Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The math of rear car cameras

It seems as if all media outlets, not to mention most lawmakers and laypeople, lack a grasp of basic arithmetic. Perhaps that's why so many people make absurd statements like "you can't put a price on a human life". Oh really? Then why don't we prevent every preventable death? 8.8 million children die before their fifth birthday and I'm sure most of the deaths are preventable, so why don't we stop those deaths? Obviously, it's because saving their lives costs more than we are willing to pay. It's considered just too costly to save them. The same goes for every homeless person who dies in the snow, and everyone that dies because their medical treatments cost far more than they can afford.

In most preventable deaths worldwide, I'm guessing lifesaving measures would probably cost under $100,000 per person, and probably much less for children. But instead of going after the low-hanging fruit, we prefer to find the most expensive ways to save lives. The worst example of this phenomenon is no doubt the War on Terror, which, if you count Iraq*, must have cost at least a trillion dollars by now and has caused far more deaths from terrorism than it has saved (mostly in Iraq).

* (I realize Iraq was not part of the war on terror if we are to be honest, but without the War on Terror the Bush Administration would not have been able to convince the media and the public that we needed a war, so it deserves at least some of the blame... but if my reasoning is in error, simply think about the cost of the TSA instead of Iraq.)

So it's irritating every time the media reports a story about a program that would cost a lot of money to save a few lives, without giving any hint as to how much value we would be getting for our money, and it's irritating everytime lawmakers pass a law without any real cost/benefit analysis. I heard that airbags cost $1000 per car (or was that per bag?), that the number of lives they save is apparently minimal among those like me that already use seatbelts, and that airbags can actually cause injuries and deaths of young children. But that didn't stop the Canadian government from mandating them on all new cars, which of course cost me money personally when I bought a car.

So now U.S. government regulators want to mandate rear-facing cameras in all new cars to reduce injuries and deaths from cars going backwards. The article I saw about this, like virtually every article from the mainstream media, didn't translate the numbers into a form I could immediately understand.

So here are the numbers. The estimated cost of the rule change is $2.7 billion per year or $160-$200 per vehicle, a cost that will surely be passed onto the buyers. And "regulators say that 95 to 112 deaths and as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided each year by eliminating the wide blind spot behind a vehicle".

First of all, when I read that I am immediately curious whether the text actually means what it says: is 8,374 (A) the number of injuries that would be prevented per year, or is it actually (B) the total number of injuries? Although "as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided" sure sounds like (A), I have seen so many news articles carelessly misrepresent statistics that I'm sure the true meaning could easy be (B), because when it comes to numbers, I have developed a sense that reporters are very, very lazy people. Yes, perhaps this particular reporter is good with numbers, but I have no way to know that.

If the meaning is actually (B), the actual number of injuries prevented might just be half of 8,374, or so, since not all drivers will become much safer just because they have a camera in addition to the three mirrors and rear window they already have. Likewise I am automatically led to wonder where number $160-$200 came from: is that cost distributed among all vehicles that don't already have a rear camera? Or is it distributed among all vehicles, even ones that are already sold with a rear camera?

So what's the cost here? Well, admittedly it's hard to decide how to explain the value proposition. What is the relative worth of saving a life compared to preventing an injury? If we assume that saving a life is worth ten (10) times as much as preventing an injury, then what we are buying for $2.7 billion dollars is as follows:
  • $286,800 to prevent each injury (times 8374 injuries)
  • $2,868,000 to prevent each death (times about 104 deaths)
Or if we assume that saving a life is worth 50 times as much as preventing an injury, the results become as follows:
  • $198,900 to prevent each injury (times 8374 injuries)
  • $9,945,000 to prevent each death (times about 104 deaths)
Anybody with basic math skills and a calculator can work this out. Admittedly it's a bit more complicated when you have to decide how much of the $2.7 billion to count toward injuries and how much to count toward deaths, but even in the simplest cases the media doesn't make any effort to communicate the costs in ways that are easy to understand. Now that you can see the cost, you might think twice about supporting this proposal.

Another way to look at this is comparing the number of lives saved to the number of cars with cameras, in order to determine the individual chance that you'll kill someone while backing up. There are 254.4 million registered cars in the U.S.. Comparing this to the expected number of injuries prevented, it seems that the chance you will, during your lifetime, not personally injure or kill someone while backing up because you have a government-mandated camera that you would not have chosen to buy yourself is close to zero. I can't actually calculate the chance, however, without knowing how many additional cars must be fitted with cameras in order to prevent the 8374 injuries (it must be less than the full 254.4 million.)

Now, maybe you think $2.9 million to $10 million dollars is a reasonable price to pay to save a single life of a middle-class person, and that $200,000 to $287,000 is reasonable to prevent a single injury. Personally, I disagree, I think the price is too high in this case, although at least there's the side benefit that we'll all have these cool display screens in our cars, and a little most peace of mind. It seems to me that in cases like this where the cost/benefit ratio is poor, the government should not be forcing everyone to spend more (or buy used).

And what about alternatives? A rear camera plus a LCD screen is not the only way to reduce injuries and deaths. It might be cheaper to use infared or radar sensors plus a warning sound (or even automated braking) to tell drivers when they are about to hit something. If an automaker wants to use this approach instead, will it be allowed to? But the humble New York Times did not consider the issue.

In any case, I wish our media would put a little more effort into their coverage and take a little time to break down the numbers for us. But you know what? They won't. So we would be wise to learn how to use a calculator ourselves.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

SOPA? We don't need no stinking SOPA

ArsTechnica reports:
Popular site JotForm doesn't host music or movies or child pornography, all of which have led US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to seize other Internet domain names without advance warning (sometimes making serious mistakes). JotForm also doesn't create content itself. Instead, it helps customers create online forms that can then be embedded in their websites for easy data collection.

But that didn't spare the site from having its entire business shuttered without warning yesterday as the site's domain name was shut down at the request of the US Secret Service. JotForm's domain name registrar, GoDaddy, redirected the site's nameservers to NS1.SUSPENDED-FOR.SPAM-AND-ABUSE.COM—and with that, JotForm.com became unreachable and the site's two million user-created forms all broke.

And it all may have been done without a court order.
It's pretty remarkable what the U.S. government gets away with these days. I mean, when it comes to foreign policy, I guess they've been willing and able to do any old insane act you can think of for decades now. But usually they've left their own citizens alone. The recently defeated SOPA bill would have allowed big companies to take down web sites with user-generated content, without first having to go through the hassle of a court case. But did you know that the government can already shut down your web site on a whim? At least, they can if your domain registrar is GoDaddy. JotForm is a case in point. I had never heard of JotForm before, but I have half a mind to subscribe to their service to help make up for the business they've lost over this wrongful shutdown.

Update: Now the U.S. government has taken down a foreign website, run by foreigners living outside the U.S., using a foreign registrar, for running a gambling business that violates the laws of Maryland. Read all about it! Whatever you think about gambling (I don't like it or do it myself), there is something very wrong with this picture.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

An education in occupation

Until the 1990s, Iraq had perhaps the best university system in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein's regime used oil revenues to underwrite free tuition for Iraqi university students -- churning out doctors, scientists, and engineers who joined the country's burgeoning middle class and anchored development. Although political dissent was strictly off-limits, Iraqi universities were professional, secular institutions that were open to the West, and spaces where male and female, Sunni and Shia mingled. Also the schools pushed hard to educate women, who constituted 30 percent of Iraqi university faculties by 1991. [...]

[...] As the international sanctions regime cut off journal subscriptions and equipment purchases, academic salaries fell precipitously, and 10,000 Iraqi professors left the country. [...]

In 2003, after the invasion, many Iraqi professors hoped that their university system would be revitalized under US occupation. They expected funding to buy new books, to replace equipment, and to repair the damage inflicted by the sanctions. And they hoped for new tolerance for open debate and inquiry.

In fact, the opposite happened.
Out of $90 billion appropriated for reconstruction and counterinsurgency in Iraq for 2004, less than one one-hundredth of one percent was earmarked for reconstruction of the universities.