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August 29th, 2009

I've been trying to make some health insurance arrangements (in one of those ridiculous situations that can only come up in the only first world country without universal health care), and I'm learning a lot about the system.

I think it's really alarming that people can't afford their own COBRA, and often don't even consider it as an option. I've been really surprised that people have no idea how much their employer pays for their health care, and COBRA is exactly 102% of that amount. For example, at my school, the staff health care plan is really deluxe, and costs about 1000$/mo. At a big company with a lot of young healthy workers, it can be around $400 even for low wage employees. So everyone's salary and expenses are much higher than they realize. People only notice this when they see that COBRA number. (It really affects how much you need to save to have 3-6 mos expenses.) I've always thought that one should be allowed to do COBRA indefinitely (similar to how you can keep paying your life insurance at the same rate even if you get cancer). I think that would be a good start. But I've been realizing that it's the percentage of salary itself that's the problem. Not that I think there's a right number, and I could personally live with 20% (so long as I get MRIs for my headaches at that cost :) ), but it seems like most people think it's way too high given the way they react to COBRA. So something has to give.

I was wondering if it would help inject some actual facts in the health care debate if employers all sent out a notice to all their employees with how much they pay for each person per year and per month, what percent of that person's particular salary that is, and what they'd be paying for COBRA (same as above). It would also be great if people saw it coming off the top of their paycheck every month in some way. People have no idea how precarious their financial situation is (in case of a job loss) without this information.

It's pretty messed up how hard it is in the US to start a small business, or to retire early. I can see almost any health reform they could pass helping the job market dramatically. I was wondering if we could make a "buy into Medicare" option but now I see why they want to keep it separate. Medicare is a really unhealthy pool of people (the elderly) and seems to include the vast majority of people over 65. From my calculations, it costs about 900$/mo, which sounds about right for a known unhealthy pool. That pretty much has to be something that we pay into while we're young because we can't possibly pay all of it when we get old. So whatever we do for <65 people (public or private) has to go on top of Medicare taxes.

August 7th, 2009

Parenting thoughts

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I haven't written in a long time, but I wanted to get some thoughts out into the aether about the fact that we're about to have our first child. Since there seems to be a general consensus that parents, particularly mothers, lose their rational minds when they have kids, I'm very curious how this will go and I'd like to try and document the process.

I'm a female scientist and engineer, and I'd really like to be a professor in a few years. My research is going very well, and I've been putting a lot of thought into the best way to keep my career on track. My husband, being the best husband in the world is immensely cooperative about this. When we were talking about having kids, he told me that he definitely didn't want to have kids at all unless I could stay on the professorship track, since that's meant so much to me for so many years. As he put it, "If everyone's living for the future, no one's living." (Though I should point out that he's thinking about staying home once we have two.) I want to put out there that I have zero temptation to quit working, since it really should start being okay for women who have heavily invested in their education and careers to say that.

I've been doing a lot of reading parenting books, and with the exception of two truly excellent well referenced books ("Solve your child's sleep problems" by Richard Ferber, and "What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life" by Lise Eliot), I've been appalled at the amount of unsupported dogma that goes into parenting advice. The way my labmate (who has kids) put it, it's something very important that it's hard to get good information about and so the only solution is to have deep convictions about whatever you adopt. This is rough since convictions make it very difficult to be adaptable, and parenting involves a lot of things outside your control. For example, you might not get to have a magical childbirth experience, or be able to breast feed.

I've been most offended by the gender roles put forward in these books. For example, many books advise women not to decide whether to come back to work until during maternity leave. The unstated assumption is that the woman is not a doctor, lawyer, or business owner. You also can't be an engineer who works on a team as part of a large technical project. Some people are very difficult to replace, and it really bothers me that society tends to push women into careers where they are more replaceable. One woman wrote, "The magazine could hire another writer, but my kids only had one mother." In an overstuffed humanities field with tons of competition for each position, that may be true. But for example, a doctor can actually be enough better at their job than the next person on the list that people will live or die depending on whether they quit. Beyond the obvious hard-to-replace careers, it seems like a matter of basic self-esteem to believe that you're not that replaceable. I personally have a very solid idea of how I want to affect the world through my career, and I really believe it'll be better off. Beyond that, it's pretty obvious that every time a woman quits without notice on account of a baby that it strengthens stereotypes in everyone's mind that lead to women not being put in positions of responsibility.

Another common issue is the assumption that men are useless in parenting. Despite my efforts at trying to be useless at doing the dishes, my husband is not fooled and continues to expect me to do my share. It's hard for me to see why that trick seems to work in parenting. I read another very interesting book on gender roles in modern marriages in which gender segregation is inversely correlated with income. I.e., more income, more segregated gender roles. Less income, everyone has to do their fair share. Interestingly, this also relates to gender roles in modern fundamentalist Islam. (I'm getting this from Ayaan Hirsi's Ali's book, which was awesome.) Only an affluent culture (like Saudi Arabia) can afford to say women can't go to the grocery store without men. Another related point from the book was that (she argues) fundamentalist Islam caught on primarily with women in Somalia, who liked the ideas that their husbands should be responsible for taking care of everything, and women should be in the home. It's hard to think of anything more dangerous yet seductive than the desire to give over your responsibilities to someone else.

Anyway, more thoughts as they come up.

August 26th, 2008

Wal-Mart

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Just finished reading "The Wal-Mart Effect" by Fishman. It's remarkably fair, and either a pro or con zealot would take issue with it. The tone made me feel like I'd be a more effect person overall if I could be a little more evenhanded with my opinions.

He talks about the beginnings of Wal-Mart, and reviews the latest research papers on the subject. The results were mixed and barely significant, which means it's real research. E.g. opening a Wal Mart in an area creates and destroys hundreds of jobs, and probably ends up a bit positive. (Study suggests +50) Also, Wal-Mart really does lower prices all things considered, and really does lower the quality of products from companies who do business with them.

He discusses the big negatives, the labor issues, the sweat shop issues, the environmental issues, etc. In every case, law and company policy aren't really the problem. The problem is that you have relentless downward pressure on the prices, which rewards anyone who cheats on policy or the law at any level in the Wal Mart chain, at least until they get caught.

The author's main point was an interesting one. He argued that the company has gotten so big that it can dictate prices to its suppliers. Which kind of breaks free market capitalism. That no company should have that much say in what other businesses can do, and how the American economy is going to move. I have to agree, but I really don't know what the solution is. I do wonder what would happen if we taxed companies like we taxed income, the bigger the profits, the bigger the percentage. I wonder if we'd end up with small businesses and a more agile (if less efficient) economy.

The end of the book had detailed interviews with factory workers whose jobs had gone overseas. It underscored Chris's point, that we need to redirect resources towards creating jobs appropriate for former factory workers. We thought a bit about what that was. If college were free, what percentage of former US factory workers would want to go? Or on average did they dislike academics in highschool, and would prefer a job that takes physical skill and produces tangible products?

August 24th, 2008

The good old days

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I've been reading a lot about economics lately. (Deep Economics by McKibben, Accidental Economist by Paul Krugman, the Wal Mart Effect by Fishman). I've also been following the news about Zimbabwe and reading about what happened in South Africa.

So a couple of thoughts: I'm pretty convinced that jobs going overseas is in general a good thing, and as an exception doesn't work. By that I don't mean that it's the best thing for Americans. I think that's a mixed bag. We lose manufacturing jobs, and get cheaper goods. But if things go like they're supposed to, whole nations can rise out of poverty. And in a global economy, I don't think anything other than draconian avoidance of free trade can keep American wages from being threatened until the rest of the world comes up a bit. While reading, I was thinking what are the ways we know that a nation can switch over from being primarily subsistance farmers to having specialized labor, universal education, and free time. The obvious answer is self-industrialization, where you discover your own coal supplies and build some factories. The more recent approach is you have a whole bunch of subsistance farmers and a relatively stable government, and foreign countries come build factories or buy your food, hopefully doubling and tripling wages. Paul Krugman makes a good point about why we feel guilty about paying people low wages in third world countries despite the fact that the standard of living goes way up, and people that get these jobs are pretty thrilled about it. He says that before, they're living in abject poverty, but we have no relationship with them so we don't have to care. Afterwards, when we're profiting from the fact that they'll work for so little, suddenly we feel guilty. He argues that passing laws on our side to raise the wages will tend to reduce the number of jobs companies create in other countries, concentrating the wealth into a few good jobs when we'd rather spread it out to help their economy.

Another thing that I'm being steadily convinced of is that nothing is going to bring all the small farmers back. There's a lot of people that really want this to happen, and they write a lot of books about it. To put this in perspective, let me point out that I live in California, I don't have a drivers license, and I walk to farmers' markets to get the vast majority of our groceries. We see the inside of a Safeway every few weeks to grab some milk and granola bars. But from the reading I've been doing, I'd have to argue that the majority of the quality food culture is not made up of potential competitors to large-scale farming and grocery stores. In the same way that Audis and Jaguars are not going to drive Honda out of business. If you walk into a Whole Foods, your senses are assaulted with affluence. All the fine wines, and chocolates, and cheeses, and the finest looking shiny happy produce you've ever seen. And when you leave, you get to feel good about helping the or whatever. The point is, Whole Foods might motivate Safeway to put in a fluffy Organic section, but Whole Foods will not put Safeway out of business, because we don't all have the money to shop at Whole Foods.

There are a few things that I think do have the potential to take down large scale farming and outsourcing of manufacturing. The very biggest is oil, which will drive up the costs of imports relentlessly, and make it much more cost effective to buy local food. This might be the greatest thing to ever happen to small farmers with less of an oil footprint. The second is the non-affluent farmers market. The kind where you buy five apples for a dollar, and hand the dollar to the farmer's kid who's running the stand. These are both fun and cheap, and pretty darn profitable. And I could actually picture a culture where all had townsquares that we visited once a week for a mini-party and shopping trip.

Back to the jobs going overseas statement. I really feel like it's not the best idea to pine for the good old days of manufacturing jobs and small farmers. Things change. Raising the standards of living in third world countries is awesome. Robots should do repetitive tasks 24/7 instead of humans. All of these things free up resources, and if we're unhappy about where those free resources are going, we should try to change that. We should try and figure out where people are going to be working as the world improves over time. Green collar jobs are an excellent idea. It's going to take a lot of labor to move us over from oil and coal to solar, wind, and nuclear. Also, dealing with the population density requires a lot of construction, and public transportation. And if we have more hobbies, are more concerned with our health, and like eating more interesting food, that can all create jobs that are more interesting than moving a part on a factory line and hitting a button a million times.

August 6th, 2008

(Response to a blog post on Mano Singham's blog)

I would rather live in a world where people lived to be a hundred on average, rather than one with the same population, but faster turnover so people died around 50. The reason is that people have qualitatively different experiences at different ages. We go from an extended childhood to extended adolescence to career development to being a parent to retirement and so on. We also pick up skills over time, like the piano, or a PhD in something. These are both things that aren’t true of cows or fish.

Take cows. The average American will eat two cows in their lifetime. Say they do the right thing and buy meat from cows living in spacious pleasant environments, presumably experiencing cow happiness. Say it costs twice as much, so they eat half as much, and it’s only one cow. Imagine that the cow is killed quickly and painlessly in a way that it can’t anticipate. Dying makes up a vanishingly small percentage of that cow’s life, and there’s the same number of cows every year on those fields experiencing cow happiness. If we stopped eating cows altogether, they can’t exactly live in the wild, being domesticated, so there will be dramatically fewer cows in the world. I don’t really think that not eating beef is necessarily better for cows in general. I think we should define what we’re trying to achieve on their behalf if it’s not maximizing cow-years of cow happiness.

If I had to guess, and presume optimistically that the world will be less religious in the future, I think people as a whole will care a lot more about suffering and a lot less about death. So cows will live on luscious green pastures, but we still won’t find it appalling to eat beef occasionally. (Though fish are better for us and less intelligent.) As for humans, hopefully we will find it appalling that people didn’t always have health insurance. And similarly, I think we’ll be more reasonable about death. For example, if someone wanted to die six months earlier to save their family (or society if it’s socialized) large sums of money that they’d rather see spent somewhere else, that’d be fine. Also, do we really see society becoming more and more pro-life? An early fetus is very similar to a tadpole, complete with the tail, and my pro-choice stance is based on the same arguments as how I feel about simple animals.

A word on the intelligence argument, that we treat severely retarded humans better than animals: I personally think that it’s a matter of having a convenient place to draw a line, and I do think that a chimp should have more rights at some point, but it’s really a matter of how disabled, since a severely retarded or senile human or can still think circles around a cat. Animal level intelligence is truly severe brain damage. You can probably get a better idea about what people think about this not by asking about another person, but about themselves. A lot of people, if they were to end up in a vegetative state, would be horrified and want to be humanely euthanized rather than be a burden. But out of respect for personal beliefs (particularly religious ones) as a society we feel it’s better to consume the resources and let people live on in however limited a capacity. Though I think hospitals can draw a line at some point once most of the brain is dead.
I agree that people get offended too often in general, but there is a point where the holocaust/slavery arguments become threatening, as soon as you look at any quantitative application of that mindset. Should we really dedicate equal resources towards preventing and opposing such things? Should we hold Nurenburg trials for butchers? The only animal rights activists I think really believe in their heart that these things are equivalent end up like the ones who set fire to a professor’s house in Santa Cruz last weekend, while he, his wife and two kids were asleep.

I feel pretty strongly about this since one of my biggest worries is that healthy people will one day manage to shut down medical research, as well as pure neuroscience, which is very important to me. Besides the human suffering and death that would not be prevented, I think it’d be pretty sad to hardly ever learn anything new about the brain. I could live in a country where it was illegal to eat mammals (though at shell fish I’d be protesting since my laptop computer NEURON simulator is probably more sentient, thus my problem with the scallop argument), and we can do an awful lot of research with very little suffering (seriously, neuroscience labs can be nice environments for people who like animals) but I realize that most people see more value in tasty meat than in science and I find that alarming.

August 3rd, 2008

(no subject)

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just bought myself this lovely iPod touch on account of finishing my diet. Yay!!!

June 24th, 2008

(no subject)

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Let me write about something completely unrelated to science or politics for the moment. The other day I was watching a TV show where they were interviewing anorexics, and these girls were talking about how their entire lives revolved around food, numbers, and anxiety. That creeped me out a little bit since I'm pretty obsessive with numbers. Over the past seven years, I've lost 30 lbs in a few dieting spurts in which I did it by applying my obsession with numbers and achievement to calorie counting. Now I'm a happy healthy size 8, and I'm not going to have a problem in the world with stopping the diet when I hit the end, so that's not what creeped me out. It was the obsession with numerical achievement that the anorexics could never escape from.

While I was watching this show, I was happily within 1 lb of my goal weight, and eagerly thinking about what I could attack next in my life. Our finances are decent, but I could really make it stellar with some concentrated effort on better planning and budgeting. Maybe I'll attack that? Or I could drop the calorie counting and go to nutritional counting, make sure we're eating the correct proportions of different kinds of food. If I had a house I could go from the green route, and try to calculate and minimize energy consumption, water consumption, and trash production. (That whole movement was made for little calculators like me.)

I guess I'm trying to figure out if it's really a good idea to have this approach to life. So far, I really feel like this is my nature, and when it works out it makes me pretty happy. If I weren't a scientist, I could have been a fundamentalist because I'm such a perfectionist. I'm a little concerned about how this will work when I have kids. Chris is also a perfectionist, and he's probably worse than me. He's less obsessed with numerical progress along positive dimensions, but more obsessed with strict boundaries in thought and behavior. We have good natured arguments since of course we're not obsessive about the same things. It's going to be different when we have kids though, since they're not going to have any perfectionism at all. This could get ugly. I'll need a good numerical measure of how good I parent I am so that I can make sure and try to maximize it.

Haven't posted in a while

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Haven't posted in a while. I think I've made a mistake to try and make the blog all about science and skepticism. Before the election got into full swing, that was all I was thinking about. Now I'm obsessive about the election. (Yes we can!)

I'm on vacation this week, and enjoying a leisurely afternoon at Panera. Research is going well, Chris's job is going well, I'm seeing my family this week, life in general is pretty good. Anyway, I'm going to loosen my own standards and make this a general blog from here on out.

April 19th, 2008

The 20 Million Dollar Duck

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(Gomen nasai for not posting in so long)

So Chris's boss hadn't known anything about homeopathy, and after talking about it a bit, amused himself for a while on the internet learning about how bizarre it is. He apparently came across an article about the 20 million dollar duck.

Remember Oscillococcum? That sugar pill with 10^-400 g of duck liver, because duck liver has the bacteria that causes the flu? Apparently, it's a 20 million dollar per year business. I saw some in the drug store the other day for 12$ a package for a sugar pill that does precisely nothing. I just stared in disbelief, realizing that there's really no way of fighting something like this. If you can get even a very small percentage of people to buy your 12$ sugar pills, you will be very very very rich. In a capitalist society, that's a pretty attractive profit margin.

And of course, staying power comes from the same principle as fraternity hazing. Anything you had to go to great lengths to get feels more valuable to you. Someone has a strong incentive to believe it works since the moment they admit it doesn't, it means they've been an idiot who pays 12$ for sugar pills.

Anyway, back to the duck. With the extremely high levels of dilution, they can make 20 million dollars worth of pills with a small piece of one duck's liver every year. Thus the 20 million dollar duck. Actually, with some back of the envelope calculations, assuming a dollar a pill, that's 20 million or 2e6x1g pills per year. At 10e-400 grams dilution, that's still roughly an expected value of 10e-394 g of "molecules" in their whole supply. Meaning that even if they're in business a hundred years, they really only ever needed one duck.

What I'm saying is that the real victim here is the 20 million dollar yearly duck. There's no reason to kill that poor duck. (Though I realize that France has a history of abusing ducks in general.)

March 5th, 2008

Social Security

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Not sure if I really want to get into politics on this blog, but the more I make it about what I'm interested in, the more often I'll update it. So here's my reply to todays Mano Singham blog post on social security:

I agree that the U.S. president saying that the U.S. may not honor its treasury bond debts is very disturbing. I also find it disturbing when conservatives talk about how the budget would be more than balanced if we did away with the entitlement programs. Of course the budget would balance if we kept all taxes the same and either took the left wing approach and cut out the wars or took the right wing approach and cut out Social Security and Medicare. However, the problem with the latter approach is that Social Security money comes from Social Security taxes. What's more, those taxes are regressive, with a disproportionate burden on lower income earners. So one could have been making <$10000 a year, and still have had a substantial chunk of their money taken out for SS. While I don't necessarily agree, one can argue that it's okay in this case because people in lower income brackets get more of the benefits. So if we were to default on those benefits in order to pay down the deficit, we're changing the law to steal money disproportionately from the poor when they had every reasonable expectation of being repaid. If I was in dire financial straits, and I owed money to bank and to a neighbor who really couldn't afford to lend me the money in the first place and needed it back for food and rent, I'm going to pay the neighbor and default on the bank loan.
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