Friday, April 29, 2016

The Girdle Effect

When I was in junior high, my father would not allow me to wear a "junior" girdle to hold up my hose.  He said that if I allowed a girdle to hold in my stomach, then eventually my stomach muscles would grow weak from underuse.  "Use it or lose it."

This came to mind when I saw a news item about a city imbedding red lights in the sidewalk to warn people walking while using their phone - WUIP  (Walking Under the Influence of Phone).

To me this is an example of "choice architecture" described by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in their book Nudge.  In it, they advocate organizing the context in which people make decisions so that their eventual choices will secure greater health, wealth, and happiness.  But it begs the question of what is good and who decides it.

If social engineers relieve people of their decision-making, then how will they learn to make decisions that require reflective, critical thinking?  If mistakes are to be avoided at all costs, then we eliminate the learning that only comes from mistakes.  It's the Girdle Effect.

Thomas Edison said, "I haven't failed.  I've just found ten thousand ways that don't work."  

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Differential Equations

Sometimes two quantities change with respect to one another.  For example, the change in a rabbit population affects the change in a wolf population.  This relationship can be modeled by a differential equation.  As the number of rabbits increase, so does the number of wolves until the wolf population begins to significantly impact the rabbit population.  Then, as the number of rabbits decrease, so does the number of wolves, allowing the rabbit population to once more increase.

The concept of differential equation has me wondering if something similar occurs with the number of good deeds and the number of bad deeds in a community.  The expansion of information through electronic media has made us more aware of society's ills - shootings, beatings, riots, fights, and verbal abuse.  But it also reveals what is best about the human community - people helping others when natural disasters strike, words of support and encouragement posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and care and compassion for strangers.

Is it possible that as awareness of bad behavior increases, people instinctively counter it with good behavior?  When bad behavior decreases, do people grow complacent and allow good behavior to decrease also?  Are these two quantities related to one another or are acts of kindness truly random?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Flint Water Crisis and Privilege

“Difference is not the problem; it is privilege and oppression based on difference.”
-       Allan G. Johnson.

 Throughout human history, the rich and powerful have used difference as a tool with which to protect and expand their privileges at the expense of the poor and powerless.  A recent example of this is eloquently stated in an article by Leonard Pitts Jr. regarding the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Mr. Pitts correctly points out that had the water been contaminated in an upscale community there would not have been a crisis.  He states that he cannot imagine a similar situation arising where the average income is over $100,000 a year.  As he sees it, it is not merely a race issue – it is an economic issue “about how we treat the poor, the way we render them invisible.”

 I appreciate people like Mr. Pitts who keep the reading public informed about issues of social justice.  And even if I haven't their skill nor their audience, I will always seek ways that I can add my “stubborn ounces” to the scales of equity.