Saturday, November 28, 2009

What Happened to Tiger

Tiger Woods crashed his car, and hasn't told us why.

Here's my completely made up hypothesis for what happened:

After spending a couple of weeks in Australia and China, his sleep schedule is all screwed up. So he was headed out at 2AM to find some lunch.

And because he'd done some driving on the wrong side of the road in Australia, he drifted way too far to the side of the road and clipped a fire hydrant.

We're heading home to Amherst about a week from now. I'm going to try hard not to "pull a Tiger"; I'll resist going on any middle-of-the-night why-can't-I-sleep Dorito runs.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Global warming is NOT killing turtles in Costa Rica

I was browsing around the web looking into some of the Climategate accusations and responses, and I ran into this chart on the Wikipedia sea level rise page:
This isn't a Global-Warming-Denier chart: "This image, created with sea surface height data from the Topex/Poseidon and Jason-1 satellites, shows exactly where sea level has changed from 1993 to 2008 and how quickly these changes have occurred."

Costa Rica is down near the Panama Canal, at the skinniest bit between North and South America. The turtles that the New York Times claims are being threatened due to rising sea levels are on the West coast of Costa Rica. And, at least in the last 15 years (the Topex/Poseidon satellite was launched at the end of 1992, so 1993 is the first full year of data), sea levels there have NOT been rising.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pledging Allegiance

So I read in Catherine Sanderson's blog that it's illegal for Massachusetts schoolteachers not to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance.

It's not WAY illegal-- the punishment is a fine "not more than $5." (makes me wonder: who sets the fine? Could Amherst decide to fine Pledge-negligent teachers a penny?)

Most of my elementary schools (I'd attended six by the time I was in sixth grade) started every morning with the Pledge, and I remember starting to be bothered by it when I was around 12 or 13 years old. I was born in Australia, was an Australian citizen living in America as a permanent resident.

So I stopped saying the words.

I wonder: do public schoolteachers in Massachusetts have to be US citizens?

I'm a US citizen now, but I'm still not gung-ho on the Pledge of Allegiance. Expecting kids to say words they're too young to understand year after year seems like a blatant attempt at brainwashing. The "Under God" part bothers me a little (it was added during the McCarthy era to help battle the Godless Communists). It kinda bothers me that it was written by a Socialist, and it amuses me that it used to be performed with a Heil-Hitler salute.

But in the grand scheme of things I don't think it matters much. It's about as relevant as prayer in schools. Robin and Will have two more weeks of school here in Australia, which means two more all-school assemblies where everybody stands up and sings "Advance Australia Fair." They don't have a Pledge here, but there's still plenty of Australian Patriotism. They'll also have two more religion classes in school (everybody gets to choose to go to Catholic, Protestant, or None of The Above every Wednesday), but I haven't noticed any more church attendance here than in the States.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Is Global Warming Killing Turtles?

"Turtles Are Casualties of Warming in Costa Rica" is the title of a recent New York Times article.

Reporters and environmentalists and climate-change-deniers all like to cherry-pick evidence to support their article or point of view. Hotter than average summer? Must be global warming! Cooler than average summer? Global warming must be bunk! Leatherback turtles dying? Global Warming! Atlantic turtles thriving? See! Not Global Warming!

They're all wrong, of course. Nature is usually complicated and messy.

Anyway, back to the turtles: as usual, the headline is more sensationalistic than the article. The article says:
...haphazard development, in tandem with warmer temperatures and rising seas that many scientists link to global warming, have vastly diminished the Pacific turtle population.
I agree that the headline "Turtles Are Casualties of Development and Maybe Warming" isn't as catchy. The article goes on to talk about how turtle nesting habitat is being destroyed by hotels and increasing population and how people used to freely dig up the nests and eat the eggs (and still do, illegally).

Maybe my contrarian-bias is shining through, but a little research into how global warming will affect leatherback turtle habitat made me more optimistic about the turtles' chances:
We used long-term satellite telemetry to define the habitat utilization of this species. We show that the northerly distribution limit of this species can essentially be encapsulated by the position of the 15°C isotherm and that the summer position of this isotherm has moved north by 330 km in the North Atlantic in the last 17 years. Consequently, conservation measures will need to operate over ever-widening areas to accommodate this range extension.
-- Thermal niche, large-scale movements and implications of climate change for a critically endangered marine vertebrate
It seems like the authors of this paper are taking a very positive piece of news (that global warming is expanding the range of an endangered sea turtle) and putting a negative spin on it (conservation efforts will have to be spread out over a larger area).

They probably didn't want the Wall Street Journal to run an article with the headline "Turtles Benefit from Global Warming."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Flu vaccine costs and benefits

I was surprised to find out that getting a seasonal flu shot isn't the slam-dunk, you're-dumb-if-you-don't-do-it decision that I assumed it was.

I think I was confounding what I know about childhood vaccines (which are a don't-be-an-idiot-and-just-get-them kinda thing) with the flu vaccine. There are good discussions on the Overcoming Bias and Science-Based Medicine blogs, prompted by an article in Atlantic Magazine.

I'm not really concerned with the big public-policy debate over whether or not the H1N1 and/or seasonal flu vaccines save lives (or whether they save enough lives to justify the cost of a public vaccination program). For me, this was the key sentence in the Atlantic article:
Studies show that young, healthy people mount a glorious immune response to seasonal flu vaccine, and their response reduces their chances of getting the flu and may lessen the severity of symptoms if they do get it.

I HATE having the flu; I'd much rather spend 2 hours waiting in line than 2 hours of having the flu. In fact, I'd give it about a 3-to-1 ratio; I'd spend 3 hours waiting to get the flu shot to avoid 1 hour of being sick and miserable.

Now the flu vaccine isn't 100% effective. And I'm not 100% guaranteed to get it. So the cost/benefit calculations get a tiny bit tricky; here's what I figure, before factoring in my preference for waiting in the doctor's office to lying feverish in bed:

Cost of getting H1N1 : ~5 days (120 hours) of misery
Cost of getting vaccinated : 2 hours of my time
Chance of catching H1N1 : 20%
Effectiveness of vaccine: 50%
Cost/benefit ratio is : 2*(1/.5)*(1/.2) / 120 = 1 / 15

So the H1N1 vaccine is a clear winner from a cost/benefit point of view. The numbers for the normal seasonal flu are different:

Cost of getting season flu: 120 hours of misery
Cost of getting vaccinated: 1 hour
Chance of getting the seasonal flu: 2%
Effectiveness of vaccine: 20%
Cost/benefit: 1*(1/.02)*(1/.2) / 120 = 250 / 120 or about 2 / 1

Most years it is quicker to get a flu shot, and most years only about 1% of the population gets the flu (I doubled my chances because the kids pick up pretty much anything going around). But most years they have to guess about which strain of flu will be going around, and they often guess wrong.

The 2/1 cost/benefit result surprises me. If I valued an hour spent sick in bed the same as an hour waiting in a doctor's office then the seasonal flu shot probably doesn't pass the cost/benefit test. I'm going to keep getting seasonal flu shots because I'm a big baby and really don't like being sick.

I haven't factored in the fact that even if the flu shot doesn't prevent me from getting the flu, it might help me recover faster. Then again, I haven't factored in the fact that I might catch a cold or another virus from somebody waiting in line with me to get a flu shot...

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Swap Houses and Profit!

Can anybody point me to a respected economist (meaning one who isn't employed by the National Association of Realtors/Homebuilders) who thinks that extending the first-time-homebuyer tax credit is a good idea?

It's a bad idea on so many levels. Its regressive (homeowners are richer than the average taxpayer), its environmentally-unfriendly (homes are less efficient than apartments), and it does nothing but create artificial demand for a product that people have said they don't really want.

And in the latest incarnation it seems way too easy to game the system.

We've owned our house for more than five years, so if we sell it and buy another we'd qualify for the $6,500 existing homeowner tax credit.

It's awfully tempting to find somebody else who owns a similar house, and then swap houses. I sell to them, they sell to me, and we each pocket $6,500 dollars. If we were 100% honest (or worried about the IRS doing bed-checks) we'd actually pick up and move.

Maybe transaction costs on selling a house are high enough that this won't actually happen, or maybe the law is written so doing this is illegal.

But given the amount of fraud that happened the first time around, I bet there will be a lot of house swapping going on in the next year.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Stupid google

The Happy Kamper points to a funny Slate article about Google's auto-suggest feature. Turns out if you talk pretty, you get fancy suggestions. And if you don't, you get suggestions about growing weed or Jon and Kate.

The phrase "stupid is as stupid does" immediately sprang to mind. Ask Mr. Google to suggest queries starting with "stupid is" and here's what you get:

I like the irony of people asking "stupid is as stupid does what does it mean" ...

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Education Reform: Lessons from the UK

The Center for American Progress (a lefty think tank) organized "an insightful conversation about the community schools strategy and how federal policy can encourage the growth of community schools across the country" a few days ago. You can watch the whole thing on their website (or you can get just the audio by subscribing to their events podcast, which is where I heard it).

If you have the time and you're interested in education policy I'd highly recommend watching or listening to the first 40 minutes or so where Tony Blair (former Prime Minister of the UK) describes how his administration successfully reformed the UK public school system. He says that we actually do know what needs to be done to make the education system better; it's just really hard to do. I agree.

I'm going to cherry-pick a few things that I didn't think I'd ever hear a leader of a center-left political party say; listen to his whole talk for the proper context:
  • The teacher's unions are a challenge; they must be a partner, but must not be given veto power over reforms.

  • Successful schools have an identity-- an "independent ethos" -- and everybody involved feels pride in the school. That requires strong leadership at the school. Academy schools (charter schools in the US) are one way to get that strong identity. Extended schools (community schools here) are another way; they become the hub for the whole community.

  • Bad teachers shouldn't be teaching. Fire them.

  • Bad schools shouldn't be tolerated. And "coasting" schools are a big problem, too. Track performance and act fast.

  • Structure matters; set up non-bureaucratic, decentralized structures and give them support, but throw the system open to new providers and new ideas.

Tony Blair may have been astoundingly wrong for supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq, but he is absolutely right about how to reform education.
Between 2001 and 2005 what Blair increasingly hankered after was a way of improving the education system that didn't need to be constantly driven by government. He wanted to develop self-sustaining, self-improving systems, and that led him to look into how to change not just the standards and the quality of teaching, but the structures and incentives. Essentially it's about creating different forms of a quasi-market in public services, exploiting the power of choice, competition, transparency and incentives, and that's really where the education debate is going now.
--Sir Michael Barber (this whole interview is interesting)
After Mr. Blair's talk he and Arne Duncan (current US Education Secretary) sat down and had a conversation about community schools. I'm cautiously optimistic that the Obama administration might actually implement some real, effective reforms, but real reform would require changes on the local, state and federal levels.

Unfortunately, I don't think the Center for American Progress gets it. They are very excited about the "community schools" concept (extending the school day to better serve students and parents and making the schools the center of delivery of all sorts of social services), but don't talk at all about avoiding heavy-handed central bureaucracies or allowing new providers to inject fresh ideas and energy into our 19'th century, designed-for-the-agrarian-economy public school system.