Wednesday 1 August 2012

Cause and effect: Karma and calmer

"My Aunt Dolly once put sugar in her tea, and over the next 40 years she lost all her teeth," quipped the great, late satirist and comic writer Peter Cook. Which is a wonderful lesson to us all: Cut down on sugar.
So you think today's blog is going to be all about calories?
Well I'm never that obvious, am I? So think again.
In his witty repartee, Cook had hit the nail on the head. It's all a question of Cause and Effect (oh, now I hear all the statisticians and econometrists among you jump up with excitement), which is a Karma philosophy. (Now I hear all you Buddhists jump up with excitement. Well maybe not jump. Roll over, possibly).
What it boils down to is: What causes what? If two things occur together, are they necessarily correlated? Maybe there's a third, unknown, factor which is behind it all.
Which came first indeed? The chicken or the egg, or the farmer?
In the 19th century, the great economist Ricardo faced a similar conundrum: Is the rent that farmers pay on their fields high because the price of corn is high? Or is the price of corn high because farmers are paying high rents?

Now why don't you sit back and let me tell you an old, old story.
Once upon a time, back in the 1880s, the French decided (like many before them) that it would be far quicker, easier, and therefore cheaper, if instead of sailing all round the bottom of Cape Horn to get from one part of the globe to another, one could cut right through the middle of the American continent. So they looked at the atlas, found the narrowest part of the continent, which was in… yes, well done, my blog fans… Panama, and decided to build the Panama canal. The French, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, invested money, equipment, builders, engineers and designers into the massive venture.
The project failed.
Not just failed, but tragically failed. Over 22,000 workers died in the attempt. The venture was abandoned, and it took many years until the project was taken up again, this time by the Americans (trust them to turn up late, pump in the money, and take the credit), who succeeded, and the canal opened in 1914.
So, my quiz for the day: What was the missing link? Why did so many workers die in the first attempt at forging a canal through Panama?

The answer: Mosquitoes.
In the 1880s, no one knew that mosquitoes were the transmitters of malaria and yellow fever. No one fully understood the importance of sanitation and clean drinking water. And the site of the digging in Panama was surrounded by swamps, where the mosquitoes happily lived and bred, and spread disease.
So only after this link was discovered and suitable precautions and sanitation was introduced, could the Panama canal venture triumph. The swamps were dried, mosquito nets were placed over beds, in came window screens and fumigation, and so the engineering works could plunge ahead, and the journey from one side of the globe to the other became shorter, quicker, safer and cheaper. You could say the entire world trade benefitted from an engineering feat that relied on a medical discovery.
That's Cause and Effect.

And here's another one closer to my home, and which may sound just as odd.
I would like to suggest that partly one of the reasons that property prices are so high in Israel, is because we take large curves in order to turn left at intersections.
Obvious isn't it?

You are driving straight, and you come to an intersection. When do you start turning the wheel? In England, one is taught to slow down, and only when you have come absolutely in line with the turning you want to turn into – so you're practically looking down the destination street – then you turn the wheel, sharply, by 90 degrees, make your turn, and off you go.
It means you may very well be sitting plum in the centre of a major intersection, but, hey, what's life without some scary moments?

In Israel, though, the Powers That Be - that bunch of incompetent penpushers in the Ministry of Transport, Traffic Jams, and General Misery – have decided that, like children, the Israeli driver cannot possibly be expected to exercise such judgment, and good driving skills. So the Ministry insists that any junction must provide enough turning curve, for those turning left, that wouldn't tax a 12-year old with only one hand on the steering wheel.
So instead of minimal sized intersections, like this:

We end up with much larger intersections, like this:
US Department of Transportation

Note the painted white lines to indicate the sweeping turning curve. This curve allows the driver to drive faster, think less (two reasons that make this more dangerous) and it also results in a far larger intersection. The halt line for each approaching road has to be further from the center in order to allow for this curve.
End result: larger intersections, wasted space. Take a closer look when you're passing a junction. Try and find the smallest junction and see why it can be so small. Maybe no left turns are allowed.

And if the junctions took up less space, we'd have more space for more buildings. Supply of housing could rise, and maybe…just maybe… the extortionate price of housing in Israel would drop.

Causal links are not always obvious. But I think if we encouraged drivers to slow down and turn more sharply, and carefully, on a smaller space, then maybe flats in downtown Tel Aviv would become more affordable.

And try cutting down on sugar, too.  


  1. But are Israelis treated as reckless 12-year-old drivers because that's how they drive, or do they drive as such because it's expected -- or are they just eating too much sugar and distracted by housing costs?

    1. Touche katiewr. You're absolutely right. Are they bad drivers because they're treated that way, or are they treated that way because they're bad drivers? I asked a class of Israeli engineering students that very question. Their answer was mostly 40 voices shouting out something at the same time, which in itself was an answer:)