Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: A good year for movies

I've seen several movies this year in first-run theaters. I know, unusual, right? I've even been positively impressed. I saw Star Trek, Up!, District 9, The Hurt Locker, and Avatar.

And I'm definitely thinking that District 9 and Avatar are good science fiction movies, of the sort we haven't seen too many of lately. They were good, they were serious, and they were original. It's not really a combination we see too often, but the similarity doesn't stop there. Both films were exploring alienation, race, and loyalty, edgy topics that simply were not fashionable when Bush was president.

Both have a human plunged into the society of the aliens, experience the oppression humans place upon them first hand, turn against the human military apparatus, and become physically transformed into aliens themselves. Both films make exceptional use of aesthetics - the Prawn are revoltingly ugly, and the gritty documentary style makes the ugliness of the slum life very real. The Na'vi, on the other hand, are strikingly beautiful, and the film is visually gorgeous.

Both make intense use of historical metaphor to talk about the times in which some humans - and yes, ladies and gentlemen, white Western European industrial English-speaking humans, if we're to be specific - have decided to treat other humans as subhuman. District 9 uses apartheid. Avatar uses the american indian wars. I even noticed Colonel Quaritch, the military leader in Avatar, making what seemed like a deliberate reference to the Ghost Dance.

Now that Obama is in office, those who found it fashionable to be not only patriotic, but nationalistic and jingoistic are becoming rabidly anti-American, cheering when Chicago lost its bid for the Olympics, jeering when a sitting president is handed a Nobel prize. The Democrats haven't picked up the slack; nationalistic fervor has tapered. If The Hurt Locker had the temerity to suggest that some soldiers get hooked on the rush of putting it all on the line in Iraq back in 2004, would it have been labelled anti-American and bad for soldiers' morale?

And heaven forbid that a film show ex-US Marines as ruthless mercenaries engaging in massacring civilians. But that nationalistic fervor has faded, enough that it's no longer fashionable. Suddenly, it's fashionable to talk about race, to examine the question of social identity.

I suppose the bombing of the Home Tree plays a little more like My Lai than any of the battles of the Indian Wars we're familiar with, complete with the soldier who says they didn't sign up for this and decides they've had enough, but I don't think the Vietnam War is a much more comfortable piece of history than the systematic destruction of the american indian nations.

I've heard a few people complain that Avatar has no plot. I count several - a conflict between science and short-term ignorant greed, a romance, a unification story, a sequence of alienation, initiation, and adoption. It's not even badly written, and I didn't spot so many of the egregious hard-to-ignore physics errors so common in flashy big-budget SFX movies. Spiderman 2, I'm looking right at you. That was painful. Anyway, back on topic:

Good science fiction tries to push a little bit beyond our comfort zone. When I see some people reacting in a very visceral way to the "race traitors" of District 9 and Avatar, I see it as a sign those movies are doing something right. Aside from making half their critics look like white supremacist nutjobs, they're prodding hard enough to make some very meaningful statements and ask people questions they might not ask themselves enough.

The moral I see in both films is this. It doesn't matter if they're ten foot tall blue beauties in a neolithic tribal structure or technologically advanced tentacled bugs who get high on cat food, everybody deserves to be treated with a full measure of "human" dignity. If we don't, we are already traitors to our ideals. And that's a radical statement, because we have a devil of a time managing that with other humans.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The length of an elven lifespan

One thing that gets me in fantasy literature: Elves, and how long elves live. Usually, we see elves living incredibly long lifespans "off-screen." Since they don't age, we see elves living thousands and thousands of years. Naturally, in the course of events that happen on-stage, they die off in fairly large numbers due to unnatural causes.

Elves aren't invincible. Some kinds of elves, such as Tolkien's elves, are immune to disease. These elves only die due to violence, lethal accidents, or suicide. Our first order estimate is therefore based on the most recent statistics for that - the WHO 2002 report on mortality. We see that 83 out of every 100,000 people die traumatically violent untimely deaths, and an additional 8 out of 100,000 starve to death.

With humans, this varies with age, but since elves are unaging and unchanging beings, we'll assume the average rate holds for all elves of any age. Thus, each year, 0.091% of all elves die. This means that the elven time of death is drawn from a simple exponential distribution with parameter λ = 0.00091.

The mean of an exponential distribution is simply 1/λ, so the average elven lifespan is 1100 years. The median elven lifespan is shorter - 760 years - and about 40% of elves live past their first millenium.

But 2002 was not that violent of a year. War, genocide, and famines tend to happen in short sharp "spikes." Only 2.8 people per 100,000 died as a result of war in 2002; over the course of the 20th century, about 10 billion people drew breath. 6 billion of those lived to see the end of it, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million died in excessive spikes of "mass death" - famines and wars. That's 2,000 per 100,000 per 100 years; taking the appropriate 1/100th root, we get an average of 40 per 100,000.

If we take out today's war deaths and famine deaths and substitute an averaged value of 40 for "mass death" events, we get about 120 per 100,000. At λ = 0.0012, the average elven lifespan is 830 years, and the typical elf lives a mere 580 years. Only 30% of elves live to see out the end of their first millenium. One out of every 160,000 would live to see their tenth millenium.

Not all fantasy mythos leave elves immune to disease - and infectious disease represented 175 per 100,000 deaths in 2002. Historically, diseases have killed far more than violence and starvation, even among the healthy "young adult" population (smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, malaria, outbreaks of various plagues - these can kill at any age) - so if elves aren't immune to disease, we would probably want to see λ to become substantially larger and the elven lifespan much shorter.

In the limiting case, where we consider lethal accidents, violence, and disease terms more typical to the dark ages? Well, let's just say that two or three centuries doesn't seem like such a short time for an elf to live, after all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Context and quality

The other night, I was talking with a lovely poli sci student and wound up bringing up Jumper, which would appear to be three related things:
  1. A 1992 book I greatly enjoyed reading several times 10-15 years ago and classed as an exemplar of the writing craft (though not necessarily the writing art).
  2. A 2008 movie widely reputed to be bad.
  3. A 2007 book written to tie into the screenplay.
I have yet to experience items number 2 and 3, but I wonder: Would, today, I still enjoy item number 1? Would I enjoy it if I encountered it for the first time now? The terrorist-obsessed vigilante might seem much more heavily worn after living through 8 years of terrorism-obsessed politics; the damaged young man struggling to connect with a normal life and normal relationships might not be nearly as sympathetic a character.

And perhaps my standards for the writing craft have changed. I was impressed not with the plots or characterizations of Jumper, but by what I saw as a remarkably smooth flow of words, a mechanically well-put-together piece of fiction. I read 1-2 other books by the same author not long after, and was unimpressed with them. But today, would I apply the same standard? Do I care more or less about the craftsmanship that went into a book - and do I consider the same things good?

I suppose I should re-read it and see what I think of the book now, but re-reading a book is never the same as encountering it for the very first time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The socialized medicine we already have

The public dialog surrounding health care has become fairly frustrating to me. There's a generation gap, an information gap, a comprehension gap, and not only that, but plenty of hypocrisy and misinformation going around.

First: No, the US health care system is not the best in the world. We may have the best experts on some diseases, and very good health care, but the overall quality of care, system-wide, is no better than tenth in the world. Even Forbes magazine - hardly a bastion of socialism - puts the US at 11th healthiest. In 2000, the WHO put the US health care system as 15th best - 37th accounting for how much we spend.

No matter what anecdotes Fox News, the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages, or anybody else spout about the horrors of socialized medicine, the fact of the matter is that nearly every serious look at the data tell us that Canada, the UK, Sweden, etc have far better health care systems.

Second: The US already has government-provided health care. For 2005, the WHO calculates total government spending on health care in the US at $2,862 per capita (out of a total of $6,350 - yes, both figures have risen substantially in the last 4 years). In other words, between Medicare, Medicaid, the Veteran's Administration, and other government provided insurance and health care systems, Uncle Sam pays directly for about 45% of all health care.

I don't believe that counts the employer tax break, which as an indirect subsidy amounts to about $500 per person, and Medicare spending has grown sharply in the last four years. Government insurance programs cover directly more than a quarter of the population directly, and the subsidies affect half the population.

The result of selectively covering the poor, elderly, and disabled is one of the most expensive (and least efficient) government health care systems in the developed world. The US government, in 2005, spent more money per capita on health care than the Canadian government, the German government, the UK government, the Swedish government, and most of the other European governments you hear about when people start talking about socialized medicine and universal health care.

Iceland, Switzerland, and Denmark's governments all spent more than Uncle Sam in 2005 - in nominal terms, but in terms of purchasing power parity (everything is more expensive there), they spent less than our government. Austria pretty much matches us in PPP terms; so far as I can tell, the French and Norwegian governments alone spent more money on health care than our government did.

In fact, US government spending on health care is about the same as total health care expenditures - public and private - in the countries I usually use as examples, Japan and Sweden. (Anyone think that Japan has a recent history as a bastion of socialism?)

So if "government provided health care" is a form of socialism ... ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the United States: The world's third or fourth most socialized medicine on the planet - and the only one in the top 20 that can't manage to cover all its citizens.

Third: The generation gap. What a lot of people don't seem to understand is that employer health benefits are on the downslide. And that matters a lot more for us young folk, who are part-timers, new hires whose contracts don't have grandfathered care, entrepreneurs, subcontractors, self-employed, and generally get the short end of the stick when it comes to government subsidies and government-provided coverage.

I'm 25. Mortality and disease and high health care bills are pretty uncommon in our age bracket - but there aren't many of us who don't realize that skimping on preventative care now will cost use when we're older, or that one accident, one unusual disease will completely wipe out our pocketbooks and put us in the hole. Not only that, but we probably won't even be able to get care until later in the course of a disease or long-term condition if we aren't covered, and that means it'll get a lot worse.

And so most of us are strongly in favor of health care reform. It's not surprising; we're right there. We can see our self-interest, and we can see our taxes fueling a system that spends enormously and inefficiently on everybody else. And when I hear about all the older folks hollering and protesting at "town hall" meetings about "socialized medicine," I can't help but think: There is someone who probably benefitted from government-subsidized health care for several decades of their life, and is probably covered directly by Medicare now.

And I think to myself that they are probably more than a little bit of a hypocrite. They have socialized medicine. They're probably afraid it'll get cut if the government stretches out to pay for everybody - something I think about a lot when I look at how older folk respond to intimations of Medicare cuts. Those young people, they don't need insurance, most of them are really healthy - so many of the older generation seems to think.

And who is going to be paying for this, paying for the growing national debt, paying for any health care reform? Most of today's retirees aren't going to be paying many taxes twenty or thirty years down the road. Most of today's young people will. So when I see members of the older generation fighting health care reform tooth and nail, I look at the demographics and the statistics and I think to myself that it looks like most of the protesters are engaging in an exercise in hypocrisy.

But back to the issure of young people needing coverage. Here we come to the comprehension gap. Because when it comes to having health care, it's do or die. And so when it comes to insurance, you need coverage that will handle a major emergency, which in a market where the government is paying for most of everybody else's ticket, in a market where you can't shop around between more than a handful of providers, in a market where bloated middlemen work hard to make their share larger, in a market with an enormous information gap, means that you're completely fucked if you're a little fish on your own shopping for coverage.

I happen to have gotten lucky in that my graduate school actually provides health coverage as part of my funding package, and it might even be adequate coverage in the event of a major medical emergency. I don't know yet. There's always a lot of fine print, and I haven't spent several weeks reviewing it - not that I could afford to buy adequate coverage on my graduate stipend. I don't exactly have a choice there.





So. That turned out to be a longer rant than I expected, and there's so much more I could talk about, but I'll leave you with the summary and the recap. First, other countries do actually have better health care systems. Second, the US government is already spending enough to provide universal coverage and better coverage. Third, your experience and understanding of this country's health care is going to vary radically based on age and socioeconomic background.

At the risk of sounding like a teenager, many of you making loud objections really just don't understand. The holes in the system are a lot more visible to those of us living in them, and to those who trip over and fall in one.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A secession scenario, part III

The past two installments of this series have been discussing a hypothetical Republican-led anti-Obama secession movement and what things would look like if about one third of the states seceded. Today, I'd like to spend just one moment turning the map inside-out.

When I constructed the ASA, I started off by taking every state that has a Republican legislature, a Republican governor, and voted against Obama. I.e., we didn't include Florida, because Florida voted for Obama. I then added the two states Obama did worst in (Wyoming and Oklahoma) despite their Democratic governors, and threw in Montana because they have been surrounded. Now let's do the opposite, for fairness' sake - what's the Democrat-ruled Obama Nation look like?

OK, so let's take the states that voted for Obama and have wholly Democratic state governments - so not including Arkansas and West Virginia, Democrat-run states which voted against Obama. Now add Hawaii and Vermont because Obama did best in those two states (in spite of their Republican governors). Connecticut and Rhode Island we now add for geographic reasons.

Unlike the ASA, we can't connect all the Democratic states of America using only four states - but there is one state that Obama polled over 60% in that we haven't included, and it's a big enough state to make an entire "disputed region" all by itself: California. So here's our map, for completeness.

The highlighted states (blue) have a population of 98 million and a GDP of $4.9 trillion ($50,200 per capita). You can see how much less geographically contiguous this group is - scattered across the country in five different pieces. And I think that highlights the point perfectly.

Now, if the ASA's GDP per capita was barely below the US average, and these Democratic states average well above the US average, that tells us something really odd that I don't think I've heard before. The most bipartisan states in the union, as a group, number in their group most of the poorest states. Maybe it's a historical anomaly that the states whose local governments and presidential preferences are split are poorer than those who are entirely red or blue in 2008; maybe it actually means something.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cuba: A look into the perils of communist health care

Whenever I hear people discussing the perils of socialized medicine, I think of three countries immediately. Japan, Sweden, and Cuba. Japan and Sweden I immediately think of because these are two of the indisputably healthiest countries.

Sweden has universal almost-free health coverage, where the state pays for about 98% of all costs; in Japan, health coverage is mandatory and either supplied through an employer, with the government providing coverage for students, elderly, farmers, and the self-employed. We could consider Japan the exemplar for the private model and Sweden the exemplar for the public model; in either case, the far less healthy United States is getting far less bang for its health care bucks than either.

However, I think of Cuba because Cuba is actually identified as communist. Nobody is going to dispute that Cuba is communist - nor will anybody mistake Cuba for a rich country. The CIA World Factbook estimates that Cuba's GDP per capita, by purchasing power parity, is only $9500, barely more in total than what we spend per capita on health care.

Cuba spends even less - the WHO estimates 7.6% of its GDP - and due to Cuba's particular economic and trade relations situations, Cuba is short on many modern medical supplies, and this is reflected in the number of Cubans dying from causes we consider easily preventable.

Here's where the Cuban system falls short. Maternal mortality - perhaps noncoincidentally, this ratio is matched by the rise in the number of c-sections performed. Tuberculosis - detection, treatment, and prevention. Child deaths due to diarhorreal disease or pneumonia - which would be especially easily solved with a little more money for drugs and sanitation infrastructure.

Cuba also has noticably - albeit not as dramatically - higher deaths due to cardiovascular problems, something that may be linked to Cuba's substantially higher tobacco use rather than a specific deficiency in care, but that pretty much covers all of it.

Life expectancy in Cuba is quite similar to the US. Infant, child, and adult mortality are overall lower. And what does it say about us that we spend twenty times as much on health care (ref) and yet get so little, as a population, out of our health care system? How much would it cost us to match Cuba's infant and child mortality rates?

I am sure there are many specific procedures that are simply not available in a poor country like Cuba - but how can a rich country like the United States fail so badly with basic care that all the advanced procedures in the world barely let us catch up to our poorer neighbor on the demographic level?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The oddity of the informed middleman

On a certain level, salespeople tend to bother me a little. Not so much personally - although one of the people at my undergraduate alma mater I found the most reasons to personally dislike ended up working as a car salesman for a little while - as in terms of the general concept of the role. The line between salesperson and scam artist can be very slim, and it's difficult to see, sometimes, just what they add.

There are two elements that combine to make salespeople hazardous. One is working on commission; the other is informational imbalance. If you work in sales, you probably are paid on commission, even if you work as a middleman between two parties (as, say, real estate agents do) rather than working directly for some manufacturer.

I can think of several scams that involve trying to hook lots of amateur sales-interested folk by requiring them to buy expensive samples or the merchandise they will sell, and then doling out a narrow commission. I say "scam" because some of these operations make their real money selling sample kits to would-be salespersons rather than moving merchandise through those salespersons. The commission is a powerful motivating tool.

Now, when combined with the information gap, a salesperson on the ground has every reason to outright lie to uninformed customers if it will get them to purchase something marginally more expensive, to incrementally stretch bit by bit their intended budget, and since little of it is written down, there's often little recourse for a consumer who has been deceived with a personal sales pitch.

I've been lied to by sales folk more than once myself. And by and large, the consumer is in something of a bind: They need an expert on computers, cell phones, etc that they can talk to, who will explain all the features they don't quite understand - but while the salesperson is such an expert, and a remarkably easy to find one, there's every reason not to trust them.

Oddly, my experience is that when there's no commission in play and a generous returns policy, employees working for a wage are perfectly willing to dish out honestly about which products do what and what you probably need for what you want to do. Remember all the jokes about used car dealers? The grain of truth in them is why I so tend to distrust salespeople. It's nothing personal, salesfolk; it's simply that I'm pretty sure your interests and my interests are as close to orthogonal as they could be given that we're talking about the same kind of product.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A secession scenario, part II

Continuing from where we left off last time, we divided the USA up based on a hypothetical Republican-led, anti-Obama secession movement, and then looked at the composition of the ASA (the "anti-socialist" seceded states) and RSA (remaining states). Today, in the second part of the series, I'd like for us to explore what the major obstacles to a secession movement would be in a number of these states and regions.

The Old South

There are a few common problems in this region that present an obstacle to secession attempts, one being that a Republican-led secession movement would probably struggle in Democratic state legislatures in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. A powerful reason across the entire region is that 29% of the population of this region is black. Percentages range from 37% in Mississippi to 26% in Alabama, and while you can find a number of Southern whites who will say that states' rights and secession are things that have nothing to do with race, you would be hard-pressed to find Southern blacks willing to agree. And that's with secession in general; an anti-Obama secession movement would inflame racial tensions to heights not seen since the 1970s even if it failed. In the event any of these states were to secede from the rest of the US, I would expect to see things get very ugly in a hurry for the reasons of race and history.

Georgia

Georgia is the largest and most prosperous state in this region. However, while Georgia's state government is firmly in Republican hands, Georgia is also the state in this region that gave Obama the highest percentage of the vote - a full 47%, his third-smallest percentage loss in the country behind Montana and Missouri. This would present a major obstacle to any secession movement in Georgia; Obama simply doesn't have the net negatives in Georgia that he does in the rest of the South. Georgia has also spent the most effort reinventing itself as part of a new South; Atlanta, as the center of the "New South," would represent a powerful center of opposition to secession.

South Carolina

South Carolina is one of the two states in this region whose state governments are controlled by Republicans. South Carolina also is the state with the longest history of secession threats, and did so in December 1860, before any other state in the Confederacy. It was also the site of what is widely regarded as the first battle of the Civil War (Fort Sumter) and for these powerful historical reasons, a secession movement starting in South Carolina cannot avoid being compared to the Civil War. Also, two practical points to consider: If Georgia does not secede, South Carolina would be surrounded; and South Carolina's economy relies heavily on the tourism industry, something that is likely to take a sharp nosedive even in a peaceful secession.

Mormon Triad

Three of the most heavily Republican states, with three of the four lowest Obama vote percentages, are also the three with the highest percentages of Mormons in their population, which helps me come up with a handy name that doesn't sound like it should include Colorado and Montana. Utah is much more Mormon than Idaho, which is much more Mormon than Wyoming; the three of them combined are close to half Mormon, with around 2.3 million LDC members out of a combined population of 4.8 million. However, the name is much more than that; it's a reminder of how influential the CLDS is within the Republican party, especially in Idaho and Utah. If there are any three states in which the opinion of Church elders will matter, it will be these three states.

An interesting historical fact: During the civil war, an assembly of the Mormon church sent a petition to Congress to join the United States. I know very little about the inner workings of the current CLDS, but I expect secession to be controversial enough that it will matter what is being said within the CLDS, and I do not expect these three states to secede on their own account - if and only if Republicans across the nation are clamoring for secession. However, in these states, and in the Plains states (the column running down from North Dakota to Oklahoma), we don't expect white-black racial tensions and the history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Act to be as important.

Montana

Montana, I should note, is something of a special case that I tossed in on the secession side without a very detailed explanation. Montana is increasingly Democratic, and McCain edged out Obama in Montana by barely more than 2% of the vote. I included Montana for two reasons, and two reasons only. The first is that increasingly Democratic or not, Montana has a powerful libertarian tradition and a lot of very independent-minded folk, and the justification of this scenario was that the country would split over health care. The second is that if the Mormon Triad and the Northern Plains states (Nebraska and the Dakotas) all secede, then Montana will be completely surrounded by seceded states, at which point secession would start to sound a lot more reasonable.

We can expect, however, that Montana would be likely to secede only in the event those six other states all seceding - and it is not guaranteed even then.

Texas

Texas is an interesting state, even more so within this collection, because we actually have seen polls run gauging the popularity of secession in Texas. We've seen polls run for two reasons: One, the governor was talking about. Two, Texas probably is the most likely state to secede. It's a large state with a significant population, a large economy, lots of natural resources, and an unusually strong identity. Texans identify as Texan. The forum post inspiring this exploration assumed Texas would lead any secession movement - and even so, polls have suggested that secession struggles to reach majority support among Texas Republicans, and is unpopular within the general population.

So when we talk about Texas... we cannot help but see how unlikely any secession scenario is in the near future. It makes for some fun stories to talk about, and perhaps by closely watching the continuing saga of Governor Perry, we might see what it would take to have another period of secession from the Union.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Nonlinear history

A long time ago, I got into writing online quizzes. My masterpiece was a monster on the topic of how history gets revised for popular consumption. It's been a long time since I updated it, or checked to see if it was still working, but one of the key themes I noted in putting it together is this:

History is very nonlinear. It's not only nonlinear - different things change at different rates - but in every dimension it is non-monotone. Technology does not always move forward. New farming techniques are not always better. Sexuality has not steadily become more relaxed over time, but instead, has cycled through different eras of prudishness, puritanism, and permissiveness.

The Victorian era is a prime example. It was probably the height of sexual repression (as we commonly consider the term) in England - but while the stiff standards of "proper" female behavior marched forward, that does not mean the pre-Victorian era was even more prudish. In fact, the 17th century was a very earthy century in England, as we know from Shakespeare.

Another prime example that is especially worth noting is the Antikythera device - a mechanical computer dating back to around 150 BCE, which in sophistication, rivals the mechanical computing machines of the early 19th century. It would take almost 2000 years until western Europe recovered the sophistication of the Greek clockwork devices.

And then the mind just boggles. On some level, when I was young, I absorbed the lesson that history was a kind of progress. You always moved forward. And then, slowly, I absorbed a different lesson: History is nonlinear. Dramatically so, not just in the eyes of wild-eyed fans of ancient alien visits, or apocalyptic doom-bringers, but in the cold eyes of rational respectable historians.

Forces for progress exist, but as is normal in nonlinear dynamics, they are very difficult to model, and there are areas where they behave oddly, local anomalies, and oscillatory behavior.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Snap judgment

One of the most difficult things in the world to do, for me, is withholding judgment. It's something I have to constantly work at, to train myself in, and for a scientist or a mathematician looking to discover the untested truth of propositions, one of the most important.

The moment I look at a proposed theorem, or a math problem, or read the description of a court case, I want to be able to say "Well, obviously, it's this." I want to know that man is definitely guilty, I want to know that the proposition holds for all x>3, I want to be able to tell immediately if a fuel is a thermodynamically viable carbon-neutral energy vessel. I'm impatient like that, and growing up with the ability to answer nearly any of the "math" problems posed to me within seconds probably didn't help.

I mean, I sped my way through the SAT, taking less than half the time allotted on each section, just because I wanted to say I knew answers immediately, to make snap judgments. It didn't matter that it was important for college admissions, and it probably didn't help that the one time I actually went back and made myself check my answers, telling myself the test score was important, I got a 1480 that was almost exactly the same 1480 I'd gotten the previous year (740/740 vs 760/720).

But the thing is, I also hate being wrong . I just have to be right, and being wrong would be even worse than having to wait for the answer. So I learned - slowly and painfully - to withhold judgment. The study of philosophy has been very helpful for me in developing that patience, and I've withheld judgment about many things that few people hesitate to fix in their mind. I'm comfortable with being an agnostic; I push myself to try foods that I was sure I disliked; I understand how to take a hypothetical position and work up a whole tree of contingent conclusions while keeping my assumptions in clear sight.

It's not what I really wanted - to know the answer now - but if I can only either be sure I'm right, or have my answer now, I'd rather be sure.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A secession scenario, part I

Today, a poster on NationStates posed the following hypothetical: Suppose Texas and a majority of "red states" threaten to secede from the Union in response to Obama and the Democrats nationalizing health care. What would you do? Well, I thought it was an interesting question.

My first thought, naturally, is to explore the scenario a little more carefully to determine what states are involved. An anti-Obama secession movement will be almost strictly Republican; thus, we should start with those states whose state governments are entirely Republican controlled. There are eleven of these. I'll subtract Florida - since Obama won Florida's electoral votes - and add the overwhelmingly Republican Oklahoma and Wyoming, which have Democratic governors but posted the lowest percentages for Obama. Finally, I'll throw Montana in, since they just got surrounded, to make 13.

In red, we have the Anti-Socialist States of America (henceforth the ASA) and the Remaining States of America (henceforth RSA) are in blue.

After looking at the map and thinking about it, I'll introduce a group of "border states." Kansas: It's been a long time since "bleeding Kansas," but it's in something of a strategic spot. Politically, it's similar to Wyoming and Oklahoma in having a strongly Republican state legislature and a Democratic governor; it's also a state in which Obama enjoys surprisingly high approval ratings, considering he lost it in the fall.

Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi in the Deep South are also strategically positioned, and an area in which Obama polls low numbers. However, they are also states with significant black populations that their Democratic state legislatures rely on heavily. These four states are possible candidates for a second wave of harder-fought secessions in this scenario, but also states in which secession would be more politically difficult. These are battleground states in this sort of scenario, and are keys to either the RSA or ASA having a more contiguous territory.

And that's the first thing we really notice about this map, as opposed to a map of the Union-Confederate divide in the Civil War: The CSA (grey) and the Union (blue) were both contiguous territories, and the disputed states/territories whose membership is less clear are all on the border. Our hypothetical ASA and RSA divide the continental US into five separated chunks - three ASA chunks and two RSA chunks on my first map, or one contiguous continental ASA dividing the RSA into four pieces with the "second wave" states.

I think that's a very important lesson to draw: Our political interests, as a nation, are not as sharply divided regionally as they used to be. We've seen some electoral maps that seem to show sharp regional divisions, but the interior of this country is not exactly politically uniform. The situations from state to state, right at this moment, defy an easy division of the country into a Republican region and a Democratic region.

Let's look for a minute at the characteristics of the two freshly-divided nations. We're assuming that this is somehow an amicable parting of ways.

First, the RSA is staggeringly Democratic, and the ASA staggeringly Republican. The Senate keeps at least 52 Democrats and loses at least 19 Republicans, for example. On the federal level, both have a clear supermajority in one party - which means that we should expect major political shifts, possibly the rise of new (or newly prominent) political parties.

Second, the two hold about the same land area (between Australia and India. with one 6th and one 7th place in the world, depending on who gets the border states), but the RSA has most of the people:

RSA: 235 million, 4.1M km^2 land
ASA: 58 million people, 4.5M km^2 land
Border states: 15 million people, 600K km^2 land

Neither one is exceptionally richer than the other; the "border" states are a bit poorer than the rest of the country, on average. The RSA remains the world's largest economy, while the ASA goes somewhere in the area of 5th-7th place, depending on the details of how we measure things and whether or not it gets the border states:

RSA: 2008 GDP $10.8 trillion, $45,000 per capita
ASA: 2008 GDP $2.6 trillion, $44,000 per capita
Border states: 2008 GDP $590 billion, $39,000 per capita

So the ASA would be about the population and wealth of one of the major European countries - somewhere in the range between Italy and Germany. We wouldn't expect anything much larger than the ASA plus border states to secede even in a political atmosphere favorable to secession.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The wealth of nations

As of 2008, three of the major GDP estimations agree on the list of the ten richest nations on Earth. First is the US, then, with close to the US GDP between the three of them, Japan, China, and Germany; the lists then all proceed with France, Italy, and the UK (in that order). The final three, which the different lists rank differently, are Brazil, Spain, and Russia.

In a moment of curiosity, I decided to plot these with respect to population... land area... there's not really anything in common with the list. It gets worse when we go a few more places down, which pulls in India and Mexico.

The only thing that's really clear on these lists is that the wealth of nations is still fairly concentrated. The 800 million people in the EU and US control half the world's economy; the 2.5 billion people in China and India control a tenth of it. Mostly that's China speaking, there, India is part of the 2.8 billion population unit that only accounts for 5% of global GDP.

India. The Tiger. The rapidly developing, technologically savvy country. Rapidly growing economy or not, a rising reputation for churning out talented engineers and programmers or not, they're still quite poor in terms of cash dollars.

When I think of all the things I bought, there's very little in terms of durable goods that came from the US or EU; some fencing equipment, some odds and ends, some books - and when I read the 538 post near the end of June (see link above) talking about how to take out about 40% of the world's population for the small price of 5% of the world's GDP, I have to wonder if we aren't undervaluing the contribution these countries make to the global economy when we choose to rely on GDP as a measure of it.

I also have to wonder if it's a question of the value of their labor being truly different, or if it's really more of a product of how money moves. Or doesn't move, as the case may be. Some evidence suggests that the supply and demand for money - and therefore, currency exchange rates - are a large piece of the picture, for when we look at GDP(PPP) figures - measuring local purchasing power - the EU misplaces about three trillion dollars and China picks up a similar amount, rocketing past Japan.

India shoots up from 12th (1.2$T) to 4th (3.2$T). The local goods and services available in India would be worth about three times as much on the European market as Indians actually buy/sell them for. It's amazing, and more than a little bit disturbing, to think that the difference in the value of money is so terribly significant.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More than science; less than science; against the science

One of the phrases I've heard used in praise of Barack Obama is evidence based policy. Nestled in that tiny phrase are so many different ideas that it's difficult to get a handle on what it means. I think the reason I hear it so much now is that Bush's policies were sometimes in outright denial of the evidence.

The core idea is that science tells us many things about how things work. Macroeconomics, as a field, seems to be a core attempt to measure the effect of policy. The lack of respect economists enjoy among other scientists should be a warning sign: The point of basing policy on evidence is to let scientists dictate to politicians about what they should be trying to do, but of how they should be trying to do it.

My perception of economists is that they too often confuse the matter. More often than not, it seems to me (as in the case of the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, who seems a parody of everything irritating about economists) that economists focus on the accumulation of aggregate wealth, which leads them to endorse policies that are unpopular for reasons that have nothing to do with the wealth of nations.

The role of climate science with respect to the issue of global warming isn't, therefore, to say "Stop! No! Bad!" as much as "If you don't cut carbon emissions sharply, the following things will happen." Having a rational evidence-based debate on policy means weighing the very clear alternatives: Short term higher economic growth against serious ecological impacts and major long-term economic problems, especially for coastal and tropical areas.

When the alternatives are that dramatic, it suddenly behooves the opposition to deny the facts. Abstinence-only "education" leads to higher pregnancy rates; that's a fact. Is it one that supporters of abstinence-only education believe? I doubt it. President Bush seemed to think that reducing teen pregnancy rates and STD infection rates was a desirable social goal, and I have little doubt that the vast majority of voters and politicians agree.

And so, while it is not the job of the economist to say whether full employment is a more valuable goal than 8% annual GDP growth, or whether execution is more or less morally justifiable than the death penalty, neither is it the job of the politician to determine if execution is an effective deterrant, or if girls perform better in mathematics in gender-segregated environments.

One of the things I terribly dislike about this nation is that there are certain facts we are simply not supposed to speak of, certain facts that are too sensitive for politicians to speak aloud in public. There is no such thing as clean coal, not in the here and now, for every kilo of coal burned adds a kilo of carbon to the atmosphere, and the ability to bury that carbon dioxide is well beyond practical.

It's even worse than burning oil, for every kilo of long-chain hydrocarbon burned adds only 0.86 kilos of carbon to the air, every kilo of methane a mere 0.75 kilos. For reference, methane puts out half again as much energy per kilogram, slightly more than doubling the ratio of energy output to carbon output.

For the purpose of the carbon load on the atmosphere, or indeed for the purpose of limiting pollution output, coal is the worst possible fuel in the world to burn. Barack Obama wouldn't say it; Hillary Clinton wouldn't say it; John McCain wouldn't say it. But that's a fact; it's a fact that is as hard and cold as the fact that the polar ice cap will disappear if we keep burning all that coal.

The next time I see a television playing or blog rolling or columnist writing that they don't want to reduce emissions, I want to see them say "because I don't give a **** about the polar bears or Micronesia or the oceans turning to acid, I want to have prosperity in the now while I'm still alive and consuming." I don't want to see them say "because global warming isn't proven," because by golly, that's something that climate scientists are pretty sure about. And they know a lot more than you do, op-ed guy...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fascism

It might surprise some of you that I run into both supporters of fascism and people who terribly misunderstand fascism historically on a very regular basis. I see at least one or the other almost weekly; certainly almost every month for the past half decade.

You might say that it's simply because of Godwin's Law: Any vociferous argument over the internet will inevitably wind up with comparing people to Nazis. I don't really believe in Godwin's Law, but for a common touchstone, fascism certainly is poorly understood, and since fascists are almost shorthand for evil, well, it's easy to see the motives for the poorly stretched analogis to Godwin's Law.

And it's not limited to casual discussion on the internet. The political right has been working hard to cast Hitler as part and parcel of the political left, an exercise that reached new heights with Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism, and something truly remarkable to historians who recall that the architects of fascism explicitly identified liberals as a problem. The conflation of "socialist" with "national socialist" is one I have seen all too many times.

It's with good reason that historians put fascism on the right side of the political spectrum, but it would also be naive to confuse the modern political right with fascism. Modern fascists and - if you are one of those few who draws a distincition - neonazis almost always align themselves within the political right wing (e.g., David Duke), although the mainstream of the political right generally disowns their support. Historically, fascists drew their support from business elites, corporate interests, and traditionalists, core groups for conservative movements now.

There are common elements, such as the invocation of nationalist sentiment, militarism, leaning heavily on traditional family values, and getting "outsider" ethnic groups to conform to an identified traditional norm or leave; there are also critical differences, such as theoretical economic policy.

Right wing ideologues will at least claim to support the free market - fascism, however, was nearly as opposed to lassez faire economics as it was to socialism. Proponents described it as a "third way," neither communist nor free-market. To understand fascism - and I only suspect that I do - it is necessary to understand that fascism is all about the good of the nation. In the Nazi model, we insert the good of the race as a template over the good of the nation, but in both cases, it is about competition and strength. Social Darwinism is probably the most compelling ideological inspiration for fascism; and at its core, fascism is not particularly peaceful.

When conflict can serve to strengthen a nation, weeding out weaker elements within the nation and weaker nations within the world, conflict becomes desirable.

But everybody already knows what fascists are. Fascists are people who do and believe something different from you politically, who you think are forcing the wrong thing upon you... right? Leave alone this nonsense about "historical reality," you know what you want to believe!

Friday, July 17, 2009

In a perfect world, there is no war

When I picture a perfect world, I see a world at peace. I see a world in which there is no need for guns or tanks, in which the only rockets fired are toys, fireworks, or part of a space program. And my perfect world is one that many agree on.

Perhaps a few disagree; Vikings that looked forward to Ragnarok at the end of Valhalla (and any other religious groups looking forward to some final battle), would-be Klingons, feudalistic or retroactive types looking to the glory of martial combat, and the occasional fascist. I'm not being hyperbolic in mentioning fascists, by the way; we do still have people who lean towards that ideology, and fascism drew inspiration from social Darwinism, concluding that the conflict between nations is a good thing. I suppose I'll want to talk about fascism in detail later.

However, with those few exceptions - and I think they are small exceptions - I think most of us can agree that world peace would be a nice thing.

There remains, however, no small amount of ideological division on why a perfect world is a peaceful one. A Quaker might say that war itself is immoral; a more hawkish individual might say that there is no war because in a perfect world, nobody would do something that would provoke a war.

It is extraordinarily difficult to see war as anything other than an act that creates and unleashes evil. It is also extraordinarily difficult to see an immediately effective alternative to greater evils, such as mass exterminations. Some speak of the usefulness of war, and I will complain about their moral corruption, but it is one of the tests I have seen applied: Would this war serve our interests?

I am sympathetic to the view of genuine pacifists, but it is not a stand I am strong enough to embrace. The test I prefer is this: Is the wrong done by waging war greater or less than the wrong it would prevent? And from that point of view, many wars are difficult to justify. I feel that many wars are not necessary wars, the cost in blood too high for too little prevention; however, I would rather damn myself through action to benefit others and prevent them from being done much greater wrong.

But oh, what a wonderful world it could be in which we could all get along.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bows and guns

A little military history and a little lesson about technology.

Guns and cannons replaced bows and catapults in Europe and Asia beginning in the 13th century, and ending in the 16th century; that is to say, by the time the 16th century ended, the bow as a military instrument was considered largely obsolete.

Why? It's easy to see how artillery was replaced; it was much easier to throw massive objects with chemical, rather than mechanical, energy; cannon were far superior for reducing fortifications and smashing through human bodies, from the very start.

The mission of a musket is different. It's to kill some particular person. Military guns of the 16th century are smoothbore weapons, muskets and arquebuses; they're terribly inaccurate compared to bows. With much lower rates of fire, and in this era much less reliability, the gun was a more dangerous weapon to use. Backfires and accidents with slowmatches were quite common. The Mongolian horse archer of the 13th century would probably have been able to handily trounce a pistolier from the 16th century - probably, individually, deadlier than any of the types of soldiers fielded across Europe in the 16th or 17th centuries.

The typical Mongolian bow, with close to a 160 pound pull, fired an arrow with around 160 joules of kinetic energy (ref); for reference, tests playing a ~80 joule arrow at point blank against 15th century armor show it to be capable of just barely piercing period armor. There exists a raging debate over how effective the less powerful (100 pound typical pull) English longbow was against the very best plate armor, developed after the famous Battle of Agincourt.

Expert opinions range from "only at point-blank on a good direct hit" to "any shot within the effective range of the longbow that lands squarely," but the Mongolian bow is more powerful; accurate to about 80 meters in the field, the range at which large, round, and comparatively soft musket balls with a higher muzzle energy (but poorer ballistics and a larger surface area) could threaten plate, it can be expected to pierce plate armor with nearly every square hit at that range.

The fact that it could deliver 3-6 hits in the time that it took a musketeer to reload just about makes up for the fact that only a square hit would pierce; the gross inaccuracy of the musketeer means the Mongolian bow is almost certainly deadlier than the musket even against targets with good armor.

And good armor was not that common. I sometimes go as far as to suspect that a tumen of Chinggis's finest could quite possibly defeat a like number of 17th century German mercenaries in the field. So why, if the archer was better at killing more people in a hurry than the musketeer and the best bow of the 13th century was in many ways better than the best guns of the 16th, did the musket replace the bow so quickly?

The answer is complex. One factor is that when two armies face each other, accuracy is no longer as important; a poorly aimed musket ball or arrow is deadly no matter who it hits, and it will hit someone. Another factor is logistics: Musket balls and powder are easier to carry, and are easier to manufacture in large quantity. A third is training: A 16th century musketeer required no more than a few weeks to familiarize himself with his weapon to use it as accurately as anyone else could, while the deadly longbowmen of England's 15th century armies, and the deadlier horse archers of Mongolia's 13th century armies, required years of specialized athletic training.

And because of that, the bow was prohibitively expensive to use in armies, compared to the gun. Some would still use it to great effect once in a while, but it never regained ground as a battlefield weapon. In time, the greater kinetic energy of the gun was coupled with better ballistics, armor-piercing ammunition, rates of fire, and great advances in accuracy, outclassing the bow on all fronts; but to replace the bow as a weapon of war, it needed only more convenient ammunition and greater ease of use. Even allowing that a 15th century English longbowman, firing ten arrows a minute, was deadlier than the musketeer replacing him against all but the most heavily armored men, he was many times more expensive, and harder to replace.

And so the bow was replaced by the gun, in the far east and in the west. Here's where I generalize today's lesson on technology: The better technology is not always superior in all regards. It's even possible to go backwards in some respects - and yet still render the old technology "obsolete" quite authoritatively.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The striking partisanship of scientists

Something that is sometimes difficult to grasp from outside the academic world is how strikingly political - and partisan - scientists have become in the last decade. The shift is, I think, something that was brewing for some time, and we can argue the causes endlessly, but the fact is, scientists are liberal and sharply Democratic rather than Republican. It is difficult to think of any identifiable professional, ethnic, or social group that is quite as partisan.

Yes, that's a recent Pew survey that has scientists identifying as D over R by +49 points as oppose to the general public's mere D+12 lean. I personally think the most striking cause was the Bush administrations' "War on Science," a phrase that has gained currency not only with Democratic activists but working scientists frustrated with what they see as one political party's attempt to bury inconvenient scientific facts and obstruct unwanted research.

However, the religious tone of the Republican party from Reagan onward has probably been pushing scientists slowly away from the Republican party for longer. Scientists have in recent generations counted in their number a higher proportion of agnostics and atheists than the general population, and a smaller number of religious fundamentalists.

Another key point to consider is what you consider valuable. Getting a doctorate is generally not an economically sound proposition; the time it takes to finish and get into a tenure-track position has been steadily sliding upward. The increased cost in time and money spent getting the Ph. D. put you behind the curve on pay raises and deeper in debt. Fiscal conservatism has focused intently on the bottom line, lauding the businessman and executive; social conservatism has focused on family life, and the prospect of spending ten years in university is a daunting one if you want to start a family in a timely fashion.

There's another very specific one. Perhaps the largest and most vivid scientific policy question is that of global warming, and for whatever reason, the Republican party managed to align itself wholly in the position of denying what rapidly became established scientific fact.

And perhaps the D+49 (55 to 6) percent party ID gap in scientists has just a little to do with the fact that Obama himself can be described as an academic, but I think the persistent anti-intellectual rhetoric of the Republican party throughout the Bush administration had more to do with it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What else did I learn about chemistry?

Yesterday, I talked about all the various ways in which baking soda has endeared itself to me.

Today, I'd like to ramble on a little more about a related topic, the things I've learned in chemistry class, which are not entirely the same thing. I didn't take any chemistry courses in college; I did, however, two years of chemistry in high school, and got a 5 on my AP Chem test, so perhaps I learned about basic chemistry in class.

The AP chem test turned out to be the most valuable AP test I took (out of four), since it gave me a whole eight credit hours, a sequence that was actually on the checksheet for my physics major at some point. AP Physics wouldn't have done as much for me, ironically.

The man who taught both of my high school chem classes, was just an incredible teacher - maybe not the most organized-seeming person, and he would ramble and get side-tracked once in a while, but his stories would drive home valuable lessons. Not only did his lessons send me through the AP test, but years later, I took the physics GRE and knocked out a 770.

I hadn't taken any formal coursework in thermodynamics when I took the test, which made it tricky, as that was one of the topics it covered; however, I was surprised at how many thermodynamics questions I could answer based on things my chemistry teacher had taught me back in high school. I still remember many of the lessons I learned in class; one of the odder ones is to always taste test, and that a little bit of lime flavor goes a long way. He had us making ice cream for a lab once.

Another lesson that was reinforced in my first chemistry class - perhaps not the best lesson to take to heart in high school - was that the less work you seem to do to get a given test grade, the more it impresses people with your intelligence when it's a high grade. I shared my 10th grade chemistry class with a much more studious girl named Jennie, and she expressed amazement that I kept acing quiz after quiz in that class. I sat in the back corner, where the distracted talkative kids were.

The guy in front of me was facing a failing grade long before he got the crap kicked out of him by some rough characters in the parking lot across from the school one lunchtime and wound up in the hospital; I probably had three of the four lowest grades in that class sitting nearest to me. But even if I seemed terribly distracted, had a habit of not doing homework and turning lab reports in late if ever - things that Jennie had apparently noticed - I tended to pay attention to what my teacher was actually saying, because it was so interesting.

Later, I looked back on Jennie telling me that she was amazed that I could keep doing so well in the class without doing work, and I see one of the moments where I was closest to consciously realizing that more than anything else, I was making a conspicuous display out of laziness throughout high school in order to score some kind of points with my peers. Now that I've seen that sort of attitude from the other side of the classroom, I strongly suspect some of my teachers in high school felt frustrated with me.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Baking soda: The duct tape of household chemicals

I've been using that description for baking soda for longer than I should admit. Perhaps I'm being irrationally biased; clearly, I can live without baking soda, and often do. Gone at the days when I have a roll of duct tape always on hand, and equally gone are the days that I always had a box of baking soda on hand.

But it is useful stuff. In chemistry class, my chemistry teacher taught us that if there was a spill of something, it probably wouldn't hurt to throw baking soda on it. Water to dilute, baking soda to neutralize - because baking soda is a natural buffer. Mix with an acid, and the bicarbonate ion fizzes, neutralizing mole for mole; mix with a base, and the bicarbonate will react to produce carbonate, which will tend to bind to positive ions and precipitate out of solution.

So it's a nice "safe" chemical. Nontoxic and neutralizes a wide range of acids and bases. Its pH buffering effect is appreciated by pool operators the world over - and it also helps keep swimming pools crystal clear. See a container of "pool clarifier" on the shelf? Check the label. Odds are it's sodium bicarbonate - baking soda - even if it's priced much higher.

But there's more! What with reacting to lots of things and dissolving well, it's actually the sort of chemical that you can use to scrub things clean, from bathroom floors to your teeth. Of course, there are better things to use for each of those, more specialized chemicals; when we're talking about keeping everything neat and clean, baking soda's deoderizing effect is where it really shines. Trash cans, refrigerators, teenagers - everything smells less when you apply baking soda to it.

Speaking of applying baking soda to people, you can use it topically in a paste to alleviate itchy irritated spots. This is one use you may actually see on the side of a box sometime; working at camp, I would use it to help sooth away mosquito bites. And since I've gotten to the topic of biting and eating, there's something more pleasant than mosquitos eating people: People eating baked goods. Let us not forget why it's called baking soda; it's useful for that, too, making things that much more edible.

Such a useful chemical; such a simple chemical, too, and like duct tape, you can just keep going on about all the uses.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fanon and Iran

The fact that protests are continuing in Iran leads me to several conclusions.

One, my initial guess as to what would happen has proved fairly correct, and my hopes disappointed. Those in power have clamped down, rather than reaching out, conducting a runoff election, and settling the matter with Mousavi, who is no radical; instead, it looks just a little more like revolution. With Mousavi and other approved candidates trying to distance themselves from the protests, there's no clear outlet left within the system, and so pressure has built.

And even though Iran is not by any means a colonized state, I always think of Franz Fanon when it comes to the question of revolution. Fanon very boldly asserted that it was better that the colonial powers were violently overthrown, rather than giving up power in a peaceful and bloodless transition; better to make a clean break with the past.

I sometimes wonder if he was right in that judgment. Violent revolution is a terrifying thing - but as dearly as it is sold, one wishes that something be gotten for the monstrous cost in blood. I suppose soon, when we start reaching forty day marks, we will see whether the pace of the 1979 Iranian revolution and this one are one and the same; I do not suppose that we will know soon, however, what to expect.

I will go as far as to predict this, though: The longer and harder the fight, the more radicalized it will become, and the sharper the changes that Iran will face. Whether or not the existing establishment falls, whether or not Mousavi or any other moderate tries to ride the tiger to tameness.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The economist's volcano

I went and read another bit of a book written by an economist, and after another chapter of him displaying what I wish were a bad parody of economist behavior, this illustrative scenario occurred to me.

Suppose you have a magic volcano. Not just any volcano; a special magic volcano. When you throw someone into the magic volcano and make a gainful wish, it calls up two immortal beings: An actuary and an economist.

The actuary tells the volcano how many years that person would probably have lived; the economist looks up the current estimated GDP per capita and current market prices of every commodity and manufactured good. Since this is a magic volcano, it can do multiplication, so it takes the GDP per capita and multiplies it by the years of remaining life that person was expected to have.

The next morning, on the slope of the volcano, you'll find whatever you wished for, in whatever quantity, to the market value of that much money - a whole productive lifetime of money right up front, and maybe that particular person wasn't that productive. The volcano doesn't care if they're a hard worker or chronically unemployed.

So, is throwing people into the volcano an act of public good sometimes, most of the time, always, or never? It's certainly a positive economic benefit more often than not, defined in terms of financial value or productivity. Would you want to throw someone in the volcano? What do you expect should - or would - be done regarding this volcano if the news of its abilities spread far and wide?

There's a point to prosperity. I just don't think it's especially important once you've figured out how to keep people alive and well.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

From the UNC to the UC system

When I started telling people I was going off to California next fall to work on my doctorate, no small number of them mentioned the UC system as a coherent entity, especially compared to the UNC system.

And I've been thinking for a while about the two systems. I'm starting to wonder if the largest difference is size.

The California university system is a three-tiered system, with the University of California (10 schools) on top with core doctoral/research oriented programs, California State University (23 schools) for the bulk of four-year programs, and the 110-campus community college system.

North Carolina's university system is divided into two groups - two-year and four-year institutions. The UNC system has 16 campuses, while there are 58 community colleges. Of course, the standards and descriptions are all different, so I'll toss out the specialized schools and the not-quite arbitrary UC/CSU divide and go with the Carnigie classifications.

As best as I can tell:

CA public schools include 10 doctoral/research universities, 19 master's universities, 1 baccalaureate college, and 110 associate's colleges.

NC public schools include 5 doctoral/research universities, 7 master's universities, 3 baccalaureate colleges, and 58 associate's colleges.

So some fiddly bits aside (namely, the balance between master's/baccalaureate schools), the NC university system has almost exactly half the campuses as the California system within each of the CA system's three "tiers." The NC schools are on average two thirds the size; the UC+CSU schools enroll 600,000, while the UNC schools enroll 200,000; the community colleges are balanced 2,500,000 to 800,000.

California itself has four times the population of NC, interestingly enough, making the NC system twice as dense per capita in public campuses and a third again as dense in per capita public enrollment; I suspect California probably has more private school enrollment, but I would consider the fact that NC's schools are more finely seeded across the state a point in NC's favor.

Special effort has been made to render the system accessible to residents, in particular transfer from the community colleges to four-year institutions, and tuition is very affordable for in-state students within both systems. In-state tuition within other states' public universities often rivals out-of-state tuition at UNC system schools, for example, something frequently pointed out to me by Georgians attending ASU.

In North Carolina, in-state students are ensured an "in" by capping out-of-state enrollments (the precise level of the cap is a hot political subject of debate); in California, the top eigthth and third of graduating high school seniors are supposed to be able to get into the UC and CSU schools, respectively. A bigger system? Yes. Better? Perhaps so; certainly, its schools have on average a better reputation.

But is "part of the UC system" going to turn out to be all that different a feeling than "part of the UNC system"? I'm not so sure, and I strongly suspect that with the common pressures, interests, and the demographic shifts in play, the differences between California and North Carolina public higher education are going to become smaller, rather than larger, over time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Corporation as individual

One of the odder corners of legal philosophy and business is the invention and treatment of the limited liability corporation. The idea is that rather than an individual acting directly, they can bundle their money together with other investors while at the same time limiting their responsibility to a simple dollar sign.

A corporation can't be liable for more than what it actually holds on hand, and nobody in particular is responsible for it - not the executive officer, not the board, it's something of a blank empty void that can't be put in jail and whose maximum financial penalties are sharply limited.

It's either very good or profoundly problematic. Good, in that it allows small investors to take a share in large ventures without being worried about negligence on the part of those with more share over running said ventures; problematic, in that action that would lead to severe penalties for an individual can go unpunished or underpunished with nobody in particular clearly responsible.

The most bizarre turn is that under law, corporations are treated in many cases like individuals. While I can be convinced that the benefits to the efficient allocation of capital are great enough to warrant the construction of such an entity, it remains very difficult for me to buy that this non-jailable entity, so difficult to hold accountable, deserves the same legal protections and fundamental rights as a human being.

Moreover, the sheer scale of a corporation and its anonymity makes it highly difficult to keep damage in perspective. If I were to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater and caused a dozen people to be trampled to death and others injured, I could be put away for the rest of my natural life on multiple counts of manslaughter; for a large corporation, a dozen incidental deaths resulting from poorly-considered actions (such as failing to place a warning label "DO NOT MIX WITH ALCOHOL," or knowingly selling batteries with a tendency to burst into flame) barely even qualifies as a speed bump.

We're already not equal. I am far more accountable than the corporation is; I can incur penalties and responsibilities well beyond the current value of my bank account, I can be imprisoned... and the corporation simply exists to help people turn a buck. If it has a "motive" for exercising political influence, it is for the crass motive of its own bottom line; a corporation, not being an actual person, has no morality, no soul, no religious or political dispositions, no reason for any personal "rights" at all beyond that of being created and dissolved in a manner according to its legal liabilities and its charter - in that order.

A right to privacy? Kid me not. A strong motive to keep trade secrets, yes; a reason for wanting to obstruct investigation, sometimes; but a corporation has no personal affairs, not being a person. It cannot have a sex life or write poetry about how depressing its life is; it is simply a framework for handling responsibility for financial adventures that no single investor wishes to hold personally.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Long term; short-term

Some days, I wonder how many of the people I meet are putting their long term interests or their short term interests first.

Being aware of both is another thing that many people don't do well, whether planning for a party or running a major corporation. Unfortunately, we put many people in positions where they are unlikely to look for long term interests - traders looking to make the new smarter quicker buck, a CEO hired to make immediate changes in the short term profit numbers, politicians looking to win this year's race.

And while it's foolish to neglect your short-term interests completely, it's possible to focus a little too much on the long view, but it's much easier to go for the immediate reward. And I can't help but think that when people looking only at the short term results get that immediate reward, they're being trained to keep doing that. Something about psychology and positive reinforcement.

Nixon's southern strategy won the Republican party the South for a generation - and alienated the non-white voter for at least as long. George III found the colonies a quick and easy source of additional revenue. It is usually a perfectly rational strategy that is the worst mistake of all. Just dump it in the river, and watch it catch on fire after decades of dumping; save a few million now by privatizing prisons, and watch prison populations climb at a faster rate; throw out the rules of war, and wonder why your opponents do likewise.

This is the real reason I don't trust in the invisible hand - and the reason, too, why I try to be so careful in my decisions these days. Everything has consequences stretching into the long term.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Unintended benefits

A little while ago, I was reading an AP opinion piece in the newspaper, titled Disease prevention often costs more than it saves. I was skeptical about its premise, but then I read the article, and the details bothered me more. The example used is that of relying on a personal trainer/lifestyle coach to prevent diabetes.

It's a terribly poor example, and whoever Carla Johnson is, I am sad to report that she appears to be neither a mathematician nor a health expert. True, the annual cost of diabetes is about $4100 initially (ref - note, however, that it rises over time) and we are, hypothetically, spending $5400 or $6300 a year to prevent it (note: The article says "$5400" but also says that for every person that this sort of treatment works for, it fails six others, and seven times $900 is $6300, not $5400). So on diabetes, we're saving $600-700 or so per person per year with this program, hypothetically, if each year of the program leads eventually to 1/7 of one year free from diabetes for one person.

However, the health benefits of having someone sort out your diet and exercise problems are not limited to not getting diabetes! Diabetes is the big-ticket item, sure. But is it the only thing? Obesity is linked to many other health problems. What the article author should instead be comparing is the cost of the program - which we expect would be discontinued after the first year or so if it were not making a difference - to the average increased cost of being overweight and not exercising, not just diabetes.

And then there's the other side of the question of cost effectiveness: We have not only a significant portion of the costs being repaid in saved diabetes bills, and much (quite possibly all) of the remainder being repaid in other medical bills; we have additional years of healthy productive life, fewer sick days, etc. Direct medical costs are only about half the total price tag of obesity (ref) and so, even hypothetically paying $900 a year indefinitely for personal lifestyle coaching is, on the scale of a national system, a good idea. After all, we're looking at an expected average positive payout at that point.

So the example is quite poorly considered. Is there a valid point to the op-ed piece? Well, yes. An ounce of prevention is not always worth a pound of cure, and it's worth actually checking to see if it is. But a valuable moral of the story is that you have better be very thorough in weighing the costs of everything being prevented. Narrow focus on particular kinds of costs while ignoring others is how we wound up with this system in the first place.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Palin's retirement

Political analysts, by and large, seem to be a little puzzled about Palin's resignation. One of my favorite statistician authors of political blogs, Nate Silver, summarizes the spectrum of opinion as (1) she really wants out, (2) there's something else coming up in the news soon that will make it make sense, or (3) she's nuts enough to think this will help her in 2012/2016. He thinks it could be a combination of all three.

I'm not entirely sure that resigning won't help her political ambitions in the long term. I doubt she will be elected president in 2012/2016, but I would not be surprised to see her make a play for a nomination at some point.

As I said earlier on NationStates, I can think of four direct reasons this could help her:

1.) She stops being such a juicy target for other Alaskan politicians - who may be in a good position to make dirt stick to her name.

2.) She's not going to have the duties of governor - which, last I checked, is a full time job - occupying her time. She can focus full-time on handling growing her national base of support, building her image, etc.

3.) As long as she's in Alaska, she's less able to respond fluidly to the news cycle of the lower 48 - the time zone difference, and the long flights, make it more difficult to work closely with national media.

4.) She doesn't have to deal with disbursing stimulus money, or holding to the potentially unpopular stand of trying to refuse federal money being sent to her state. This will let her oppose Obama much more distinctly and directly than many other governors.

I can see her actually deciding she wants out of the limelight. But in this, I can also see the start of a potential future narrative that heavily invokes traditional family structures. Step by step:

Mother retires from politics to concentrate on her traditional role of homemaker, raising her new young child (and quite possibly her slightly-newer young grandchild). After several years, however, her loyal supporters and/or fiendish opponents (and, of course, the dire necessity of current events) push her reluctantly back onto the national stage.

The reluctant-nominee story is one that has resonance. It's a rich literary/historical tradition that those who do not wish political power are the best to exercise it. It is a major theme of the book Goblin Hero, which I was re-reading recently; it and its converse, the corrupt and evil nature of the ambitious power-seeker, are both very common themes. Moreover, her reasons for retiring from public view are the sort of reasons that work very well with the "traditional family values" theme commonly exercised within the social right-wing - and with the endless escapades of many male Republican politicians, she is better positioned than many prospective future candidates.

And I'm not sure that the aim would necessarily be 2012 or 2016 for her national ambitions. The long view is one worth considering, as popular as it is for political analysts and media pundits to consider the short-term question of who will run in 2012 or 2016. And that would be enough said. Really, spending so much time talking about Palin's resignation is quite counterproductive; if she is truly retiring from public life for good, then well done; if she is not, then all the speculation plays into her hands by giving her more national attention.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Recalling the honors chorus experience.

I still have a t-shirt from N.C.'s year 2000 high school honors chorus. It was one of the more memorable episodes of my high school career. I remember working on throatsinging techniques before and after my audition; I think we got out of school to travel up to Greensboro for the auditions,

I learned that I had made the cut when an acquaintance (who we'll call N.) pulled over and picked me up as I walked back from school one day. The results were posted up on the chorus room door around the end of that day, but I hadn't bothered to check before leaving, something N. was shocked by. I had made the main list, along with two other students (L. and E.), and three others had made the alternate list, including N. (Alternates usually went to honors chorus anyway.)

In retrospect, this was one of a series of episodes involving N. becoming frustrated with the fact that I could seem (or perhaps be) remarkably lazy and enjoy the sort of success he had to work obsessively hard to achieve. I will probably never know if he was jealous on some level, or simply considered it a criminal waste of rare talents. By the end of our time in high school, we had developed a strong and mutual dislike of each other.

Six of us going to honors chorus was quite unusual for Ms. D., and she was quite excited and pleasantly surprised - and it was an amazing experience. Never before had I sung with such a large group; never before had I rehearsed with a group that was so uniformly good at singing - so technically proficient, so responsive to direction. It was beautiful.

And yet, when I recall honors chorus, I don't always first remember the powerful use of dynamics the conductor put into play, or the fact that rehearsals were practically note-perfect; I remember the warmups, and having to sit down before all the other second basses had hit the audible bottom of their range. I had known there were lower basses than I; I rarely, however, experienced them in person. Here were several extraordinarily powerful basses with quite noticeably lower limits.

I was used to being a big frog in a small pond, so to speak; I was always one of the best, if not the best, low-rumbling basses in the choruses I sang in, and so, when I think of big frogs in little ponds, I think of honors chorus, when auditions filtered out any but the largest of big frogs, and being a more medium-sized frog for a change.

I suppose I'm still used to being a big frog in many other ways; changing to the larger pond of college didn't shrink me down much - or even at all - in some dimensions.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

It has to feel rough to be Norm Coleman...

So you're a serious politician with a bit of a political career behind you, and you very narrowly lose an election to a political commentator - a radio show host - in a statewide election that attracts national attention. That has to be stunning; it has to be disappointing, to know that you could quite possibly have defeated the victor of the election.

But Norm Coleman didn't let that halt his political career in its tracks. He picked himself up and kept going while Minnesota got used to its new image as the home of its new governor, Jesse "The Body" Ventura - who, according to exit polls, would have lost to Norm Coleman, and barely came out ahead of him in the actual plurality count. It was a tragic demonstration of the weakness of a plurality vote.

Now, ten years later, the 2008 election stands beside the 1998 election as being another case of Norm Coleman losing narrowly to a political commentator and radio show host. One with a background as a comedian, rather than a professional wrestler; and by the narrowest margin of counting ballots, rather than a structural flaw in the procedures for elections.

For all that I know, Minnesota has attracted such attention on the national political stage three times since the day I was born: The only state voting for Walter Mondale over Reagan in 1984, and Norm Coleman's two narrowest electoral losses. I wonder if he will take a chance on statewide office ever again - or if the Republican primary crowd thinks his losses have been too dramatic and too public to ever again take a chance on a man who has now lost to two radio show hosts.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The point of summer camp

I went to several different summer camps as an adolescent - one of them for six summers in a row - and worked at two more. I also spent all five of my years as an undergraduate living in the dorms.

There's an interesting connection there. The summer camps I went to and worked at were mostly populated by socioeconomically similar crowds; and almost all summer camps, whether or not they bill themselves as a pre-college experience, expose youth to many of the things that are likely to trip them up in a freshman year at a university.

There are, as I see it, three reasons why freshmen wash out. In most cases, two or more apply. The least common - by far - is that they simply cannot handle the coursework they've taken on; it is too difficult for them. College admissions are generally competitive, and introductory college coursework is generally not that difficult. The two more common reasons are a little more subtle.

The first common reason - quite obvious to anybody who has seen new students spiral into alcoholism, skip classes, or take up drugs - is inability to handle being responsible for themselves. We could break this reason into many smaller reasons if we like, but many freshmen are not prepared - in some cases, not able - to handle their day-to-day lives independently. More on this reason another day.

The second common reason is failing to adapt to their new environment socially. It is the freshmen who go home every weekend who, one weekend, stay home. They are homesick, they have difficulty making new friends, they miss their dog, their siblings, their boyfriend or girlfriend back home, and their parents. They can't handle dorm life - the roommate, the communal hall, perhaps a shared bathroom and kitchen.

And this seems a most practical reason for packing your kid off to summer camp, where they can learn to cope with homesickness, with making new friends in an environment where they already know few, if any, of the others, and learn to cope with a communal lifestyle similar to the one common in the "college experience." I can't help but think that kids that went off to camp just might turn out to handle that experience a little bit better. I wonder if there have been any good studies done - it's very difficult to control for the socioeconomic factors here...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why does the calf trick work?

There's a little trick I use to guess someone's fitness at a glance. It doesn't work with everyone at all, but I have learned you can't just go by size or visible flab. What seems to work is glancing down at the calves. You look at how big the calves are relative to the rest of the body - and in my experience, that does a remarkably good job with skinny people, fat people, and everybody in between.

Yes, skinny people can be out of shape. I know, I know - it's the appearance that matters, so often, but there's so much more to fitness than size.

Fact of the matter is that most forms of aerobic exercise - and the most intense forms of exercise, period - involve moving the whole body, and that comes down to actually using your leg muscles. Some guys work out their upper body heavily without getting into shape - but very few people, aside from dancers, work heavily on their calves specifically. If they do calf-specific exercises regularly, odds are they're doing exercises for most parts of their bodies.

And that's why it works so often. Doesn't work for someone paralyzed from the waist down, or with muscular atrophy in their legs, but for most people, overall level of physical activity is tied to calf muscle use. Most people who sit down all day and don't walk much are desk-bound and out of shape.