Exponential Decay Curve in Politics

Today’s topic concerns exponential decay curves. This is what happens when “something” declines over time. A classic exponential decay curve is shown here:

decaycurve

Exponential decay curves are often found in nature. The classic one that is taught in classrooms concerns radioactive decay. For a given radioactive isotope of an element, the half-life of the isotope determines the shape of its decay curve. A half-life is defined as the amount of time for 1/2 of the radioactive decay for an isotope to have occurred. This can vary among isotopes from fractions of a second, up to 4 billion years in the case of Uranium 238. Half-lives are very important when calculating the potential radiation exposure to a radioactive isotope. Isotopes like Cobalt 60 are powerful radiation sources that are used industrially to examine welds and metals for defects. They provide plentiful gamma rays since the half life of this isotope is only 5.3 years. That is why there is concern about the use of this isotope in a dirty bomb, since the radiation from an explosive dispersal of Cobalt 60 would cause significant exposure to high powered gamma radiation.

Exponential decay curves may be found in other natural and also artificial systems. A new example of an artificial system that appears to be following an exponential decay curve is the Presidential tweet. The response to a Presidential tweet appears to be following a typical decay curve function. It is too early to get an accurate measurement of the half-life of tweet effectiveness, but a preliminary estimate is that the half-life of the response to a Presidential tweet is about two months.

Since this system of Presidential tweets is an artificial system (one not normally found in nature), it is uncertain as to what the response of the originator of the Presidential tweets will be to an ongoing decrease in tweet effectiveness. Most observers believe that the originator will greatly increase both the frequency and objects of tweets so as to continue to receive a total response to the tweets that approximates the effect of the first tweets.

However, it is nearly certain that since the effectiveness of any individual tweet will continue to decline, eventually the response to all Presidential tweeting may approach zero. There is a school of thought though, that maintains the belief that we may begin to see an inverse function develop for the tweet response. That is, instead of receiving a positive response to tweets, each subsequent tweet may result in a negative response. It is possible that the magnitude of the negative response may increase with additional tweets, so that Newton’s third law may be given a test in the political arena. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Observers of politics will be watching this process with rapt attention.

Our Own Nature Preserve

Spring has definitely arrived on my hillside in South Charleston. The daffodils have been up and blooming for a full month, having survived the repeated temperature plunges into the teens earlier in March. Clumps of onion grass tower over the grass and weeds that are just now beginning to reawaken. The hellebores, or lenten roses, have sent their flowering blooms up where the early honeybees come after their dusting of pollen.

Daffodils

Our property is an acre and a quarter, about one third of the way up the hillside. The lot goes down to the creek below, nearly a hundred feet lower in elevation. Within our little slice of ground, I am proud to serve as host to a small nature preserve. Our animal inhabitants range from the hooved rats that serve to aerate and fertilize our mossy turf, down to the innumerable roly-poly’s that scurry away whenever you pick up one of the rocks around our gardens.

Speaking of the hooved rats (alias deer) that we share this landscape with, it is instructive just how much they have influenced our landscaping. Very early on we discovered that it is useless to plant many annuals, or bulbs like tulips. Begonias and impatiens serve as a deer’s salad bar. So we have focused our plantings on things that deer won’t eat. Daffodils are immune to deer’s grazing, due to their supply of calcium oxalate and other alkaloids that make them poisonous. So over the 25 years we have spent in this house, I have spread daffodils around, gathering them up in the fall when the bulbs begin to crowd the surface of the ground, and planting them everywhere. This past year I dug up two large plastic buckets worth of daffodil bulbs, and even after sharing them with many others, still had several hundred bulbs to plant on the edges of the property and down the hill. When we finally leave this property, the next owner will have a floral explosion on their first spring here.

I am glad to share our home with so many different animals. Our property is home to at least two frogs, who overwinter in the small water feature we have in the back yard. We have countless squirrels who nest 75′ up in our trees in the back, and who steal every apple we grow before they are ripe enough for human taste. Chipmunks dash across the woodland floor, usually evading our feline hunters (but not always). Mice and voles share our space, and we look forward to seeing the raccoons, especially when they have juveniles. We once saw three raccoon siblings who were undoubtedly being sent out on their own as they walked across our lawn, chittering away to themselves, until they went through our fence and down into the woods.

There are snakes that are seen briefly as they slither across the dried leaves. In the summer, we see neon-colored skinks that skitter across the deck and porch. If we leave bagged trash out, we will be visited by our resident opossums who are not afraid to climb up on our deck. I’ve given them a fright when I was outside at dusk in the summer, and suddenly I’m aware that a possum has come up on the deck. They can scurry away pretty quickly when confronted with a human unexpectedly.

One year, I was trying to understand damage I was seeing to our tomatoes. The bottom of the tomatoes were serrated, like they had been cut by a pair of pinking shears. I could not figure out what could have caused this type of damage. Then later that week, I saw one of the box turtles who live in our woods, and I realized the damage was caused by the turtle reaching up as high as it could and chomping away at the tomato. It was unable to pull the fruit down, but it still got its fill. I still remember the time when we saw two box turtles mating in our back yard. We were watching from the deck, and the male turtle turned its head to look at us as if saying, “Hey! A little privacy here, please.” Sometime later that year, I saw several small box turtles over by my vegetable garden, so I knew life was going on and we were serving as hosts.

Best of all is serving host to a huge variety of birds. We put up multiple hummingbird feeders in the summer, but no matter how many we put up, we can’t stop the aerial combat resulting from one alpha male hummer claiming our porch as his territory, and launching himself at any interloper at high velocity. We can be sitting on our porch in summer, and suddenly we are a foot away from a high speed pursuit right in front of our eyes. The arrival and departure of the hummers are annual events we watch for.

One of the rarest sightings of our residents is when we see one of our owls. Though we can hear them out in the woods, it is very rare when one graces us with its presence. One summer twilight we were sitting with our neighbor, when I suddenly said, “Turn slowly over there”. An owl had landed on the far end of our deck, and was watching us silently. It stayed there for maybe a minute, then lifted its wings and flew off the deck and into the night.

The bird feeder and suet feeder we put out in winter encourage a wide variety of species. In the morning, we are mourning dove central as 3 or 4 of them have taken up residence either in the feeder, or on the railing or ground under the feeder. Their whooshing of their wings as they take off while I go out to get the paper always gives a thrill. We have blue jays, and flickers, and chickadees, and tufted titmouse, and finches, and cardinals, and sparrows, and woodpeckers, and bluebirds, and even a rare visit from a catbird. We joke and say that we’ve installed cat TV as the cats perch on the windowsill as they watch the birds (and squirrels who also feast away at the proffered seed).

We truly are blessed to be stewards of the land we have. By managing it wisely, and by not being a slave to keeping an immaculate lawn, we are trying to encourage all of the native wildlife and plants that we can. And in return, we are blessed by all of the wildlife we get to watch on a daily basis in our yard. With the exception of the deer, who have managed to grow into a very severe irritant to everyone in our neighborhood. But since I have fenced the deer out of my vegetable gardens, and since we have planted deer resistant foliage, we can even manage to put up with their intrusions. Plus, it is fun to plunk them with my slingshot from time to time.

Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? Sliced DNA!

Over the past decade, a new technology has emerged, begun commercialization, and provides amazing potential to revolutionize biological science. My guess is that you’ve never heard of this incredible advance in biology. So let me introduce you to: CRISPR. As is often the case, CRISPR is an acronym. It stands for: Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Having given its full name once, let me just say that it refers to how it deals with DNA inside of a cell.

CRISPR (pronounced Crisper) is a modification of a naturally occurring process in bacteria. Just as we are attacked by pathogenic bacteria, bacteria themselves are attacked by viruses called bacteriophages. These phages are able to hijack a bacterial cell’s DNA and inject portions of their own DNA that then enables replication of the phage, allowing the copied phages to burst through the cell wall and kill the bacteria. Naturally, it is to the bacteria’s advantage to detect and remove the rogue DNA. And evolution has developed a tool, in the form of a set of genes that enables detection of an alien DNA sequence, and essentially cuts it out and puts in its own jumper that bypasses the infected area. So nature has developed its own DNA repair process that enables a bacterial cell to detect infection, remove the infection, and repair the DNA to allow it to continue to function. Only the non-functioning repeated DNA segments is left in the DNA to show that the repair has taken place.

Researchers have discovered this process, and developed an improved process based upon it. Companies have formed around the technology, and other companies have licensed the technology and are actively working on applications. This process is just beginning, and it is one of the most exciting new developments in biology in decades.

CRISPR technology is far different than the genetic modifications that have been used in agriculture that stir deep revulsion in many. The process that Monsanto and DuPont and other agribusinesses use to produce seed that is resistant to herbicides requires the insertion of genes that are from another organism. This crossing of species creates what is called “Frankenfood”, and many nations have forbidden the use of foods created with this technology. CRISPR technology does not involve alien genes. Instead, it allows for the CRISPR process to inactivate genes by excising and bypassing the undesired section. This has huge potential application in human health, because many genetic-based diseases are caused through a fault in one of the genes. This faulty gene may create a faulty protein that causes the genetic disease. If you can simply snip off the bad part, and replace the gene with either a nonsense segment of DNA that does nothing, or a fully-functioning gene that works as nature intended, then you now have the potential to reverse a genetic disease.

CRISPR is being used to develop food seeds like the ones from Monsanto and DuPont. But in this case, species lines are not being crossed. Instead, normal plant breeding practices can be used to develop desirable traits, and the genetic technology can be used to greatly increase its effectiveness in the seeds. This eliminates the fear factor that previous genetically modified organisms generated.

The mechanics of how to introduce the desired genetic fix into an organism is one of the greatest uncertainties of how this technology will be used. Obviously, the smaller the organism, the easier it is to fix. That’s why some of the first applications of the technology are for things like industrial yeasts that ferment vegetable matter to convert it to ethanol for fuel. One of the limiting factors in bioethanol production, is that the alcohol becomes lethal to the yeast in too high a concentration. By working with strains of yeast that show greater resistance to high concentrations of alcohol, and by inserting the genes from these strains into other strains of yeast, the potential is there for greatly increased efficiency in bioethanol production. The technology is well developed for insertion of genes into seeds as well. So the earliest commercial applications are for agribusiness and biofuel production.

It is a far different task to introduce the fix to a genetic problem to a complex organism like a person. One area of early research involves the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. This disease is genetically inherited, and eventually causes the retina to degrade, resulting in blindness for one and a half million people worldwide. The proposed treatment involves taking cells from the person with the genetic trait, converting them into stem cells, fixing the genetic defect with CRISPR technology, and transplanting the cells back into the retina of the person with the disease. There is a possibility that a human trial using this technology may happen in 2017. The gene repair process can work where the affected area is small in scope like the retina. How this can work in a disease that is expressed throughout the body has yet to be determined.

One obvious way the technology could be used is when the human with the genetic defect is still in the womb. Genetic tests that can detect inherited diseases are available during pregnancy. Eventually the potential will exist to provide a fix for an inherited genetic disease before birth, eliminating the disease before it happens.

That last bit is one of the ethical areas that must be fully discussed and agreed to by all before the technology is adopted for use in the womb. Any change that is made in the genome at this stage is able to be transmitted across generations. So far, there has been an agreement that genetic modifications should not be allowed if the modification can be inherited by subsequent offspring. The potential to eventually eliminate diseases like cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimers through this technology may be irresistible, and may eventually force the moral issues emerging from this technology to be addressed.

This field is emerging and growth in the field is exponential. I am a reader of Science magazine, and only became aware of this technology since CRISPR was declared the science development of the year in 2015. Since that time, multiple commercial companies have been created, some of which had their IPO last year. It is my prediction that within the next two years, this technology will become widely known and discussed, and remember, you heard it here first.

Too Much Government in WV? A Proposal to Shrink Same

West Virginia is suffering from the confluence of too many needs for government spending and inadequate revenues to meet all of these needs. There are two competing proposals to deal with these issues. One is to raise additional revenues to enable an investment in infrastructure repair and tourism / commerce marketing, and the other is to decrease all spending to match up with the expected revenues. I’ll leave it to the imagination to guess which political parties are aligning on which side of these issues.

Whatever is going to happen this year is not germane to this discussion. I myself hope that we can stir ourselves from our coal-induced lassitude and raise the funds to begin to tackle the abysmal state of our roadways since this is a necessary step to attract visitors and new businesses, but I realize the odds of anyone who drinks from the Grover Norquist Kool-Aid cup actually supporting increased taxation is next to nil.

No, this discussion is aimed at reducing the overall levels of government administration that we are saddled with in this state. One is the need to maintain two legislative bodies, and the other is to maintain the number of counties within this state as was needed back in the 1800’s. If we did rationalization within these areas, significant savings would be achieved.

Let’s start with the Legislature. The State of West Virginia, like all states in the US save one, has a bicameral legislature, with a House of Delegates and a Senate chamber. The total number of legislators in this state is 134 (100 delegates, 34 senators). With a shrinking population of about 1.8 million, this means that there is a state legislator for each 13,400 residents in the state. That is far too many elected legislators for this state. Looking at the finances for each chamber, the 2016 budget appropriated $6.0 million for the Senate, $8.9 million for the House of Delegates, and $6.8 million for the Joint Committee on Government and Finance. What do we get for these expenditures? A dysfunctional system where each chamber plays its own version of games aimed at preventing work from happening in an efficient manner. In this state, the chambers take turns at being Lucy holding the football, and Charley Brown charging up to take the kick, only to fall flat on his back once more due to Lucy pulling the ball away. We get a legislative branch that is more interested in power struggles between the chambers than a body that is united in working to solve the State’s problems.

I grew up in Nebraska, which is the exception to the rule for state legislatures in the US. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature with 49 non-partisan Senators in the sole chamber. Nebraska adopted this structure in 1936 in the depths of the depression, so there is precedent in having fiscal necessity drive structural change in state government. It’s been more than 40 years since I moved from the state, but the efficiency of only having a single legislative chamber is still an example that should be emulated.

Let’s say that West Virginia decided to adopt a unicameral legislature. Fix the number of representatives at 67, or half of the current total. That still gives an elected representative for every 27,000 citizens of the state. Looking at the budget, if you cut the 3 appropriations in half, you would save about $11 million just in salaries and support staff budgets. This is not insignificant and the increased efficiencies in accomplishing the state’s business would more than justify the change to our government.

The second area where there is more government than we need is at the county level. It once made sense to have 55 counties in a small state like West Virginia when the limitations of transportation meant it could take a full day to travel to the county seat. No longer is there a need to have this many counties given the improvements over the past century in transportation and communications. Now, each county is its own governmental fiefdom, replete with its own school district which is often the largest employer in the county. We have 55 different county commissions, each with 3 members, and salaries averaging about $38,000 per year, plus the costs for all support staff. We have 55 sheriffs, 55 county clerks, and all of these functions have their own support staff. We have 55 school superintendents, and associated support administrative staff. If there was a serious look at consolidating counties, we might end up with about 30 counties. Think of the potential savings that can come from a true rationalization of government services back to a level that makes sense.

County governments often are the home of fiscal shenanigans, whether it be outright embezzlement, crony hiring, or other misdeed. Reducing the number of counties in this state should also result in a reduction in fraud and waste.

Unfortunately, county governments and school boards are often the only sources of employment in poorer counties. These counties will fight tooth and nail to keep the source of their power intact. No one will wish to cede any authority. That’s why I’d love to see someone really conduct a study to see what these two forms of government rationalization would really save. Only if we as citizens of this state realize that much of the “waste” in government is due to its inefficient structure will we ever get momentum to change this.

 

Seed Corn Tastes Delicious

The “skinny budget” proposal for Federal Discretionary spending offers something not often seen in rational societies. It offers a delicious meal of seed corn to take the place of the nutrition programs it is cutting. The seed corn is in the form of the cuts to science programs across the board. We are culling the funding for: medical research; space programs monitoring the condition of the earth; any programs aimed at mitigating climate change or mitigating the conditions resulting from climate change; energy efficiency research; and statistical analysis capabilities in many agencies. But we should not worry, because we will have the bigliest military capabilities of all time!

My wife has made the point that one of the proper roles of government is to serve as the first investor. This is true for infrastructure, but it is even more true when it comes to scientific research. There is a reason why the standard of living has improved over the decades since WWII in the US. That reason is because the Federal Government has continually invested in research in the fields of science. Those investments, when released into the economy, have paid dividends far beyond the original investment. True, not all investigation results in technology that has market implications. Some research is so esoteric, it may never have implication outside of the limited group of researchers within a particular academic field. And some research lends itself to ridicule.

My guess is that all research programs proposed for elimination failed to pass the ideological tests applied by Trump’s handlers. That nixed anything having to do with climate change. Nope, don’t believe in it, and all those snowflakes who suck at the federal funding teat are going to have to find useful work to do. Why should we work at planning mitigation for sea rise? Just because a significant part of Mar-A-Lago would be submerged with a 3′ rise in sea level doesn’t mean that we should figure out how best to handle increased tidal flooding and storm surge flooding that will wreak havoc on barrier islands across our land.

I am quite certain though that his true believers are reveling in this release of the budget. To those believers, they relish sticking it to the elitists who dare to think that they know more about a subject just because they have studied it for 10 or 20 or 40 years. Why should we believe those who tell us that our beloved coal is bad for us, because it results in emissions of mercury and fine particulate matter that increases death rates? Why should we support those who perform research into mosquito borne diseases? Why should we support any research into energy efficiency? All we have to do is unleash market forces and drill, baby, drill, and voila, no more need to be efficient with energy. We’ll get so tired of winning at energy that, well, I have no words that can describe how I feel. Just writing this paragraph has caused my tongue to stick into my cheek so hard that I’m in imminent danger of suffering a cheek hernia.

I have said to friends that Donald Trump has fulfilled all of my expectations about his reign of error. I expected gross incompetence, and I expected that he would be manipulated by the hordes of ideologues who latched onto his coattails as he emerged victorious. But even with my faith in his feckless nature, I have been astonished as the world view of the Trump administration becomes ever more apparent. The empty vessel of Donald Trump has been stuffed full of dark visions of a world where we must guard against even the most improbable occurrence, because there are those out there who hate us. Given the propensities of the Trump administration priorities to veer abruptly away from diplomacy and towards bellicosity, this will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Donald Trump is the ultimate Potemkin President. He is a shell of a man with no ideological bent other than being convinced of his supreme superiority. He backs up that superiority with a world-class inferiority complex, such that he cannot dare to be told that he is ever in error, or that he ever can fail to be the best at everything. His entourage, having guided this flawed human to the pinnacle of power, are trying everything they can to mollify him, keeping his ego stroked, so that they can accomplish the evil deeds that they are trying to foist onto the unsuspecting population who still rise in waves of adulation for this poor excuse for a leader.

We have emerged into a bimodal civilization in the US now. On issue after issue, Republicans show 90% agreement on an item, while Democrats show 90% disapproval of the same issue. Statistically this shows up like this:

When opinions are polarized as much as they are now, it is difficult to search for common ground. I am almost convinced that it will be necessary for the extremists in Trump’s camp to go so far that they finally cause revulsion in their most ardent supporters. I can only hope that the revulsion does not come at the expense of the lives of millions of people through the unleashing of the dogs of war.

The Blank Bracket

How many folks this week started with a blank bracket and the opportunity to predict the results of 63 basketball games? I did, went ahead and filled the bracket out, and was rewarded today by losing my chance for a perfect bracket with the very first game result (Princeton, you were THAT close on the last shot for the win). Oh well, guess I wasn’t destined to win a one in 9 quintillion chance. One of the safest bets of all time was Warren Buffet’s offer to pay one billion for a perfect bracket in 2014.

Large numbers sneak up on you. It’s why the numbers racket (excuse me, the government sponsored lottery) does so well. It can’t be that hard to select 6 numbers, can it? The plain fact is, yes, it is very hard to select 6 numbers out of a set of 50 or 60 some numbers. Being a numbers person I sometimes enjoy calculating the odds for the mega jackpots. Now, I am not claiming to be a numeric snob and not ever play the lottery. I do, but I go for the scratch off tickets where the odds of at least breaking even are much higher, and you get the instant gratification of physically interacting with your tickets by scratching off the surface layer.

Large numbers are difficult for humans to grasp. I am convinced that many who do not believe in the possibility of evolution, do not realize the length of time that species have had to evolve. For some, it is comforting to believe in a stasis for species and a doctrinally-limited span of time for life and matter to have existed. The concept of millions of generations being available for nature to experiment through DNA variations is foreign to them. As for myself, I am glad that the Earth has existed long enough for the original heat of formation of our planet to have dissipated enough so that our society can coexist with volcanoes and earthquakes from plate tectonics. Add heat generated from radioactive decay, and it makes me realize just how special this Earth is for us to live on it in comfort.

Large numbers also show up when you consider the distances involved in interstellar space. A single light year is 5.9 trillion miles. Out of all of the volume of space, that which is occupied by matter is a tiny, tiny fraction. Empty space is just that – empty. Stars form through the collapse of molecular clouds in this empty space. A molecular cloud may have one million molecules in a cubic centimeter of space vacuum. The air we breathe has about 25 trillion more molecules per cubic centimeter as compared to the a molecular cloud that is the birthplace for a star.

In my lifetime, one of the most amazing feats of science is that we are now able to detect planets around stars outside of our solar system. I fully expect that we will sometime soon be able to detect the atmosphere around these planets, and if we find free oxygen in an atmosphere, we can reasonably expect that life exists on those planets. Who knows? Maybe we will find one that is close enough to send miniature probes to, and really explore it over the centuries and millennia to come. Since the sun will continue to heat up, and eventually make life untenable on Earth, we need to know about other habitable worlds that we can move to. A billion years will catch up to you sooner than you think.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

I was fortunate enough never to take statistics in college. Though I had a math minor in support of my engineering degree, I missed the statistics side of the course curricula. Thus I never had the intense pleasure of trying to calculate a standard deviation of a data set manually. Instead, I began to learn statistics when I was in industry, working in the environmental group for a chemical company, and I was trying to make sense of water sample data, monitoring a pollutant’s concentration. That concentration varied over several orders of magnitude, and it did not make sense to try to average the data.

I studied the available tools, and discovered probability paper. This graph paper was created prior to the development of easy computer calculation tools, and it provided a convenient way to plot the data. What was a curved line on standard graph paper that couldn’t be used for prediction, turned into a straight line on probability paper. The paper had one axis that used logarithms to handle multiple magnitudes on a single graph. This allowed me to predict that there was a significant chance of a really large release of a certain pollutant because it fit on the graph. I was learning about the predictive power of statistics.

I was hooked. At my employer, there were extensive tools available on product quality measurement, and training on how to do designed experimentation. I became an avid user of the technology, and once computer tools were available to do the grunt calculation work, I became known for my own use of the technology. Later, I transferred this knowledge into working with groups using the Deming statistical and quality improvement methods. To this day, I am convinced that if my company had adopted Deming as its statistical guru instead of borrowing GE’s truncated version called Six Sigma, my company would have prospered and grown over the last two decades of my career instead of stagnating.

Supposedly it was Disraeli who first stated the “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” quote. Yet to this day it remains the most memorable meme associated with statistics, and my guess is that not one in ten in the US has a working understanding of statistics. That is a shame, since a knowledge of statistics provides a key that unlocks understanding of many other concepts that are important to living in today’s society. During this past election season, we were exposed to statistics on a daily basis, with polling data driving the discussion. How many times did we hear about the margin of error of a poll? How many times did we accept the data at face value, and accept the poll results as the equivalent of the call of a horse race? “At the mile pole, Clinton is in the lead by 3 lengths”.

In reality, understanding measures of uncertainty requires a good bit of statistical knowledge. At its heart, a 2 person poll is a measure of two means, or averages. You are trying to determine whether the average level of support for candidate A differs in a statistically significant amount from that of candidate B. If there is a clear difference between the averages, then the poll result is said to be outside of the margin of error, and there is a clear leader.

It’s that term, margin of error, that must be looked at more closely. When you are sampling a population of people, it is always possible that your sample is not representative of the population as a whole. Therefore, your estimate of the mean comes with a built in error factor. If you remember the old bell curve you used to be graded on, that shows the magnitude of the error factor. Candidate A may have a polling result of 45%. But, there may be a 5% chance that the average is as high as 48%, or as low as 42%. Now if candidate B’s polling result is 48%, then the horse race results would say that candidate B is ahead by 3 lengths. But the truth is, you don’t know for sure that candidate B is ahead of candidate A. The result is within the margin of error.

All of this assumes that the sampled population is representative of the total population being measured. Back in the days when everyone had a landline phone, and there were no caller ID’s to use as a call screener, and when there was not a reluctance to respond to polls, a telephone survey worked remarkably well as a sampling of the population. As time and progress would have it, a landline only survey no longer can be taken as being representative. People, being stubborn, or too busy to respond to polls, or ideologically predisposed to wish to hide their response from the world, can bias polls by failing to respond when requested.

So polling companies are now struggling to determine what form of polling now is most representative of the population at large, and in particular, in the population most inclined to vote. What this means to all of us in a large increase in the margin of error of any polling data in future elections. Caveat emptor.

By the way, I am attempting to use the false principle of treating the mean of a range of values as an absolute value. I am using it as a predictor of stock market behavior, and am using this as a way of selecting candidate stocks for short term investment. When a company reports quarterly results, they are presented as not meeting expectations, meeting expectations, or exceeding expectations. The expectation value is given as an absolute. However, that number is merely an average of the estimates of all of the analysts covering the stock. Often, if the stock’s earnings fall a penny or two short of the expected value, the stock takes a short-term dip. I am looking for candidate stocks where the reported value is clearly within the margin of error for the estimated value, but the stock loses 10% or more of its value within a day. My experience is that the stock often recovers a significant part of that loss within a week or two. So I am placing my bets accordingly. This technique will not work in the event of a totally bad result where the value is outside of the margin of error, because then there is more wrong with the stock than just not meeting estimates. So far my results have been good, but that may just be luck. If I’m really lucky, then I’m reading the statistics right.

Health Costs (and how to deal with them in our Constitutional System)

The US does not get a good value for the money we spend for health care in this country. Of the countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or the developed countries of the world), the US spends 2.5 times the average per capita expenditure on health care. The US spends over 20% more than the next highest expenditures in the group (Luxembourg). Yet for all of this spending, our health outcomes are nowhere near the top of the group. And we still have a significant percentage of our population that does not have insurance coverage, while our insurance system has caused sticker shock for many with the increases in deductibles and co-pays.

Why is our system so inefficient? Part of the reason is because so much of the payment in the US is done via the private market. The government pays 46% of the total health care bill in the US, while most countries in Europe and Asia that are leaders in health care outcomes pay between 75% and 86% of the total bill. Since most countries other than the US rely upon a single-payer system,  we pay more for private companies to administer the billing. One of the benefits of the ACA was that, in order to comply with the regulations as an insurer, at least 80% of the premiums had to go out as benefits. That still leaves a 20% administrative burden on the money being paid to insurers.

What really happens though, is that with this administrative burden, we end up with an accountants arms race between the insurers and the providers. Providers send bills out reflecting the desire to recover not only the direct costs from services, but the extra costs from unreimbursed and under-reimbursed care. The insurers fight back through negotiated settlements, allowing only a fraction of the charges to be reimbursed. Thus come the horror stories of being charged for $100 for an acetaminophen tablet if you are uninsured and have no accountants to fight for you.

For many of us, the single biggest expense we will incur in our lifetime is an extended hospital stay. Yet nowhere in this expense is there any semblance of transparency in the billing or payment process. Still, administrative charges pile up and grow exponentially throughout the system.

This does not even consider the diagnostic device arms race that goes on between health care providers. And empire building as well. Each institution feels that they are justified in building that new wing, or stand-alone facility aimed at treating one specialty disease. The group wards I can remember being in when I had my tonsils out in the early 1960’s have all been converted into suites of individual rooms, resulting in a huge expansion of support personnel to manage the increased space.

Then, there’s pharmaceuticals. Once upon a time, the TV network news shows were supported by advertisements for aspirin brands, for antacids, for tonics (remember Geritol?), and sleep-aids. “Take Sominex tonight and sleep. Safe and restful sleep, sleep, sleep”. Then, only 20 years ago, the first prescription medicine advertisements appeared on TV, and the pharmaceutical world has never been the same. Now there are advertisements for pharmaceuticals to counteract the laxative effects caused by other pharmaceuticals. Of course, with the last large effort by Republicans to improve benefits to older Americans, they put in a requirement that Medicare could not negotiate prices from pharmaceutical companies. They protected the drug companies profits, disregarding how much of the cost of these new drugs were being spent on promotional activities. Added to these expenses is the practice by pharmaceutical companies of pricing their products in the US so as to recover their research expenses, and the perfect storm of exponential pharma price increases marches on.

None of this is a surprise. What is a surprise is that the current Republican plan to revamp the health care coverage crisis does nothing to attack the underlying causes of the bloated expenditures. Instead, what we are seeing is an attempt to shame Medicaid recipients into believing that they are living sinful, slothful lives if they are sucking at the Medicaid teat. The Republican’s had their Marie Antoinette moment of “Let them eat cake” when Jason Chaffetz said poor people should spend money on health care instead of buying the next generation I-phone. There seems to be a total lack of awareness in the souls of Republican legislators that it is not possible, given the low income levels of many full time workers, to afford health care insurance payments. It is even less feasible for these workers to afford to fund health savings accounts to deal with the deductibles and co-pays.  The solutions that the Republicans offer presume an upper-middle class standard of living at a minimum. If you are below that, you should be working to better yourself. Don’t look to the government to provide a hand-up.

Of course, those who are Darjeeling patriots begrudge even the low levels of tax credits doled out in the version of health care now being discussed. These are the folks who say that if it is not explicitly in the constitution, then we’re agin’ it. At least these folks are attempting to base their argument on principle rather than hypocrisy. So let’s look at the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to see how it is possible to support a more inclusive method of paying for health care and stay within the constructs of our nation.

Let’s start with the Declaration. Even though this document is not the guidance to the laws of this nation, it does describe the guiding principles upon which all other documents are created. Right at the beginning, it states that among the inalienable rights given to mankind are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. To me that is a clear statement that it is a given right to have life, and within modern society, that means having health care to protect and preserve this life.  It further states that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”  In the first document agreed to by our founding fathers, it explicitly says that government has the responsibility to secure the right to life and the means to protect and preserve this life.

Let’s move on to the Constitution. Entire legal careers have been spent parsing the original intent of this document and my reading may be lacking nuance, but hopefully I can determine what the constitution means in today’s world. Again, in the preamble, it states that one of the goals of this document is to promote the general welfare. In today’s world, promoting the general welfare means providing health care to the citizens of the nation. In Article 1, Section 8, it states “Congress shall have the power to ….. provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”. It is my belief that the general welfare of the United States includes the health of its citizens. Further down in Section 8 it states that Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce among the several states. This is the infamous commerce clause that has been under discussion since the adoption of the Constitution, Indeed, Amendment 10 states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”.

This amendment is held to be the reason why the US government is not allowed to administer health care as an inalienable right, since it is not explicitly listed in the Constitution and therefore must be delegated to the states.

But I argue that the right of the Federal government to provide for the general welfare means has been delegated to the United States by the Constitution. It is explicit in the preamble and in Article 1. The right to Life has been proclaimed as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. To this observer of the political parade, this settles the argument about the right and responsibility for assumption of health care administration. What remains is for someone to come up with a complete redesign of the US health care system that provides the same level of care at a much lower overall cost. That must be the challenge that we accept as citizens. This current version of nibbling around the edges of a dysfunctional system must stop, and we must draw up a new social contract that includes the right to health care as a means of promoting the general welfare.

 

 

How can we make science and math sexy?

Science and science-themed shows have seen a resurgence in the past decade. In early 2017, the movie Hidden Figures celebrates not only women mathematicians, but also civil right pioneers working to bring NASA in Virginia into the 20th century. There have been multiple recent movies made about space travel. In my mind the best of these was The Martian, which celebrated someone already declared sexy by Hollywood (Matt Damon) using his scientific and analytical skills in order to survive by himself on the Martian surface long enough to be rescued. Even in its limited way, the Big Bang Theory does serve to humanize those who presumably work in the realm of physics. And then there is the current lead ambassador for science, Neal DeGrasse Tyson, who has led an admirable effort to popularize science in the public sphere.

In the realm of commerce, Elon Musk embodies the persona of a man of science who is trying to alter the course of history by integrating science and high technologies into our commerce. Other examples of individuals transforming the world through high technology include Mark Zuckerberg, and going back a bit, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs generated their mojo by creating an entire industry and entwining that industry into everyday lives. I doubt whether many consider this latter duo to be very sexy, though.

But. For each example of a scientist who grabs the public attention, for each media presentation glorifying STEM efforts, for each entrepreneur transforming the world through a science based agenda, those images are overwhelmed by the hordes who gain their fame and fortune via more demeaning means. If science were really sexy, would multitudes love to follow the Kardashian’s every move? Would the major money-making category for Hollywood be super-hero movies? Would Wall Street be hanging on every move that the category of “activist investors” make, those “investors” who blackmail companies into eliminating their research programs as not being instantly convertible into shareholder returns?

Within the US, throughout its history, intellectuals have seldom been viewed as figures to emulate. H. L. Mencken said it very well when he said, with a quote that is often paraphrased: “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”

Why is it that we seem unable to raise the consciousness of our populace? Is there a way we can use to improve the scientific literacy of the public, so that the public can provide an informed input to public discussions concerning matters of science? Let me assert that we must find such a way or we will find ourselves in a degraded world, squabbling over decreasing resources instead of working to grow the size of the resource pie. As the population of the world has increased, the use of science and technology becomes ever more important in order to provide adequate nutrition and energy and other resources.

But instead of using the knowledge of science and scientists to solve problems, the political momentum pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. Scientists are decried as elitists, and as political animals whose sole purpose is to keep government funding grants flowing. Scientific consensus is treated as being subject to debate, and one side of the discussion claims that their facts are just as good as the observations, models, and analytical perspective provided by thousands of scientists working in a given field. It is mind-boggling to see the famous line from the Treasure of the Sierra Madre co-opted by science deniers: “Facts? We don’t need no steenkin’ facts!”

So there are really two issues we have to face going forward. The acute issue is how do we who are scientifically literate provide guidance and influence public policy to prevent irreversible harm from the new administration. The longer view is how do we actually change public perception, and make science sexy to the youth of the nation. It is only when more folks would like to watch Nova and Cosmos as compared to American Ninja, and the 45th iteration of Survivor, that we will know that science has gained at least a foothold in the American consciousness.

I wish I had answers on how to deal with these issues. In some ways, this blog is my small attempt to influence the public debate. But it is such a tiny piece, I feel as if I were trying to steer an asteroid away from the earth by shining a cat laser on its surface. As far as influencing the popular culture and making kids begin to love math and science, instead of fearing them, I do not have ideas on what can change people’s perceptions.

Catquilibrium

Today, we will be disrupting our cat’s well ordered lives. The sofa that has been in the living room for their entire lives, the sofa that has been the sleeping pad for one of them for years, is being removed in order to make space for two new recliners that will be coming in later in the week. This sofa has served as a landing pad as they bound up to the window overlooking our porch and front yard. From this perch they survey their terrain, watching the birds and squirrels at the feeders in the winter, and issuing guttural growls whenever the neighbor’s cat comes across the street and invades their territory.

We have two black cats, brothers who we think were dropped off in our neighborhood in January of 2005. They took up residence in a neighbor’s old car across the street. Lyle told us about them, and we were able to take them in. For most of their lives, they’ve been the younger cats out of four that we’ve had. But we lost the older tabbies (23 and 19 years of age) in late 2015/ early 2016, so now they are the sole proprietors of the house (except for us). These cats are brothers, but one is fat, and one is muscular. Still, when you see them run down the stairs towards the food bowl when the automated slot machine feeder pays off, the familial relationship is evident.

These cats do love to go outside when the weather is warm. Since I’ve retired, it seems like sometimes it is my ultimate purpose in life to satisfy their need to go in and out. Often times, one goes out while the other comes in at the same time. I like that. It means we have established catquilibrium in the world. We are balanced in the yin and the yang of cats inside and outside.

Though they are brothers, they have distinctly different personalities. The bigger cat is the one who seeks out laps. He also loves to knead my legs with his claws. I have tiny pinpricks all over my legs where he has kneaded me continuously for several minutes before he settles down and goes to sleep. The leaner cat is my puppy dog. He is the one who pushes open the door of the bathroom if it not latched, and jumps onto the counter to rub up against me, then waits for me to turn on the fountain for him. The lean cat is not a lap sitter, but is the one who will sleep with us some nights.

Both of them, though, share one trait. They are scaredy-cats. We’ve had a cleaning lady who comes every two weeks. Same person their entire lives. As soon as the doorbell rings upon her arrival, they sprint downstairs and hide until she leaves. She has scarcely seen them all of the years of her working for us.

We are now facing a more difficult time with the boys. Their last check-up showed both had developed thyroid hyperactivity. So we are now on a diet plan with very expensive low iodine food and are having to restrict access to any other food. The leaner cat is the one that is feeling this the most, since he is the one that loved human food. Cheese, bacon, eggs, chicken, steak, you name it, he was an inveterate beggar. Having to wean him cold turkey (none of that either) from table scraps has been a challenge. We’ve taken to providing low-iodine canned food and giving them a portion of a can when we eat as a bit of a compensation for not being able to share in our meals. The issues with food may preclude us from getting any more cats while these two are with us since it would be nigh unto impossible to segregate food sources and feeding times between the older and newer cats.

Pets do change us. By sharing our living space, and our time and energy, they force us to pay attention to someone other than ourselves. I find it difficult to fully trust someone who would not be willing to give attention and love to an animal in their lives. By the way, did you know that Donald Trump is the only president in living memory to not share the White House with a pet? Just saying.