Friday, March 14, 2008

Wrong again; wrong still

The trouble with analogies is that sometimes they sound right, but they aren't quite right--and their wrongness is not just a little wrong, but entirely wrong.

A medical virus is not 'just like bacteria'. Treating a virus like a bacteria means that you will never cure yourself of the virus.

The WDOT held a contest: they needed a slogan to explain congestion. Secretary McDonald put up a thousand dollars of his own money as a reward for the winning slogan.

(We are not here to discuss the idiotcy of a Department of Transportation thinking that they need another slogan, explaination or other literary effort to provide better transportation. A slogan never unclogged a road, an explaination never floated a ferry or move people and goods from here to there. Worse, no one complained that they should get on to the job at hand and stop bureaucratically masterbating.)

The winning explaination is to demonstrate how congestion happens by pouring sand through a funnel. If you try to pour the sand all-at-once through the funnel, it becomes clogged; but if you pour it steadily, consistently, all of the sand will pour through the funnel easily.

Fine but wrong. Maybe as far as it goes, it is a good analogy, but like all failed analogies, it crumbles when you add a bit of reality to it. Then it folds faster than a Paul Allen committment to low-income housing.

Particles of sand-singularly or collectively--are like cars only in that they represent lots of individual things; they are unlike cars in that they cannot stop. Sand does not break down, get into accidents, run out of gas or blow a tire. But cars and trucks do. And that, not their attempt to get through the narrow end of a funnel, is the largest cause of traffic congestion. Long-time readers of this blog--both of them--know this.

I was sitting here thinking of how you can repair this analogy: "Have the funnel have six side-by-side mouths...." No, then it isn't really a funnel. "Imagine a bowling alley; if the ball goes into the gutter, the next lane......" No, too stupid, even for me.

The best way to understand traffic is to listen to the traffic reports on the radio. "Traffic is moving well because there are no major accidents....." Or, "Let's get right to the biggest problem: I-90 is a parking lot headed east because of an accident that occurred near the Mercer Island end...."

No comments: