Monday, August 30, 2010

Privacy Rights

Do you have a right to privacy? That depends on if you are a member of a protected group or if the government wants information you consider private. You might be surprised at what is now regarded as information that should be available, at least to government employees.

Did you think your child's every move should be tracked? I thought not, but both the federal and California governments disagree with you. According to the Silicon Valley Mercury News Online, preschoolers in Contra Costa County are going to be wearing radio tracking devices while at school. They will be tracked everywhere they go, class, play area, cafeteria, even the bathroom. Big Brother will be watching. Can any thinking person believe such tracking will stop with preschoolers?

Other government proposals are also invasive. Some states are proposing to equip all cars with GPS tracking devices. Their excuse is that they will use the information to determine how many miles the car travels and use that to send a tax bill to fund roads. If you believe it will stop there I'm sure you will be interested in a good deal on this bridge in Brooklyn I've heard about. The fact is that we already have a good way to tax vehicles. It's called the fuel tax. Fuel consumption is closely related to distance driven and vehicle weight so fuel taxes are nearly proportional to the wear and tear each vehicle causes on the roads. In fact heavy trucks often pay a weight-mile tax.

Of course electric vehicles avoid the fuel tax, but the solution is still quite simple and need not involve GPS tracking. Every car is equipped with an odometer that records miles driven. It would be easy to tax electric vehicles based on odometer reading.

It is clear that many want to increase how much government can know about our private lives. That is one side of the coin but there is another side.

What if you know something that might be useful to someone? For example you know that an EMT responding to an accident was exposed to hepatitis. Would you tell him? You better not, at least if you are in the medical profession. That would violate HIPAA, the Health Insurance Privacy and Accountability Act. If a hospital discovers that a patient has a communicable disease it is prohibited from telling anyone about it without specific permission. That makes sense in some cases; you don't want your private information becoming public (though it is questionable from a first amendment standpoint). However it makes no sense to not give that information to those who might need it. If a patient has hepatitis and someone has been exposed, that someone should have a right to know about it.

This can be taken to ridiculous extremes. A while back a man with amnesia was in a Portland hospital. He could not remember his name or any other identifying characteristics. Nobody knew who he was. Simple solution, just put his picture in news so friends or relatives could see it. Simple but illegal, HIPAA prohibited that.

There is an even worse use of privacy laws. Too often they are used to protect the guilty, especially government employees. A misbehaving school teacher may have his identity protected or a government agency may be prohibited from responding to public charges to protect the privacy of the accuser. Let's get real; if the accuser goes public, the accused has a right to do so as well. Of course this prohibition cuts both ways. Sometimes it prohibits the accused from giving a good public response. However I fear that it often serves to help the accused hide misbehavior which ought to be public.

Our privacy laws need a serious rethinking. That should be done from the point of view of wisdom, not what government officials want.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Hero?

By now Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater has become widely known for his actions toward a passenger. Though details are somewhat sketchy it appears that Slater got upset about her carry-on luggage, used foul language toward her and other passengers, then activated an emergency escape chute and left the plane, taking along some beer.

What I find disturbing about this is that many are making Mr. Slater into a hero. While his actions may or may not have had some justification, I see nothing heroic about them. I believe there are three requirements for heroes:

First, the hero must face a bad situation, one out of the ordinary and requiring appropriate action. That may have been the case though there are conflicting reports. If a passenger was really causing trouble that may have created such a situation. Mr. Slater may have been in such a situation but that alone is not enough to justify calling him a hero. People regularly face such situations. Some become heroes, others fail miserably. The situation provides the opportunity for heroism but does not make heroism automatic.

Second, the hero must take appropriate action beyond what a normal human would do. He must risk himself or otherwise go well out of what most of us would find to be a natural reaction to that situation. In this Mr. Slater fails miserably. His actions were nothing more than a tantrum, an animal-like reaction. Any two-year-old can throw a tantrum.

Third, his action must be effective in helping others or resolving the problem. Again Mr. Slater fails. His actions did nothing to make anything better. In fact he disturbed other passengers, cost his employer a large sum of money, and may have made prosecution of the passenger difficult or impossible. If that passenger was causing major problems she could have been prosecuted on federal charges of interference with a flight crew. Mr. Slater confused things to the point that effective prosecution may not be possible. He did not make things better but instead made them worse.

Just because someone does something we'd like to do does not make that action heroic. Nor should we encourage such intemperate actions by lionizing people like Mr. Slater.

How often are such people made into heroes when they are not? I don't know but I do know that it happens. Several years ago a snowboarder got lost on the route from the Timberline Ski Area on Mount Hood down to Government camp. He did act rather sensibly after becoming lost, dug a snow cave and took care of himself. However it would have been much better had he simply acted responsibly and either not taken that route or first prepared himself by learning how to navigate in the conditions he would face. Instead he caused many searchers to have to go look for him, disrupting their lives and costing the county in overtime for sheriff's deputies.

What was the result? He was treated as a hero and several businesses even gave him some nice, new snowboarding and outdoor gear. He was rewarded for his mistake. We cannot know if his treatment as a hero had anything to do with this next, but during the next three weeks two other snowboarders got in trouble taking the same route he took and getting lost in the same way.

There are real heroes in this world and they deserve our respect. However we should be careful to avoid treating people as heroes when they just do something stupid. Let's not encourage bad or dumb behavior.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Perception vs. Reality, Part 3

Related to fearing the wrong things is the mistake of giving unwarranted influence to the wrong things. When Gerald Ford was president of the United States he went skiing a few times. Sometimes he fell while skiing. Reporters and comedians, many of whom probably couldn't ski a bunny slope, made a big deal about how his “lack of coordination” made him a poor president. One late night comedian got a lot of mileage out of a claim that Ford could not walk and chew gum at the same time.

Nobody mentioned exactly how President Ford's alleged coordination problems interfered with his ability to make good decisions as president. Would the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time have solved the country's economic problems? Reduced crime? If the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time was so important, how did a president who could not walk at all get us through most of World War II? (In fact, Ford was a former college football player and one of the more athletic presidents in U.S. history. His falls while skiing would not have been unusual for most skiers.)

Ford's alleged clumsiness had nothing to do with the characteristics needed in a good president. The people paying attention to that were allowing emphatic trifles to distract them from the real issues.

Physical appearance is another characteristic given too much influence in our society. Starting with the 1960 presidential elections, television has played a major role in United States politics, and with that came an emphasis on appearance. Kennedy was good looking and defeated Nixon. Then later Nixon, to win the presidency shaved twice a day since his heavy beard gave a bad appearance on TV. There is, as far as I know, no connection between good looks and good judgment. Yet the better-looking candidate has an advantage in our elections, at least if he is a man. People often think of a man's looks as reflective of his ability. The opposite may be true among female candidates since many people think of beautiful women as mindless. Both perceptions are wrong. We should try to judge politicians on their honesty and ability, not on their looks.

Finding reality in spite of our perception can be difficult. I have touched only on some of the more obvious problems. Other perceptual difficulties can be more subtle. We've all seen optical illusions such as the Mueller-Lyer figure which has two lines of identical length. The only difference is the figures on the ends of the lines. One line looks longer than the other. You can look it up if you're not familiar with this, sorry I can't get a good representation to appear in this blog.

We also have mental illusions that cause poor perception. These are just as prevalent as the optical illusions. For example, suppose you are tossing a coin. It is a fair coin and you are tossing it fairly. You know that the probability of heads on any given toss is 50%. It has just come up heads four times in a row. What is the probability that it will come up tails next toss? We have a natural inclination to expect a string of tails to balance out the number of times it has come up heads. That is wrong and is known as the “gambler's fallacy.” In fact the probability of heads is 50%, regardless of previous results. There is no cosmic law forcing it to come up heads and tails an equal number of times. It is a normal statistical fluctuation to occasionally get several heads in a row. In fact there is a 12.5% chance of getting the same result four times in a row with a fair coin toss! Put another way, if a large number of people each toss a fair coin four times, about 12.5% of them will get the same result all four times.

Cognitive scientists have been studying such mental illusions for several years now. What they have learned can be helpful as we try to overcome our perceptual problems. One book on the subject is Inevitable illusions by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.1

Impressions can be wrong. The wise person will make decisions based on reality, not perception and external appearance. We will serve ourselves well in all aspects of life if we just take a little time and ask ourselves, “Am I looking at what is important, or am I allowing spectacular trivialities to divert my attention from the less obvious but more important issues? Does my perception of this situation really reflect reality, or is there something important I’m missing?”

1Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Inevitable Illusions, How Mistakes of Reason Rule our Minds, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1994 Be aware that there are some mathematical errors in the book. I consider the chapter on Bayes law to be particularly bad.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Perception vs. Reality, Part 2

Last time I described a case in which a young woman received treatment for her obvious injuries while her boyfriend died because his injuries were not obvious. The perception was that she needed medical attention while he did not. That erroneous perception cost his life. Most perception problems are not so severe but still cause trouble.

We have a tendency to fear the relatively benign. Mice, spiders, air travel, public speaking, tight places. All these and more can generate fears out of proportion to any danger they present. Appropriate caution is good, but we should avoid devitalizing our lives by overreaction to less significant dangers. How many people avoid visiting relatives because it's too far to drive and they fear flying, even though flying is much safer? How many miss the joy of visiting natural sites for fear of harmless animals? Overcoming those fears can make life more fulfilling and enjoyable.

Likewise, we often tend to fear the unfamiliar, people from a different culture, strange places, new technology, etc. That causes us to miss the enjoyment we might have if we learn of those cultures or technologies and partake of the best aspects of them. Worse, such fears lead to bigotry and class or racial warfare. That is also one reason for the widespread fear of anything “nuclear” or involving “radiation.” While radiation can be harmful, the general reaction to it is all out of proportion to the actual danger. In fact “nuclear” and “radiation” are witch words, (cf

Of course these fears reside in the emotional part of the brain and it is not always easy to allow reason to overrule emotion and normal fears. This is especially true when reason tells us we can do something unnatural such as jumping out of an airplane. OK, I admit it. I used to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Back when I wore Uncle Sam’s funny green clothes I was a paratrooper. It was fun and gave me extra pay.

My non-airborne friends used to claim I was crazy to do such a thing. The brigade commander, also a paratrooper, said something similar. He said we had to have something different about our minds to allow us to perform such an unnatural act...

I suspect our commander was right, we did have something different in our mentalities. If so, such a difference is not all bad. It allowed us to do something unnatural but not really dangerous. Most of us knew that the real danger was the trip to the airport, then back from the drop zone. For that we had to travel on the highway with cars and trucks whizzing by in the other direction. However, for humans, highway travel is an extension of our natural travel on land. Jumping out of airplanes is quite unnatural. What I did as a paratrooper was allow my intellect to overrule my intuitive fear. I knew that the parachute jump itself was statistically very safe. In fact, in all the jumps I did, many of which involved hundreds of paratroopers, I am not aware of any serious injuries, much less deaths.

We skew our thinking if we insist on classifying the natural as safe and the unnatural as dangerous. Hemlock is natural, and so are death cap mushrooms.

This problem cuts both ways. First we can overlook some real dangers in such things as food and medical products. Second, we deny ourselves, and sometimes others, the opportunity to do things that appear dangerous but in fact are relatively safe.

A friend once lost a family member to this skewed thinking. His father was a private pilot and often flew the family on vacations. The problem was that my friend’s mother did not like to fly high; she felt safer close to the ground. She insisted that her husband stay as low as he could. While such a feeling may be natural, that perception is quite wrong. The reality is that flying higher allows a pilot more time to recover if anything goes wrong. Something did go wrong over Wyoming’s Wind River Range. With no time to recover, the plane went down, killing one and seriously injuring two more. The forth person aboard was in also injured but was able to make it out and notify authorities.

That is of course an extreme example, but people make such inappropriate decisions regularly. Occasionally it costs lives; more often it costs time or enjoyment. It is common for people to drive to their destination in order to avoid flying, even though air travel is much safer than driving. The perception that flying is dangerous comes from the fact that we can’t do it naturally, and from the spectacular aspect of an airplane crash. Even the crash of a small plane will generate more news coverage than an automobile accident with the same number of casualties.

The type of misperception mentioned above tends to be widely shared. Most people tend to think of snipers as more dangerous than traffic and airplanes as more dangerous than cars. However there are individual misperceptions as well, many of which develop into phobias. The woman who wanted her airplane to stay low may have been suffering from acrophobia. Phobias are characterized by unreasonable fears, either fearing something harmless, or excessive fear of something that is a potential danger. The subject of phobias is generally beyond the scope of this article; their treatment is the province of certified therapists. However I would like to mention that those who suffer from phobias should be careful not to impose the same fears on their children. This takes effort, but no good parent wants to interfere with a fulfilling life for his or her children. If necessary, the parent should work with a therapist to avoid passing a phobia on to the children.

If we match our perspective to reality we will have safer, more enjoyable lives.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Perception vs. Reality, Part 1

We must never become so busy slapping at mosquitoes that we walk into the quicksand.
Richard L. Evans

The young woman was a bloody mess, writhing and screaming in agony. She had been riding behind her boyfriend on a motorcycle, wearing a bikini when the bike crashed. Her legs, arms and torso were covered with scrapes, scratches and ground in dirt. Bystanders, urged on by the distraught boyfriend, tried to help. The young man appeared fine; he had been wearing protective clothing.

At the hospital emergency room workers cleansed, disinfected and bandaged her wounds. They did a good job and she recovered completely... In fact she was able to attend the funeral of her boyfriend. The accident ruptured his spleen and he died from internal bleeding. His injury was neither obvious nor particularly painful. It was only fatal.

It is a fact of life: The attention we pay to an event is seldom related to its importance. The young woman’s wounds were dramatic; her boyfriend’s unseen injury was deadly. Spectacular events, celebrities, and scare-mongering distract us from less noticeable but more important issues. Modern life conspires to focus our attention on the trivial. We are constantly faced with the equivalent of an obnoxious male mosquito buzzing around our ears. While he distracts us, the female quietly sneaks in for a sip of blood.

Focusing on the spectacular hurts us two ways:

1. Distracted by the trivial, we ignore the important.

2. Fearing the benign, we devitalize our lives.

Residents of the Washington, D.C. area of the United States will long remember October 2002. For nearly a month they lived in fear as a sniper shot thirteen people, apparently at random. Adults, children, Blacks, Whites, men, women. Nobody was immune. News reports across the country and around the world trumpeted the danger. School recesses were held indoors. Football games were moved to secret locations with no spectators. Shoppers hurried through parking lots, looking over their shoulders. Nobody felt safe.

Finally two suspects were caught and the reign of terror ended. Children again played outdoors, much to the relief of parents and teachers. Everybody felt much safer. That “increased safety” was a misperception. While the danger from the snipers was gone, traffic accidents, street crime etc. continued to kill and injure people. The difference was that the press paid little attention to accidents and street crime.

Snipers are big news; they get a lot of media attention. However in any large metropolitan area accidents and street crime kill and injure people every day, drawing little if any press attention. Yet the risk of being shot by a sniper was insignificant compared to the risks we all run in our daily lives.

The terror those snipers created is an example of an all too human tendency. We fear spectacular but unlikely dangers but give no thought to common, often worse, hazards. Yes, the criminals did murder at least eleven people and wounded two others. However, the chance of them shooting any one person out of the millions living in that area was miniscule. In fact, the death rate from all causes probably dropped during their reign of terror. People were staying home, not exposing themselves to traffic accidents and other hazards. Common hazards kill and injure many more people than the snipers ever did.

At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

News outlets in particular distort our perception by emphasizing the spectacular and unusual. Unless a celebrity is involved, it really isn’t very big news when a traffic accident kills a driver, or a drug overdose kills an addict. A sniper or an airplane crash has much greater news value. Because of this, our perception of danger is often warped.

Snipers, airplane crashes, terrorist threats all get our attention even though any one of us has almost no chance of becoming a victim of those dangers. Meanwhile, we continue to travel on our roads without a second thought, often even driving when we are tired or under the influence of intoxicants. Warped perceptions both blind us to the real dangers of what we may think of as safe, and cause us to fear things that are not really very dangerous. Only by using our intellect to decide what's really important can we overcome this problem.

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