Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Ah yes, I'd forgotten that some people make money by writing shockingly hokey fanfiction.  But then again, shockinly honey may describe everything about William Shatner.

Witness the monstrosity here. 

Actual and Percieved Risk

It irks me to no end that certain health insurance companies can stick an exclusionary rider in their individual coverage policies for any rock climbing related injuries, meaning, to that company, rock climbing is un-insurable--but they're still willing to cover car accidents.

For instance, last Tuesday, I was in a car wreck on the way to going rock climbing.

Don't worry, I'm fine and so is everybody involved, minus the poor high school kid who rear-ended us who is now going to have a high car insurance bill.  There was no need to cash in on that expensive individual health plan just yet.


I'm recalling a study I heard about (on NPR probably) citing the "Lake Wobegon Effect", in which everyone thinks he or she is an above-average driver (Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average).  The saying goes that those who drive faster than you are maniacs, and those slower than you are morons.  Interestingly, this effect applies to other, telling things these days: why AIG and friends still paid their execs obscene bonuses (because our people are above average, as exemplified by how much we pay them), the destruction of recently-graduated college student self-importance by the brutally competitive job market.

As far as driving is concerned, our self-delusion might be explained by the fact that human beings are just not wired to comprehend the true experience, including the danger, of riding in a car.  Our bodies might respond with panic to 60, 70, 80, miles per hour, if we were exposed to the rushing wind or could view oncoming objects directly-- but kept safe in our little boxes, on our little strips of asphalt, our body doesn't feel how easy it would be for us to hurtle at high speeds into other objects that might also be going fast.  Our instinct-brain may not even really understand the concept of that much speed, that not being something we had to deal with while we were evolving.

I suppose I am deluded under the Lake Wobegon Effect:  I sure think other people drive recklessly all the time.  Included in reckless drive are the obvious, as well as (studies show!) things like talking on a cell phone, changing cds, texting--all things I've seen even very level headed, cautious, and sensible people do without a second thought.   This might be because even if (some of us) realize, rationally, that danger is nigh, that amygdala lizard brain, that part whose job is to press our guttural emotional buttons--usually at inopportune times--has no sensory input telling it to complain.  Even when sudden brake lights surprise you, there may be some panic but the situation is still removed, unreal, unless an actual accident happens.  You can go back to texting after a few deep intakes of breath, and perhaps even continue to think yourself a great driver.

Rock climbing is the opposite.  I've encountered many people who think it's ridiculously dangerous, and it is, if you're into that solo free climbing stuff.  But barring the crazies, rock climbing is a sport with ample safeguards in place. Far more people die swimming each year.  Okay, far more people go swimming, but a higher percentage of those die than of those who rock climb.  High friction devices will stop rope from sliding through them when your belayer wants to stop you, and all the brightest physics goes into the design and placement of anchors and gear that holds the rope.  More anchors than needed are aways used,  at least, if you climb with me, and most of the people who trained me.   Those ropes are designed and tested to suspend trucks, people are no problem.

Yet when you're clinging to a rock face and you can't figure out where to put your hands and you reach and feel yourself slipping, even though your rational brain remembers setting the solid anchors holding your rope in place, even if you can see the rope and feel it start to hold your weight...still, that amgydala kicks into high gear.  It knows that heights + your body = potential recipe for harm, and you can't explain things like ropes and safety gear to the part of your brain that you share with lizards.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Plastic Bags, The Eternal Question

NPR: California Moves to Ban Plastic Bags in Grocery Stores:

"The California Assembly on Wednesday passed legislation prohibiting pharmacies and grocery, liquor and convenience stores from giving out plastic bags. The bill also calls for customers to be charged for using store-issued paper bags."

Environmentalists hooray, right?

"Requiring stores to charge customers for paper bags is a cost Republican lawmakers argued some Californians can't afford. 

"This is not the time to be putting a financial burden on families in a very tough economy," said Assemblyman Ted Gaines, R-Granite Bay, who estimated his family would spend $50 a year on paper bags."

"Sacramento shopper Brett Akacin, 37, said he recycles his plastic bags and that it would be a burden to carry a disposable bag."

Ah, the existential problem of being an environmentalist.  There will always be people who assume you care more about plants and fuzzy animals than about the suffering of people.

Maybe those people are right, though if you have the values of caring about the impact your actions have on people, creatures and things outside of yourself--and especially appreciating the importance of working systems of animals and plants for the continued health of people--you are going to be perfectly willing to induce a little suffering on yourself, hardly thinking of it as such, and will fail to understand why others begrudge to do the same thing for the sake of The Greater Good.   To an environmentalist, carrying reusable bags or paying an extra five cents even if quite poor, is not suffering, and the idea of helping The Greater Good, is a value in itself.

That's why, Ah-nold excluded, environmentalists are mostly (but not always) Democrats.  Personal sacrifice for the Greater Good, in situations where agregate individual behavior benefits the individual but harms the community, is the more important value than personal freedom merely for the sake of it.  Rather like how shouting "Fire!" in a public building is not really freedom of speech, Democratic environmentalists point to outcomes as reasons that absolute personal freedoms require some restrictions. 

But you know, another way to look at enviromentalism, or self-scarifice for the Greater Good in general, is that having the personal freedom to make a choice that benefits the Greater Good is what makes that choice not something one does grudgingly, not something one even sees as a sacrifice or as suffering.   One is excercizing one's capacity as a member of a society under a social contract, a social contract that only works because people have the freedom to act upon their ideas of right and wrong.

So, do you legislate society-bettering practices for all, like a Democrat, or do you uphold that the personal freedom to desist or not from harmful acts is what makes any of it meaningful, what must be protected above all because otherwise lies tyranny?

I myself have a hard time sympathizing with the burden one must take on in order to carry reusable bags around, when compared to many other real burdens that people suffer across the world.   I see the argument about personal freedom, about the meaning of having personal freedom to make self-sacrificing choices rather than being required to make them.  But I see what is practical too, and what works imperfectly to make happen a change that might be democratically agreed upon as being necessary.  Do you assume that people are no better than marginally-agreed-upon progress using less-than-ideal methods?  Or do you throw out possible measures toward fixing a problem, for the sake of idealism?

Maybe that's why I can't decide, sometimes, if I'm a liberal or a libertarian.

While the idea gives us angst here, Australia has had an outright ban on plastic bags in effect for at least five years.  (My source for that is my dear Australian friend, who now works in Australian government.)  Australia is quite more liberal than us, and is, more tellingly, smaller in population than the state of California.   Truly, when we can't even work out political ideas of much greater weight, a federal ban on plastic bags would be downright...comical, among other things (ineffective, wasteful of govn't resources, slow and insensetive to local concerns), but perhaps it is within local or state government rights to enact such a law for the sake of the local or state environment, without it falling down that slippery slope toward socialist tyranny.  At what level of govenrment does "Mutual coersion mutually agreed upon" become tyranny, anyway?   It depends, once again, on what you think is important.

I think once-used bags, the utter wastefullness of them, is important.  The grocery association apaprently got behind the ban when it was made clear that all grocery-selling establishments would be subect to it.  If stores were for whatever reason spared the expense of providing bags of any kind, assuming they only did before because it would not have been competitive not to, then I think customers would have the ability to figure something out without excess difficulty.  Is that liberal, or libertarian of me?
"The American Chemistry Council estimates the bill would amount to a $1 billion tax and threaten 500 jobs in the plastic bag manufacturing business."

Either way you go, someone loses.  But I don't think that means that nothing can be done.