Bicyclists Create Negative Externalities for Pedestrians

BicyclistsSanFrancisco2012-06-22.jpg “Bicyclists weave through pedestrians and motor traffic on Friday in San Francisco, where a fatal bike-pedestrian collision has sparked debate.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) SAN FRANCISCO–City prosecutors said they would file felony vehicular-manslaughter charges against a bicyclist who allegedly hit and killed a pedestrian, in a case that has become a flash point for debate over bicyclists’ rights in the city.

The manslaughter charges–unusually stiff for a bicycle accident–stem from a March 29 incident, when 36-year-old bicyclist Chris Bucchere allegedly ran a red traffic light and plowed into 71-year-old Sutchi Hui in a crosswalk. Mr. Hui died April 2 of injuries related to the collision.
. . .
The bicycle backlash has come to a head after a series of pedestrian deaths in the San Francisco Bay area. A 67-year-old woman died last August after a bicyclist allegedly hit her in a crosswalk after running a red light; the cyclist was convicted of a misdemeanor. Earlier this month, a cyclist allegedly struck and killed a 92-year-old woman in the suburb of El Cerrito while crossing a street; that case is under investigation.

For the full story, see:
JIM CARLTON. “U.S. NEWS; Reckless Riders Spur Backlash; Fatal Collision in San Francisco Leads to Manslaughter Charges Against Cyclist.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 16, 2012): A3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Dyslexics Better at Processing Some Visual Data

(p. 5) Gadi Geiger and Jerome Lettvin, cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used a mechanical shutter, called a tachistoscope, to briefly flash a row of letters extending from the center of a subject’s field of vision out to its perimeter. Typical readers identified the letters in the middle of the row with greater accuracy. Those with dyslexia triumphed, however, when asked to identify letters located in the row’s outer reaches.
. . .
Dr. Catya von Károlyi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, found that people with dyslexia identified simplified Escher-like pictures as impossible or possible in an average of 2.26 seconds; typical viewers tend to take a third longer. “The compelling implication of this finding,” wrote Dr. Von Károlyi and her co-authors in the journal Brain and Language, “is that dyslexia should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent.”
. . .
Five years ago, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity was founded to investigate and illuminate the strengths of those with dyslexia, while the seven-year-old Laboratory for Visual Learning, located within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is exploring the advantages conferred by dyslexia in visually intensive branches of science. The director of the laboratory, the astrophysicist Matthew Schneps, notes that scientists in his line of work must make sense of enormous quantities of visual data and accurately detect patterns that signal the presence of entities like black holes.
A pair of experiments conducted by Mr. Schneps and his colleagues, published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society in 2011, suggests that dyslexia may enhance the ability to carry out such tasks. In the first study, Mr. Schneps reported that when shown radio signatures — graphs of radio-wave emissions from outer space — astrophysicists with dyslexia at times outperformed their nondyslexic colleagues in identifying the distinctive characteristics of black holes.
In the second study, Mr. Schneps deliberately blurred a set of photographs, reducing high-frequency detail in a manner that made them resemble astronomical images. He then presented these pictures to groups of dyslexic and nondyslexic undergraduates. The students with dyslexia were able to learn and make use of the information in the images, while the typical readers failed to catch on.
. . .
Mr. Schneps’s study is not the only one of its kind. In 2006, James Howard Jr., a professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America, described in the journal Neuropsychologia an experiment in which participants were asked to pick out the letter T from a sea of L’s floating on a computer screen. Those with dyslexia learned to identify the letter more quickly.
Whatever special abilities dyslexia may bestow, difficulty with reading still imposes a handicap.

For the full commentary, see:
ANNIE MURPHY PAUL. “The Upside of Dyslexia.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., February 5, 2012): 5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: online version of the commentary is dated February 4, 2012.)

“At Least Here I Am in Control of My Destiny”

MesgaranAliSandwichShopTehran2012-06-12.jpg “Ali Mesgaran and a friend at the sandwich shop he opened this year in Tehran. He said his shop was one place where he controlled his destiny.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A4) TEHRAN — About two months ago, when many Iranian families were stocking up on rice and meat to prepare for seemingly inevitable military conflict with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, Ali Mesgaran, 35, decided to open a sandwich shop.

Iran’s national currency, the rial, had just lost nearly half of its value amid new international sanctions, and banks and exchange offices were spilling over with orders for gold and foreign currency from people hoping to protect family savings from soaring inflation.
“There are always problems in this country,” Mr. Mesgaran said, explaining why he decided to open his shop, Piyaz Jafari, named after a traditional Iranian sandwich spread of onions and herbs. “We felt that if we ever wanted to be successful, we just had to ignore those.”
. . .
The widespread sense of hopelessness is reinforced by memories of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, who was in power from 1997 to 2005. During his two terms, he tried to promote personal freedom, to encourage better relations with the West and to relax suffocating dress codes, drawing anger from conservatives but attracting millions of votes from youths and women.
. . .
(p. A12) On a recent day at Mr. Mesgaran’s sandwich shop, the talk was not about politics, but about the odd torrential rains that in recent weeks had flooded even parts of the city’s subway system. “This is my world,” he said, gesturing at his shop and his customers. “At least here I am in control of my destiny. That is a good feeling.”

For the full story, see:
THOMAS ERDBRINK. “TEHRAN JOURNAL; Pinched Aspirations of Iran’s Young Multitudes.” The New York Times (Tues., May 8, 2012): A4 & A12.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 7, 2012.)

Experience Can Provide Sound Intuitive Knowledge

(p. 11) . . . , the accurate intuitions of experts are better explained by the effects of prolonged practice than by heuristics. We can now draw a richer and more balanced picture, in which skill and heuristics are alternative sources of intuitive judgments and choices.
The psychologist Gary Klein tells the story of a team of firefighters that entered a house in which the kitchen was on fire. Soon after they started hosing down the kitchen, the commander heard himself shout, “Let’s get out of here!” without realizing why. The floor collapsed almost immediately after the firefighters escaped. Only after the fact did the commander realize that the fire had been unusually quiet and that his ears had been unusually hot. Together these impressions prompted what he called a “sixth sense of danger.” He had no idea what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong. It turned out that the heart of the fire had not been in the kitchen but in the basement beneath where the men had stood.
We have all heard such stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces “White mates in three” without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day. Most of us are pitch-perfect in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of the conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous. Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvelous than the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician–only more common.
The psychology of accurate intuition involves no magic. Perhaps the best short statement of it is by the great Herbert Simon, who studied chess masters and showed that after thousands of hours of practice they come to see the pieces on the board differently from the rest of us. You can feel Simon’s impatience with the mythologizing of expert intuition when he writes: “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Steve Jobs Showed that Art and Commerce Could Be “Happy Bedfellows”


Gary Oldman. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 2) Gary Oldman is an English actor . . . widely known for his roles as Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” film series and Jim Gordon in the Batman movies.
. . .
READING Right now I’m reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. I love when people have a singleness of purpose and don’t get dissuaded. I can connect with that. I can recognize it. I think a lot of artists have that. Art and commerce are not particularly happy bedfellows, but he was the exception.
I read quite a lot of biographies. I like nonfiction. The other book I’m carrying around with me at the moment is “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” by Rebecca Solnit. It deals with the 19th century and the arrival of speed with the coming of the industrial age. We were very much governed by nature before; we were at the mercy of our own speed and horses and the like. It’s interesting to think of living at that pace.

For the full interview, see:
KATE MURPHY. “DOWNLOAD; Gary Oldman.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., February 5, 2012): 2.
(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)
(Note: online version of the interview is dated February 4, 2012.)

93% of Donated Eyeglasses Are Not Usable

(p. D6) Giving used eyeglasses to poor countries may please the donors, but it is not worth the high delivery costs, a new study has concluded, and a $10 donation would do more good.
The study, led by Australian scientists and published in March in Optometry and Vision Science, found that only 7 percent of a test sample of 275 donated spectacles were usable. That raised the delivery cost to over $20 per usable pair. A simple eye exam and a set of ready-made glasses from China can be provided for just $10, the authors said.

For the full story, see:
DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. “GLOBAL UPDATE; Donations for Eyeglasses in Poor Nations Are Better Than Recycling Used Pairs.” The New York Times (Tues., April 24, 2012): D6.
(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 23, 2012.)

(Note: a more extended analysis of this example appears in an online article by Virginia Postrel. I am grateful for Dale Eesley for sending me a link to Postrel’s article.)

Our Cups Will Runneth Over If We Choose Entrepreneurship, Imagination, Will and Optimism


Source of book image:

(p. 18) in Silicon Valley, where the locals tend to be too busy starting companies to wallow in gloom, Peter Diamandis has stood out as one of the more striking optimists. Several years ago, Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, which rewards entrepreneurs with cash for achieving difficult goals, like putting a reusable spaceship into flight on a limited budget. More recently he helped start Singularity University, an academic program that convenes several weeks a year in the Valley and educates business leaders about the “disruptive” — i.e., phenomenally innovative — technological changes Diamandis is anticipating. To be sure, Diamandis is both very bright (he studied molecular biology and aerospace engineering at M.I.T. before getting an M.D. at Harvard) and well informed. Moreover, he’s not the kind of optimist who will merely see the glass as half full. He’ll give you dozens of reasons, some highly technical, why it’s half full. Then he’ll explain that your cognitive biases are tricking you into seeing the glass of water in a negative light, and cart out the research of acclaimed psychologists like Daniel Kahne­man to prove his point. Finally he may suggest you stop fretting: new technologies will soon fill the glass up anyway. Indeed, they are likely to overfill it.
. . .
(p. 19) Throughout the book Diamandis . . . offers small groups of driven entrepreneurs as a kind of Leatherman solution to the world’s problems. It’s true that plenty of insurgents are doing impressive things out there — Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, which helped jump-start the world’s electric car industry, is a good example.
. . .
. . . , there’s a significant idea embedded within “Abundance”: We should remain aware, as writers like Jared Diamond have likewise told us, that societies can choose their own future, and thus their own fate. In that spirit Diamandis and Kotler put forth a range of possible goals we may achieve if we have the imagination and the will. A little optimism wouldn’t hurt, either.

For the full review, see:
JON GERTNER. “Plenty to Go Around.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., April 1, 2012): 18 & 19.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 30, 2012.)

The book under review is:
Diamandis, Peter H., and Steven Kotler. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. New York: Free Press, 2012.

Even with Subsidies and High Gas Prices, Electric Cars Cost More

(p. 12) The Ford Focus Electric has a base price of $39,995 — minus a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 rebate in California. That puts its tab at $30,000, some $7,000 above the upscale Focus Titanium. I can hear the electric naysayers exclaiming “Aha! You won’t make back the savings at the pumps.” That’s despite $4 gasoline, and the Focus Electric’s 110 m.p.g. equivalent rating.
But when buying any new car, especially an innovative model of any kind, emotions, aesthetics and externalities eclipse economics.

For the full story, see:
BRADLEY BERMAN. “BEHIND THE WHEEL; 2012 FORD FOCUS ELECTRIC; The Battery-Driven Car Just Got a Lot More Normal.” The New York Times, SportsSunday (Sun., May 6, 2012): 12.
(Note: online version of the story is dated May 4, 2012.)

Behavioral Economics Does Not Undermine Capitalism


Source of book image:

Daniel Kahneman first gained fame in economics through research with Tversky in which they showed that some of economists’ assumptions about human rationality do not always hold true.
Kahneman, whose discipline is psychology, went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, sharing the prize with Vernon Smith. (Since the Prize is not normally awarded posthumously, Tversky was not a candidate.)
I have always thought that ultimately there should be only one unified science of human behavior—not claims that are “true” in economics and other claims that are “true” in psychology. (I even thought of minoring in psychology in college, before I realized that the price of minoring included taking time-intensive lab courses where you watched rats run through mazes.)
But I don’t think the implications of current work in behavioral economics are as clear as has often been asserted.
Some important results in economics do not depend on strong claims of rationality. For instance, the most important “law” in economics is the law of demand, and that law is due to human constraints more than to human rationality. Gary Becker, early in his career, wrote an interesting paper in which he showed that the law of demand could also be derived from habitual and random behavior. (I remember in conversation, George Stigler saying that he did not like this paper by Becker, because it did not hone closely to the rationality assumption that Stigler and Becker defended in their “De Gustibus” article.)
The latest book by Kahneman is rich and stimulating. It mainly consists of cataloging the names of, and evidence for, a host of biases and errors that humans make in thinking. But that does not mean we cannot choose to be more rational when it matters. Kahneman believes that there is a conscious System 2 that can over-ride the unconscious System 1. In fact, part of his motive for cataloging bias and irrationality is precisely so that we can be aware, and over-ride when it matters.
Sometimes it is claimed, as for instance in a Nova episode on PBS, that bias and irrationality were the main reasons for the financial crisis of 2008. I believe the more important causes were policy mistakes, like Clinton and Congress pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make home loans to those who did not have the resources to repay them; and past government bailouts encouraging finance firms to take greater risks. And the length and depth of the crisis were increased by government stimulus and bailout programs. If instead, long-term cuts had been made in taxes, entrepreneurs would have had more of the resources they need to create start-ups that would have stimulated growth and reduced unemployment.
More broadly, aspects of behavioral economics mentioned, but not emphasized, by Kahneman, can actually strengthen the underpinnings for the case in favor of entrepreneurial capitalism. Entrepreneurs may be more successful when they are allowed to make use of informal knowledge that would not be classified as “rational” in the usual sense. (I discuss this some in my forthcoming paper, “The Epistemology of Entrepreneurship.”)
Still, there are some useful and important examples and discussions in Kahneman’s book. In the next several weeks, I will be quoting some of these.

Book discussed:
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

The Becker article mentioned above is:
Becker, Gary S. “Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory.” Journal of Political Economy 70, no. 1 (Feb. 1962): 1-13.

The Stigler-Becker article mentioned above is:
Stigler, George J., and Gary S. Becker. “De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum.” American Economic Review 67, no. 2 (March 1977): 76-90.