Sunday, January 25, 2009

Annoying Portmanteau Watch


Used on a commercial for Top Chef.

(Bonus annoying portmanteau: "bromance," as seen on the Top Chef website when getting the link for this post.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Technology's Influence on Gestures

This post at Small Surfaces reminded me of a thought I had when I first saw the iPhone. Five years from now, when the method of zooming in on an image by moving ones thumb and index finger apart along a diagonal on a multi-touch screen becomes ubiquitous, will this gesture become commonplace as a part of normal conversation? Imagine talking to a friend while they're viewing an image (on a big wall-sized screen or a handheld device) and, as you ask them to zoom in on the image, subconsciously pantomiming the gesture pictured above. Or maybe a politician will be referring to "the big picture" and, without realizing how silly it looks, start repeatedly pinching his fingers as if zooming out on an iPhone.

Image from here.

Thirty most-used words in Congress

This page lists the thirty most-used words in Congress over the past month. Not surprisingly, there's no mention of "liberty" or anything remotely related to the idea. "Security" is #18.

Via Jay Parkinson.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The High Cost of Subsidies

This interesting article by Stacy Mitchell discusses the rise and fall of suburban big box retail stores. Her prescription for preventing this problem in the future implicitly identifies the cause on a lack of strict local government land-use regulations.

The only way to ensure that the coming wave of deserted stores and shopping centers does not become a persistent blight on the landscape and a drag on local economies for decades to come is for cities, working together across metro regions, to sharply limit what can be built on undeveloped land.

Mitchell makes it seem like the problem this whole time has been lazy local governments who, if they were only more vigilant, could craft perfect little cities. What Mitchell ignores, however (but which a commenter to the article points out), is the very active role that local governments played in subsidizing just the type of development she decries. Walmart alone has received over $1 billion in subsidies, and it's not uncommon for a big box development to benefit from some sort of tax break or even some unethical use of eminent domain. Talk about distorting the market...

The problem isn't lazy local governments, but rather overly-active local governments.

Cult of the Presidency Watch

Why would anyone want to wear a shirt with the first names of Obama's immediate family on it? I can see wanting to wear an Obama shirt because you think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread, but a shirt with his daughters' names on it?!? Seems a little stalker-ish to me.

Via Trendcentral. Title of post from Gene Healy's book.

Human Factors of TASERS

(NOTE: These images are random images from the internet...I have no idea what the TASER and gun mentioned below actually look like.)

At 2:00 a.m. on New Year's Day, Oscar Grant was shot by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer. The incident has sparked protests and riots in Oakland, and for many this seems like an open-and-shut case of yet another incident of police brutality. However, the officer who fired the shot is claiming that he mistakenly drew his gun after intending to draw his TASER, presumably to subdue Grant. Leaving aside the issue of whether the use of a TASER is justified in this situation (or any situation), as soon as I read this I immediately wondered about the human factors involved in this situation.

Dave Schmidt, a former police officer, offers an interesting discussion on how motor learning and and the phyhsical position of the TASER on the officer's belt may have lead the officer to confuse his gun for his taser. Moreover, as Schmidt points out, "The TASER feels and draws like a handgun, but it is completely different." If a TASER feels the same as a gun, then it seems like a blatant violation of Human Factors 101 to store the two in such close proximity on the officer's belt.

It seems like there are two things that could be done to mitigate the risk inherent in officers carrying both a lethal and nonlethal (at least usually) weapon:
  1. Ensure that the "design" of an officer's belt is not such that two different pieces of equipment with two very different functionalities are stored closely to each other. If officers's are used to drawing their gun from the right side of their body and drawing the TASER from their left side or from a leg holster, they're less likely to make the motor skill confusion of grabbing one when intending to grab the other.
  2. Require that all TASERS manufactured and/or sold in the United States do not have the same appearance, texture, or even weight (if possible) as a gun.
Implementing these two mitigations would greatly reduce the probability of TASER/gun confusion, just as human factors engineering has greatly reduced so-called "human errors" in aviation, medical devices, and even consumer products.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cass Sunstein as Regulatory Czar

Apparently Cass Sunstein is going to be the new regulatory czar. I don't know if Sunstein is the ideal pick, but Obama could have done a lot worse. Libertarians seem to fear Sustein's "libertarian paternalism" because (1) it's more concerned about paternalism than libertarianism, and (2) Sunstein doesn't seem to operate with the same definition of liberty as libertarians do. As Will Wilkinson has pointed out, Sunstein seems to think of liberty as the preservation/defense of choice, while libertarians tend to think of liberty as the absence of coercion.

In reality, I think those two things are less different than they may seem in the abstract. After all, isn't the practical liberty that a person experiences both a function of the lack of coercion AND the choices that their stations in life afford? In other words, people who live in a prosperous society with some coercive regulations (say Denmark) probably experience greater practical liberty than people who live in an anarchic society with no coercive regulations (say Somalia).

In any case, I think Sunstein has the potential to be a very positive force (pun not initially intended, but now that I recognize it it seems pretty clever so I'm going to leave it in there) in the Obama administration, especially if he's able to focus not only on the formation of new regulation, but also on the reformation of existing regulation. After all, the classic "libertarian paternalism" example associated with Sunstein is the idea that by making enrollment in 401ks the default option but allowing employees to opt out (thus preserving choice), participation in 401ks will be greater and people will be better off. Wouldn't it be nice (and intellectually consisten, by the way) if Sunstein/Obama applied this same logic to Social Security and allowed people to opt out of it?

Image from here.