Political understanding

There is an interesting article over at NPR describing how when asked to explain their own strong opinions, confronted by their own ignorance of the issues, people generally end up moderating their own opinions:

Should the United States impose unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program? Should we raise the retirement age for Social Security? Should we institute a national flat tax? How about implementing merit-based pay for teachers? Or establishing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions?

The striking implication, for which the researchers find support, is that getting people to appreciate their own ignorance can be enough to rein in strong opinions.

What’s funny to me is that so many people never get past the mental knee-jerk; I’ll call these people knee-jerks from now on. It’s like what someone famous once said: “I may not understand what you say, but I will defend to the death what you mean when you say it.”

I’m pretty sure that’s how the saying goes.

Driverless Cars

I was listening to this story on NPR today on my drive home from work, and the reporter said something like 30,000 deaths [a year, I assume] are from car accidents, 95% of which are attributable at least in part to driver error, and wouldn’t it be nice if driverless car technology could help reduce or eliminate all those deaths. Now, I don’t know how fuzzy his statistics are, but in general I agree.

But that’s where it gets interesting – this goes from solving a technological problem to more of an existential question about what freedoms and responsibilities we are willing to relinquish. Ideally, driverless cars would create a traffic network free of congestion or collision. However we know that machines are only as error-free as the people who program them, and that sometimes they are simply unreliable. That would mean that even in a world where computers control all traffic, some percentage of deaths would still occur. The question is – what is our threshold for computer-related deaths? From our 30,000 deaths per year baseline, would we accept 5,000 computer-fault deaths a year? 10,000? 20,000?

I think there is something in our nature that abhors a reality in which all of our personal responsibility and ability to react is taken away from us, even if lives can be saved. It could be argued that given the choice between driver and driverless, if the driverless option on average produced just one less death a year, then it would be preferable.

And then there’s the issue of car insurance. How would that work?

Belaboring the bailout

Because I love nothing more than to belabor, I bring you this MeFi thread, in which there are two excellent This American Life episodes discussing the financial crisis. One of the salient points made by Adam Davidson:

“One option is I come and I give you a thousand bucks, and I take all the crap out of your basement, and you get to keep the thousand bucks – that’s the Paulson plan. The other option is I come and I give you a thousand bucks, and I get to move into your house, I become a co-owner of the house, I might get to kick you out of the house and take all of your stuff.”

The latter option he describes is a stock injection plan, a plan that would have a far more beneficial effect on the economy, if only for its punitive value. For the banks (and their influential lobbyists), it’s pretty simple: a stock injection plan was never an option. However, apparently a clause was eventually included in the bill that was passed that allows a stock injection option at the Treasury Secretary’s discretion. This is excellent news, considering that our government’s money is actually our money, and I’d like for it not to evaporate.

If you’d like a really accessible summary of the situation, see The Financial Crisis, As Explained to My Fourteen-Year-Old Sister (also found via MeFi).

The Greatest Silence

tgs-poster.jpgI missed this last night, both because I don’t have HBO, and because I was playing my last soccer game. If you have HBO, record and torrent it, because I can’t find it anywhere yet. This year’s Special Jury Prize at Sundance went to The Greatest Silence:

Since 1998 a brutal war has been raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Over 4 million people have died. And there are the uncountable casualties: the many tens of thousands of women and girls who have been systematically kidnapped, raped, mutilated and tortured by soldiers from both foreign militias and the Congolese army.

The world knows nothing of these women. Their stories have never been told. They suffer and die in silence. In The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo these brave women finally speak.

The HBO page for the film is here, if you want to find the schedule. If any of my friends with cable and a DVR want to record it for me, I’d be grateful. There’s an interview with the director here. The HBO trailer: