Archive for February, 2007

Oh, the bus

Being the inherently lazy person that I am (I swear it’s in my DNA), I put off thinking about Friday’s entry until late Thursday, then remembered that I would be out of town this weekend starting mid-Friday. I didn’t want to put off my first “regular” update, but I didn’t have the time to tackle anything ambitious for this post… so today’s post is a quick collection of thoughts (well, two) that I’ve jotted down in the past couple of weeks while spending an extraordinary amount of time waiting for buses. And they’re both bus-related.

The Bell Curve of Bus Arrival

I spent so much time worrying about math last semester that I started to think in graphs. Public buses rarely arrive exactly at the minute specified; certain everyday factors can make a bus arrive either earlier or later than anticipated. Did you know that the probable arrival of a bus forms a bell curve? The bell curve of bus arrival

As shown in my illustration above, a bus is often most likely to arrive in the first five minutes before or after the specified arrival time. The chances that it will arrive decrease as the time on either side lengthens; the bus is less likely to arrive ten minutes before or after than five, and even less likely to arrive fifteen minutes before or after.

Example of correlation =/= causation

After a week of constructing mathematical proofs in class (why do these bus-related thoughts both have to do with math?), I was thinking a lot about symbolic logic in philosophy, which I had studied in a class back during the summer. Mathematic logic and philosophical logic are very similar… the only difference between a proof of either would be the kinds of symbols. Anyway, I was thinking about that logic course, and I remember that there was a lot of emphasis on the idea that causation does not follow from correlation. It seemed simple enough, but since then, I’ve heard it stressed in so many other areas that it made me rethink its importance. It was in my head while I was waiting for the bus, and so I came up with this example of why correlation does not imply causation:

1. Two buses, Bus A and Bus B, come by my house every hour in opposite directions.
2. Bus A always comes by one minute before Bus B.
3. There is a correlation between the arrival of Bus A and Bus B.
4. However, the arrival of Bus A does not cause the arrival of Bus B.
Therefore, correlation does not necessarily lead to causation.

I’m pretty sure I’ve missed a couple of steps necessary to make it a sound argument in formal logic, but it’s rational, anyway, and I think it’s a pretty decent example.

(As for why correlation =/= causation is so important in the first place… well, it makes sense logically when you think about it, but people assume that one thing causes another without evidence of causation all the time. It probably needs to be stressed just to aid critical thinking.)

I’ll be killing a lot of time over the weekend waiting for more buses… maybe I’ll put it to better use and try to think about something more practical, or at least one of the topics I still mean to blog about. Expect a better post on Monday!

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I’m once again pushing aside the topics I want to cover (and I will – more about that later) for a current event – and I use that term very, very loosely here. The “current event” was actually a career/attitude motivational assembly that took place at my high school earlier today. There wasn’t anything particularly different about this one to differentiate it from all the other career assemblies preaching the exact same thing that we’re herded into the gymnasium for about every other week. It’s always a good, practical message every time, but even I, who usually jumps at the opportunity for free advice, had a concealed mp3 player blasting the Red Hot Chili Peppers in my ears for the first quarter of an hour. There wasn’t anything in this assembly that I hadn’t heard a hundred times before, but it eventually caught my interest and I put away the Peppers.Rest assured, this won’t be about some life-changing advice from said assembly.

Now, the problem with high school is that everyone here is so damn apathetic. I dread the moments when the speaker asks a question of their high school audience, intending for us to raise our hands (eg from the assembly, “Who’s tired of being written off?”), because no one ever does. It might be the most widely applicable question ever (eg, “Who’s tired of being told you can’t do something?”), and no one will respond because no one really cares. At least, enough people don’t care to make the people who do care wary of raising their hands. This is especially applicable during a career assembly, ie pretty much all of them. Those who raise their hands are victims of snickering and smirking, the high school equivalent of a javelin through the chest, it seems. It’s cool to not care about this kind of thing.

And that’s what I’d like to cover: that teenage apathy towards career planning that the more mature media (anything not MTV or Seventeen) loves to complain about. First of all, I’d like to start by appealing to all the adults out there: please, don’t write our generation off as lazy teenagers because we don’t seem to care about our futures. I don’t think it’s our fault; it’s been beaten out of us in biweekly career assemblies and self-/career-assessment worksheets.

When those of us in the latter half of Generation Y (Echo Boomers?) were younger children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” evoked mostly enthusiastic replies about art and science and sports. Now that we’re all in our teens or early twenties, the same question evokes an apathetic rolling of the eyes, at least when asked in school. I would argue that my generation has been given the most career advice of all. From the start of middle school onwards, my generation is given self-assessment after self-assessment, career-assessment after career-assessment, seminar after seminar, and multitudes of aptitude tests to go along with them. Administrators may see this as necessary repetition, but to the teenage community it’s just pointless and boring because we’ve heard it so often. Worse, the constant advice doesn’t become common sense, despite the fact that we hear it everywhere. It just becomes background noise, and an even bigger problem: whenever the information is presented to us, now, the consensus among teens is that we know this already and can therefore tune it out without any loss.

The truth is (cheer, administrators) that we actually don’t. But that doesn’t mean we need more repetition (stop cheering now). From the looks of things, we’re even worse off because we are now conditioned to ignore good advice. Hell, during this most recent assembly, we watched video interviews with big-name CEOs telling us that what we’ve been hearing all these years will actually make us successful, and ignored it because… “we know it.” Well… no. And we’re ignoring advice from people who’ve made it because that’s what we’ve learned how to do after years of having this stuff thrown at us. That advice is important, it’s relevant, and it’s from an expert. Being trained to ignore it is not optimal. It’s probably the most harmful thing they can do… and it’s not intentional, of course, but it’s a consequence that needs to be recognized so they can halt the process and change things up a bit.

Explaining all of this to teenagers won’t work. At the beginning and end of every career presentation, the speaker/teacher will always tell us that, yes, we’ve heard it all before, but it’s good advice, they never got to have presentations like this in high school, and we’ll all be thankful for it later. Nevertheless, teenage apathy is still quite high… so it’s probably safe to say that explaining the benefit of the process won’t work, either. The justification has just become more background noise.

I like to suggest a possible solution every time I present a problem, but I don’t know what the solution is to this one. Less paperwork, more practical experience? More scarce coverage of career planning until late high school (god forbid)? Should career education be covered in schools at all, or should it be learned the “old school” way – in the workplace?

I admit that once I started tuning in to the background noise instead of tuning out, I actually learned something. Not just this lengthy explanation of teenage apathy, either, but about the advice that I’d previously trained myself to ignore: it’s good, and maybe I should take it.

I’ll try to update “Wandering Ink” on Mondays and Fridays, plus additional updates whenever inspiration strikes.

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In light of current events, I’ve decided to briefly postpone my focus on the topics I mentioned earlier to address Friday’s big announcement. By this I mean, of course, the “Climate Change 2007” release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states that human emissions are definitely, beyond reasonable doubt, causing global warming. Not much of a surprise, given the amount of media attention that global warming has been receiving in the last couple of years, but from the looks of things, this has been a real wake-up call for a lot of people (and governments).

This release is going to be very hard to ignore, and I say that because I’m looking at a two-page spread in my local paper, The Vancouver Sun, that screams “DOOMSDAY”. Behold the fatalistic headlines: “[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper changes tune on climate change, says ‘science is clear’,” “Canadians face ethical dilemma,” “Emissions tax is the only solution, energy expert says,” and “B.C. can expect floods and drought,” accompanied by a list of similarly fatalistic quotes from world leaders down the side of the left page and impressive diagrams.

Now, there’s something I find very upsetting on this two-page spread, and it isn’t the fact that Canada’s Prime Minister had gone from calling Kyoto a “socialist scheme” to throwing in his full support towards the protocol. What really upset me was the article titled, “Canadians face ethical dilemma.” The content of the article was absolutely ludicrous. It started out with this: “As scientists forecast a hotter future of storms, droughts and rising oceans, the only climate questions left are moral: have Canadians [and Americans] the moral right to drive a car to work? To keep homes toasty in January? To trim lawns with power machinery?”

Let me make my response to this “ethical dilemma” very clear: THAT IS NOT THE ETHICAL DILEMMA.

…if the governments of both countries do things right.

Consider the much-loved SUV. Consider also that the typical SUV driver is a relatively wealthy urban- or suburban-dweller, and that 98% of SUV owners have not and will never drive offroad. SUVs are criticised – fairly so – for fuel inefficiency. Being classified as a light truck, SUVs are held to less restrictive efficiency standards than regular cars. To answer the first question raised by the article, do Canadians (and Americans) have the right to drive to work? Absolutely. Do they have the right to drive to work in a gas-guzzling, offroad “light truck” that they are statistically likely to never drive offroad? Absolutely NOT. Owning an SUV for safety reasons? Over at the Freakonomics blog, authors Levitt and Dubner state (among other things) that people drive more carefully when they are more at risk, and more recklessly when they perceive a lesser risk. It’s basic risk psychology. So, if SUV drivers are feeling more protected, they are theoretically driving more recklessly; it does not necessarily lower their risk of getting in an accident. And unintentionally reckless SUV drivers presents another huge risk: the people in smaller, more fuel efficient cars that would never survive an impact with such a vehicle. Malcolm Gladwell has a spectacular essay on other false factors of the perceived “safety” of SUVs on his website.

What should be done about this? Well, since ~98% of SUV owners will never use them for their intended purpose, maybe the government should support more disincentives toward selling or owning one. SUVs are not needed in urban environments (and are more dangerous there to other drivers), and that provides a starting point; there should be a strict and strictly enforced limit on SUV sales within a certain radius of urban and suburban areas. SUVs may be extremely popular, but the sales can be greatly altered by a number of small things: how many are displayed at lots, the price of the vehicle and cost of maintaining it, the persuasion of salesmen, etc. Collect escalating tax penalties from car companies that produce SUVs as a disincentive to making them in the first place. There are so many things that can be done in that one area.

Also on the subject of cars, bringing back those sleek, electric ones would be a pretty good idea about now. I can’t stress this enough: good electric cars exist. Lots of them. There was an amazing movie called “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about this very fact, and it continues to stand against criticism. It’s been a few months since I saw it, but I believe that the agreed-upon statistic was that the car would satisfy the daily transportation demands of about 95% of American drivers. The drivers who had managed to obtain electric cars loved them. Unfortunately, for a number of unethical reasons (among them the projected $2 trillion of oil still to be mined), the electric car projects were scrapped and the cars were recalled and crushed.

Now, there‘s your ethical dilemma. Car companies can still make billions off of gas-guzzling SUVs, and oil companies still have an estimated $2 trillion dollars of oil to mine. SUVs are not needed by 98% of their owners, and we have the technology necessary to make fossil fuel-dependent cars a thing of the past altogether. Here’s the ethical dilemma: should oil and car companies give up more than $2 trillion in profits to bring us to zero vehicle emissions total?

Ethically speaking, yes. Economically speaking… no, but possibly not for much longer. Oil and gas-dependent car sales are a huge chunk of the economy. Replacing all of our current technology with alternative fuels will cost a lot of money, and generate a lot of waste (unwanted cars don’t just go away). It will cost us, and it will cost us big. But again, if the government does things right, we shouldn’t have to go broke. Cuts in the right places, and the right allocation of tax dollars should start right away. I happen to know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fancy jet costs $9,000 an hour to fly – and that comes out of the taxpayer’s wallet. I don’t know how much per hour it costs to run Air Force One, but I expect that it’s a similar (if not greater) figure. Here’s a good financial plan for the government: cut back on the frills, and we might do fine.

Or maybe the $1.2 trillion going towards the war in Iraq could be going somewhere more useful. Just a suggestion.

My point is this: we have both the technology and the funds (cleverly disguised in expensive wars and government frills) to solve our emissions problem. But we aren’t… yet. And that’s our ethical dilemma. The article in the Sun raised some “ethical” questions; here are mine. Should we take away the rights of every Canadian and American to drive to work, or take away the rights of urban- and suburban-dwellers to own an unnecessary SUV? Should we take away the rights of Canadians to drive and heat their homes during the winter, or ask Stephen Harper to give up his $9,000-an-hour jet? Should we start producing purely zero-emissions vehicles, or let oil companies collect their $2 trillion in profit? These are my ethical questions, and these are the ethical dilemmas we need to be worrying about.

But it all comes down to one question, the most important of all, which is: will we press our leaders to actually do these things?

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Excuses, excuses

A wide variety of factors have been keeping me from blogging very regularly these past few weeks: preparation for my first set of provincial exams, a bad cold, a friend’s family problems, my family problems, and many other things. I plan to set a sort of regular schedule for myself once things settle down a bit, but until then, I’ve been collecting information for… something. I don’t know what it is yet, but these islands of information will eventually have a purpose. Until I get it together, these are some the subjects I’m working with, which may or may not become future posts:

1. Expertise.
I keep running into this topic as a byproduct of my research on giftedness. If you’ve heard the current ‘expert theory’, that it takes forty hours of commitment a week for ten years to become an expert at anything, it’s sort of along those lines. There seems to be a lot of psychological research going into what makes an expert right now… or at least a lot of coverage of it. Most of my own interest is its relation to gifted children.
Some links: “The Expert Mind” – Scientific American (Aug/06), “A Star Is Made: Where Does Talent Really Come From?” – The New York Times Magazine Freakonomics Column (May/06), “The Origins and Ends of Giftedness” – Ellen Winner (.pdf)

2. Wikipedia.
After an encounter with this article about the ideal reading level for Wikipedia, I feel strongly compelled to write a post of my own about the subject. It fits in nicely with all the Web 2.0 subject matter I’ve been blogging lately. The only thing that’s stopped me on this is trying to find the right angle to approach it from–I know what I want to say, but I’m still figuring out the best way to say it. (For more direct information, here’s a discussion on the Wikimedia forums about their ideal reading level.)

3. Education.
Seems to have become a major focus of mine.  I can’t say much except there are major changes to the system in my area that I don’t approve of… and there’s a lot to be said about approvements (or lack thereof) elsewhere in North America and the proposed changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.  There’s too much to say on this to put into a single post… I might blog about one or two of these things later, though.

4. Politics.
I’m still keeping up with the daily developments in American politics, but it’s starting to make me very pessimistic about the next two years.  Things are so bad right now that I’m not outraged at anything anymore… and so much has gone wrong that it will really take a miracle to get things back on track.  I probably won’t be blogging very much about this until post-campaign in 2008, when we might have someone competent in office and (hopefully) we’ll start to see some change.  The only thing that has me really upset right now in the world of politics is that whoever wins the presidency in ’08 will be slowed down in their own policies by having to clean up Bush’s mess first.  He’s the proof that anyone who is raised to be a president… shouldn’t.

I think I’ll end with a very wise note about politics from the late Douglas Adams that sums up my own feelings on the subject:

“The major problem – one of the major problems, for there are several – one of the many major problems with governing people is that of who you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

To summarize: it is a well-known fact, that those people who most want to rule other people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.  To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.  The summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.

…Who can possible rule if no one who wants to do it can be allowed to?”

– Douglas Adams, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.(Ch. 28)

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