from Michael Lewis’s October piece on the president (which I haven’t read yet, but this quote came across my internets somehow):
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
This New England Journal of Medicine editorial has a really interesting stat I haven’t seen anywhere else about how gun owners feel about gun laws:
These proposals enjoy broad support. In fact, public-opinion polls have shown that 75 to 85% of firearm owners, including specifically members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in some cases, endorse comprehensive background checks and denial for misdemeanor violence; 60 to 70% support denial for alcohol abuse. (It is deeply ironic that our current firearm policies omit regulations that are endorsed by firearm owners, let alone by the general public.)
Unfortunately there’s no citation, but I’d be really interested to know how aligned gun owners are with the NRA.
Felix Salmon gives his take on what really made Nate Silver such a phenomenom: First, he can explain complicated math simply and second, he gave people fodder for conversation. Felix explains:
The thing that Silver and the Obama campaign have in common, then, is that they used their databases to tell stories. Or, more to the point, their databases and models were used so that Americans could tell stories to each other. Silver’s site became a virtual watercooler, especially towards the end of the campaign — a place where people would gather to talk about what was possible and what was likely. Nate’s voice helped to guide the discussions, but the real reason that he got such astonishing traffic was not that people wanted to read what he was writing, so much as that people were using his model as a framework within which to hold their own idiosyncratic discussions.
Now I’m not sure that this is really unique. People consume, at least in part, to talk about what they read. This is especially true in the realm of politics as evidenced by the nonstop conversation over the last three months. But I still think Felix is very right and it’s interesting to think about the role of statistics here. Are statistics actually better conversational fodder than punditry because they still allow the reader to make observations and decisions? Not sure, but I like the thought.
Paul Krugman wrote an interesting little post on the use of language by liberals and conservatives over the last few years. His basic argument is that while conservatives complained of “political correctness” from liberals, they’ve now taken on the strategy to a frightening degree: “Thus, even talking about ‘the wealthy’ brings angry denunciations; we’re supposed to call them ‘job creators’. Even talking about inequality is ‘class warfare’.”
It’s an interesting way to think about it, but it’s not actually what I wanted to share. He ends the post with this story of how science fiction worked in the Soviet Union:
The author — if anyone remembers where this came from — noted that most science fiction is about one of two thoughts: “if only”, or “if this goes on”. Both were subversive, from the Soviet point of view: the first implied that things could be better, the second that there was something wrong with the way things are. So stories had to be written about “if only this goes on”, extolling the wonders of being wonderful Soviets.
Not sure what to say about this VERY long New Yorker article about William Morgan, an American solider in the Cuban revolution, other than it’s incredibly detailed a well-written. Give yourself plenty of time to get through it, though, as it’s a good 20 pages long. Here’s a quick paragraph to give you a taste:
Menoyo cursed under his breath as both sides began shooting. Bullets split trees in half, and a bitter-tasting fog of smoke drifted over the mountainside. The thunderous sounds of the guns made it nearly impossible to communicate. A Batista soldier was hit in the shoulder, a scarlet stain seeping through his uniform, and he tumbled down the mountain like a boulder. The commander of the Army patrol retrieved the wounded soldier and, along with the rest of his men, retreated into the wilderness, leaving a trail of blood.
Slate has an interesting explanation for why train systems in the US look the way they do:
The existing rule, sadly, evaluates proposals almost exclusively on the basis of how much time a new rail line shaves off commutes. But taking a train station-to-station rather than driving a car door-to-door is guaranteed to be slower unless traffic jams are severe. This has biased new mass-transit construction in favor of a very particular kind of project: First identify a highway that’s already extremely congested and where widening it is either politically or logistically impossible. Then build commuter-rail tracks in the highway median. Put the stations far apart from one another so that trains can cruise at maximum speed for a long time. Surround the stations with parking lots. Driving your car to a park-and-ride station and taking the train downtown is now cheaper and perhaps faster than the average trip on the congested highway.
Interesting piece from Mediaite on Buzzfeed Politics: “Buzzfeed’s coverage of the Presidential race is deliberately non-traditional, and likely wouldn’t work as well with an issue that couldn’t presume the same baseline of knowledge from its audience. Nor will it take long for other outlets to mimic what they’re doing; campaign coverage moves and evolves quickly. But Buzzfeed has a head start – smart reporters, savvy infrastructure.” I haven’t spent too much time there yet, but the concept certainly sounds different.
Good perspective on why posts like “it’s time for Congress to learn about the internet” aren’t actually helpful. “If Congress is complaining that they don’t know about something that you care about, the right answer isn’t to tell them to go get educated. The right answer is to educate them. Congress mentioned the word ‘biologics’ 75 times in a month because a lobbyist spent a long time doing their job: educating members of Congress on the needs of its industry.” Generally I like these sort of things because it’s easy to spout off about how things should change, but more interesting to understand how to actually change them. But there’s something else here I really like: When someone doesn’t understand something you should try to make it easier to understand, not lambaste them for not getting it. Not that I think Congress doesn’t need to brush up on some web stuff, but we, as the web, also need to brush up on our explanations of why it matters and how it works (without all the hyperbole normally attached to it).
I’ve been taking some time over the Thanksgiving break to catch up on my Instapaper queue, so I’ll probably be posting links to some older articles over the next few days. The first comes from a SocialFlow blog post about how the Osama Bin Laden death news spread across Twitter. While the particulars are interesting, I especially liked the points they made about how impossible it would have been to predict the players actually responsible for spreading the message. The post explain, “Before May 1st, not even the smartest of machine learning algorithms could have predicted Keith Urbahn’s online relevancy score, or his potential to spark an incredibly viral information flow.”
They then conclude with a deeper message for how we think about social influence that I completely agree with:
As we build out digital social spaces, we must not get derailed by metrics of status affordances that have taken center stage. Just because we have easily accessible data at our fingertips doesn’t mean that we have the capacity to model and place a value tag on human behavior. Followers, friends or likes represent an aspect of our digital status, but are only a partial representation of our general propensity to be influential. Keith Urbahn wasn’t the first to speculate Bin Laden’s death, but he was the one who gained the most trust from the network. And with that, the perfect situation unfolded, where timing, the right social-professional networked audience, along with a critically relevant piece of information led to an explosion of public affirmation of his trustworthiness.
Just in case you weren’t sure of just how much people like congress, here’s a shortlist of the organizations, ideas and individuals that beat them: The IRS, airline industry, lawyers, Nixon during Watergate, banks, the oil and gas industry, BP during the oil spill, Paris Hilton, US going communist and Hugo Chavez. Luckily, congress can sleep tight knowing they’re more popular that Fidel Castro was in 2008. (Two politics links in a row. Crazy.)
Congress is fighting back on school lunch nutrition guidelines: “The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. USDA had wanted to only count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less than that.” To some extent I understand the worries about government dictating personal choice, but we’re talking about public schools. Is it any wonder that obesity is a problem if we’re teaching kids that pizza is a vegetable?
Back in 2009 Obama famously choose to employ some behavioral economics strategies in distributing the stimulus to citizens. The administration choose to dole out payments in small pieces over an extended period instead of delivering it in one lump sum. The logic went something like this: “By giving people the sense that their incomes had grown, doling out the money paycheck by paycheck was supposed to make recipients more likely to spend it, thereby lifting the economy.”
Except it didn’t exactly work that way and it now looks like lump sum payments work better than the slow drip. A serious blow to behavioral economics? Not exactly …
Traditional economic theory predicts that the design of a tax credit like Making Work Pay should have no effect on its efficacy: A tax cut is a tax cut, whether it comes in a check, reduced paycheck withholdings, or, for that matter, a briefcase full of cash. How money is delivered should have no effect on whether people spend or save.
So the failure of the program actually proves that people are not perfectly rational about the way they spend, otherwise it would have made no difference. A real failure would have been if the Obama approach had the exact same outcome as lump sum.