A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Price on Human Life

Many people feel the price on human life should be infinite. I will examine two statements:

"No one should EVER die because they can't afford medical care" -- a meme that was traveling around facebook around the time Obamacare went through.

"Car companies should NEVER compromise safety to save money" -- I hear this one a lot.

"No one should EVER die because they can't afford medical care"

Many people feel this is the case.

About half the people in the US die in hospitals. That's about a million people a year.

The vast majority of people who die in hospitals could be kept for a few more hours, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, of agonizing pain if, say, we were willing to spend $10 million on each of them. People who die of heart problems could be kept alive, with enough money, for a long time if they were put on the sort of heart / lung machines that are used on people who receive heart transplants. People whose digestive systems are ruined could easily be fed intravenously. Stroke victims whose brains are basically ruined and not sending correct signals to the body could be kept alive by sedating their brains, connecting electrodes to their spinal cord and sending the right signals to keep the body alive.

About a million Americans die in hospitals a year. A million times 10 million is 10 trillion dollars. US GDP is about $15 trillion dollars. Would that be worth it? Basically, the money is just not there.

One problem with the US health care system is that most people have insurance, and they want their insurance to pay ANY PRICE for medical care. A basic principal is you have to be willing to walk away from the deal if the price is too high. If you're not willing to do that, which is usually the case with people who have insurance with a fixed co-pay, medical prices rise and rise and rise, much faster than inflation. It's one of the biggest problems our economy faces.
It should be noted that the price of cosmetic surgery, which most insurance doesn't pay for, has not been even keeping up with inflation. When people are spending their own money, unlike when they have "spare no expense" health insurance, they shop around and get better deals.

"Car companies should NEVER compromise safety to save money"

People often seem to feel that if a car company makes such compromises, criminal charges should be pressed against them.

Let's imagine what a car and roads that make no compromises for safety would be like.

It would have to, I suppose, be able to keep its passengers safe in a head-on collision with an 18 wheel semi. So it would have to be MASSIVELY armored, at least as heavy as an M-1 Abrams tank. Mileage for tanks is usually measured in gallons per mile. So say it gets half a mile per gallon.
It would cost something like a half a million dollars, more than a typical house. To buy one, you would need to take out a 30 year loan. Since it's going to take so long to buy one, and there's no way the average American can afford to buy another one during that 30 years, it has to be well-built enough to last at least 30 years. Add another $200,000 for that increase in quality. Maybe you'll need to take out a 40 / 50 year loan, so it has to last 40 / 50 years. Add another $100,000 for that further increase in quality. So that's $800,000 for a car.

For safety, speed limits should be MUCH slower, about 20 miles an hour, in case you run into a building or a mountain or make a head-on collision with another tank like yours, and to make sure you don't accidentally drive over a cliff. If you live 30 miles from work, nowadays, traveling at 60 mph, you will spend an hour a day commuting. Let's assume you never travel except for work. Obviously, you'll travel more that that, but let's make that optimistic assumption.
If you now travel at 20 mph, it will now take you 3 hours every day to commute. During a career starting at 22 years old and ending at retirement at 67 years old, you commute over 11,000 days in your life. Times 2 hours of lost time per day, that's 22,000 hours. One year is 8766 hours, or about 5844 waking hours per year. So that's about 3 years of your waking life wasted by commuting at 20 mph. It's pretty doubtful whether all these safety-improving measures will increase your life expectancy by that much.

And all that traveling at 2 gallons per mile, with gasoline at AT LEAST $2.50 a gallon, for 22,000 working days times 60 miles, is 60 * 250 * 2.5 is over $37,000 a year spent on gasoline, just for commuting. And if everybody was driving these gas-guzzling cars, it would drive the price of oil up astronomically. Actually, the US would basically be consuming more gasoline than current world production.
And the increase in global warming could cause catastrophic climate change sooner, with huge crop failures, thus massive death by starvation.
One could live closer to work. Since that means you would have less choice of jobs, you would have to work at a crummier job for lower pay. Good luck paying for that $800,000 car and huge amount of money worth of gas.

Let's face it, the price on human life is finite.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The King

This really happened to me. I don't think I ever told anyone about it.

It was early spring, 2002.
I was living in Silicon Valley, had been unemployed for 5 or 6 months, my social life was abysmal, and, desperate to improve my mood, took a trip up to Lake Tahoe, 4 hours away, to go snowboarding.

After the snowboarding, I went down to Reno, Nevada, close by. I'd heard you could shoot a machine gun at gunnery ranges in Nevada. I looked one up, went there, and it was true. I fired an Uzi at a paper target with a human form on it. This being 6 months after 9/11, you could get targets with cartoon pictures of Osama Bin Laden on them, but for some reason I didn't.

Normally, when you go shooting pistols at a range, if you're shooting a .22, you can shoot all day and it hardly costs anything. If you're shooting a .45, it adds up, you can go through 30-40 bucks worth of ammo in a half hour. Shooting a fully automatic weapon, it turns out, is really expensive, you can go through $100 worth of ammunition in a few seconds.

It was a long, boring drive home by myself. I was pulling out of a gas station, and saw a hitchhiker on the on-ramp. I could really use the company, so I pulled over. I hadn't taken a very good look at him.

When he stepped in, he was wearing a lot of denim, looking like sort of a country-boy, long haired, heavy-metal type. We introduced ourselves and discussed our destinations. As I pulled onto the freeway, I noticed he smelled, well, pretty bad.

He asked what I do. When he learned I was a computer programmer, he became animated and said he used to work with computers in Washington DC. He mentioned a bunch of acronyms, I think they related to one of the old brands of computers that hardly anyone uses anymore, Honeywell, or someone like that. We really couldn't talk shop.

He had been working for a traveling carnival. He said he was "The King" there, in charge of the whole crew responsible for assembling and disassembling the rides.

He had left his job as the foreman, and was hitchhiking his way back to the Bay Area, where he had a job as a garbage collector lined up. There was obviously a missing piece of information here -- why would someone abandon a job as "The King" to go be a garbage collector? He said "I couldn't take it any more. I had the power of life and death." and would get all silent and spooky.

The crew had been mostly drug addicts, it sounded like hard drugs, and the top management of the carnival had no idea about it. "The King" had taken it upon himself, among his responsibilities, to cover up for people who, for example, were incapacitated because they had taken sub-standard drugs. He said the management were totally clean-cut, non-drug people. If they were to learn about all the drugs, they would replace the whole crew. He felt, as "King", he was protector of the crew, and it was among his responsibilities to keep management in the dark.

We talked some more about other things, talked about me for awhile, we bonded a bit.

He started talking about a problem they had. One of the crew was a pedophile. "The King" had reliable evidence, from 3 sources, that this guy was molesting kids at the carnival. It was clear that if the child molester were reported to the authorities, he would fink out everybody about the drugs and they would all get fired.

He took his job as "King" seriously, and he felt one of his responsibilities was to protect the public, to keep the carnival a safe place for people, including children, to come. He kept stressing that he had reliable information from 3 sources that this guy was a molester.

Eventually it came out that he'd hired organized crime to off the pedophile. The mob had then chopped up the body and disposed of the pieces it in 14 dumpsters. The "King" totally couldn't live with it. Completely freaked out, he left the carnival to hitchhike across the country back to the town he'd grown up in to be a garbage collector.

Maybe he was just telling me a story. Maybe he'd never been "King", maybe this was all made up. But I totally believed the whole thing.

I dropped him off at the place he wanted me to, he told me he could get back home from there on his own. He bade each other a cheerful goodbye and he showed me a tattoo on his chest before he closed the door.

Should I have turned him in? It would have been easy -- I knew exactly where he was going, and his first name.
If his story was true, he was sorry as hell. He was completely torn up about it (and was probably going to spill his guts about it to more people). He wasn't a dumb guy, but it was really stupid to tell me, someone who didn't owe him squat, about it. That shows how much agony his conscience was putting him through.
I don't believe in punishing people who are already sorry. He was never going to do anything like that again. From the looks of it, he was making sure he was never going to be in a position to do anything like that again. I let it go. I wasn't going to take it on myself to pass judgment. I'm sure the child molester's ghost is damning me to hell for that decision, but that's his problem.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Manufacturing an Absence of Evidence

When discussing an issue with someone, one does, of course, have to keep in mind what the other person believes. But it is at least as important to keep in mind what they want to believe. Most of us have reluctantly accepted bitter truths, but secretly we're harboring hopes that these bitter truths are inaccurate.
And then there are a few intrepid individuals who will throw reason to the wind and embrace what they want to believe in spite of overwhelming evidence.

Many want to believe AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) is a hoax. It would be very nice if they are right -- curbing our CO2 emissions, if it is ever done, will result in a drop in the standard of living in every nation in the world. Only a few people see AGW as a good thing: Luddites, technophobes, and starry-eyed alternative energy proponents who haven't done their economics homework. To everybody else, it's bad news.
Some are spearheading a very formidable resistance to doing anything about it, well-funded by the fossil fuels lobby. The evidence for AGW is pretty strong: CO2 levels have been rising significantly (everybody agrees on that), the arctic ice cap is thinner than it used to be, and the most recent decade has been the hottest on record.
The counter-evidence the AGW denialists cite is they point at every snowstorm that occurs as evidence of cooling. This is idiotic and easily deflected: there has been at most 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming so far, and nobody with an IQ over 70 believes that 1 degree of warming will mean there will be no more snowstorms.
Then they get more creative. "Most of the recorded temperature data from the 20th century is flawed!" they say. Their solution for this: "We have to start all over. Ignore the data from the 20th century, start again from scratch, and collect data for at least several decades if not another century.".
Unfortunately, before enough warming (How much? 5 degrees?) occurs to convince these "skeptics", warming will cause the thawing of permafrost and the massive release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere potentially causing a catastrophic, irreversible, runaway warming effect.
They also say "Climate models are really complex -- those climate scientists don't really know what they're talking about!". Again, the solution is "Let's wait until it's too late.".
Note the pattern here: they aren't really producing evidence, they're trying to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that is there. That's what I call "manufacturing an absence of evidence".

Liberals are not without guilt here, too. During the '70's and '80's, they were dead against the notion that ANY human behavioral trait, including (and especially), intelligence, was influenced by normal variation in the human genome. (Except for homosexuality, they said. That one, they knew for sure, they said, was 100% determined at birth!). The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin wrote a whole book, Not in Our Genes, (which I have not read) denying the influence of normal genetics on human behavior, in 1984.
People who did twin studies were vilified as Nazi eugenicists, it was really hard to make any progress for awhile. Eventually, some brave souls put up with all the ad-hominem attacks and did the twin studies, and the evidence came back that nature was a far stronger influence on the human mind than any well-understood factor in nurture. Scientific American did an article on the topic in the '90's. Title: "Eugenics Revisited", satisfying Godwin's law. You know that a debate is getting heated when Scientific American sinks to the same level as Creationists who claim that belief in evolution leads to genocide!
The nature denialists put up a good fight: "Identical twins have an identical experience in the womb!" was one claim. But the observed dissimilarities between fraternal twins refuted that. "Identical twins adopted at birth are both placed by the same adoption agency, so they wind up in similar homes!". Studies were done that tracked the standard of living of the respective homes. Sorry, in spite of these attempts to manufacture an absence of evidence, the verdict was still overwhelmingly nature. The real smoking gun was that unrelated people adopted into the same family aren't much more similar than if they had been raised in different families. Identical twins separated at birth taking IQ tests separately have scores nearly as similar to each other's as one person taking two tests on different days.
In spite of the liberal attempts to manufacture an absence of evidence, the notion that we enter this world as a "blank slate" is dead to any reasonable person.
See my other blog entry which reviewed the book
The Genius in All of Us. The author, David Shenk, was trying, even in 2010, to resurrect the "blank slate". He even admitted, in his book, that "The blank slate is dead.", and then spent every other sentence in the book trying to bring it back to life. In his desperate quest to manufacture an absence of evidence, he even tried to pooh-pooh the whole concept of statistical evidence!

Another area is the lives of primitive humans. A few hundred years ago, primitive people were seen as depraved, brutal "savages" to be either religiously converted or enslaved by their more enlightened brothers.
The political left condemned this exploitation, interference and victimization, and rightly so. But they went too far. Marx had the belief, based on no evidence at all, that during prehistory, humans lived in an idyllic, egalitarian, altruistic society, and it was only the modern class-oriented, market-driven society that had brought man down to a lower, more selfish, state.
In the early 20th century, left-leaning anthropologists like Margaret Mead were so beholden to this vision that they painted the lives of primitives they observed as sexually liberated and wonderful. Later anthropologists observing the same culture found that just the opposite was true.
But as the 20th century wore on, more people spent time with primitives, and it became more and more evident that preliterates were brutal, selfish, and even worse, quite gender-stereotypical, to put it mildly.
The liberals have huge problems with this: they hate social stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, however true, with a passion. Given that the evidence is overwhelming, their strategy is, again, to manufacture an absence of evidence. "Those tribes don't count because they don't live on the African savanna!", they say. "All modern primitives are uncharacteristic of prehistoric life because they've all been influenced by modern civilization at this point.", they say. Some go so far as to say "We know nothing about the lives of pre-historic people!".
That's ridiculous. We know a lot of things for certain about prehistoric people:

  • They didn't have access to refined sugar.
  • They didn't have access to hard liquor. Alcohol available to them, if any, was extremely weak, and probably tasted terrible.
  • Life expectancy was a lot shorter than it is now.
  • Because human babies are so helpless and burdensome, and life expectancy was short enough that the presence of grandparents couldn't be relied upon, if a female wanted to pass on her genes, she was going to be much more able to do it if she had someone committed to helping her raise the kid.
  • A female knew for certain that any baby that emerged from her body was her own child. Infidelity by her husband, or his taking multiple wives, had no possibility of undermining that.
  • If a male wanted to pass on his genes, he had to avoid being cuckolded. Potential infidelity by his wife was a very serious threat to his passing on his genes.
  • Males were, on average, bigger and stronger than females.
  • A male had the physical potential to create a lot more offspring than a female could.
  • Due to our digestive system being less ample than that of apes (smaller abdomen, smaller and less strong mouth for chewing), and due to what we know from observing modern people who attempt raw diets, a tribe was dependent upon cooking to be healthy and fertile enough to maintain their numbers. If a tribe lost their fire and didn't know how to restart it, they would probably dwindle out within several generations.
  • Humans without tools or fire were easy prey for predators, due to their not being able to run very fast, and their lack of claws or formidable mouth and teeth.
  • A small tribe that didn't swap mates with other tribes over many generations was subject to severe health problems due to inbreeding.
  • The children of incest were most often unhealthy.
  • In the tropics, resistance to disease was more important than it was for those from colder climates.
  • Sunburn was a more serious problem in the tropics.
  • People wanted the best for their children.
  • Healthy people had more children.
  • If a war occurred between tribes, the tribe that was healthier, more numerous, and whose individuals were smarter and physically stronger was more likely to win.
  • The average person was smaller than the average person is today.
And those are just some of the things we know for certain, it only took me about a half hour to cough those up. If we allow information we have gleaned from observations of modern primitive people, we know a lot more than that.
It should also be noted that liberals were completely comfortable with talking about observations about modern primitive peoples in the days of Margaret Mead when they still thought that such evidence was in their favor. It was only after they learned that the evidence was overwhelmingly against them that they started trying to declare it inadmissible.

One sure sign that you are dealing with someone who is manufacturing an absence of evidence is, when they claim we "can't know" something, if you suggest an experiment that would shed light on the subject, they get angry.

There is a basic drive in human nature to believe what we want to believe. When we hear evidence to believe something we don't like, we try to find evidence to support our position. Failing that, the next step is to try to find excuses to dismiss the evidence we don't like. To be an honest intellectual, one must resist this temptation.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Key to Will Power

Most of us know what we should do, but don't do it. We should diet, we should exercise.

One problem I used to have was it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. one thing I used to do when I had flextime was usually show up at work between 11am and noon, and work until 8 or 10pm.

The consequence of this was that my social life from Monday to Friday was horrible. I basically never did much after work.

Then I got a job where I *HAD* to show up at 9am. I thought I was going to die. But I adjusted, and I found that I could leave work at 6pm with a clean conscience and suddenly, I had a vastly improved social life.

Then I moved to the job I have now where, if I show up before 10;30am, no one is going to complain. Nonetheless, it remained in my interest to be at work around 9am.

Unfortunately, it was hard to translate this long range desire for a healthier social life into the will power to propel me out of bed.

So I adopted a rule for myself. If I get off the subway in Manhattan before 9am, I get to buy a ham and egg sandwich, which I really like, from a street vendor on my way to work. If I'm later, I have to settle for cereal at work, which I don't like anywhere near as much. Now, when I'm in bed and not feeling like getting up, I think of the sandwich. A tangible reward like that within an hour or so of the desired activity gets me to do it.

Once I got off the subway and I was 2 and a half seconds late. I didn't get the sandwich. It would've been a completely hollow victory if I cheated.

Similarly, I walk up 19 flights of stairs twice a day in the skyscraper I work in. The goal, of course is to be in good shape. Of course, it's a very long-term goal, and sometimes it's very tempting to skip the exercise. So if I make it up the stairs a second time, I reward myself with a large glass of diet sprite. Similarly, that helps get the job done.

So I think I've stumbled onto something here. The brain is too impatient to think in terms of long-term goals, so substitute short-term rewards for long-term ones.