Octavo Dia

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Columbia

I hereby prognosticate that Columbia is on its way to a dictatorship. My rationale, the president has taken the first step towards dictatorship, which is changing the Constitution so that he can run for another term.

Capital Cities

It seems to me that, in the days of nuclear weapons and reliable telecommunications, the idea of a capital city is outdated and downright dangerous. Suppose the terrorists were able to nuke D.C., we'd lose the president, vice president, most of the cabinet, the supreme court, the congress, and the heads of most major administrations, like Social Security. We have all our governmental eggs in one very small basket. I propose, therefore, that we break up our government, moving various parts of the government to widely-spaced cities across the United States. That way we'd at least have a mostly functioning government, or at least require multiple hits, which would be much harder to arrange.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Party of Me: Right of Family

The family is the foundational social unit of our society. As such, it is too important an institution for any government to attempt to alter. The government should not be involved in defining what constitutes a family, nor should it attempt to alter it, or even recognize its arrangements, as recognition quickly becomes definition.

Thanksgiving

In the grinchiness of my life, I have always underappreciated Thanksgiving, as it is the prelude to the endlessly annoying "Christmas Season." Today I realized how important Thanksgiving is. Can you imagine, if we did not have Thanksgiving, how much further back the retailers would push the "Christmas Season?" "Christmas" would start the day after Halloween.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Medicine

Here's a follow-up post about health insurance. We are insuring precisely the wrong half of the medical bills. People simultaneously use too much and too little health care. They use too much when it comes to saving people near the end of their life, which they do primarily from emotional reasons and the off chance that the person might recover. (No, I didn't ask for that experimental treatment. I love you too.) On the other hand, they use too much and don't see the doctor in the early (and usually more easily treatable stages) of a problem. Thus we should insure not the catastrophic events, but the run-of-the-mill care.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Party of Me: Right of Life

The Party of Me recognizes that the Right of Life is not about life at all, nor is it about humanity. Being both human and alive are biological terms. We can thus assure ourselves of what is and isn't alive, and what is and isn't human. The distinction, therefore, is what it means to be a person. Personhood is what separates human tissue from a human being.

The Party of Me furthermore recognizes that there are infinite gradations of humanity on every known scale. Any categorization of humanity, any definition of personhood, will therefore be arbitrary, since the distinction between the greatest of one category and the least of the next is nonexistant. This situation is inherently dangerous, as the definition of personhood can be so easily narrowed.

The Party of Me therefore rejects any distinction that denies the personhood of any individual on any criterion.

The Party of Me

I once formed a political party. It was the party of me, and its platform matched my beliefs perfectly. It even changed to suit me, when my opinions changed. Absolutely perfect, except it had trouble getting votes. Even though its membership was extremely dedicated, it lacked that cross party appeal. So the party of me disbanded, selling out its idealism for a very small share of political power.

I think I should resurrect the party of me. I will start rebuilding its party platform and launch a recruitment drive. Unfortunately, schizophrenia seems to be the only way to increase membership, but I can still work on the party platform, which is what the next several posts will be about.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Making out like band(its)

I have a theory, derived from Jared Diamond's classification of societal types in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Modern states are large enough, and the global economy is integrated enough, that almost all competition for resources happens within one's own society, and that membership in that society provides you with no comparative advantage against those with whom one primarily competes. Thus I propose that the comparative advantage of states, which overthrew bands, tribes, and chiefdoms, operates only externally, and that, if one could form a band within a state, one would gain a further competitive advantage. Thus an extended family, operating as a mutual support system, would have an advantage over any single person or family, since the extended family's members would not all fall on hard times at the same time, and that life-stage specific resources (baby clothes, for instance) could be transferred between members. Thus one would expect that groups that have strong family backgrounds (Hispanics, for instance), would be the most competitive members of society in their re-emerging bands.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Courts v. Legislatures

In the local Sunday paper yesterday, a letter to the editor about concealed carry legislation pointed out that such legislation is controversial until it's passed, and then it becomes a non-issue. Noumenon and I were discussing this, since, contrarily, controversial court judgements are ever-present issues. We came to the conclusion that the reason legislative decisions are much less steeped in controversy is, (a) their decisions tend to involve more compromise, (b) that compromise is backed by a variety of interest groups on both sides, and (c) the opportunity for change is much smaller--changing one Supreme Court Justice can reverse a number of landmark cases, but changing one legislator will, at most, add a couple of amendments or loopholes.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Nuclear Power

The White House endorses it, and so do I. Giving people only part of the nuclear fuel cycle to keep them behaving. Makes sense to me.

How to Survive a Robot Uprising

How to Survive a Robot Uprising

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Shoes and ships and sealing wax

I just finished reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. The book was very good, brilliant at some times, so long as he stayed away from the oceans. The ocean seems to puzzle anthropologists terribly. They tend to see it as either an impassable barrier or a skating rink on which on can cruise where one pleases. Unfortunately, the ocean is neither of these things.

With regards to the impassable barrier, the author tends to view the ocean as impassable until one develops walled boats, or at the very least, double-outrigger canoes. These types of vessels, however, are uniquely vulnerable in a way that other forms of maritime transports, known collectively as rafts, are not. A raft does not sink in a storm. The only way to sink a raft is to batter it apart, and battering apart a raft is much more difficult than battering apart a boat. He does refer to rafts once, in which he describes them as unseaworthy and easily captured by Pizarro. Unfortunately, he is highly incorrect in this assessment. First, the balsa rafts on which the coastal tribes of South America depended where obviously seaworthy (they were sailing on the sea, after all), they were, contrary to his assessment, able to tack into the wind, and where also uniquely suited to the environment in which they operated, since the coast of South America has few natural ports, it as necessary for maritime transport to be able to beach itself, something Pizarro could not do. The ease of capture, furthermore, was accomplished because Pizarro was the first, and the Indians had not yet dealt with Spaniards. In later incidents, Spanish attempts to board the rafts did not go well, since the Indians simply cut the ropes, broke the raft apart, and dumped the Spanish into the water, and then paddled the logs back together, retied them, and went on their way.

With regards to archeological evidence, rafts do not tend to look like anything. A traditional log raft, when it is reaching the end of its useful career, does not tend to be discarded. After all, you have all of that pre-cut firewood just floating there. All one needs to do is roll the logs onto the beach, let them dry, and start your fire. Since rafts don't sink like ships do, maritime archeology wouldn't discover any on the sea floor. And a shipwreck produces logs and bits of rope. As for the other type of raft used, the "reed boat", it outlives its usefulness when the ropes holding the reed bundles together give way, meaning that it falls apart into piles of reeds, which one would expect in a marine environment. Unless somehow depicted in artwork, the use of ocean-going rafts leaves very little evidence.

With regards to the skating rink idea, oceans are dynamic things. The author comments on the logical way to cross the Indian ocean--hugging the coasts--with his puzzlement about the population of Madagascar. Coastal navigation is much more difficult, and dangerous, that trans-oceanic navigation. Out in the middle of the ocean, there's not really anything to run into. No shoals, no rocks, no reefs, and the waves are less severe--there aren't many breakers in the middle of the ocean. And, once one is in the middle of the ocean, one can take advantage of currents. The distance between the New and Old world is not constant. If you follow the 2,000 mile Columbus route from Spain to the Caribbean, in a ship that travels, for example, 6 miles an hour, one actually travels only 1200 miles, since the ocean itself, in the course of your travels, has moved 800 miles towards the Caribbean. Sailing the other way, in a ship going a similar speed, one would actually travel 6000 miles. Why did Spain conquer the New World, rather than vice-versa? The trip was a lot shorter, for one thing. Furthermore, the prevailing winds flow along with the current, so not only would one have to sail five times farther, one would have to sail against the wind, probably tripling the total sailing distance. Thus you have a 1200 mile trip against an 18,000 mile trip. How did the Austronesian population manage to reach Madagascar without leaving their detrius on a thousand coastal landing sites? They sailed with the monsoon winds on the Indian Ocean's primary current. When they sailed back, they waited for the seasonal change in the monsoon, and sailed right back.

In his analysis of Polynesia, Mr. Diamond stretches out a map of the Pacific, and see the obvious route to population--island hopping from Asia, and walking to America. Far from the ocean being an impassable barrier, tundra is much more so. The author posits that it took 40,000 years of adaptation to Siberian conditions to be able to walk across to America. Alternatively, one is fishing on a raft in the Taiwan strait, gets hit by a storm, and sits there, doing nothing, until the current brings you to the islands of the Pacific Northwest a few days later. The difference in technology? Tying some logs together v. thousands of years of experience in artic survival. Once reaching the Pacific Northwest, the population dispersion would follow approximately the same pattern as land-bridge immigrants.

To island hop from Asia, however, one has to sail against the wind (in boats that cannot tack) and against the prevailing current. Alternatively, one could sail from South and Central America, with the wind at one's back, on a powerful current, and be taken directly to Polynesia.
The basic premise of his book was very good, but his application of the hypothesis to ocean travel left much to be desire.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Holy Shi'ite!

Check out this open letter from an Iranian journalist. It's a very radical departure from what I expected, so I have no opinion on it yet.

People who should be beaten severely

Drug diluters are among the people who I believe should be beaten severely.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Playing Doctor

I have been quite disturbed by the whole healthcare issue, mainly because I hadn't formed an opinion of it. Today, however, I have formed an opinion, and, as usual, it is long and involved.

I began by defining the problem. Medical prices are too dang high. High prices means one of three things, high demand, low supply, or both. The American lifestyle, of course, increases demand for healthcare, but the fact that we import doctors from abroad demonstrates that the American economy is not producing enough medical personnel on its own. Thus the answer is both.


The Demand for Healthcare

How can we change American's lifestyle? Making McDonalds kowtow before the gods of more healthful living is not terribly effective, since those who do not want to be healthful flock to Burger King or simply order the least healthful items on the menu. Furthermore, any attempt to mandate certain levels of nutrition involves an excessively intrusive form of governance, doesn't stop home cooking, and doesn't stop people from eating massive quantities of the healthful foods. In short, one must find some incentive to make Americans eat less, exercise more, etc.

With rare exceptions, such as smoking, poor health habits do not raise the immediate cost of healthcare for those who maintain such habits. A large portion of this is the consequence of employer sponsored healthcare, and other forms of group health insurance. It reduces the insurance companies' risk to enroll entire groups, since the healthier members of that group will subsidize the disease-ridden outliers. An ideal situation, therefore, would be to eliminate all employer health insurance. Sell health insurance to individuals, and then link their premiums to their health habits.

This immediately raises red flags, as people are horribly concerned about (a) the cost of insurance, (b) the people with chronic diseases whom no one will want to insure, and (c) the personal information that health insurance companies will have to get to create accurate risk scenarios.

To answer objection A, private insurance seems costly now for three reasons: a large portion of the cost of employer sponsored healthcare is hidden, there is currently little competition, and the market is poorly designed.

First, employer sponsored insurance is just that, employer sponsored. There is a large chunk of money being spent by the company that its employees never see. If employer sponsored healthcare were eliminated, competition would force that money to be redirected to wages.

Second, the market for private insurance is not terribly competitive, as that is not where the money is. Insurance companies make larger amounts of money by pitching their wares to volume purchasers, a.k.a., companies, rather than seeking out individuals.
Third, those who currently purchase private health insurance tend to be those who do not receive it from their employers, and are thus on the lower end of societies economic scale, and, as a related factor, have poorer health than the population at large.

Thus private insurance in a low-income, high-cost, non-competitive market seems expensive compared to subsidized healthcare. Duh.

To answer the second objection, I propose that the insurance laws be rewritten. The new rewrite would have the principle of responsiblity included. Who bears responsibility for the medical expense?

If no one is responsible, for things such as genetic diseases or the catching of random contagious diseases, the insurance company would cover the costs--it's the risk of the business they are in (thus the chronic disease people cannot be discriminated against).

If the medical expense can be linked to the behavior of the policy holder, for example, cracking your head while skydiving, or getting lung cancer from smoking, then (a) those behaviors would raise the person's premium (thereby discouraging jumping out of perfectly good airplanes), and (b) the person can be required to pay for some of the costs (and yes, deductibles can still be applied, at the discretion of the insurance company).

However, and this is probably the part with the most impact, if others bear some responsibility for the problem the insurance company can sue to recoup their losses. This would not contribute to litigiousness, as the insurance company can decide whether their potential gains are worth the cost, since the damage is limited only to the insurance company's expenses. However, those times when suing to recoup losses does happen, it would force other companies to improve environmental and safety standards--and it would do so far better than the EPA and OSHA ever could. For example, where I work we have a machine among whose printable nicknames is "the arm-breaker." If my employer knew that, should an employ break their arm, or other parts, on that machine, they could be sued for all the medical expenses, they would promptly modify it to make it safer--even though it is already within OSHA's safety requirements. Similarly, if a company is spewing pollutants into the atmosphere, sickening the people around them (even if they were in concentrations not deemed "harmful" by the EPA) they could still be sued for their measure of responsiblity. The main reason why this arrangement would lead to tighter standards than those of the EPA and OSHA is that insurance companies are much less prone to political lobbying. They have an incentive to keep the standard high, and the companies have an incentive to agree with them.

Third, no one is better at creating accurate risk scenarios than insurance companies. That is their job. They can decide exactly what behaviors contribute to what risks of what costs, and price appropriately, but not when they are not allowed to gain access to that information. How could an insurance company gain such information? Probably by providing annual health inventories, screenings, and physicals. While this might seem to be an invasion of privacy, one's medical records are all processed by the insurance companies anyway, as claims come due, so it's not likely to be much more invasive than current practice, and, if one doesn't wish to reveal such information I'm sure an insurance company will offer that option--but you'll have to pay for it, of course, due to the increased risk the company is taking on. An added benefit to this arrangement is it would allow us to identify problems as they're developing, rather than waiting for someone to develop full-blown whatever first.

Thus, to decrease the demand for healthcare, we need to link it to the individual's behavior. To accomplish this we need to eliminate employer sponsored healthcare. To protect against abuses of the private market, liability depends on the responsibility, the measure of control, that an actor has over the medical problem. Side benefits include creating a more efficient private market, rather than the government/corporate/private chimera we have now, creating higher environmental and safety standards, and catching problems early.


The Supply of Healthcare

Why don't we have the number of doctors and nurses that we need? Why does American medicine rely so heavily on drugs and technology? The answer to both of these questions is the same: the U.S. medical system is based on an arrangement belonging to the Middle Ages' guilds. It has been entirely bypassed by concepts of mass production, mass specialization, and the service economy. Healthcare practitioners are essentially still artisans. They have devoted themselves entirely to their craft, devoting enormous amounts of time to learning all parts of it. Even our "specialists" are not true specialists, but those who have mastered all of the previous knowledge, and moved on to greater things.

What if, for example, we divided a doctors responsiblities among 15 or 20 people, each focusing on one aspect of what a doctor does? What if you went to an assembly line hospital, in which you were first met by a health inventory technician, who gathered general information about all parts of your health, then a general diagnostician, who narrowed the problem to one set of factors, for example, skin problems, and you were then directed to a skin disorder diagnostician, who identified precisely which skin disorder you had and its cause. You were shuffled off to a dermatological treatment specialist who performed the surgery, provided the prescription, or did whatever was necessary (all of which could be separate jobs). You were then released, and another person did follow up work to assess the effects of the treatment. Every medical personnel would have to learn only one area, and would thus learn it very, very well. They would require far less training to become far more efficient at what they do. If you don't think this would work, go read about Jaipur Foot, which does precisely this. The result of the decreased training would be vastly decreased costs. An additional benefit is that the mistake made by one person may very well be caught by the next person up the line.

Medical costs are so high because the healthcare system is entirely out of whack with the rest of the economy. A traditional doctor cannot see many more patients than doctors have, though technology has made treatments far less time consuming. Productivity has scarcely risen, yet the rest of the economy has made enormous strides in productivity. Why America's healthcare system is so dependent on technology and drugs is because it increases the productivity of our doctors, who are trying to do mass production work with the economic arrangments of a trade guild.

Therefore, to decrease medical costs we need to abandon the whole concept of "doctors". The generalist who oversees the entire health of an individual is an idea best returned to the Middle Ages, or places where such generalists are needed, such as unclear cases, or areas too small to achieve economies of scale. Rather, true "specialists" who are trained in only one small field, and gain an extreme level of expertise in that field, can produce the good of healthcare at a significantly lower cost, all by raising productivity.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Torture

The traditional justification for why we should be allowed to use torture is the "ticking bomb" scenario. If there was a time bomb, and someone you had in custody knew where it was, when it was set to go off, and how to defuse it, how would you get that information out of them? It is my conclusion that one doesn't. One lets the bomb go off. Why? In the kind of war we are fighting, the kind of war in which human intelligence is incomparably vital, one can only maintain the kind of intelligence that one needs by being trusted absolutely by the population. Allegiances in an insurgency shift hourly. Those who were your enemies can be your friends tomorrow, and those who were your friends can betray you. Thus a large portion of the population with have links to the insurgents, and if they hesitate for a moment to tell you something, for fear of the consequences should you discover those links, you've lost your intelligence advantage. By taking the casualties of a few bombs now, but renouncing torture, openly and often--even announcing that you had the person who planted the bomb in custody, but refused to torture him even at such a price--you will uncover far more bombs before they go off, and have far fewer people planting bombs.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Trash

When I watched "Gunner Palace" I remembered a soldier complaining that any piece of trash could hide and IED. After reading the article, "Where the Buffalo Roam", yesterday, I realized that we could eliminate a large amount of risk from the IED's by eliminating the hiding places, by picking up the trash.

We can't have U.S. troops do it, there aren't enough of them to do what we need to do anyway, and putting them directly into harms way is not a good idea. We can't have Iraqi civilians do it, since the insurgents want to kill them too. So here's my idea: have labor gangs of imprisoned insurgents clean up the trash and rubble. Here are the advantages of my plan:

1. Using labor details such as this is well within the confines of the Geneva conventions.
2. It brings the insurgents out into the open, which will both demystify them and make it harder for people to disappear into some black hole of a prison.
3. It will cause the insurgents to reduce the number of IED's they place, since the people blown up by them will be their fellow insurgents.
4. The imprisoned insurgents are admirably suited to identifying the IED's that they do come across, since they were the ones planting such devices.
5. It will demonstrate the effectiveness of the new government. I remember that, living in Ukraine shortly after the curtain fell, one of the first signs that a new society was emerging was when groups of men with shovels started cleaning up the trash piles.
6. It will improve the standard of living for the regular Iraqis.