Public Transit and Honor

Yesterday Matt Yglesias wrote about his like of 'proof of payment' public transit systems like the one he used in Strasbourg:

It starts with buying tickets. You can buy one...[t]hen when you actually want to ride the tram (or bus), you go to the stop and while you're waiting for the tram to arrive you "validate" one of your tickets by inserting into a little machine that puts a time stamp on it. Then when the tram arrives you simply step on. Nine times out of ten, that'll be it. But once in a while your tram will have an inspector on it who'll ask to see people's tickets. If your ticket has a recent time stamp...then you're golden. But if you don't have a recently validated ticket, then you'll have to pay a steep fine

The great virtue of this system is that people can board the vehicle very quickly because they simply step on board. The transactional hassles of payment and validation are handled during otherwise wasted waiting time.

Matt uses a generic "nine times out of ten" chance of being checked. When I used Cologne's public transit in 2007, however, I was checked only twice out of the 120 or so rides I took. That's 98 times out of 100 where "that's it", or an order of magnitude difference.

On account of my odds, my youth, and my youth-induced poverty, my thinking about it leapt straight to the rational crime angle rather than Matt's efficiency argument. Many of his commenters also focus on whether an honor-based system would work in the US, a nation in which honor is a concept relegated mainly to internet discussions of Eddard Stark's naïveté.


The question isn't whether it'd work, though, it's whether the tradeoffs required to make it work are sensible. The marginal cost of a transit passenger is negligible, so some free-riding isn't a big deal.

Who would wish a turnstile upon these poor people:

Why I Can't Take Things Sitting Down

My first standing desk was built of books. Many of the rooms at the Florentine Films edit house are bordered by books: books used by past films, books supplying fodder for future films, and books about the films themselves.  I gathered a combination that would build a laptop-topped tower of just the right height, and so the books served the research process in a different way. My improvised standing desk was in response to a bevy of blogs populating my RSS feed warning about the perils of sitting (even as I write). Sitting shuts your body down, sitting makes you fat, sitting will kill you. Not wanting to die, I stood up, and after a week or two of adjustment standing became my default working pose.

2013-01-16 12.26.06

As you might expect if you follow health news, the spate of pro-standing article were followed by a few pointing out that standing all day also carried its own risks, though these tended towards the pedestrian (Standing evidently puts you at more risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome due to excessive leaning, so don't excessively lean when you stand, you drifter.). The middle-of-the-road solution is to sit while making sure you're getting up and walking around every twenty minutes.

Thing is, once you start standing, sitting starts to suck. After twenty minutes in a chair my rear is ready for other things. I can slightly mitigate my discomfort by flexing the muscles in my butt and legs, particularly if there's a crossbar I can brace my feet against, but this brings only fleeting relief.  The solution is standing, and my butt needs about ten minutes to recuperate before it can countenance being smashed and smothered again.

The dot-connectors among you have realized this makes many routine situations a pain in the butt for me. When dining out, I'm itching to stand up and move around shortly after the drinks are served. On road trips, I used to be the kind of guy who would only stop to refuel; now I'm fidgeting before I cross Atlanta's perimeter. I avoided the lavatory on flights, now I use them every time as pretext for limb stretching.  These days when I see a movie I try to sit near the aisle so I can escape to the wings halfway through (only once per movie lest others think me incontinent).

I’ll admit to being irked by the soft bigotry of no standing stations. As a good German I tend not to flout social convention, especially if it would put everyone else’s head at gut height.  Standing draws focus and can also be perceived as a sign of restlessness--i.e. “Why don’t you sit down and stay awhile?”--so I sit when I must and fake the need to pee when I can sit no longer.

One day, when the world is more sensitive to standers, everyone will rise to a higher plane. Desks and tables will be 40 inches tall, with high chairs for those who want them. The dichotomy between sitting and standing will be broken, for we will all be equal from the waist up.


Status and Smoking Bans

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's excellent Twitter feed directed me to this story:

Electronic cigarettes don't burn and don't give off smoke. But they're at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it's OK to "light up" in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.

Here's a video overview for a typical e-cigarette:

The article notes that e-cigs are designed to "address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes." Since the smoke that is emitted is actually water vapor, users call the activity "vaping" instead of smoking.

So if it's just water vapor, then how could e-cigs fall under smoking bans (about which I've written critically here). Well, the FDA says the liquid nicotine cartridges contain "detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed." Not saying much really, but if even if e-cigs were toxic, smoking bans are ostensibly about second-hand effects, so what's the harm in water vapor?

There's no research to say if any of the 'detectable toxins to which users could potentially be exposed' might also potentially expose third-parties, but that's not stopping the awesomely named American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. In their view, e-cigs should be banned until it's proven they "do no harm." In that case, says the spokesperson with courageous unambiguity, "we'll have to revisit" the ban.

Several days ago, Robin Hanson blogged about how the status of a risky activity seems to affect our desire to regulate it: climbing Everest is a deadly activity and no one thinks to call for a ban, but the far less dangerous lawn darts? Fuggedaboutit! This status-driven impulse might apply to smoking bans as well.  Smoking, while once considered classy and cool, has become so low-status that smokers often feel the need to apologize for their behavior every time they want to light up. Sure, there's a defensible public health argument for smoking bans, but then how to explain this anecdote at the beginning of the article?

That's not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips' mouth.

But that hasn't stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.


Some e-cig users have even taken to "stealth vaping," a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.

E-cigs are made to look like regular cigarettes, but functionally they are little alike.  In fact,  e-cigs are quite similar to nicotine inhalers.  If e-cigs were identical in every way except for the emission of water vapor, would they be causing such a hubbub? Or what if manufacturers agreed to model e-cigs to look like pieces of excrement? That way those who enjoy vaping can do so in peace, and restaurant and bar patrons can still look down their blissfully non-irritated noses at the habit.

Legal Status

Personally I've never been one for indicating a dating relationship on Facebook. Dating is about sampling with a relative ease of entry and exit, so why add a complication to what's supposed to open and free? The appropriate use of the relationship status is for the more consequential and permanent arrangements of marriage and the like, says I.

Strolling around Grant Park this evening, my neighborhood park at least until the end of my March, I was listening to this article on my iPod and thinking about Facebook's introduction of "civil union" and "domestic partnership" to its list of relationship options.  It occurred to me that the very reason I dislike Facebook for casual relationships is exactly why GLAAD was glad to see the updated options: Facebook confers legitimacy to a relationship.

It took me .26 seconds to find this video:

The status update is done lightheartedly here, but wouldn't this actually be the most culturally relevant ritual for most marriage ceremonies today? Isn't it the case that modern marriages are made most tangible in the minds of friends and family not through certificate or ceremony, but cyberspace? Sure, relationship statuses are presumably almost always backed by government guarantee, but I wonder if that will ebb in importance as cultural norms trump state fiat.

The libertarian in me gleefully looks on.


Duck and Weave to Fight the Bias

Every so often when I glance at my Facebook feed, I'm reminded at how many of my childhood friends have stayed put in the place where they've grown up.  And it's not hard to see why, since the private Christian school we attended runs all the way from preschool to postgraduate. Whereas I parted ways after twelve years to go to a secular university somewhere else, most of my class--and all of my friends--opted to rollover into what I called the 13th grade. There's a whole host of reasons why staying for college made sense for them, however, and so it's only been after graduation where location decisions were less obvious that I've been surprised. Forget going ye therefore to different nations, or even states; Greenville County is home. To a lesser extent (and yes, I am just speaking in anecdotes based on my FB friends), many of my USC acquaintances have stayed in South Carolina and (perhaps most perplexingly) in Columbia, even if they're not from the area.

What to make of all this? At first, my quick-draw explanation was to throw in some combination of status-quo bias and path dependence. Applying the status-quo bias I imagine is straightforward enough, but path dependence less so: here I'm using it to mean that the longer one stays in one place, the more geographically-bound his social network becomes, thus also binding his options to wherever he happens to be. Plainly put, people stay in a rut because there's nothing strong enough to pull them out, and the longer they stay in, the deeper the rut becomes.

As I was googling around on this topic, however, I also came across two related psychological effects which might also apply. The first is the appealingly-named propinquity effect, which says that closeness (in one way or another) matters a lot for attraction. Similarly, the exposure effect holds that "people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them." Perhaps then the status-quo bias is powerful because people like where they because that's where they are.  Ain't nothing like social science to make intuition sound complicated, is there?

How then have I managed to overcome the mighty propensities of my brethren? My city of residence has, after all, changed once every six months on average since graduating from college.  There are the Adamsian reasons, yes, but those are probably just cover for the real--but less noble and wise--motivations to signal how cool and cosmopolitan I am.  Something about this story is awry, however, because every time I move (Happy New Year!) I still feel a need to explain that I'm not cuckoo bananas.