Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Smoke detectors, sleep deprivation, and the lost art of Cost-Benefit Analysis

Last night we were awoken, for the second time, by two chirping smoke detectors. Our best guess was that, once again, strong winds had blown pollen into our house, which our smoke detectors then interpreted as smoke particles.

I spent the half hour it took me to get back to sleep thinking about the lost art of the Cost-Benefit Analysis.

Surely a sufficiently extensive, in-depth analysis of the consequences of this latest generation of smoke detectors would have detected their downsides. Higher sensitivity, unless it's accompanied by higher specificity, yields higher false-positives. And false positives mean costs.

As I blinked and yawned my way through traffic this morning, I thought about one of them. How does the likelihood of perishing in a fire from which only an extra-sensitive smoke detector can save you compare with the likelihood of perishing in a traffic accident brought on by smoke detector-inflicted sleep disruption?

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