Thursday, September 13, 2012

Standard unit of risk

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has determined that Amherst is at "High" risk of mosquito-borne illnesses, and recommends that we all stay inside at dusk.

Yeah... but I like going outside at dusk.

The incentives for the Health Department are to exaggerate the risks, because when somebody gets Eastern Equine Encephalitis and dies they can (correctly) point to their High Risk Warning and say "not our fault, we told you so."

But maybe the risk really is high, and we ought to slather ourselves with DEET before walking downtown for dessert.

I wish there was a standard, easy-to-understand unit of risk, so the Heath Department could say something like "We estimate spending an evening in downtown Amherst with no mosquito repellant is 4-10 RUs (risk units)."

Where 1 risk unit is something we can all understand-- maybe "the risk associated with driving 100 miles on the highway."

Or "1 risk unit is the overall risk of dying in an accident in any given year."

I don't know what the right baseline would be; it doesn't really matter what is chosen, what matters is making it easy to compare the risks of things relative to each other.  The Health Department says we're at High risk... but High compared to what?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Self-driving cars

Sunset in Wyoming
I hate driving.

Not because I'm bad at it; like the vast majority of Americans, my driving skills are far above average. I just find it tedious and boring.

This summer we went on a bike trip in Colorado, and then did a big, 2,500-mile car trip through Utah, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming.

Some of that driving was interesting, with stunning scenery zooming by. But most of it was tedious and boring. We did it partly because I think long, boring car trips are a rite of passage for kids; I certainly remember being eleven years old, stuck in the back seat of the cars for hours on end, driving into the night and then staying in a boring hotel room.

My grandkids might never have the experience of being bored in the backseat of a car and having to deal with a tired and grumpy parent that has driven ten hours since breakfast. It looks like self-driving cars will happen in the next ten or twenty years.

I want to rent a self-driving RV for my next big road trip. I'd start my trip after dinnertime, tell it where I want to eat breakfast, and then sleep through all the boring, tedious driving.

I think self-driving cars will have big, unintended consequences. Maybe multi-hour commutes will be no big deal, and suburbs even farther away from city centers will be common.

Maybe weekend homes 8 or 10 hours away will become a lot more popular; sleep on the way there Friday night, sleep on the way home Sunday night.

They should be really bad news for airlines and high-speed rail, especially if special, "robot driver only" very-high-speed highways are built. If they make people fly less, they should be good for the environment-- although I expect the fuel saved from less flying will be balanced out by people travelling more overall.

Maybe we'll see lots of retired people becoming nomads, spending their money on gasoline instead of hotel rooms, spending nights in their Robobagos on the road, driving at 42 miles an hour in huge groups to get better gas mileage...

PS: the driving-skills-above-average sentence is just there to catch people who post snarky comments before reading to the end of the post (yes, I know that sentence cannot be true).