Sunday, May 25, 2008

Math puzzle: which station? (part 1)

Whoops, looks like I missed this week's regularly scheduled posting. It's late now and I don't feel like typing anything too involved, so here's a neat little math question I've been wondering about.

Environmentalist that I am (or "greentard," as my girlfriend likes to call me1), I like to take the T to work as often as I can. My 90-minute trek starts with a walk to the red line, which I take in to Park Street.2 There are two T stops, Porter and Davis, roughly equidistant from my house; the train going my direction hits Davis first, then Porter. The question is: does it matter which I take?

Here's my thinking. On the one hand, trains run through each station at the same pace, so it shouldn't matter where I wait. If I have to wait an average of X minutes at Porter, I should have to wait the same X minutes, on average, at Davis.

On the other hand, let's imagine that I walk to Davis and get there just in time to see the train pulling out; I missed it by 30 seconds. It takes a minute or two for the train to get to Porter, so if I'd instead gone to that station, I'd get there just before the train; perfect timing!

My hypothesis is that if my schedule and the trains' schedules were completely random, everything would even out and it wouldn't matter which station I went to. But neither one of them is totally random; the trains are relatively regular (every 7 or 8 minutes), and so am I (I try to leave around 7:45 am). If I assume that my time is somewhat synchronized with the trains' — with some randomization, since neither of us are flawless — I bet Porter is the better station. My time cost for being a bit ahead of the train isn't high (30 seconds or a minute), but if I'm a bit behind, I'll catch a train at Porter that I'd miss at Davis.

I'll run some simulations; stay tuned for the results next week.

Apologies if this post is badly written; the timestamp is my excuse.

[1] She stole this term shamelessly from Fake Steve Jobs.
[2] Sic. Remind me to write about my conundrum regarding "in to" and "into" soon.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Casinos in Massachusetts

Back in the old days, before I had a blog, there was some talk about bringing casinos to Massachusetts. The idea was squashed by house Democrats in March, but state Senate Republicans are now trying to bring it back up.

I'll admit, the idea of a casino that close to my hometown puts me ill at ease. I have a bit of an issue with the fact that gambling is an industry predicated on profiting off of people's false hopes, but the main issue is NIMBY

. I don't like the idea of people putting Boston and Atlantic City in the same breath.

On the other hand, I've always had a bit of a libertarian streak in me; I think people should generally be trusted to make their own decisions, and I'm very wary of the government legislating morality. Gambling can cause problems for some people, but for many others it's a harmless and occasional distraction. The government should help those who develop gambling problems — and probably force the industry to pay for it, as they do with cigarettes — but those problems do not justify outlawing the industry altogether.

So I'm putting my money where my mouth is: I'm in favor of allowing casinos in Massachusetts, not because I see a valid reason for legalizing them, but because I don't see a valid reason for banning them.

What frustrates me is that the ideas of freedom and self-determination are hardly ever brought up in the debate. The pro-casino side focuses almost exclusively on the jobs Massachusetts casinos would bring and the tax revenue they'd generate. The revenue issue, at least, seems dubious at best; I've heard of several studies that report that after you factor in extra police, medical and other municipal services, states break about even on casinos. The jobs are more significant, but they still shouldn't be the only issue.

The irony is that the state says gambling is immoral enough to warrant banning casinos, but at the same time runs its own lottery. There's no reason for the government to be in the business of running lotteries in the first place, but to bar the private sector from running its own gambling services on moral grounds is plain hypocrisy.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Education won't solve poverty

When people talk about making the world a better place, they frequently start with bringing education to those who can't afford it. We take it as a given that people's lives will be better if they graduate high school or, better yet, college. But education alone is a short-term fix.

The problem is in the very reason we think of education as the panacea to poverty: it's a way of getting out of low-paying jobs. We try to get it through people's heads that if only they get a degree, they won't have to work as janitors, factory workers, rice patty farmers or other undesirable positions.

But the world will always need janitors, factory workers, rice patty farmers and the rest. If everyone had a high school degree, you'd need a college degree to move up the socioeconomic ladder. If everyone had a college degree, you'd need a master's. This has already started to happen in America; even unskilled white collar positions often require an undergraduate degree.

The crux is that educating someone doesn't stop the exploitation of the world's poor; it just lets that person do a bit of the exploiting.

Instead of pretending that we can rid the world of unskilled jobs, we should work to ensure that the people who work those jobs can still lead good lives. Education is a piece of that puzzle because it effects social mobility for those who have the desire and natural abilities. It can also expand minds and give us new ways of thinking about the world, which is good in itself.

But at the end of the day, someone has to clean the floors and work factory machines. Those people should be happy even if they never make it to shift manager.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Music is our soma

I make no secret of the fact that I don't like the direction music's been taking the last couple decades. Modern music is repetitive and shallow, and even the simplest sonata would eclipse it in complexity. But what really scares me is that music isn't just meaningless, it's mind-numbing — and purposely so.

Not to sound like a fanboy, but just try and compare a rock song to a symphony. Tchaikovsky's 5th is just over 45 minutes long, and any given 30 seconds have more development than, say, Smells Like Teen Spirit has in its 5-minute entirety. That's not an exaggeration.

Don't get me wrong. I love rock. It's fun to listen to, and it often moves me emotionally. But in terms of musical sophistication, it doesn't hold a candle to jazz or classical music. It's not meant to; it's is an intellectual escape, and the same is true of pop, hip-hop, country and most other modern genres.

The problem is that people listen to this music all the time. Next time you're walking in the park, taking the subway or just sitting in a cafe, take a look around at all the people drowning out the world with the same 8 bars of "THUNK chss THUNK THUNK chss" blasting over, and over, and over, and over, and over.

For those who don't remember or never read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, one of the more jarring elements of his dystopia is the legal, socially acceptable drug soma. Soma helps people go on "holiday" for a few minutes whenever they want, and it's one of the strongest symbols of Huxley's fear for our world: that society would brainwash itself. In contrast to Orwell's 1984, Huxley saw that the greatest danger we face isn't that a privileged few would subjugate the masses, but that the masses would subjugate themselves. If there's no inner party, there's nobody to overthrow.

We're there yet, and I'm certainly not saying that iPods have destroyed civilization. But the path to the Brave New World is traversed with baby steps. We should take a look to see how far we've gone in just the last century.