Monday, June 23, 2008

Minor Changes in Circumstance

I've been thinking lately about activities that can be strongly encouraged in one circumstance, but discouraged or illegal in others.

One example is burning the U.S. flag. This is considered by many to be an outrage when done in protest, and yet it is also the approved method for retiring an old flag. I find it intriguing that when asked why you are burning the flag, your answer can determine entirely how your action will be treated.

Another example would be jumping off a high cliff. This would be encouraged for recreation, but discouraged if attempting to kill oneself.

On a similar note, I was recently watching a charity golf event where one of the participants had what they repeatedly referred to as: "inoperable, non-smoking lung cancer". It was interesting how they always would include "non smoking". The fact that he developed the cancer randomly makes him a much more sympathetic character than if he had acquired it through a lifetime of smoking.

I guess the theme is that there are very few circumstances that can be fully digested without knowing the detailed motivation and history that led up to the event. Parents are familiar with this, since often you arrive on scene where some incident has occurred and no sound judgment can be rendered without carefully piecing together the events and motives that preceded it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

New (and Improved?) ebay Feedback Rules

I was pleased when I saw recently that ebay had changed one of the rules for leaving feedback. The change was that sellers are no longer allowed to leave negative feedback for buyers. This was to address the age-old problem that you could never leave bad feedback for a seller, because the implicit threat was always that they would just retaliate with bad feedback for you, which would destroy your feedback rating.

So I liked the change, until my first winning bid after the change. I was considering a possible comment about the low quality of a product I received. Then I got an e-mail from the seller which said “once we receive your positive feedback, we will leave positive feedback for you”. So much for the idea of my being able to leave negative feedback. Once again, I was faced with a disincentive to leave negative feedback. Not as bad as before, but still imperfect.

I hate to complicate things, but I think what might work best is to give both parties 7 days to leave feedback, then reveal all of the permanent feedback at the same time. In addition, there could be some small incentive to “reward” leaving feedback, plus maybe something that shows how often you have left positive and negative feedback for others.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Third-Party Candidates and Restaurants

Every election cycle, you hear people making the following lament:

“The Republican and Democratic candidates seem to have similar positions on many of the issues. Both want lower taxes on the middle class. Both want more funding for transportation. Both say they will protect Social Security. And so on. Neither candidate will take a tough stand on issues such as the looming funding crisis for entitlement programs. I wish there were a third-party candidate I could vote for who would not just represent politics as usual.”

Let’s look into this a bit further. First, let's consider the example where we are choosing a location for a Burger King franchise. Look at the picture below. There are three towns, and there is an existing McDonalds near town 2. Assume people are evenly distributed. Where is the best place along the road to put the Burger King?

If you think about it for a moment, you will see that you should put it right next to the McDonalds. You’ll be the closest to all of Town 3, plus half of Town 2. There is no better place. (By the way, this is one of the reasons why you often see a bunch of fast food places grouped together, then nothing for a while.)

Now suppose you have two candidates running for President:

Again, if the electorate is uniformly distributed you will see them both position their statements leading up to the election to be as close to each other as possible.

If they both succeed, they will ram together right in the center. This is what we have seen for many years, with a small number of undecided voters in a few moderate states deciding all of the recent Presidential elections.

A third party candidate has two options. One - he can go left or right of the candidates to go after that half of the vote. But in that case, by definition, he will not be a good representative of all of the people. Or he can attack the center, and try to be a better leader than the other candidates. But then we are back to the original problem of the candidate just taking the same moderate positions on the issues in order to win the election. Simply having a third-party candidate will not magically cure the system.

You can see that there is a natural incentive in debates and speeches for politicians to go as far to the center as they feel is reasonably possible. After the election, they can immediately revert back to their true beliefs. Because of all this, I believe that people waste too much time voting on where candidates say they stand on the issues. The best thing to do is vote for who will be the better leader and decision maker. If you just find the candidate that meets your checklist of litmus tests, you might end up electing someone who will do stupid things like nominate his personal attorney friend for the Supreme Court, or use his religious beliefs to prevent people from curing diseases.

Let's stop romanticizing the concept of a third party, put aside our litmus tests, and just vote for whomever we determine will be the best and most thoughtful leader.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Change Worth Making

I occasionally watch a TV show on VH1 called "Best Week Ever". On the show, semi-celebrities make snarky comments about current events in the news and pop culture. It is not at all enriching, but can be enjoyable at times.

My favorite line that I heard one time on the show was from Christian Finnegan, regarding when internet spoilers were coming out before the release of the final Harry Potter book:

"I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, but if finding out the ending to a Harry Potter novel is going to radically change your life, maybe that's a change worth making."

Like most good humor, this has a deeper truth to it. When faced with a frenetic situation, I think many people use the relaxation technique of pretending it is a year later and realizing that in retrospect this "crisis" is likely to be of little or no significance in the scheme of things. I like the concept of the Harry Potter quote going even a step further - suggesting that you could in fact be better off with the dreaded outcome than with the desired outcome.