Don’t get over yet

While I'm at it with clearing out the blog backlog of stuff I meant to write a while ago that's still worth reading… last month I heard a great story on Fresh Air with the author of a new book on the science of traffic.  As someone who is almost daily frustrated by the many inefficiencies of typical traffic (especially poorly-timed lights), I found it quite fascinating. 

Among the more notable findings: when you lose a lane and you need to get over, do not do it immediately.  You are not actually be antiscocial by waiting to get over, but using the traffic lanes more efficiently thus reducing the total amount of waiting time to merge.  Of course, all those who got over immediately don't know this, and their refusal to let you in only adds to the inefficiency.  Ideally, you get a nice turn-taking procedure just before you finally lose the lane.  The Times actually ran a nice little story on how this is supposed to work:

FIRST, EVERYBODY REMAINS UNRUFFLED, without abrupt changes of lane
or speed, as the lane-drop comes into view. Everybody takes three deep, cleansing
breaths ? all right, the experts didn?t say that, but they meant
to ? and considers both the imminent needs of everybody else and the system
as a smoothly functioning whole.

everybody begins to slow, not too much, all in concert. All cars remain
in their lanes, using all the real estate. (On the question of frontage
roads and exit-only lanes, the experts waffled; those are arguably part
of the real estate, they agreed, but they are meant for a different
purpose, and this scenario relies upon everybody buying into the same
rules. So no frontage-roading or fake-exit-laning, unless there?s a
sign specifically instructing otherwise.) People in the narrowing left
lanes refrain from shooting ahead, while people in the right through
lanes ? this is hard to swallow, for those of us inclined toward
vigilantism, but crucial ? leave big spaces in front of their cars for
the merging that is about to commence. We resist the
freeze-out-the-sidezoomer urge. We prepare to invite them in.

at clearly marked or somehow mutually agreed upon places, everybody
starts conducting beautiful ?zipper merges.? That?s the technical term
? one-two, one-two or one-two-three, one-two-three ? as indicated by
the roadway configuration. The process has now worked at its ideal
efficiency/equitability ratio: if all have behaved correctly, the
tunnel passage has been both benign and, relatively speaking, quick.
Personal sacrifice has been called for, to be sure. The former
sidezoomers have sacrificed the pleasure of high-speed bypass, also
known as I Beat Out the Stupid Sheep Just Now, Ha Ha (less truculent
rendition: I Want to Get Home More Than I Care About Strangers Whose
Faces I Can?t Even See). The former lineuppers have sacrificed the
pleasure of self-congratulatory umbrage, also known as Hmph, Good Thing
Society Has People Like Me. Together we have all ascended to the
traffic decorum of the army ants, who as Vanderbilt observes are among
the earth?s most accomplished commuters, managing to get from one place
to another in large groups without cutting each other off, deciding
their time is more valuable than everybody else?s, or ? apparently this
is the fast-lane domination method for certain traveling land crickets
? eating anybody who gets in the way.

Actually getting the vast majority of drivers to do this would probably not be all that easy (look how hard it is to keep those slowpokes out of the left lane), but still, seems like it would be a great idea to emphasize this in Driver's Ed, just like they do other rules of good driving.  Who knows, we could actually end up spending less time waiting in construction zones.  Not that I'm holding my breath.


Want a better economy? Vote Democratic

The evidence for my titular proposition is actually quite strong and Michael Kinsley has been pushing it for years.  Here's his latest in Slate:

There is no secret about any of this. The figures below are all from the annual Economic Report of the President,
and the analysis is primitive. Nevertheless, what these numbers show
almost beyond doubt is that Democrats are better at virtually every
economic task that is important to Republicans.

In other words,
there are no figures here about income inequality, or percentage of the
population with health insurance, or anything like that. This exercise
implicitly assumes that lower taxes are always good and higher
government spending is always bad. There is nothing here about how
clean the air is or how many children are growing up in poverty. The
only point is that if you find the Republican mantra of lower taxes and
smaller government appealing, and if you care only about how fast the
economy is growing, not how that growth is shared, you should vote
Democratic. Of course, if you do care about things like economic
inequality and children's health, you should vote Democratic as well…

Some people believe that the president has little or no effect on
the economy. If so, that would be a serious flaw in this exercise. But
it would also be a serious flaw in the exercise called democracy, since
people tell pollsters that the economy is the most important issue for
them in deciding whom to vote for. No doubt any particular bad year in
any of these statistics can be explained by some extrinsic special
event?a war, for example. But surely patterns that emerge over half a
century account for these. At some point, if Republicans or Democrats
tend to start more wars, and wars cost money, that can be a legitimate
part of the calculation.

Finally, as economist Greg Mankiw points out in his blog, reacting to a similar calculation
by Alan Blinder (both of them former chairs of the president's Council
of Economic Advisers), correlation is not causation. Maybe economic
statistics are better when the president is a Democrat for reasons
having nothing to do with the president's skill in handling the
economy. My own feeling about that is that as long as the pattern
continues, who cares why? Correlation will do just fine.

Shockingly, focus economic policy on allowing the rich to make as much money as possible with little direct emphasis on keeping middle class people working does not really work all that well.  It would be nice if Republicans would learn their lesson on this.  But, why listen to evidence when it contradicts your ideology?

The pharmaceutical scam

I noticed that I meant to blog about this a few weeks ago, but somehow forgot.  Fear not, it is relevant as ever. From the Times:

When the Food and Drug Administration approved a new type of cholesterol-lowering
medicine in 2002, it did so on the basis of a handful of clinical
trials covering a total of 3,900 patients. None of the patients took
the medicine for more than 12 weeks, and the trials offered no evidence
that it had reduced heart attacks or cardiovascular disease, the goal
of any cholesterol drug.

The lack of evidence has not stopped doctors from heavily
prescribing that drug, whether in a stand-alone form sold as Zetia or
as a combination medicine called Vytorin. Aided by extensive consumer
advertising, sales of the medicines reached $5.2 billion last year,
making them among the best-selling drugs in the world. More than three
million people worldwide take either drug every day.

But there is
still no proof that the drugs help patients live longer or avoid heart
attacks. This year Vytorin has failed two clinical trials meant to show
its benefits. Worse, scientists are debating whether there is a link
between the drugs and cancer.

Got that?  Based almost purely on aggressive marketing, people world-wide are spending over $5 billion annually on a drug that has almost no evidence it is actually making them any healthier and may, be may be increasing their risk of cancer.  Think about that the next time your doctor gives you a prescription.

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