Traffic Flow

July 31, 2009 - Leave a Response


For the last month or so I’ve been wondering about traffic flow, or specifically, the question of how to maximize its efficiency.  I’ve been trying to decide between two models, which I will dub the American model and the Chinese model. In the American model there are a bunch of rules that are broadly obeyed, such as staying within one’s lane, leaving one car length of space between you and the nearest car, and obeying traffic lights. In the Chinese model, these rules are more like guidelines, so traffic flow is much messier. You might have your own opinion (if so, I’d be happy to hear it!), but I thought about this for a while and it’s not intuitively obvious to me which model leads to more efficient traffic flow.

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10000 Hours

July 25, 2009 - 2 Responses

It’s an old rule of thumb that it takes 10000 hours of work to master a discipline. This sounds about right to me. A medical student takes four years to graduate, and can probably expect to work about 50-60 hours a week to reach their 10000 hours. A PhD student might take six years and work only 40 hours per week. This also implies law students should have to work upwards of 75 hours a week in law school, and I’m not sure how many law students actually do work that hard; maybe that’s why we have such substandard lawyers in this country (ha ha). Note that I’m defining “work” here as something beyond a liberal arts education, under the assumption that the latter primarily helps to build an emotional and educational foundation from which one can begin to start learning a trade. So it makes sense that engineers are working 50-60 hours a week in college to master their craft. Also, I should mention that the 10000 hours applies to non-academic pursuits too, such as sports, music, art, or automobile repair, but I don’t feel qualified to comment on these in more detail.

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Political Blogging

July 15, 2009 - 2 Responses

Since the rise of Obama, I’ve felt that political blogging has lost a lot of its cachet. It’s not that I’m at all happy with the current state of American politics, but it has certainly improved a lot over the truly horrific nightmare that was the beginning of this decade. This change means that a lot of healthy, well-adjusted people who got riled up during the Bush Administration are backing away from politics now, which is fine with me. I guess I’m actually doing the same. Anyway, along these lines, here’s the inimitable Hilzoy’s swan song, and a nice comment on it by LizardBreath.

Iran’s “Green Revolution”?

June 14, 2009 - One Response


On Thursday, in the wake of a huge Mousavi rally in Tehran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard issued an ominous but cryptic warning that “any attempt for velvet revolution will be nipped in the bud”. This warning didn’t make sense to me on Thursday, since all the energy seemed nonviolent and directed towards the democratic election on Friday, not towards revolution. Today (Sunday), the warning makes a lot more sense to me.

For some reason, mainstream news sources have been equivocating on whether the election was rigged or not. On Friday evening, I was pretty dubious that it was rigged, but by now the evidence seems incontrovertible. Juan Cole makes a very convincing case here, and rebuts several counterargumets here. Here’s a nice timeline of events that seems pretty reasonable at the moment, although information is currently very scarce.

The events in Iran right now are truly historic. I don’t have enough information to predict how things will turn out, but all the potential outcomes look like a fundamentally changed Middle East. If you want to read more about the situation in Iran and want some useful links, I’d recommend Juan Cole, Andrew Sullivan, and the gimmicky #iranelection Twitter feed.

EDIT 6/15 1:20 PM EST: Turning this post into a stream-of-consciousness feed. That #iranelection feed is no longer gimmicky, it’s better to think of it as SIGINT, as Marc Ambinder explains. Two more good sources to add are @persianwiki and Nico Pitney. Also Andrew Sullivan claims to be under cyber attack.
6/17 10:30 AM EST: Here’s a good summary (video) of the power struggle behind the protests.

Thoughts on the Metamorphoses

June 13, 2009 - Leave a Response


It’s time for another post about a book I’m reading! In this case, the book is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s very enjoyable (especially since the translator, A. D. Melville, puts the whole poem into iambic pentameter), and there’s lots to say for someone qualified to speak about the literary value of the work, the implications of the impressive array of allusions Ovid employs, or the broader cultural context in which the Metamorphoses was written. But I’m not qualified in that way, and while a lack of expertise shouldn’t stop any self-respecting blogger from providing an opinion, my current interests lie elsewhere, so I’m not taking this blog post in that direction.

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June 7, 2009 - 2 Responses

One of my most depressing pet theories, inferred from an actual gruesome example that occurred in my town a few years ago, is that publicizing particularly graphic or unusual suicides can trigger copycats. I recently discovered (via Andrew Sullivan) that this is actually a very well-documented effect with its own Wikipedia page and guidelines for journalists to avoid triggering it.

On a lighter note, clicking through those Wikipedia links for a bit brought me to this classic Washington Post article from a few years ago. It’s a long story, but very well done and worth reading through in its entirety if you have the time. The writer convinced the world-class violinist Joshua Bell to play for an hour at a D.C. metro station, looking and acting like an ordinary street performer. They were both curious to see how the crowd would respond.

As is noted in the article, context is important for art, and the social norms guiding the relationship between street performers and passers-by are very complicated. Thus I really wouldn’t recommend drawing any broader conclusions about people at all from this story. It’s just a fun read.

Go Carbon Tax

May 25, 2009 - Leave a Response


I thought of an opinion on pending legislation that I would like to record in the public archive of the Internet. The specific legislation is the American Clean Energy and Security Act and its primary purpose is to introduce a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions in America. The opinion I have is that this is a poor excuse for a bill and that a carbon tax would be a vastly superior solution to the climate crisis.

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More on Niebuhr

May 21, 2009 - Leave a Response

Expect continued light blogging for a little while longer. I’m currently blissfully experiencing the world around me instead of trying to analyze it. It happens every springtime, I suppose.


But I do want to say briefly that holy shit Reinhold Neibuhr is obnoxious. As suggested in my last post, I’m reading his Irony of American History since it seems to dictate the thinking of most of our current political establishment . Neibuhr has some good points, like the one about irony from last week, and he convinced me with his argument that intellectual consistency isn’t necessarily a virtue and that it’s important to embrace contradictions and hold one’s positions lightly.

But oh my God please stop glorifying the common man so ridiculously. He reads like a more vituperatous version of David Brooks (which makes sense, since Brooks often writes about how great Niebuhr is), extolling the virtues of the glorious American small businessman who follows his own common sense and scorns those foolish utopian intellectual types who try to come up with “scientific theories” of human behavior to “perfect” society. Here are two examples out of many (emphasis mine):

“Though we [Americans] are not without vainglorious delusions in regard to our power, we are saved by a certain grace inherent in common sense rather than in abstract theories from attempting to cut through the vast ambiguities of our historic situation and thereby  bringing our destiny to a tragic conclusion by seeking to bring it to a neat and logical one”

“The [practical men of affairs] on the other hand have fortunately been able to disregard the admonition of our wise men because they could still draw upon the native shrewdness of the common people who in smaller realms have had something of the same experience with human nature as [themselves]”

I really don’t understand this anti-intellectualism. What the fuck is so great about common sense? Sure, it works well in common situations, but who would seriously rely on it for conducting international affairs? Common sense is extremely vulnerable to framing, by which I mean that you can manipulate the presentation of a dilemma to make almost any decision seem intuitive. Frank Luntz’s advice (pdf) for Republicans arguing against health care reform is one easy example of this. And some situations are actually complex, or even worse, deceptive, and to make good decisions you need some actual expertise and the intuitions that stem from mastery of a discipline.

Now, obviously, common sense (and moral intuitons in particular) are important, and Niebuhr’s right that the most catastrophic policies usually result from people holding too tightly to their pet theories in flagrant disregard of common sense or common decency. But his constant mockery of any attempt to analyze human behavior or to improve society really grates on me. It’s part of the vicious strain of anti-intellectualism that runs throughout American history just as much as Niebuhr’s “irony”. Holding too tightly to this worldview is what leads people to bullshit like venerating Joe the Plumber.

The Irony of Sustainability

May 13, 2009 - Leave a Response

In lieu of a full blog post, please allow me simply to connect two dots. First, read this long passage from the preface to Neibuhr’s The Irony of American History, which was published in 1952 and primarily refers to the America’s ethical position in the Cold War:

We frequently speak of “tragic” aspects of contemporary history; and also call attention to a “pathetic” element in our present historical situation. My effort to distinguish “ironic” elements in our history from tragic and pathetic ones, does not imply the denial of tragic and pathetic aspects in our contemporary experience. It does rest upon the conviction that the ironic elements are more revealing. The three elements might be distinguished as follows: (a) Pathos is that element in an historic situation which elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration nor warrants contrition. Pathos arises from fortuitous cross-purposes and confusions in life for which no reason can be given, or guilt ascribed. Suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic. (b) The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice. Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument of the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation. Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt. (c) Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits — in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from the pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution. While a pathetic or tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his [or her] involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it. Such awareness involves some realization of the the hidden vanity or pretension by which comedy is turned into irony. This realization must either lead to an abatement of the pretension, which is contrition; or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.

Bearing in mind this distinction between pathos, tragedy, and irony (which includes a wonderful definition of irony for students in English class – eat your heart out, Alanis!), now read this essay by Chris Clugston on the sustainability crisis America faces. Once one is aware that our society is unsustainable, if you agree with Niebuhur there are only a few choices. One can decide that the virtue of economic growth is more important than the virtue of sustainability, embracing the “tragic” path. One can feel contrition and try to change things. Or one can continue as before, desperately accentuating the vanities of overconsumption.

A Brief Dialogue on Neighborhood Design

May 3, 2009 - 7 Responses


URBANITE: Check out this image, which was published by the Congress for the New Urbanism last year and publicized by Matthew Yglesias last month.

SUBURBANITE: Why do you keep showing me these things? Stop being so sanctimonious about your urban lifestyle!

URBANITE: But don’t you see? This image perfectly explains why my glamorous urban lifestyle is so superior to your wasteful suburban existence. The layout of the major roads and civic buildings is identical in these two neighborhoods; the only difference is in the road network design. In my urban paradise, it’s easy for my kids to walk to school from the purple house, which reduces car usage (good for the environment!), promotes exercise (good for public health!) and fosters a sense of neighborhood and community (good for socialization and instilling values!). In your suburban neighborhood, a family living in the purple house would have to drive to get there, or really to get anywhere, because of the labyrinthine roads.

SUBURBANITE: Yes, I see that. But look how large a yard is available to the purple house in my neighborhood. You have to give that up to live in a high-density urban environment. Yards are highly desirable to me; they provide a safe environment in which me, my children, and my pets can all play.

URBANITE: That’s true, each house does have a much smaller yard in my city. For one thing, that’s good for conserving water and energy. But also, some of those green rectangles in the image represent public parks, where you, your children, and your pets can still play with each other, as well as with your neighbors and their pets! How lovely!

SUBURBANITE: How dangerous! Parks are for homeless people and child abductors – I want nothing to do with them! In fact, even if I lived in your urban neighborhood, I wouldn’t want my kids walking around unsupervised. There’s too much crime in cities!

URBANITE: So your overblown fears about crime are keeping you from moving downtown where you’d be living a lifestyle that is healthier, more sustainable, and more satisfying?

SUBURBANITE: They’re not overblown! Per capita, cities have 50% more violent crime than suburbs! And I also happen to like driving and having a big yard. You know, many people actually prefer the suburban lifestyle to the urban lifestyle, regardless of crime.

URBANITE: And of course plenty prefer the urban lifestyle. But even if suburbia did appeal to me –- and it doesn’t — there are plenty of things I enjoy but abstain from for ethical reasons, like using plastic bags. Your selfish and overindulgent suburban lifestyle is destroying America!!

SUBURBANITE: See, this is what I meant about your sanctimony. Good day.