Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: The Hundred-Year Lie

I looked through The Hundred-Year Lie: How to Protect Yourself from the Chemicals That Are Destroying Your Health by Randall Fitzgerald a few times in the local Borders, but was too scared to buy a copy until a couple of months ago. Now, I'm too scared to finish reading it. This book details how during the last hundred years we've industrialized agriculture and made health care more "scientific," but in the process have filled our landscape and bodies with chemicals, some of which are known to be harmful, and others with unknown long-term effects. What's worse, the effects we do know about are based on the chemicals tested singly, so we don't know about how they may act in combination.

As a recovering materialist, I have a different response to the book than most people probably would. I'm not joining an environmental crusade or pushing alternative medicine. I just have this one point: if we're all just bags of chemicals, as the medical industry seems to think, shouldn't we be a lot sicker than we are given the amount of toxic substances we're exposed to? That we are healthy at all points to something missing in our model. See my posts at my other blog for more details.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts on My Upcoming Tattoo

I have an appointment Saturday with a local tattoo parlor to get the astrological symbol for Vesta permanently engraved on my left shoulder. Vesta is an asteroid that symbolizes devotion to a cause or work. The cause, in my case, is bringing the benefits of spirituality to those for whom organized religion and a literal interpretation of their holy book for whatever reason just doesn't work. I have joined the unnumbered others who are also doing this work. I say unnumbered because they don't look any differently from you or me. You may not notice anything different if you happen to meet one of us, but we're in every city, and we're here to help.

The symbol is a stylized temple flame. The flame burns on an altar on which I will leave the sacrifices of my perceived limitations and my judgements of others. By those sacrifices I hope to clear more space within myself for divine magic to help myself and those around me.

This act represents a major step in my life and I'm really looking forward to it. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Here's a Real Health Care Reform: Try Using the Placebo Effect

At the time of this writing, our friends in Washington are arguing over a new health care plan that will either fix everything or ruin everything, according to which side you want to believe. My opinion is that things will remain basically the same whether the plan passes or not from the standpoint of the people receiving health care. Yes, more people will be included, and most of the people who were already included will pay a bit more, and some will pay a lot more. But the whole purpose of this is health, which includes life expectancy and quality of life. There's room for improvement with the former and we can do a lot better with the latter. I have my own plan to achieve this, and I can guarantee you that it won't cost a penny more than we already pay, and will most likely cost us a lot less.

Before I tell you about my plan, I would like to talk a bit about how we got into this mess. I mentioned in a prior post that health insurance actually makes health care more expensive in the long run because it hides the cost from the consumer. Nationalized health care is even worse because it hides the cost from everyone. I may have also mentioned that we give monopolies to corporations who develop new drugs, and put into a place a testing system that costs billions of dollars and still doesn't keep out all of the harmful drugs, but does give the pharmaceutical companies an excuse to earn windfall profits while their patents last. Also, we've replaced natural substances in our diet like animal fat and cane sugar with processed substances like corn syrup and canola oil, in the former case to lower costs, in the latter for health reasons. These things are all true, but none of them are the root cause of the problem.

Here's the root cause: our medical model implies that the human body is a machine. We've taken the position that only pharmaceutical drugs and medical procedures can fix our problems. Yes, diet and exercise are said to be helpful, but that only supports my point, which is this: all of these things reduce medical problems (and their prevention) to issues of chemistry and mechanics, and completely leave out (by design) the role of the mind and emotions. The worst part is that we all know about something that proves that our model is incomplete at best.

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about the Placebo Effect. The effect is so well known that no study of new pharmaceutical drugs is considered to be valid unless it is double-blind. Not only is the patient not allowed to know if he's really getting the new wonder drug instead of a sugar pill, the person giving the pill isn't allowed to know either!

So my idea is this: instead of treating the placebo effect as something to be eliminated through controls, why not find out how it works and how to use it to our advantage? If sugar pills will work in some cases and we can find out why they work, then we have a solution that works for less money and with fewer side effects. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have this idea, but maybe if enough of us mention it they'll actually try it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The New Camelot? I Sure Hope Not!

I've seen a few references this year about the Obama Administration being the new "Camelot," referring of course to the JFK Administration which had that nickname. When I hear that, I wonder to myself if the person using the expression has actually read the King Arthur story. Those of you who have read the story will know where I'm going with this; for those who haven't, it's not pretty. The story ends with a dead King Arthur and a kingdom collapsed in ruins. The story is really about the end of the Golden Age.

At the time of this writing, unemployment is approaching double digits, and the deficit is above a trillion. The national debt is in the trillions. Sooner or later, if deficit spending at the current rate continues, and there's no indication that the budget can be balanced any time soon, the interest on the national debt will exceed the tax revenue that can be collected. At that point there will be two options: default on the debt or print money to pay the interest. Either option would be disastrous. So maybe there's something to this Camelot analogy after all.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On Tobacco and Health Care

I briefly watched our President speak about the new tobacco law. I was surprised to learn that peer pressure wasn't the driving force behind teen smoking, as it was when I was a teenager. No, the driving force is advertising, combined with candy-flavored cigarettes that make smoking more accessible. I also learned that, unlike the traditional warning printed on cigarette boxes, which no one pays any attention to, the new graphic details of the effects of smoking that will be prominently pictured on the sides of the new cigarette packaging will be much more effective in scaring would-be smokers.

All sarcasm aside, I really wanted to talk about the new government health plan instead. First, it's a good indicator of how bad things are that people with health insurance are filing bankruptcy due to medical bills. I'll talk about an implication of that later. An even better indicator of how bad things are is that the very idea that the people who brought you Medicare can do a better job of providing health insurance than private industry is spoken in public with a straight face. What's even worse is that those people are most likely correct.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One thing I expect to happen is that the government health plan will come out at a much lower price point than the private plans, eventually choking them out. One thing I don't expect to see happen is a re-evaluation of the process and the underlying model of the body. But you never know. We could throw out the model of body as machine and replace it with the model of body as garden. We could question whether the patent-protected new drugs with horrific side effects are really worth the money we're spending on them. Or it may be more effective to daydream about winning the lottery and retiring in Hawaii.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bring Back the Double Edge

Continuing on the theme that sometimes the old ways really are best, today I want to talk about shaving, and specifically the double-edged razor. I started using a double-edged razor back in college in the late eighties on the recommendation of a roommate, who said I'd have fewer razor bumps. It was also cheaper, which was a big plus for a student. After college, I added a brush and soap to the process, also cheaper, but more time-consuming. After losing the razor holder in a move in the nineties, I went back to shaving cream and twin-blade razors.

Recently, after buying a new razor holder on Amazon, I decided to give the double edge another try. I'm here to tell you that it's even better than I remembered. The blades are cheaper, and the shave is much more comfortable, and my razor bumps have gone away. By the way, I don't know how long it takes stainless steel to rust, but plastic is estimated to take a thousand years to break down in landfills (not sure how they know that, however).

There are some things you need to know if you want to try it. First, the blades are extremely sharp and you'll have to put them in the holder by hand. Be careful, as you'll probably see the blood before you feel that you've been cut. Once in the holder, you don't have to worry about getting cut as much, but you still need to be careful. Next, a brush and soap isn't essential, but if you have the time for it, your patience will be rewarded. The most important thing is to use a light touch. Since there's only one blade, you won't cut all the way down to skin level on the first pass, so don't try. As long as you're patient, you can go over the same area two or three times without any irritation.

A good holder will cost you about twenty dollars; mine included ten blades. You can get the blades at Kroger or Meijer for under three dollars for a ten-pack. You can get the brush and soap with a little bowl for about ten dollars. At five to ten dollars for a five-pack of multi-blade razors, you'll break even in under six months. But the improved shaving experience will be more than worth it.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bring Back Craftsmanship

The biggest current worry right now in my area is whether GM and Chrysler can survive the current recession. As we all know, it's not just the auto industry that's affected, and some are wondering if we aren't living through the second Great Depression. No one really knows for sure what's going to happen. We could get deflation, or rising national debt could send us into hyperinflation if not handled properly. Some of us even have the idea that the whole thing was built like a house of cards to begin with.

That's what I want to talk about today. Let's start with the auto industry. Obviously, the industry relies on people buying new cars. The problem is, people don't necessarily need new cars; they need reliable transportation, which can also be provided by a well-maintained used car. So steps are taken to encourage people to buy new cars they don't really need. Customers having extra money and available credit are just two of the cards in the foundation of the house of cards.

Now let's talk about the stock market. In theory, stock prices are based on things like P/E ratios, but in practice the biggest influence on prices is the ratio of people who want to buy to people who want to sell. The long-term upward trend that lasted up until about a year ago was therefore largely driven by incoming investments being larger that withdrawals, which turned out to be the load-bearing card of the lower layer.

Now let's move on to quality. A trip to the local supermarket, electronics store or auto dealer will put you in front of a variety of products, all of which are attractive-looking and have a base level of quality. The food is tasty and usually won't make you sick (at least not right away); the electronics are fast and flashy; the cars as well.

Closer examination reveals a different picture. Many of the food products have ingredients like MSG and corn syrup, which are thought by some to be harmful, and are in any case not as tasty as the ingredients they substitute for: in the case of MSG, more flavorful base ingredients, herbs and spices; in the case of corn syrup, cane sugar. The electronics and appliances generally work well, but they are often sold along with an extended warranty, almost as if the manufacturer expects them to break just after the normal warranty expires (this actually happened to me with a dryer). The situation with cars is similar, though a lot better than it used to be.

Now compare this to life before the Industrial Revolution. Food was all organically grown, and corn syrup, MSG and canola oil nonexistent. Tomatoes were eaten fresh only when they were harvested; the leftovers were canned. Metal tools were handcrafted. Houses were built with timber frames instead of two-by-fours with just enough wood to prevent the house from falling over.

I'm not suggesting, however, that we undo the Industrial Revolution and go back to hand-woven clothes and horse-drawn carriages. Instead, I put this question to you: how can we combine modern prosperity and medieval craftsmanship?

Friday, March 20, 2009

I Understand You're Tired, but a Tax Revolt's not the Right Answer

Don Cooper has a good post on expressing general disgust with government and recommending a tax revolt. I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments, but a tax revolt is the wrong answer. Not because it wouldn't work, but because it addresses the problem at the wrong level. While it's true that government couldn't exist without our financial support, our ideological support is much more important. What's worse, we can see our money going to taxes (or at least some of it), but most of us have no idea that our beliefs and values are the foundation of government.

The primary question of politics is this: should decisions be made by individuals for themselves, or by a smaller group of individuals for everyone? Most people claim to believe the former, but when push comes to shove, invariably favor the latter. This is the core of the problem. Government exists and is powerful because we want it to exist and be powerful. Until we change our minds on this, tax revolt, "throw the bums out", etc., won't work.

There's also quite a bit of denial surrounding this issue. For example, some of us believe that everything would be O.K. if only we put everything back the way it was in the 50's. Others believe that everything would be all right if only we got the right people into office. Both groups of people really believe in government; they just disagree with the current implementation.

Really fixing things requires as a prerequisite withdrawing our beliefs and not just our tax dollars. If this is done, a tax revolt is irrelevant except that it may speed up things. If it is not done, a tax revolt is irrelevant at best.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Re: I'm not Joining the Strike

Brian Hurt recently made a post on Enfranchised Mind about the proposed refusal of internet authors to support candidates for office who aren't in favor of public campaign financing. He's against the "strike" for the obvious reason that it won't work, and seems to have a good understanding of the reason why: it's rather foolish to look for a solution to a problem from the people who created it in the first place.

The way I look at it, the first question that should be asked is: How prevalent is corruption in government? If it's just a small percentage of elected officials, the answer is to get rid of them. No finance reform necessary. If the problem is more pervasive, and a belief that it is is implied by the belief that campaign finance reform is needed, it won't work for the reason Mr. Hurt mentions: the solution will be implemented by people who are part of the problem. Any laws they pass will contain loopholes.

Mr. Hurt has a good answer to this dilemma. Everyone who blogs has a free press because they have a press. Decentralization of the media is absolutely a good thing.

However, there is a deeper problem. It's not just politicians who are corrupt. The system as it stands involves people voting themselves into other people's pockets. Anything government does beside set ground rules that apply equally to everyone, or provide infrastructure, inherently favors one group of people at the expense of others. This is corrupting by nature, and corrupts everyone involved. In the case of welfare-type provisions, the corruption is even worse because the people involved believe they're doing the right thing.

In the end, there's only one way to get money out of politics, and that's to get politics out of money.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Gullible or Cynical?

The title of this post links to an article by Paul Hein on about the current economic situation and what's being done about it. Mr. Hein has an idea about the situation which has also occurred to me, although in a different context:
Moreover, the Keynesian idea of stimulating the economy via government spending is not new. It’s been tried before; it never works. Doesn’t the current generation of whiz kids know this? Do they never talk to anyone save themselves?

An answer presents itself to me, and I should probably keep mum about it, but I won’t. Here goes: the powers that be WANT the economy to fail. Why? That’s a good question, but I can only speculate about the answer. What is clear, however, is that economic collapse seems guaranteed if the stimulus package is implemented, and those advocating it must surely know it.
I suspected the same type of thing at the inception of the Iraq war. I noticed that our current enemies were people we had supported in the past, and noticed a trend. I concluded that if our leaders consistently pursued policies that led to results that were the opposite of their stated goals, then they must have a different set of real goals.

That idea may appeal to the "tinfoil hat" crowd, but after thinking about it, I realized that the failed policies could be explained without conspiracy theory. Ideology alone was sufficient to explain everything. People can be controlled far more effectively with ideology that anything else, because they think that whatever they do as a result is their own idea. Also, because most people would rather be right than solve their problems, ideology insulates people from the effects of opposing evidence. If you don't believe this, try pointing out to a fundamentalist Christian that there are two conflicting Noah's Ark stories in the Bible. Or try mentioning to a climate-change believer that Greenland was warm enough to support farming in the Middle Ages.

Of course, all of this isn't to say that there isn't a conspiracy. There may be, but even if there is, it's really ideology that's running the show.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Paved with Good Intentions

It has been a very common belief among liberals that if only we could get the right people into office, everything would get better. Now that Obama, who by consensus is "the right person," is in the White House, we'll get to find out if that belief is true. If the new equal pay law is any indicator, the answer is "No."

On the surface, the law seems like a good idea. Why should men get paid more than women for doing the same job? It is a good intention, but there are a couple of problems with it. The first law of economics is that people respond to incentives. So let's look at some incentives.

At a typical company, some of the workers are very dedicated. They care about their job, learn as much as they can about the business, and go the extra mile to make sure the job gets done right. Other workers, on the other hand, just want to get paid and do just enough and just well enough not to get fired. In a perfect situation, the dedicated worker gets paid more than the slacker, and gender has nothing to do with it. In real life, sometimes there are discrepancies, and if this new law gets strictly enforced, some companies who happen to have skewed pay distributions for whatever reason will face fines and/or lawsuits. Some other companies will see this happen and decide that it's easier and safer to just pay everyone the same for the same job, with maybe some allowance for length of time worked and education. So the dedicated worker will get the same pay as the slacker and both will know it. The only way for the dedicated worker to be rewarded is to seek a job at another company with a higher pay scale. So now we have different companies with different pay scales, and there's bound to be some uneven distributions here too. The next step, if government really wants to pursue the matter, is to set pay rates by profession. Now some bureaucrat in Washington is deciding what you get paid, and ability and dedication have nothing to do with it. Is that what you want? And what happens to productivity among the dedicated workers who can't move up to the next pay scale at another company?

Next problem: laws are enacted congressmen with good intentions (let's be generous), but implemented and enforced by a different set of people. The people implementing and enforcing the laws don't necessarily have the same intentions. And, as you have seen from the example above, intentions can't always be implemented because people have the annoying habit of pursuing their own best interest to the extent allowed. It's not a "slippery slope," it's just unintended consequences.

So what's the answer? Well, if women are really paid less than men for the same work, they should be in greater demand from a profit and loss standpoint, and the discrepancy will be corrected by employers who naturally want to get the best employees for the least amount of money. The answer is to ask the question: what is it that stops this from happening?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Better Economic Stimulus Package

At the time of this writing, we here in the U.S. face double-digit unemployment and record national debt and budget deficits, with no sign of any of the above ending any time soon. An economic package that will ease the near-term pain is being discussed. Justin Raimondo, the guy, has made an excellent suggestion for a stimulus package that won't increase the deficit. But we're not advocating that here because it's reactionary, and we're in tune with modern economics.

Instead, I say that the economic stimulus package being discussed doesn't go far enough. If we really owe the money to ourselves, and China, Saudi Arabia and Japan will really loan us as much as we need, why stop there? Why not go all the way and give every household in America a million dollars? That would really stimulate the economy. Consumer spending would skyrocket. It's not real money right? Like my friend at work says, it's all abstract anyway, and worst case, we just repudiate the debts and start over with a new currency. It could work, couldn't it?

If you've been following along, you could reasonably conclude that you've been led down the garden path. Let's not talk about the obvious hyperinflation this program would cause. After all, nobody I talk to about this seems to believe that it could happen here. Let's talk about the recipients of the stimulus money. If they do the right thing with the money, namely pay off their debts and invest the rest, they will be in position for a modest income for life. They won't work any more, and, talk all you want about jobs being moved offshore, there is still plenty of work here that needs to be done. On the other hand, they could do what most people who win the lottery do: spend all of the money and end up broke again. In this case, the economic stimulus will be temporary at best, and the money will end up in the hands of the wealth as usual.

Now you may think that it's harmless to do these things as long as they're not done to such an extreme level. Most people would agree with you. But at what point does it become extreme enough to be harmful? Is a trillion-dollar deficit really moderate enough to be harmless?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tilton's Law: Not Just for Computers

The post linked above is an excellent programming war story which may not mean much to you unless you work with computers for a living, the story has some lessons that can be applied with profit to life in general.

First: whenever you spend hours or days wrestling with a difficult problem, the answer is invariably some stupid little thing that you either forgot or didn't know about, so you may as well check for that first and save some time.

Second: as Mr. Tilton says in his post, "You can run, but you cannot hide." This is especially true when it comes to marriage, as most of the people I know who are divorced broke up as a result of issues that were readily apparent before they got married.

Finally, Tilton's law: "Solve the failure first." Failure provides an excellent opportunity for learning. Take it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

You Don't Have the Right to Your Opinion

If you're like most Americans, you were told many times that "everyone has a right to their opinion." In a legal sense, that's true, although expressing that opinion can sometimes have negative consequences for your career: for example, if you're a meteorologist, expressing skepticism about the human-induced climate change theory is essentially career suicide. But it's not really accurate.

If you research a subject intensively and get information from multiple independent sources, then you do in fact, have a right to your opinion because you've earned it. But what if you haven't done the research? Or what if all your sources draw the same conclusion and you haven't considered any alternative viewpoints? Or if your opinion is just "common sense?" In that case, you do have an opinion, but it's not really your own. Especially if it's just common sense, because that usually means that it's so obvious to you given what you've seen and heard that any opposing viewpoint is simply inconceivable.

So do you have the right to your opinion? Yes, but sometimes "I don't have enough information to know for sure" is the correct answer.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Haskell Names Considered Helpful

I've been working on a SQL parser and pretty-printer in Haskell to help me in my duties as a DBA. After using Parsec, I will never go back to lex and yacc if I can help it. Like most Haskell newbies, I had a hard time with monads at first. I also struggled with the type system, but now I find that it actually makes things easier, especially refactoring.

There's a very active thread going on at fa.haskell about a blog posting linked to in the header. It's a very good article, especially the bit about data being code. But I have to take exception to this part:

One thing that does annoy me about Haskell- naming. Say you’ve noticed a common pattern, a lot of data structures are similar to the difference list I described above, in that they have an empty state and the ability to append things onto the end. Now, for various reasons, you want to give this pattern a name using on Haskell’s tools for expressing common idioms as general patterns (type classes, in this case). What name do you give it? I’d be inclined to call it something like “Appendable”. But no, Haskell calls this pattern a “Monoid”. Yep, that’s all a monoid is- something with an empty state and the ability to append things to the end. Well, it’s a little more general than that, but not much. Simon Peyton Jones once commented that the biggest mistake Haskell made was to call them “monads” instead of “warm, fluffy things”. Well, Haskell is exacerbating that mistake. Haskell developers, stop letting the category theorists name things. Please. I beg of you.

My feeling on this is that using a name like "Appendable" instead of "Monoid" because Appendable is more intuitive is exactly the wrong thing to do. If you see the name "Appendable" for the first time, you think you know what it is. Unfortunately, in this case, the definition you would assume the name has is incomplete at best. However, you don't know that because the name is intuitive, so you don't look it up. Not yet. But you may have to later when you find out that it doesn't exactly do what you want, or you may never have to, which is worse because you won't find out what else it can do.

This is actually an example of a larger trend in computing: making things intuitive and easy to understand for beginners is given a higher priority than developing in-depth knowledge and making tools that are fast and efficient to use for experts. And that's O.K. for the mass market. If you're just writing CRUD screens in VB, C# or Java, then just knowing enough to get by is fine, but you wouldn't be interested in Haskell anyway.