Monday, September 29, 2008

Gas Shortage Becoming a Blood Shortage

I just got back from donating a triple unit of platelets. Earlier today the Kroger up the street had a fresh supply of gas so I waited in line for 30 minutes to get a tank full of gas for $3.79 a gallon. I was going to cancel my appointment because I didn't want to use my precious gas just to drive for a blood donation. It didn't take me long to rule out that idea.

As I was going through all the preliminaries I asked the girl at the Red Cross if the gas shortage had affected the number of donations. Unfortunately it had. They had 6 cancellations today and 7 yesterday. I felt even better about my decision to drive down and donate.

It's not much of a stretch to see that needless government intervention is now causing blood shortages.

If I have a company that sell widgets for $4.00 and I make a $.40 profit on each widget. I can make a pretty good business as long as there is still a market for widgets. Now suppose that the supply of widgets drops in my area but the demand has stayed the same. I will soon sell out of widgets. Since there is still a demand for the widgets I could FedEx some from another part of the country to sell. If I did I'd have to increase the cost to cover the additional cost of FedExing the widgets. The demand is still there so I could sell them all at the increased cost. Once widget supply got back to normal there would be no need to FedEx them in so competition would force the prices back down to pre-shortage levels.
Now suppose the government passed a law that you couldn't charge more than $4.00 for your widgets. I'm not going to spend extra money that I can recoup to increase my supply. So rather than sell them at a loss I'll let the shelves sit empty until I can get some widgets without having to pay the FedEx cost. If this goes on for too long any industry that relies on widgets will start to feel the effect of the government regulations on the cost of widgets. The supply could be increased, but government regulations make it not profitable so the effect of the legitimate shortage is exaggerated by regulation.

Does this sound familiar? This is exactly what is happening in Atlanta with the current gas crisis. The pipeline is below capacity, but anti-price gouging laws are preventing stations from charging higher prices. If they could charge a little more they could pay the extra cost for a truck to come in from another source. But since they can't the stations just wait for their normal sources and just sell it all out.
The government created shortage is now causing people to cut back on their extra travel. Unfortunately too many have decided that donating blood was one of their optional activities.

I'm not a fan of complete deregulation. Sometimes that can get us in just as much trouble. However too much regulation really gets in the way of letting the market work the way it should.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Deception as Policy

“All war is deception” Sun Tzu

A few months ago I blogged about the dangers of constant violent imagery. Once you start down the road of comparing your situation to a battle, a war or even a campaign you start to behave as if winning the “battle” and surviving long enough to ultimately win the “war” are the only real goal. Truth and accountability seem to be the first casualty to this type of twisted, ends justifies the means logic.
Eight years ago a candidate for President promised to end this type of permanent campaign. He promised to take politics out of the driver’s seat and make actually governing his primary focus. He promised to reach across the aisle and actually make the changes and corrections to the government that those who put him in office expected.
Somewhere along the way President Bush lost his focus. Changing the culture in Washington took a back seat and he began playing by the same rules as the rest of them. Granted, Bush did not create the concept of the permanent campaign. But he did take it to new levels.
Sun Tzu and most military leaders since would tend to agree that deception is necessary in war. Unfortunately, our President and the rest of his advisors felt that it was okay to use deceptive tactics, that may be permissible during a war, to deceive the Congress and ultimately the American people into going into war in the first place.

Scott McClellan’s book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception gives a first hand perspective of the events that lead to the Bush White House loosing the ethical higher ground that they had promised to bring to Washington. McClellan puts much of the blame on Libby, Rove and Cheney. He doesn’t seem to think that they shared the President’s vision of changing the culture.

McClellan portrays President Bush not as the villain, as some conservative pundits have claimed, but as an honest decent man who, for one reason or another, just didn’t stand up and do things the way he had promised to, the way they should have been done.
I admire McClellan’s dedication and conviction to the truth and a better government.

“I don’t believe the path to better democracy is served by exaggerated claims, distorted partisan attacks, or unsupported accusations of bad faith. Neither of our leading political parties is a repository of evil, and the vast majority of leaders on both sides of the aisle and at all levels of government are decent, well-meaning, and hard-working citizens who love our country and want to do the right thing. In diagnosing the problems we suffer from and the kinds of changes we need to make, I think it’s crucial to cling to truth, even when it is more nuanced, complex, and ambiguous than the extreme partisans on either side may choose to believe.” (p.309)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bumps and Bruises

Yesterday while driving around town for work I saw a dead deer on the side of the road. Unfortunately I’ve grown rather callus to seeing “roadkill” and normally I’m not too affected by seeing it. The events of last weekend made me see this particular deer’s death in a different light. The deer was young, not quite a fawn but he still had a few spots left and he wasn’t quite yet an adult. It also wasn’t out in the boondocks. This deer was about a 100 yards up one of the overpasses on the one of the busiest interchange in the world. Not quite an adult yet this deer had somehow got himself deep into a world that he was very unfamiliar with and didn’t know how to react. I began to think about how terrified this little guy must have been in those last few minutes of his life.

As a parent I try to make sure my children are prepared to handle the real world. I realize that they aren’t always going to be able to stay under my protective care, and I wouldn't want to restrict them by doing so. However, exposing them to the real world does not come without its bumps and bruises, some literal and some figurative. It’s hard not to feel like you’ve failed in some small way when your kids bring home a bruise that you could have prevented. When it comes to preventing my kids from reliving some of the same bad events of my adolescence I had a pretty crummy weekend.

I’m cursed with having a brain that thinks in metaphors. Sometimes it helps me to explain myself, but other times it haunts me. The image of this deer and the metaphor behind it are just too real for me and I’m having a hard time putting them aside.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kewl

Memory

One Sunday, several years ago I attended my sister's Ward so I could be there for the blessing of my niece. It was a nice day and most of my family and extended family were there. After the service one of my in-laws stopped me and told me that she knew of a company that was hiring technicians. On her suggestion I applied and was accepted at the company that I now work for. I remember this event very clearly. It was very important to me both because it was my sister's first child and it was the because it is the moment that changed my career path from barely scraping by at REI to becoming and engineer for AT&T.
But there is one big problem. In spite of how my brain remembers it it simply couldn't have happened. You see my niece is only 8 years old now and I've been working at this job for 9 1/2 years. How could I have more seniority at this company than my niece has on this Earth if her birth proceeded my employment there?
In the past couple years I've been studying quite a bit about false memories and how fluid our memories actually are. Our brain is not the running video of our lives that we'd sure like it to be. Instead it grabs emotions and concepts and sometimes it links event by the emotions and feeling felt and combines them into the same event. This little trick of our brain has caused people to even confess to crimes that they didn't commit. When I first read about this phenomenon I didn't quite believe it. Perhaps just like everybody thinks they are better drives than the rest of the world, I thought that I was a better "rememberer" than everybody else. This memory of my niece's blessing has forced me to reconsider how fallible my memory actually is.
Logically I have come to the conclusion that I had gone to my sister's Ward a second time, a few years before my niece was born and that was when I got the tip about the new job. I can't for the life of me figure out why I would have been there, but I'd be willing to bet that since I forgot why my brain filled in the blanks by combining the two trips and now I remember then as just one event. Even though I know they could not have happened as one event I still can't separate the two.
Just something to consider the next time you take a stand and are absolutely positive that something happened exactly the way you remember it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Some Consistency Please

How would you like to be playing a game, lets say it’s baseball, and the umpire allows one team to get away with something that he doesn’t allow the other team? It would be kind of unfair don’t you think? Both teams should be playing by the same rules. No matter what those rules are, they should be consistent. If a visiting team member just ties the ball to first base the tie should go to the runner. And likewise for the home team, the tie goes to the runner. It wouldn’t be a level playing field if the tie went to the runner for one team and to the ball for the other. Even if some umpires take a stricter interpretation of some rules there usually isn’t much of a problem unless he seems bias toward one team or the other. I’ve heard post game interviews with pitchers who had an umpire with a very small strike zone. Typically they could work within the tighter strike zone as long as he kept the same tighter strike zone for the other pitcher too. Consistency. Both teams are accepting of the limitations as long as they are consistent for both teams.

Reporters, pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle have a lot to learn about consistency. I’ve been amused by some of the claims and accusations that have been tossed around during this election. It seems that each side will claim that what they are doing now is fair and what the opposite side is doing is unfair, even if that directly contradicts the actions and claims that were made are few months ago. Personally I’d just like to see some consistency so I know what the rules are.

A few examples:

If you’re going to count every day of their life since one candidate started getting a government paycheck as time spent serving the country then you should do the same for the opponent and not just add together the number of days he signed in for role call. If total days since x is the rule, fine. If total number of days signed in is the rule, fine. But be consistent for both sides.

On that note If experience in office is used as an asset for one candidate it shouldn’t be used to criticize another for being too entrenched in Washington as usual politics. Just be consistent.

On the flip side of that if being an outsider who hasn’t had much Washington experience is a benefit then allow the same claim from both sides. Just be consistent.

If a certain phase is determined to be sexist or bigoted then it is sexist and bigoted for all candidates. Don’t use the phrase yourself and then criticize others for using it.

If a candidate is going to tout a certain aspect of their life like their religion or their family life or whatever as an asset, then they have by their own actions made that part of their life "in bounds" and it should stay "in bounds" for both sides to either praise or criticize. It's like after you hit a ball that looks like it might have homer distance you try to declare it a foul if it looks like it might not make the wall. Just be consistent.

As a short disclaimer: I have yet to make up my mind about who to vote for in November. If you think this post is biased toward any candidate, you are wrong. I'm pretty annoyed with all of them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Happened

With raising my kids I find that they will frequently come to me and tattle on one another. Sometimes these little information sessions start of with the attitude of "I was just sitting in my room, alone, minding my own business when so-and-so just came up and smacked me on the head with a stick." In those situations I rarely take the comments at face value and look for a deeper cause to the problem described. Every now and then I get a more honest and apologetic form of tattling. "Dad, so-and-so and I were sword fighting and I accidentally hit him a little harder than I meant to. I tried to apologize, but he just whacked me over the head with a stick." Granted this still may not be the whole truth but it's likely a whole lot closer to the truth than the "minding my own business" line. So I tend to be more sympathetic when I get a response that acknowledges at least some complicity in the problem than when they just seem to get defensive.

Earlier this week I started reading What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception by former Press Secretary Scott McClellan. I was prepared to have McClellan start off with the attitude of "there I was, in the White House, minding my own business..." If that had been the case I would likely not have continued reading past the preface. But that's not what happened. McClellan started of with the apology. He acknowledge that he was either indirectly or directly complicit in many of the criticisms that he was preparing to detail. Rather than simply attack his former boss as the bad guy, on the contrary he still paints the President as a good man who just got hung up in the culture of Washington. Rather than change Washington as he had promised in his campaign the whole administration just went about playing the game the way everybody else in the beltway was playing it. McClellan's cathartic, honest approach has me really studying this book that I honestly had not intended to give more than a cursory scan.

Last year I read a couple books that detailed the steps that people will take to isolate themselves from the decisions that they make. Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me and the Lucifer Effect both described how we use cognitive dissonance to convince ourselves that what we did was right. I'm only in the first couple chapters of McClellan's book and I'm already noticing some startling similarities between the behaviors of the detailed by McClellan and the examples in these other books. I don't believe that the Bush administration intended to do anything unethical. I just think that their "ends justifies the means" strategies got out of hand. When we start to excuse flaws in our own behavior what we wouldn't accept from others we leave the moral high ground and start walking along the steeper slopes of unethical and immoral behavior.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Monday, September 08, 2008

Noahisms Continued

So my girls got the chance to march in a parade around the field to start off the Braves game on Sunday. Normally I wouldn't have skipped church to go to a ball game ,but to see your little Girl Scouts in a parade before the game, now that was a little different story.

Well before the game I overhead Noah sharing the wisdom he learned at the last game with his little sister. It went something like this:

"Now Eve, since you've never been to a baseball game before I just wanna warn you about something. You see there is no clock in baseball. They just keep on playing. It could take three years to get to the ninth inning!"

As if Noah's perception of baseball being an open-ended never ending game wasn't skewed enough.
Yesterday at about 4:00 when the game was tied 4-4 I had to explain the concept of extra innings to him. He was just livid.
We eventually left at the top of the 13th inning when they announced that it was the longest game of the season so far.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Debunked

Have you ever been in a position where you totally agree with someone's message you just really wish they could have delivered it better? I find myself in this position quite frequently. For instance, I agree with most libertarian party platforms but the candidates they choose frequently come across as out of control nutcases. Ron Paul's constant overstatements and hysterical twisting of the fact in the primaries is a prime example.
Well I'm also finding myself in that position with the current book I'm reading. Debunked by Richard Roeper takes on many of the more popular conspiracy theories of the first part of the 21st Century. He handles everything from the 9/11 conspiracy crowd to the folks who think that "American Idol" is rigged. Roeper clearly has his head firmly on his shoulders and isn't easily swayed without large amounts of evidence. He uses language like "skeptical toolkit" and "baloney detector" which are catch phrases in the skeptical community and show that he is educated on how to recognize a baseless claim when he sees one. He does a pretty good job of addressing the claims of all of these conspiracy theories in the same language and style that the conspiracy nuts use.
I guess that's the problem I'm having with the book. Much of it is written in the same style as the emails that spread the conspiracy in the first place- right up to the use of all caps and multiple exclamation points. I also don't see the need for the profanities that grace nearly every single page. It paints an image that the author is just angrily pounding on he keyboard and yelling at the monitor. I feel like I've been yelled at for the last fifteen minutes after when I finish a chapter.
The conspiracy emails typically string a bunch of vague facts in line and then coax the reader into drawing the conclusion that they are therefore linked. Roeper takes these theories and using their own twisted logic puts it right back in their laps and then asks them leads them to accept his conclusion in the same, in-your-face, way.
Although undeserved, skeptics already have a bad reputation of being cynical and negative. Roeper's style adds snarky and confrontational to the list. There are several skeptics who are very fun to talk with, non-confrontational, and would make much better spokesmen than Roeper. My concern is that next time a media representative wants to get a skeptical point of view for their story they might assume that all skeptics will treat them like Roepertreats those who disagree with him. The reporter may choose to avoid getting the skeptical viewpoint altogether or at the very least give it less air time than if the skeptic was more pleasant.
Again, I agree with Roeper's analysis of the claims in this book. And I recognize the sarcasm and satire of the book. I just think he could have made his points a little more... professionally.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Trick or Treatment cont.

I’ve just finished reading Trick or Treatment. Since I’ve made it a little bit of a hobby to stay informed about the science or lack thereof behind many alternative treatments, I can’t really say that much of the information in the book surprised me. However, the thorough history of these treatments’ origins gave me a better understanding of why so many people choose to believe in these treatments even after the foundations that they are built on have shown to have no basis in fact or evidence.

Their evaluation was primarily limited to acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal medicines. Each was given a very good historical overview. Then they started looking into the actual trails to test each treatment. With most of them the treatments were found to have little to no effect beyond that of placebo. In evidence-based science research if you find an anomalous effect and to try to isolate that effect to test it the effect gets stronger as you increase your protocols and the test can be duplicated by other researchers. In nearly all of the tests of acupuncture, homeopathy and chiropractic the results were indistinguishable from placebo and any anomalous effects disappeared once the proper controls were in place. So clearly if these treatments are working at all they are not working because the water had a memory of the arsenic it used to contain, the innate intelligence can travel up and down the spine, or the chi’i can flow better along the meridians.

The one treatment they authors did find more effective than placebo was the herbal treatments. This was not, however, an endorsement. Unlike the other three treatments discussed in the book herbal treatments actually have active ingredients. Those active ingredients may indeed have positive effects. They also have side-effects. (I always get a kick out of the infomercials for homeopathic remedies that brag about having no side effects. Of course they don’t have any side effects. They have no effects at all.) The inconsistent dosages and lack of controls that would be put on these products otherwise make herbal treatments the most dangerous of the ones reviewed.

My personal concern is not that any of these treatments themselves would be harmful. The real danger comes from the fact that while the patient is busy trying these alternative treatments they are forgoing the evidence-based treatments that could really help them.

Rather than just seeming like a couple of guys who had an axe to grind the authors genuinely come across as open-minded seekers of evidence. In fact one of the authors used to be a practicing homeopath. He became disillusioned with his trade after he tried to recreate Hahnemann’s original experiment that was supposed to have cured malaria. After numerous trials he was forced to conclude that there must have been some mistake in Hahnemann's original work. Since that experiment was the foundational experiment in the whole “like cures like” philosophy of homeopathy, the author was forced to question the entire field. His research not only convinced him that homeopathy is just a placebo, it was a very expensive one to boot.

In the last chapters the book calls for stricter government control and labeling of all treatments that may take the place of traditional medicines. My libertarian views normally restrict me from endorsing big government solutions. However, these treatments clearly represent a danger to the taxpayers when they are taken in place of more tested, evidence-based treatments. I wouldn’t want the government to restrict them entirely, but I see no problem with stricter labeling laws.

Several years ago a guy I know was diagnosed with leukemia. He is an alternative medicine practitioner. He has gone to India to study several different forms of treatment. He is even a believer that the Earth has acupuncture meridians and that we can fix the climate problems by simply placing large needles in the Earth at exactly the right point. (I wish that last sentence was a joke, but it isn’t). As detached as his beliefs were I really though that he wouldn’t be around much longer once he was diagnosed with leukemia. The last time I spoke with him his leukemia was in full remission and it wasn’t because of any alternative treatment. It was because he took his doctor’s recommendation and had a very aggressive, mainstream treatment that included radiation treatment and chemotherapy. I am so thankful that he did not risk his own life with alternative treatments.

Note:
There are different ways to Romanize the pronunciation of the Chinese word . I’ve seen it spelled ki, qi, chi, and chi’i. for these posts I simply used chi’i because that was the one the authors chose. Technically it is pronounced 気.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Theater of the Absurd


I've always enjoyed Sam Beckett's plays and Jeremy Irons' acting. The effect of making Irons play both characters in this version is particularly effective.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Trick or Treatment

It's been a while since I've reviewed a book on my blog. Primarily, because I really haven't read much in the last couple months. I have been reading, but most of the books have been on how to play the guitar and not really good subject of book reviews. Victoria checked out a few book that she thought I'd like. Wanting a little break from the guitar, I started reading the first one yesterday.
Trick or Treatment is a very thorough study of several of the more popular trends in alternative medicine. The first chapter is a history of the scientific method and a lesson on how we discover what works and what doesn't. The authors focus on what they refer to as evidence-based medicine. All the anecdotes and sales pitches mean nothing if the treatments don't stand up to rigorous scientific testing. Lets put the superstition, snake oil and wishful thinking aside and focus strictly on the facts.
The remaining chapters of the book deal with the top four of alternative therapies; acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal remedies. So far I've only read the chapter on acupuncture. But if they handle the other chapters as thoroughly as they did acupuncture I know I will enjoy them.
I was very pleased that the authors did not start out with an agenda. Their only loyalty is to the evidence. Honestly, I was a little surprised that they had anything positive to say about acupuncture at all. After finding no evidence of the alleged mechanism of acupuncture, chi'i, I expected them to just conclude that the entire practice was based on a flawed understanding of human physiology. While they admitted there is no evidence of chi'i and that the very nature of acupuncture negates a true double-blind test they did say that in certain cases it does promote pain relief. Until somebody figures out a way to truly double-blind test acupuncture it may be impossible to tell weather this is a real effect of the treatment or if it is placebo.
I'll give a complete review after I finish the book. In a day and age when Jenny McCarthy is telling us to just trust her "mommy instinct" and not vaccinate our kids it is refreshing to read a book that bases its conclusions on evidence and not just emotion, anecdotal evidence and superstition.