Tap Water And Starving Kids

This has been a reoccurring sentiment for me for many years.  I haven’t exactly shared it or discussed it in-depth with any of my friends, but it’s something that’s been at the back of my mind since, well, when I started college.

It goes something like this:  Whenever I turn on the tap / faucet and let the water run a  little while longer than I needed it to, I would think “how many lives could I have saved if I saved this water and given it to someone in extreme poverty-stricken Africa, where food is scarce and water is unclean if available at all?”

Of course, I am well aware of the fact that my usage of water does not directly (not to the average eye, anyway) affect the availability of water to hungry children in Africa.  But at a more personal and moral standpoint, I can’t help but think of how lucky I am, as a person living in an advanced city, to have access to water, the most important source of sustainable life.

Note that I employ the term ‘lucky’ here to describe myself as being in a statistical outcome of not being one of the millions of people who do not have access to clean water (check out my earlier post for a focused discussion on the concept of luck).  It was by pure chance that I was  born in an advanced city.  But in a different universe, ‘I’ could have well been born in Somalia or the Nuba Mountains in Sudan.

I hear many parents, mine included, always telling their children not to take things for granted; they would tell them that not every kid gets to enjoy video games, smartphones, and ride in luxury cars.  However, not all of them would list things such as food, water, clothing, as things  their children should be thankful for, often because they themselves take those things for granted.  But for those who do try to make the children aware of their lucky access to the basics of life, many of them fall short in providing a compelling example for the kids to relate to just how lucky they are.

Admittedly, it’s not easy.  I always had a sense of how lucky I was, but the compelling (albeit a bit peculiar and bizzare) example that I experienced from observing the relationship between my usage of water and those in the world who do not have access to water was purely self-discovered.

Sadly, and perhaps strangely, my ‘luck’ realization has not prompted me into any drastic actions to help more people gain access to clean water.  It has, however, made me do the two very least things I can do: use as little water as I could at home, and frown at people who takes lots of baths and long showers.

Lucky vs. ‘Lucky’

“You’re so lucky!”  “Wow that was such blind luck.”  You hear these statements all the time, everything from (perhaps in a movie) a person narrowly escaping death by being shot and the bullet misses an artery by an inch, to the poker table, where a player has a mere 2% of hitting his winning hand and gets it.

Luck is also attributed to many mundane daily activities; people would consider themselves ‘lucky’ when it rains just as they arrive at their indoor destination after forgetting to bring an umbrella.

But how does one define ‘luck’? It seems like the term is often used and interpreted in a variety of ways, some are more instinctive while others are more mathematical.  To me, the concept of luck is generally divided into two:

1. Lucky – Good fortune as a result of chance.

2. ‘Lucky’ – The outcome of a series of deliberate, calculated decisions, that has numerous outcomes with different percentages in the chances of each happening attached to each outcome.  In this case, ‘luck’ refers to the minority outcomes.

The important thing to note here is, the two ‘lucks’ are the same, almost all the time.  But while the latter is an admittance to being faced by a minority occurrence (i.e. the opposite of “beating the odds”, or having favorable odds but not turning out the person’s way)  those who declare someone or something got ‘lucky’ in the former are usually clouded by emotions. Note that upon acknowledging the fact that a person was hit by a minority occurrence, he can still call the event ‘luck’, although he would be using it as a labeling tool for said minority occurrence.

This also speaks to the classical philosophical concept that everything is numbers, first developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras.   My take on this is slightly different: I do not liken everything – that is, literally all shapes, objects, existence, and actions – to numbers.  But I do believe that all acts can be related to in a mathematical way.  Everything is chance, even for acts which we usually do not associate chance with.  Everything, from the chances of one inserting a key directly in the lock to the accuracy of the laser in an eye surgery, is chance.

Yet, it seems like the frustrations and anger associated with the first type of luck are experienced by those who cannot or do not come to terms with the randomness of chance.  Perhaps for some it is a spur of the moment outburst of emotion, but there are many who believe in factors other than the randomness of chance that affect their ‘luck’.  Some might believe it is karma, but the majority usually possess a religious belief in divine intervention, a deity that seemingly gives them a purpose in life rather than believing that they exist because of chance.

This religious aspect of ‘luck’ shall be visited another time, during a religion-focused discussion.  Suffice to say that religion provides people with an alternative to believing that they exist solely by chance.

So, next time when you think you got ‘lucky’, give it a quick thought: was it really just ‘blind’ luck? Is it God’s work? Or were you just struck by a small percentage occurrence?

Politics Daily #18 – When Stats Become The It Thing In Politics

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In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Bill James, the Godfather behind analyzing statistics in a unique way that helped Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s achieve success in “Moneyball”, discusses the potential effectiveness of using mass data-gathering and numbers-crunching, a method famously known as ‘sabermetrics’, in politics.

The two main things that James suggests are: being nice to the opposing candidate, and; running on a platform not expected by the other side.

James argues that a candidate can take weapons away from his opponent simply by being nice to him, as the opponent would look like an ass if he chooses to attack him.  While this might be true, there has been a fairly solid record of negative attack ads working in American Presidential politics history (remember the Swift-Boat Veterans?), although perhaps there is a difference for voters between watching negative TV ads and hearing the candidates say negative things themselves.

The ability to attack a political opponent without looking like an ass is a fine art, of course, as only the best of the best, such as Bill Clinton, can do so with ease.  The article highlights the fact that Clinton was noted as not having gone after Mitt Romney.  This act of non-action precisely provides Clinton the ability to say “this guy’s (Romney) good, but my guy’s better” and campaign with class and integrity.

The second thing is more pertinent to the timing in which the method is used, and to what extent the issue resonates with voters come November.  In a sense, the method is as simple as the campaign having gone through data research and latching onto an issue and say “lets go with that.”  The one raised in the article by Jonah Keri, in getting out the Latino vote, strikes an important note on the Democratic campaign.  Getting more people to cast their ballots for the first time will always help the Democrats more than the Republicans.

Interestingly enough, as if the Obama administration had read what Bill James has to say, right after I finished reading the article on Huffpost, I received a news alert on my phone from the New York Times titled: “U.S. Will Give Immunity to Some Young Illegal Migrants.”

Check out the article detailing the news on the Huffpost here, and the New York Times here.