Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Laws against 'texting and driving' haven't made us any safer.

We've all seen it: alarming, dangerous driving behavior perpetrated while under the influence of cell phones. In response to this threat, many locales (including my home state of Washington) enacted bans on texting-while-driving. Has the menace of distracted drivers been curbed?

According to a USA Today article, traffic accidents have actually gone up in areas where anti-phone laws were enacted. To quote the most interesting part:
"Texting bans haven't reduced crashes at all," says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, whose research arm studied the effectiveness of the laws.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Teamster wisdom on political economy

If God allowed everybody to die in bed, the government would regulate that we'd have to sleep standing up."

-Alex (on History Channel show Ice Road Truckers, Season 2 Episode 4).


For context: Alex is driving a big-rig and hauling a 45-ton piece of mining equipment across the arctic ocean. The road he's driving on consists of nothing but frozen ice, and there's a blizzard rapidly approaching.

In addition to steady nerves and a dry sense of humor, the man has an intuition for political economy. I'll just let the quote above stand on its own. Thoughts?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The reason why 99.8% of all 'get rich instantly on Twitter' claims are hoaxes.

I purposely exclude 0.2% of 'make-money-off-Twitter' plans from the "hoax" category, because I'm sure some very smart person out there will go and prove my generalization wrong. Until that blue moon arrives, I'll explain why all the Tweet-gurus offering to make you big bucks for doing nothing are just yanking your chain.

Not familiar with the "instant money on Twitter" phenomenon? In my endless quest for self-publicity, I've stumbled across a lot of statuses like
"Making $500 dollars per week from home off Twitter while on autopilot. Come see how!!!!" 
or similar. Sounds appealing, but is it too good to be true? Yes, yes it is. Some economic thinking can reveal why.

1)  There are no barriers to entry on Twitter. All it takes is an e-mail address and lack of respect for grammar (just kidding) and you can start a Twitter account. Economists would describe this as an open market. Entry and exit are free, and there are are large number of Twitter users - over 75 million now - but that number could easily grow (or decline) in the future.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bedbugs. Yet another reason to hate Rachel Carson (aside from 800 million dead of malaria).

The history of malaria is interesting, in a macabre sort of way. A hardy parasite spread by insects, the cause of malaria was unknown for most of human history. The name we know today comes from the French phrase for "bad air," reflecting the common observation that malaria cases peaked around swampy areas. Their solution in Algeria - drain the swamps - was effective, but costly.

Malaria, the organism, is extremely difficult to kill. However its crucial vector, the mosquito, is vulnerable when combated with the correct chemical tool. In 1939, Paul Mueller discovered just that: DDT. This insecticide is cheap, effective, and quite safe for humans. Some claim it causes cancer, but their evidence has since been disputed. By comparison the malaria problem is undeniable and catastrophic, with millions dying on a yearly basis. As said by Wenceslaus Kilama, the Chairman of Malaria Foundation International "this is like loading up seven Boeing 747 airliners each day, then deliberately crashing them into Mt. Kilimanjaro."The imagery is hard to overlook.

The history of bed bugs is less interesting, but in a much more annoying way. Like malaria, bed bugs have plagued humanity since the dawn of time. They cause irritation, swelling, and definitely a terrible night's sleep. We're still combating this invasive parasite as well -- a national Pest Convention is meeting to discuss the issue. Exterminators have been caught by surprise as bed bug infestations have sprung up in the last several decades across the country, and surprisingly little is known about them.

What do malaria and bed bugs have in common? They've both been increasing since DDT usage was halted thanks to Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring. Some people claim that bed bugs' modern upsurge is just due to increased travel. I think the facts say otherwise, given the almost total eradication of bed bug cases during the heyday of DDT's popularity. That issue aside, there's no disputing the deadly impact of malaria -- a plague that can easily be prevented by regular spraying of DDT.

The public outcry prior to the DDT ban is a classic example of action taken without full understanding of the consequences. Enough has been written on this already, so I won't belabor the point. Ultimately, Rachel Carson isn't the only one to blame; fault rests with the politicians and lobbyists who listened to her before all the evidence was in. Now, the public at large is feeling the consequences from decisions made forty years ago. With bed bugs infesting the Big Apple, maybe it will get people itching for change in our national pest control priorities.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Statistical Fallacy #002: Confusing Correlation with Causation. Does a strong handshake really make you live longer?

Even highly educated and intelligent medical researchers aren't immune to statistical errors. A recent study in the British Medical Journal referenced 33 other studies on personal mobility and life expectancy, and compiled their results. According to Reuters, 
They found simple measures of physical capability like shaking hands, walking, getting up from a chair and balancing on one leg were related to life span, even after accounting for age, sex and body size. 
While the phrase "accounting for age, sex and body size" makes this process sound very objective and scientific, there are obviously a lot of other factors that can play a role in life expectancy. Personal differences, such as leading a more active lifestyle, could cause someone to have both more hand strength and also better health in general which contributes to their longevity.

While statistics saying "the death rate over the period of the studies for people with weak handshakes was 67 percent higher than for people with a firm grip" sound very dramatic, it's hard to say if that relationship is reverse-causal; in other words, having a weak grip may signal your lifespan will be short, but will improving your grip really make you live longer? Probably not, which suggests it's far more likely that a common variable - for example, sitting on the coach all day - causes both weak hands and a lower life expectancy.

Common sense says that working with a stress ball or doing forearm exercises to develop a crushing handshake probably won't substantially reduce your chance of death from heart disease, cancer, stroke, or the other leading causes of death for adult Americans. However, this is exactly the impression given by the Reuters article title "Want to live longer? Get a grip!" Heavens forbid someone took this seriously and developed gorilla-like forearms only to find out their fitness investment had been in vain.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Private funding for prison rehabilitation -- latest British innovation.

Say what you will about eccentricities in the United Kingdom's political structure, they aren't afraid to try some new things. Particularly, in the area of penal reform.The U.K. prison system is struggling with extremely high recidivism rates; according to the BBC "60% of criminals who serve short sentences reoffend within a year of leaving prison."

So what's the plan? Much like purchasing a bond, investors can put money into the rehabilitation program (currently limited to male inmates with sentences less than one year). If reoffenses among the subject group drop by a specified amount, the investors receive dividend payments.

Quoting the BBC:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Attention Undergrads -- you're still paying for all those classes you skipped.

Graph made by Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.org
We've reached a momentous, but little celebrated moment in financial history. Credit card debt has been surpassed by student loans (including both federal and private). Let's give a big 800 billion cheers for education!

You can see this trend in the graph to the left. Notice how in 2008, credit card debt peaked and has now declined, while student loan debt has gone up at a steadily increasing rate. The modern family unit (mom, dad, and the federal government) have been paying a larger and larger bill, and for those who can't afford it, the slack has been taken up by private lenders. Unlike credit card bills, which fluctuate with the larger economic climate, student loan debt just kept going up and up.

Education is always a good investment, right? With costs of tuition rising by 8% per year, one might expect students would soak up every valuable minute of classroom instruction. That hasn't been the case. While tuition rates have gone up steadily, student attendance has gone down. This trend has been especially strong in recent years. According to Blair Hedges, a biology teacher,