Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Beam Me Up to Heaven?

Greetings, friends.

You've heard a lot about risk evaluation so far from me, like why drinking a 2L bottle of soda is millions of times more dangerous than getting your head blown off while twisting the pressurized cap. Today I'm going to tackle an interesting problem in (soon-to-be-)practical philosophy: the ethics of teleportation. If I've done my job right, at the end of this post you will either fear death and teleportation, just teleportation, or neither of them.

What is Teleportation?

First, let me be specific as to what I mean by teleportation. The (now) hypothetical teleportation machine I'm going to talk about would work like this. You walk into a room, and your body is deconstructed while it's scanned, such that the position and composition of every molecule in you body is recorded. (I think that a fair amount of lossy compression would still have the subject live on the other side. Imagine a world with different transport ticket classes: First Class teleportation introducing relatively little distortion by using a full Yottabyte to store your body's information, but Coach using less bandwidth but leaving you feeling not quite right - like a low-bitrate MP3.) On the other side of the world, or years in the future (if you trust the data medium you're recorded on) your body is reconstructed, and you walk away fresh as a daisy.

Teleportation vs. Death

Here's the catch. How confident are you that walking into a room and getting taken apart molecule-by-molecule would feel any better because a suitable (even a perfect) copy of you walks out the door of a machine somewhere else? Suppose other people start teleporting and claim they didn't feel a thing wrong. Is that really any consolation? A perfect copy of my friend would behave just like a friend that didn't feel anything wrong. But how do I know that my actual friend didn't just subjectively die in the scanning room?

Most of my friends consider my reluctance about teleporting a little on the quirky side. They use it as evidence that I believe in a soul, which wouldn't get passed on to the copy stepping out of the teleport receiver. Even some of my friends who declare to believe in souls wouldn't mind being teleported as long as people did it all the time without any obvious side effects. (Maybe that makes sense. If souls don't have physical locations, why would it matter if the physical location of the block of matter "in contact with" the soul were to change locations?) Still, I think that getting my molecules ripped apart would feel pretty much the same regardless of the quality of the clone of me which stepped out into another time and place.

Death as Teleportation

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice [....]"
-- John Donne, Meditation XVII
"Soon, some by teleportation. The 'better language' has me in Costa Rica right now."
-- Me

If you agree with pretty much everyone I've talked to, you'd say I'd be kooky to eschew teleportation because of its potential metaphysical consequences. If so, you shouldn't be afraid of dying either. Here's why: parallel universes are very likely. Check out the Wikipedia entry on "scientific" multiverses. There are tons of reasons to think that the sum total of reality is much bigger than the observable universe. Here are some reasons to suspect "reality" has more than what we could ever possibly observe:

  1. Space is big. We don't really know how big it is - but if it's at least 10^10^29 units big (What really kills me is that when you do orders of magnitude of orders of magnitude, the "units" could be 1 femptometer or 13.7 billion light years, and it wouldn't make a difference to the "29" part! If you use units 10^80 times bigger, you'd change the exponent from 10^29 to (10^29) + 80: insignificant.), then it's likely that there's an exact copy of you somewhere out there, given the number of possible arrangements of atoms in a universe 13.7 billion light-years across (which is all you can see at this point, so the seperate universes would be effectively identical). Because of quantum fluctuations these universes would diverge, but if space is at least 10^10^29 big, there would always be some universe out there identical to ours in every way.
  2. Baby universes might exist. If universes typically aren't that big, you might still have copies. Some physicists think that some universes constantly spawn children universes (here "universe" means contiguous volume of space), resulting in an exponential growth in the total possibilities explored by reality. In this case, you're guaranteed to have an exponentially-increasing number of exact copies of yourself elsewhere. You might not be able to reach these copies even in principal, but they would still exist.
  3. The "Many-Worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics might be correct. You might have heard that making a measurement of a particle changes that particle in a fundamental way. Quantum computers are hard to make because to make a big one, you have to carefully avoid measuring anything while the computations are running. In this case, "measuring" doesn't mean "recording the measurement," it just means letting some information about the quantum computer's state influence the outside world. But, what counts as "outside" and "inside"? Nature doesn't draw a boundary around the quantum computational mechanism, saying "OK, you particles can interact with all particles in the quantum computer, but as soon as you interact with those particles in the computer case, the show's over." If you assume there's only one reality, you have to conclude that there's something special about our minds that collapses possibilities: whenever information about the state of a quantum computer leaks out into the world which could potentially be observed by a mind, the quantum possibilities collapse, and you're left with a classically-behaving system. (Alternatively, some physicists propose that large enough quantum systems spontaneously de-cohere with no mind needed, but it's not clear how "large enough" should be so defined yet. Every experiment done so far has the definition of "large enough" coincide exactly with "big enough to contain a mind.") If you find it hard to swallow that the atoms making up your mind have special "waveform-collapsing" powers, an appealing alternative is the "many worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, which suggests that possibilities never collapse, they just multiply. In this case, reality always branches whenever a particle makes a quantum decision. Reality always branches so that what you observe is consistent with the branch you took, which is why it appears that you collapse possibilities through observation: you're just forced to go along with a single outcome. So, if a particle in a superposition state decides to be spin-up or spin-down and you interact with it, you will be split into two and exist in two different non-interacting worlds: one where you observed the particle to be spin-down and one spin-up. Since quantum interactions happen all the time, the "many" in "many worlds" in like the "big" in "big bang": a serious understatement. There are so many exact copies of you floating around, it's ridiculous.
Personally, I think reasons #1 and #2 are possibilities we shouldn't discount, and that #3 is really quite likely. How about you guys?

Copies and Immortality
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
--John Donne, Holy Sonnet X

It's extremely likely that not only do perfect copies of you exist somewhere, but also that every reasonable permutation of matter exists, including ones where you have e.g. different social status. If you're not squeamish about teleportation and you bought my arguments about the plurality of possible existences, then you have to believe that even if "Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men" disassemble you as thoroughly as a teleporter scanner would, "One short sleepe past" you'd wake in a reality where everything was the same, except some ridiculous circumstance would conspire to make you actually survive.

If the "many worlds" theory is correct, you wouldn't even have to be physically transported to another place as part of the immortality process. Check out the thought behind quantum immortality if you're interested in more on this.

Practical Issue: Subjectivity/Objectivity Mismatch

I'm more skeptical about my subjectivity being transported with my copy than I am about the plurality of the universe. Luckily, if multiverse #3 holds, I don't have to worry about the teleporter/subjectivity problem at all.

As long as the "many worlds" idea is correct, I think I'd be able to experimentally verify my reluctance to teleport myself, but only subjectively. That's because if I tried to teleport myself, no matter how hard I tried, my subjectivity would be forced down the quantum branches in the universe into realities where I wasn't able to be destructively scanned due to a freak occurrence. This will happed subjectively to everyone, but all of your friends will be able to teleport just fine from your point of view, just like it's possible for your friends to die in your world even though you might subjectively be immortal.

You May Be the Only Person Who Cannot Teleport in the Future
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
-- Rudyard Kipling, If -

Therefore, let me warn every one of you: there's a chance we're living in a multiverse where nobody will ever be able to teleport subjectively, because every time they try their subjectivity will be forced down some bizarre path where they didn't actually get killed. If you find yourself unable to teleport in the future even after having teleported many times before, it will mean "you" were born a clone from a teleportation machine, and your subjectivity won't be able to fit through a teleportation machine any more easily than a teleportation virgin's.


Be prepared for a future where all your friends can teleport without issues, but you are never able to. Be prepared for finding that teleportation doesn't work for you even if it has in the past: this just means your subjectivity started when you stepped out of a teleport receiver.

In either case, you will have evidence of the "many worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, but you'll never be able to objectively prove it. My advice: keep quiet about it, or they'll think you're crazy. Maybe if you turn Amish you'll be able to hide your existential conundrum.

I'll give a closing note to financial houses. I'm interested in buying a "solipsism fund:" a financial instrument where lots of us (like, millions of us) pay into a pot, and the people surviving split the interest on this cash every year they live. If we are all subjectively immortal, there's no better investment. And no, I don't want a fixed stipend for the rest of my life - I want to be filthy rich if I have to live to be as old as the Wandering Jew. PS - please keep the recipient list anonymous until only I am left, so that others don't have an incentive to do away with me early.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Getting Used to Blogger's Order

Greetings, friends.

I just noticed that my blogs are all dated the date when I started composing a post, not when I finished. I guess that makes some sense for things like trip diaries, but for essays it's not so great.

In the future I'll try to remember to paste into fresh posts so that the most recently-published entries are always on top. For now, you might want to check out Making Future-Proof Policy, a post that I started before the soda bottle posts, but finished just a little while ago. It's about how we can change policy so that it's automatically ready for unforeseeable new technologies.

Sorry for any confusion!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Warning Labels on Soda Pt 2: the Real Risk

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Last post, I ridiculed the warnings on the side of 2 liter soda bottles; in-depth studies did not find a single instance of them causing any serious eye injury. Today I'm going to estimate your health risks once the bottle is open.

If the soda you bought wasn't diet, then it's loaded with one of American nutritionists' worst nightmares: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is the most common caloric sweetener in soft drinks in the United States, in part because agricultural corn subsidies make corn plentiful and cheap.

HFCS: Empty Calories Without Filling You Up

It's a real shame that corn was chosen as the US's crutch crop, because HFCS happens to be not just pure sugar, but it's a kind of stealth sugar which doesn't make you feel less hungry. HFCS calories then don't displace other calories in your diet.

In the year 2000, a study was undertaken where human subjects were made to consume 450-calorie portions of either soda or jelly beans on a daily basis. Whereas the jelly bean-eating group ate fewer calories to compensate for the fact that they had to eat jelly beans (if only I were a five-year-old when this study started - talk about your dream job!), the soda-drinking group's appetite did not decrease at all - in fact drinking soda may have increased the subjects' appetite (although this increase was not statistically-significant).

The study I mentioned is not alone: research has shown that HFCS may be a serious culprit in the epidemic of obesity since HFCS can be directly converted to fat easily, and a 2006 summary of recent research has shown sugar-sweetened beverages to be dangerous in cross-sectional, prospective and experimental studies.

There is a mountain of scientific evidence that drinking HFCS in soda is bad for you. There's even been talk of putting a Surgeon General's warning on soda cans, since they are so unhealthy. How unhealthy are they? Here's my estimate.

Health Impact of the HFCS in Soda

If you drink that 2L bottle of non-diet soda, you're adding its whole 1000 calories to your diet, since HFCS doesn't fill you up. According to an earlier estimation of mine, eating 800 extra calories has a 94 in a million chance of killing you, which makes the risk associated with consuming a single soda bottle is about 118 in a million: there's a greater than 1 in 10,000 chance that drinking a 2L bottle of non-diet soda will kill you in the following 15 years.


Drinking the soda in a 2L bottle is at least one million times more risky than opening the bottle. Yet, the warning label on the bottle is for the latter, not the former. I wonder if maybe the label is there to try to assure us that the most dangerous part of enjoying the soda is opening it, lulling us into a false sense of security. In any case, once again we see that Americans are concerned with the wrong risks. Let's stop fear-mongering about things which won't hurt us and try to educate ourselves about things that might.

PS I've added drinking 2L of HFCS soda to the ever-expanding risk list wiki. So far, it's the first activity to warrant a yellow alert.

EDIT: I've added the life expectancy decrease (LED) and equivalent driving distance (EDD) metrics to this post. See this post for an introduction to the LED and EDD.

If consuming a 2L bottle of non-diet soda has a 118 in a million chance of killing you within 15 years, then its EDD is (1 billion miles / 14.6 * 118 / 1 million) = over 8,000 miles. So, it's safer to drive for 8000 miles than to consume a 2L bottle of non-diet soda.

The LED is (80 years * 118 / 1 million) = about 3 and a half days: enough to give you pause.

Under Pressure: Attack of the Killer Soda Pop

Greetings, fellow nerds.

If you consume soft drinks in the United States, chances are that you've noticed that this warning has begun to appear on two liter soda bottles. When I first saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes. I find it hard to imagine what possible circumstances could conspire to cause the cap to blow off with enough force to do bodily harm. So why the warning label? Does it really help, or is it just the brainchild of a misdirected torte lawyer?

I'm going to argue that the real dangers of soda come from drinking it, not opening the lid. I'm going to expose how skewed our senses of risk and responsibility are by showing that the high fructose corn syrup in soda does far more damage than its allegedly explosive top. This post will cover the risks of getting blinded by a rocketing soda pop top, while the next one will look into the health consequences of drinking that same soda.

The Letter Never Sent

When I set out to uncover the statistics behind the warning labels on soft drink bottles, I had imagined having to write to a representative of some bottling authority with a request for statistics on eye injury resulting from opening plastic bottles. I'd say my friends and I are casually interested in why these warning labels were deemed necessary, and ask for the reasoning behind the warnings.

I was kind of looking forward to composing the letter. Setting the right tone would be key: I'd have to come across as earnest while acknowledging the whimsical nature of my request. Usually, public relations people at corporations give you the benefit of the doubt and respond in good faith. However, it turns out injury statistics from soda bottles are well-known and published, so writing is unnecessary. I might still write that letter; if you'd like me to carry through with this plan let me know in a comment.

The Answer's Before Our Eyes

I'm not planning on writing the above letter because the British Journal of Optometry has already answered my question. In this publication (.pdf warning), titled “Serious eye injuries caused by bottles containing carbonated drinks”, they say “plastic and metal cans pose little danger: we found no related injury among the 12 889 cases.” Their database held combined data from the US, Hungarian and Mexican eye injuries from 1982 – 2002 (although it didn't have data for all countries and all years).

The paper's authors (F Kuhn, V Mester, R Morris and J Dalma) found not one instance of a soda pop bottle causing an eye injury in any of the countries in any year. It would be a stretch to say that absolutely no eye injuries happened because of pop bottles during the 1982-1999 period in the States (2000-2002 US data not published in Kuhn et al.) since the database of eye injuries used (USEIR) collects information of only serious eye damage, and not all states of the US contribute data to USEIR yet. Still, the fact that Kuhn et al. found not one case of plastic bottles causing eye damage over a 20 year span is suggestive that they're pretty harmless. If you know of someone who has been injured by a plastic bottle top, please leave me a reply about it.

Incidentally, champagne is not so benign. Kuhn. Et al. mention 43 cases of severe eye injury from sparkling wine corks to the face; the majority of these (37) were in Hungary. The remaining 6 wine cork injuries happened to Americans. If we assume the USEIR reflects only about half of all eye injuries, that's still less than 1 serious American injury per year. (Aside: Does anybody know what Hungarians put in their hooch that makes it so explosive? Kuhn et al. are baffled too.)

I'm Armed and Carbonated

Because I'm a physical sciences nerd, I'm going to figure out how dangerous pop bottle caps could be under ideal firing conditions. Typical soft drinks are pressurized to about 300 kPa. If the surface area of the cap is 3 square cm, the cap is under about 90 Newtons of force, or about 20 pounds. If we assume that some manufacturing error resulted in the cap suddenly becoming loose after a vigorous shaking of the soda at room temperature, this 90 Newtons would act on the cap for as long as the cap blocks the exit path of the gas: about 2 cm. If that 90 Newtons accelerates the cap for 2 cm, the energy transferred to the cap would be only 1.8 Joules. Most accidental cap accidents would be under less-than-ideal launch conditions, so I would be surprised if caps blew off with more than 1 Joule of energy.

How much is 1.8 Joules? About the same amount of energy as a snapped rubber band (one with a spring constant of about 250 N/m), if you stretch it three or four inches. That might sting if it hit you in the eye, but it's not likely to do permanent damage even with a direct hit. It probably wouldn't be too hard to get pop bottles approved as projectile toys for kids old enough not to try to swallow the cap.

In summary, my analysis suggests there isn't enough punch in a plastic bottle cap to do serious harm, and the lack of any evidence of eye injuries backs up my case. From here on in, I'm going to assume that the risk of serious injury from pop bottle tops to consumers (forewarned or no) is 0. Of course it isn't exactly 0, but the Kuhn et al. study covered about 5 billion person-years of exposure to pop bottle tops and didn't find a single serious injury, suggesting an upper bound on the injury rate of about 1 per 10 billion: close enough to 0 not to matter.

Time lost to the warning label

Even though an in-depth study failed to find even one instance of a plastic bottle cap damaging anybody's eye, one might think that it's better to abide by the precautionary principal, that is to warn people of the pressure danger in opening their soda on the off chance that we might prevent even one eye injury. I can imagine the person making the decision to put warnings on all plastic bottles would have a warm, fuzzy feeling if they saved the vision of even one child.

I disagree with the precautionary principal for two reasons. First, the cost of having warning labels is not zero: the precious seconds of our lives we waste worrying about inflated risks add up. Second, ubiquitous, petty, self-important warning labels can inure the public to warnings on genuine risks.

Time Lost Reading Gratuitous Fear-Mongering Messages

How many lifetimes have been wasted reading this warning message? Let's assume that, on average, every American reads this warning once per year. (I don't know if the rest of the world has adopted the warning label yet. Let's hope the insanity has been confined to the Home of the Mega Lawsuit.) If it takes about 10 precious seconds of your life to read through the text, that means that nationwide, about 95 years of life are wasted every year we insist of putting these gratuitous warnings on soda bottles. Equivalently, as you read this, you can expect 95 Americans are busy reading through the above text about how their life is potentially threatened by the intense pressure of the liquid refreshment in their hands.

Think of the good which could be done with those 95 person-years. Movies, novels and poetry written, walks in the park, vacations; all of these and more might have been accomplished if it were not for these unnecessary, attention-whoring portents of soda pop doom. There are some who balk at doing moral algebra. I think that 95 years of vision wasted by eye injury is in principal equivalent to 95 years of vision wasted by reading a warning label.

Since the net effect of the warnings is to decrease the visual lifetime of the consumer, I propose that the soda bottle companies stop printing the warnings. I also propose that we allow companies complete immunity from lawsuits arising from activities whose associated risk is so small that to post warning labels does more net harm than good.

Warnings, Warnings Everywhere...

... nor anyone to think. Perhaps the most damaging consequence of posting warnings on soda pop bottles is that we end up reflexively ignoring them. I hesitate to read every warning label I see (in truth, I didn't even notice this one below until this minute when I started looking for warning labels).

What's on the bottom of my keyboard? Is there a risk of electric shock? Perhaps deadly chemicals leak up from between the keys every midnight. How would I know? I plugged in my keyboard, it worked, and I'm happy. There's no way I'm going to pursue every last nagging, ass-covering warning I see out there, and that means I'll ignore warning signs when there are real dangers too.

I think we should standardize a color-coded warning label system, where different risk orders of magnitude have different colors. You could ignore anything less than a yellow then, unless you were exposed to the risk all the time. Manufacturers would be immune to lawsuits over correctly-labeled risks, and would be made liable for time lost if they grossly overstate the risk. I've started a list of color-coded risks - check out my wiki and add to it if you feel so inclined.


Gratuitous warning labels (such as the one on pop bottles) make us worry about the wrong things. There are genuine risks out there, but the system we have for making people aware of them is broken. We need to push through laws that protect companies from one-off lawsuits caused by the failure to alert customers of excessively-small risks, and then maybe we can talk about demanding that risk labels be removed when the opportunity costs or reading them outweigh the benefit they do.

EDIT: I'm adding information of the life expectancy decrease (LED) and equivalent driving distance (EDD) for opening a bottle of soda. See this post for an introduction to the LED and EDD.

If Americans open roughly 100 soda bottles per year, and if the annual risk of getting an eye injury from opening a soda bottle is less than 1 in 10 billion, the risk of opening each bottle is less than 1 in a trillion. That means that even if we were to assume any serious injury from a soda bottle were fatal, you life expectancy would decrease from opening a soda bottle by only 2.5 milliseconds (80 years - a typical lifespan / 1 trillion). Opening a soda bottle therefore has an LED of 2.5 milliseconds or less.

The EDD is computed by the fact that 14.6 driving fatalities occur every billion miles. The distance you'd have to drive to incur the same risk as opening a soda bottle is therefore 1 billion miles / 14.6 / 1 trillion; the EDD is less than 4.5 inches; so driving more than the length of a pickle is more risky than opening a soda bottle, once again with the ridiculous assumption that all bottle top eye injuries would be fatal.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Making Future-Proof Policy

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Today I'm going to address an emerging problem for policy-makers: how to exploit all the latest tech without getting bogged down in implementation details. I'm going to make the case that governments should adopt an adjudicating rather than a micro-managing role in some kinds of service provision.

Today's Tech is a Moving Target

Ours is an age of innovation. The rate of innovation has never been so fast. There's a yawning gap between the cutting edge of (especially) information technology and typical technology usage. As tech speeds up, I see this problem getting worse, not better. Do we want to perpetually wait around for bright ideas to crawl their way through the legislature? Or, do we want an adaptive system where better solutions to public problems can be implemented and rewarded instantaneously? How would such an unregulated system work?

Examples: Road Construction and Power Distribution

I've already given an outline on how we could get the private sector to automatically implement any useful tech in terms of road durability and safety in the form of bonds which annually pay the holder an amount proportional to the good that was done to the community. See my 21st century capitalism post at the bottom for more details.

I'm going to argue that we should trade in our monopsony/monopoly electrical power distribution system for a free market system with fluctuating prices for the same reason. As soon as a new gizmo which does things better gets invented, you should be able to just plug the sucker in and start making cash.

Case in Point: Cold Dutch Ideas

Recently, a Dutch research agency suggested that refrigeration warehouses should turn off their refrigerators during the day (nature article and ZDNet summary) in an idea called "night wind". Excess wind power is generated at night and might get wasted if nobody used it. Since it's OK for some refrigerated goods to vary in temperature a couple of degrees, you would let your warehouse warm up a bit during the day, but get cooled right off at night using green power through a grid that didn't happen to be at peak.

Let's review some of the steps you'd need to go through to put this idea into practice given the current power system.
  1. Some researcher thinks it up.
  2. Political will is mustered to look into the study.
  3. The specifics of which warehouses could use no diurnal refrigeration (possibly season-dependent) are compiled by a central authority.
  4. New regulations have to be developed and approved.
  5. Businesses are notified of discounts (or worse yet - income tax incentives) available for night-only refrigeration.
  6. Enforcers patrol the warehouses which signed up to make sure they don't use their refrigerators at night.
Keep It Simple!

I think letting the price of power float is a much better idea, so long as any approved entity can buy or sell energy to the grid. We already have "time of use" power meters which record the time of day each kWh of energy was used. Usually, energy at peak hours costs a high fixed rate while energy at off-peak hours is much less expensive - often less than half as costly.

Suppose we took the time-of-day concept one step farther and let electrical power be traded like any other commodity. Then, the steps needed to get warehouses to take advantage of extra power would be:
  1. Somebody notices power is more expensive in the day, so she turns off the refrigerators during the day.
  2. Profit!!!
Once people realize that power's cheaper at night, all sorts of things might get switched over to night-only, such as domestic air conditioning (possibly with a heat reserve), industrial processes, electric car charging, winter heating, etc. I can imagine thermostats which take in two variables: the current temperature and the current cost of electricity, to decide whether to turn on. It would be easy to transmit a few bits of information relaying the current price of electricity along power lines at some frequency other than 60 Hz (probably higher, so the signal would die out over a short range, and so local prices could vary somewhat). Then every appliance from fridge to light bulb could (in principal) decide for itself whether to turn on.

Free Market Benefits

There are six benefits to this system:
  1. Consumers would have financial incentives to cut back electricity usage when it's most scarce.
  2. The market would be able to decide exactly when price-dependent operation is worthwhile. Personally, I would say "no" to lightbulbs which dim when power is expensive, but "yes" to a fridge which works most when power is cheap, and "definitely" to a plug-in hybrid car which guzzled late-night 2¢-per-kWh hydro power. No extra laws needed!
  3. Power generation systems would be rewarded for producing electricity when it's most needed (potentially making solar power more financially-feasible in hot and sunny areas - solar needs all the financial help it can get).
  4. If somebody developed a large battery for leveling out peak usage, they would be able to make a quick buck right away. No need for proving the thing first: just buy low and sell high. No public investment risk would be involved, and peak prices would go down as peak supply increased, as if by magic.
  5. The financial incentives for long-distance power cables (such as HVDC) would be immediately apparent, and if they were economical, would be built quickly by profit-seeking companies.
  6. There would finally be some elasticity in demand for power. Trying to match generation with consumption is one of the biggest causes of damage to power equipment causing blackouts. If systems become over-stressed, prices would go up and everyone who had a smart air conditioner would instantaneously decrease the load on the critically-stressed system.
As I see it, the biggest disadvantage of changing to a market-based system is that it would be a change. New hardware would be needed - that's about it.


A market-based power-distribution system has the advantage of instantaneously adding incentives exactly where they would be with an ideal policy system. There would be no lumbering lag between technological innovation and implementation: if it will make money, do it.

Ensuring that financial incentives are aligned with the good of humanity is what 21st century capitalism is all about. Policies where every party has the same goals makes us work together to the benefit of all, harnessing our uniquely human gift of capitalism to do good.

Keeping Bounty Hunters Honest

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Two posts ago I showed how terribly inefficient big pharmaceutical companies are at finding treatments which actually help people. Less than 7% of what you pay for medicine funds useful research and development. In the last post, I outlined an incentive program whereby research companies get compensation proportional to the good they do us, so the incentive is to do work that actually benefits humanity. Today I'm going to show a few refinements to the last post's incentive program which make it more practical.

Refinement #1: What Counts as "Cured?"

Sometimes the success of a treatment can't be reduced to cured/not cured. In these cases, you'd probably replace the "% cured" number in the example I gave (the one which resulted in a $2 billion reward - see last post for details) with a fixed formula, possibly including prevalence of side effects, time for the treatment to work, cost/complexity of the treatment, or other factors. Health organizations get to decide what counts as success, and the researchers who best achieve it get the most award money.

The same disease might even have multiple prizes if desired: one whose formula emphasized quick recovery while the other's formula emphasized the absence of side effects. Complexity isn't necessary, but might be appropriate in some circumstances.

Skepticism Built-in: Incentives for Thorough Studies

It would be a good idea to reward based on the bottom of the 99% confidence interval of the study, so you would have to be statistically sure (at the 99 in 100 level) that the new treatment was better than the old treatment, and claims would tend to be understated. (This is to prevent companies from designing weak studies with few subjects. If you do many of these weak studies, a few of them will, by chance, show the new treatment to be better.) This measure would also provide an incentive for drug companies to do thorough drug evaluation, since the better the study statistics are, the smaller the confidence interval and the more companies get paid. Companies falsifying results would be dealt with just as they are in today's system.

Avoiding Getting Scooped Without Rewarding Pharmasquatting

It's also a good idea to allow a company to be locked in to a certain treatment/disease pair without competition for a limited time: you don't want to have to rush clinical trials to keep the competition from scooping you. I propose that you be able to take out two-year-long exclusive rents for each trial phase of any specific treatment/disease pair combination. For example, a company could pay (say) $100,000 for the exclusive right to do phase II testing of a new treatment. If it looked promising at the end of two years, they would get an exclusive offer to try phase III testing for (say) $500,000 for two years.

The $100,000 and $500,000 figures probably should be linked to the size of the incentive pot to discourage pharmasquatting (the pharmacological equivalent to cybersquatting: essentially leasing large blocks of treatment-malady combinations in the hopes that someone who does real research will buy the exclusive rights off you). If you made the fees big enough that randomly choosing treatment-disease pairs results in an expected loss, nobody will pharmasquat.

Harness Prediction Markets

Once research starts, these leases would have a value which reflects the probability that a certain therapy-illness combination proves fruitful. Allowing these leases to be tradable (and allowing the possibility of dividing them into shares) would instantly generate a prediction market in therapies, harnessing the full power of the free market to finance medical research. It might not be true that the best treatment discovery companies start out with access to the best funding; selling shares in treatment possibilities would be an efficient way of raising capital and of gaging the expected success of new treatments coming through.

Bounties, Ethics and Intellectual Property Law

Right now there's a huge debate over the ethics of withholding life-saving treatments from those who cannot afford the licensing fees. It's a really tough issue: is it OK to demand that people die for the sake of the survival of a company which produces life-saving treatments? If the bounty system were implemented, there'd be no issue over who has to pay what to whom to use life-saving knowledge: as soon as it's discovered, (as long as you are within the group of nations/HMOs that pay their dues - my great hope is that this group would quickly swell to encompass the whole world) you can use the treatment.

Another great advantage to the bounty system is that there would no longer be a need to enforce medical patents. In general, it's a good idea to replace negative reenforcement systems with positive reenforcement proportional to the good done, since it means you don't have to police the whole world.


The bounty system for new treatment discovery gives incentives for medical researchers to find ways to treat illnesses. It can coexist in a world with the current patent-protection paradigm, although if it works half as well as I expect I doubt many people won't join up.

There are probably more refinements to add to the bounty system, and there may be a few flaws in it that I haven't seen. If you think of anything I haven't mentioned (pro, con or refinement) regarding the bounty system, please leave a comment below. Thanks!

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Get Found

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Last post exposed how little incentive there is for drug companies to develop useful new treatments. Only 7% of pharmaceutical revenue goes to finding better drugs. Moreover, this meager 7% isn't normally spent developing any kind of therapy that can't be patented; efforts are skewed towards discovering new and untested substances for the sole reason that they are patentable.

The current system is broken because pharmaceutical companies get rewarded only if the treatments they find lead to widespread purchasing of chemicals they have patented. We need a system whereby private industry gets rewarded every time it discovers a better way to treat pertinent diseases.

Suggestion: Mprize-Like Rewards

The easiest way to reward companies for discovering cures is to do just that: pay drug companies a bounty for each new treatment they show (or discover) that's better than the last one. My favorite way to pay out the bounties would be like they do with the Methuselah Mouse Prize (Mprize for short), similar to the Ansari X prize for commercial spaceflight in that both provide cash rewards for results.

The Mprize encourages scientists to make mice as long-lived as possible, with the hope that some of their techniques could be applied to humans too. Whereas the original X prize offered a single cash reward for the first commercial team to achieve the target (to have one spacecraft fly twice within two weeks to 100 km with a pilot and two passengers or their weight equivalent), the Mprize offers chunks of its money to research teams who provide incremental improvements to the lifespan of mice. Prizes are proportional to how long the winning mouse outlives the old record-holding mouse.

I propose that the financial rewards for research organizations that discover new cures should be awarded incrementally. Like the Mprize, prizes should be proportional to the benefit the new treatment gives above and beyond the current best treatment. For example, say the old treatment for pancreatic cancer has a 25% success rate, the new one has a 40% success rate, and there's $10 billion in the pot for finding a cure to pancreatic cancer. Then, since the company decreased the failure rate (which was 75%) by 15%, they would get (15%/75%) = 20% of the $10 billion, or $2 billion.

Filling the Prize Pots

In a perfect world, we'd solve the prize-funding problem with alphabet soup. The WTO would request a percentage of each nation's GDP to go to the WHO, who would allocate funds as needed. Perhaps nations would get discretion over where 50% of their funds go, so that individual rulers could appease their special interest groups and gain some political capital. (As long as no special interest groups become overwhelmingly powerful in all nations, the WHO could probably end up with the same money distribution they would choose voluntarily by spreading the remaining 50% among neglected but important prizes.)

In an imperfect or intermediate world, only some nations (or a subset of HMOs within a nation) would participate in the bounty system; the others would be required to license any intellectual property discovered by the bounty system. Unfortunately, one of the strengths of the bounty system is that it provides an incentive to discover unpatentable treatments. (I wonder for example how many diseases could be helped by proper exercise. Under the current system that kind of study is hard to fund, so we'll never know.) Groups not participating in the bounty system would thus get these benefits for free (or perhaps at the expense of losing face in the international community for being freeloaders). Researchers outside of the bounty system could choose to claim the cash prize and give up their intellectual property, or they could license their work as they do now.

Still, without the burden of having to market new drugs (recall that only 14% of drug company revenue goes to R & D), it's possible that a bounty-based system could beat drug companies at their own game, producing more patentable treatments per chunk of cash, especially if M.D.s become sick of being hounded by incessant glossy ad campaigns for new drugs of dubious quality. (Hey, I can always dream, can't I?)

Sanity, Meet Drug Quality Regulations

I can't resist adding one more suggestion which would lower the cost of drugs. If you're not squeamish, check out how many rodent hairs and insect parts the FDA allows into food. Here's my question: if it's safe to eat reasonable amounts of contaminants in food (including food we give to sick people), why isn't it OK to allow even minuscule levels of contamination in the medicines we eat? Eating traces of rat hair is either bad (in which case we shouldn't allow it in food), or not a big deal (in which case we should relax the US FDA requirements which keep generic drug manufacturing expensive). Apart from dose and shelf life quality control, generic medicines you eat should have no more regulations than food.


If we want drug companies to work for us, we have to give them incentives to work for us. Right now their incentives are barely aligned at all with discovering new and better medical treatments. By replacing the patent system with a bounty system, we can harness the capitalist desires of pharmaceutical corporations for the benefit of humanity. It will be hard to set up a system which collects money for the rewards, but even if we assume this system is only about 50% efficient and collects 50% of the revenue of today's system, this system would still more than triple the amount of useful treatment research and development going on today. 7% efficiency isn't a hard benchmark to beat.

Let's harness the power of the free market by giving incentives for finding the best (not the most profitable) cures possible.

P.S. There are a few details in the way we'd need to implement bounties to keep people from abusing the system. I'll go into these in my next post. After that, please feel free to point out any remaining flaws in my bounty ideas. Thanks!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bad Medicine: Big Pharma's Not On Your Side

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Today's medicines fund tomorrow's miracles. That's what GlaxoSmithKline's publicity department decided was the most palatable excuse for the high cost of drugs: we charge a lot to make more magic bullets to fight new and ominous plagues. It's "pay up or die," with a sugar coating.

"Funding miracles" is stretching the truth a bit (as I will show), but I don't fault GlaxoSmithKline or any of the other big pharmaceutical companies. The way we've set up drug research has public and private incentives badly misaligned.

Today I'm going to show the two biggest ways in which our interests are misaligned, and in the next post I'm going to suggest a fix which will provide an incentive for drug companies to do the most good possible for humanity while still making boatloads of cash.

First Flaw: Drug Companies are Promotion Companies

The overwhelming majority of drug company revenue goes to drug promotion, not drug discovery. Let's take a look at the raw data on drug company revenue and research and development (R & D) expenses in 2004. (From MedAdNews, September 2005. Wikipedia link here for those without a subscription.)
(USD billions)
R&D Spending
(USD billions)
2Johnson & Johnson47.3485.203
6Hoffmann-La Roche25.1634.098
9Abbott Laboratories19.6801.697
10Bristol-Myers Squibb19.3802.500


Less than $1 for every $7 of drug company revenue is spent on finding new drugs. Now, I have nothing against a company making a tidy sum of money off of its investments, especially when some degree of risk is involved. However, > 600% return on investment is excessive, and indicative of a serious failure of the free market, which is supposed to deliver goods with minimal overhead.

I lied: that $6 isn't all investor profit. In fact, the majority of it goes to promotion: direct promotion to doctors, HMOs and even patients themselves. Here's a more honest slogan for GlaxoSmithKline: "Today's ad campaigns fund tomorrow's ad campaigns."

Second Flaw: Half of R & D has Minimal Benefit

Of the sliver of funding which goes to drug discovery, about half of it goes towards providing novel (and thus patentable) but not superior medicines for diseases we can already treat. Here's a link to a review of "The $800 Million Pill" (which quantifies the money wasted on redundant drugs) by BusinessWeek. I'm linking to this review because it defends the actions of drug companies within the system (as do I) without asking how we could make the system give better incentives for companies to do good for humanity (which is the whole point of my 21st century capitalism idea).

Essentially, since companies can only make money off patented drugs and since patents typically last only about 20 years, there's a huge incentive to discover new cures to already-controllable diseases. The new cures don't even have to be superior: marketing departments of big pharmaceutical corporations have enough muscle to push new drugs into the marketplace regardless of whether or not they're needed.

Drug Discovery: 7% Efficient?

In total, only about 7% of the money paid for drugs goes to finding new useful medicines. It's a tautology then that any solution resulting in as much (or more) useful R & D funding while lowering the cost of drugs would be a good thing for humanity. If you're tempted to counter that it's a good idea to maintain non-productive sectors of the economy (like the $282 billion per year drug companies spend on things other than useful R & D) to create jobs, you should familiarize yourself with the parable of the broken window. In any case, I'm going to introduce a system which beats today's 7%-efficient system in my next post.

In truth, 7% might even be an overestimate of the efficiency with which our drug expenses fund cures. Recently, a group of scientists from the University of Alberta discovered that a small and un-patentable molecule (dichloroacetate, DCA) might cure most cancers with little side effects. (At excessive doses, DCA can cause trouble, but then again, so can water - see line 202.) Whether or not DCA will turn out to be one of "tomorrow's miracles," it's unsettling that the major drug companies have avoided studying it like the plague due to an absence of profit motive. It underscores the fact that drug company revenue really doesn't work in the public's best interest. It's time to align our interests more strongly - I'll suggest one way to accomplish this in the next post.


Eighty-six percent of the cash you pay for your meds funds mostly advertising, not R & D. Half of the remaining 14% goes to try to produce new medicines which aren't better than old ones - they're just patentable. The remaining 7% of drug company revenue is devoted to new cures, but only those new cures which might result in a patentable drug: any promising treatment which isn't patentable will be suppressed.

You're getting a raw deal. Let's change the incentive system for big pharma so that they want to be on our side.


PS If you agree with me, let's try to generate a buzz. Forward a link of this to your friends. If you disagree with my facts or my reasoning, please post your findings as comments.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Fill 'er Up with Air: the 25¢/Gallon Asthma Tax

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Today I'm going to quantify the asthma cost of burning one gallon of gas in the US. Car-derived air pollution is a major contributor to asthma in the United States. Human suffering aside, let's estimate the cost of providing asthma care associated with burning 1 gallon of gas, and figure out who should bear that cost.

Economic Burden of Asthma

A 2003 study estimates the per-capita cost of asthma to be $4,912, and in 2004 there were 17,624,930 Americans with asthma. The total cost of asthma to the US is therefore about $87 billion, although it's likely to have increased since 2004. To put that in perspective, the US trade deficit for 2004 was $611 billion, less than 7 times the cost of asthma.

In 2004, the US burned 20 million barrels of oil per day, which works out to 318 billion gallons for the year. If we were to attribute all the asthma in 2004 to vehicle-caused air pollution, the asthma cost per gallon of gas burned would be just over 27¢. The 2007 costs of asthma must be greater than 2004's 27¢ per gallon, but on the other hand not 100% of asthma is caused by air pollution. (However, asthma rates have quadrupled in the last few decades according to the WHO, suggesting that human-made factors like air pollution play an overwhelming, if not exclusive, role.) In any case, for every gallon of gas you burn, you do approximately a quarter's worth of damage through asthma.

Benefits of the Asthma Tax

Let's add an asthma tax to gas and make it pay for everyone's asthma treatment. It wouldn't be prohibitively expensive; I bet the per-capita cost of asthma would also go down if treatment were universally free, since the cost of treating acute attacks of people who rush into emergency rooms must be a lot higher than the cost of preventative care. This cost-reduction from efficient treatment would mean the average American would pay less total in health insurance premiums and gas combined. Those without insurance would also suffer less, let's not forget. It would be only those whose lifestyle currently creates disproportionally-large asthma suffering who would suffer under the asthma tax.

The Asthma Tax and 21st Century Capitalism

As long as the asthma tax were related to the true cost of asthma care, auto manufacturers would have a financial incentive to keeping the skies clean: they believe they can sell more cars with the price of gas low, and a low incidence of asthma would lower the at-the-pump price. The public and private incentives would be aligned, which is what 21st century capitalism is all about: getting people working together.

Let's not forget the human element of 21st century capitalism. A disproportionate number of poor urbanites suffer from asthma. Imagine the effect of the goodwill they would feel if the rich showed a little compassion by at least paying for the medical treatment of the damage they've done with their smog. If you actively oppose a measure which lowers costs and brings goodwill to humanity, you're a troll.

Conclusion: Let's Do It

In conclusion, the quarter-a-gallon gas tax would relieve human suffering, decrease the financial burden of treating asthma, and provide a direct incentive to auto manufacturers to start taking better care of us. It's a win-win situation; let's get started.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Mad about BSE

Greetings, fellow nerds.

This will be just a quick post about the relative risks between the "mad" and the "cow" in mad cow disease. In truth, the danger "tainted beef" poses to us is so small that as a consumer, you should forget about mad cow disease entirely: it's a waste of neurons. I'd even feel guilty making you read this post if it weren't for the fact that it exposes the sensationalism behind mad cow disease reporting.

Assessing Mad Cow Lethality

Mad cow disease in cows is called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and to date there have been at least 188515 reported cases of it worldwide. Common sense suggests that there are a whole lot of unreported cases too, considering the incentives farmers have to keep things quiet. The disease humans contract by eating infected cows is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), and there have been a total of 170 confirmed cases worldwide. This number is probably not exaggerated (in fact the false positive rate for vCJD might be rather high), so you might think of 170/188515 (or about 900 per million) as an upper bound on the chances of contracting vCJD from eating an entire mad cow. However, probably not all of the 188515 cows were consumed in their entirety, which means that 900 per million might be a good ballpark figure as to the actual transmission rate from eating a whole cow.

If there are roughly 250 lbs of meat per cow, and if a typical beef meal has a quarter pound of meat, the odds of catching vCJD from a single meal of infected beef are 900 in a billion. When you consider that in the time period the 188515 cows were detected, the UK (the country hardest-hit by BSE) produced about 100 million cows, the risk of getting vCJD from eating one randomly-chosen UK beef meal is about 2 in a billion.

No Consensus among Academics

Why aren't I just reporting what the medical journals say about BSE to vCJD transmission rates? Because these estimates are all over the place. This study in the journal "Risk Analysis" by Eric Grist shows that there's nothing like consensus regarding the risk of a human contracting vCJD from eating an infected meal: published transmission rates vary from 0.9 in a billion to 7 in a thousand (c.f. my estimate of 900 per billion based on case numbers). The "Risk Analysis" article continues on to point out that the 7 in a thousand measure is obviously inconsistent with observed vCJD infection rates. (Thank you, Dr. Grist!) Perhaps even researchers are prone to sensationalism, especially if the said sensationalism might result in extra funding.

New Risk Metrics

We need better units for analyzing risks. It's hard to grok these raw numbers without an everyday context, so I'm going to introduce two new metrics:
  1. Life Expectancy Decrease (LED)
  2. Equivalent Driving Distance (EDD)
The LED measures the expectation of the decrease in life expectancy based on taking the risk once, assuming an 80 year lifespan. So for example, the LED from eating a meal with UK beef at the height of the mad cow scare is (80 years * 2 per billion) = 5 seconds. Compare that to the LED associated with the extra calories in your fast food meal: (80 years * 94 per million) = 2.7 days. The extra risk of vCJD is insignificant next to the threat of the extra calories involved with taking a big bite of beef.

Driving cars is a risky activity that most of us have come to terms with. Driving therefore provides an ideal reality check that helps us put new risks in perspective. This DOT report (page 8 of the .pdf) shows that there are about 14.6 vehicular fatalities for every billion miles traveled. The EDD of a new risk is the length of the car trip with the equivalent level of risk. For example, the EDD of the untested UK beef meal is (2 per billion * 1 billion miles / 14.6) = 720 feet; less than one Manhattan city block. Again, if the beef was in a fast food meal, the EDD from the extra calories is over 6400 miles: greater than the radius of the Earth.

Conclusion: Calories Matter More than Prions

If you spent more than 5 seconds worrying about contracting vCJD from beef, even at the height of the mad cow scare in the UK, you've been had. Also, if you think a fast food meal saves time, you should consider the 2.7-day lifespan decrease it brings (unless you're underweight - see my blog entry). It's true that the risk was unknown at the time (so maybe caution was indicated), but I'm getting sick of people worrying about false alarms, especially when there are more pressing issues which aren't getting enough attention.

I'm also disillusioned with the media, although I can see their point. Nobody will buy a paper saying "Get Off Your Butt and Get Healthy," but "New Plague Risk Sweeps the Nation: Will YOU Die?" has more zing.

As new crises come up in the news, I'm going to try to keep up with the LED and EDD metrics for them. With any luck, they'll catch on as popular reality checks for how risky a new terror actually is.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

21st Century Capitalism

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Today, we're going to examine a cornerstone of our western world: capitalism. I'm going to first give a brief history of capitalism starting from its evolutionary roots which set us aside from other animals, then I'll settle down into a rant about what I think is wrong with our current implementation of capitalism, and finally I'll give a few specific ideas about how we can tweak public policy so that capitalism achieves its goals better.

Capitalism and Humanity

Capitalism, and its relative friendship, set us apart from the majority of the animal kingdom. I don't believe that early humans were categorically smarter than other animals; even today's humans would have a hard time without cooperation.

Imagine if you were dropped on a desert island without having had any kind of education. (This is really impossible, because humans need nurturing to develop properly, but stay with me.) I doubt you'd be able to do better than the New Caledonian Crow, which can fashion its own tools (National Geographic video link) even out of metal (significant, since metal hasn't been around long enough to develop instincts involving it). You may counter by saying that this crow probably learned form another crow; that's exactly my point though. Individually, we're puny, but together we can build spaceships and make good cheese.

We specialize, we discuss things and we pass on knowledge to others. Why? It's more than having selfish genes; we are happy to forge friendships and help people totally unrelated to us. It's more than the herd mentality; I've met my share of loner humans, and besides I don't think sheep specialize. We share, lend things, trade, and educate each other because we live in a social construct where we can expect roughly the same degree of favors given to us as we give to others. (Doing nice things without reciprocity is a bad evolutionary strategy. However, the reciprocity needn't come directly from the people you help; doing good without expecting anything in return provides evidence to others that you're not a psychopath; see below.) In small groups, reciprocation is mediated by friendships, where we (usually) keep some sort of tally as to how nice the partner has been to us. We don't numerically quantify the favors our friends do us, although your typical human sees one-sided friendships as unhealthy, as if there must be some deeper, twisted exchange going on.

Genetically,We're All Cold, Calculating Psychopaths

I don't mean to suggest that we're consciously cold, calculating psychopaths who use each other for common gain. Our genes shape us to be good-natured towards each other, and it's a good thing too. Imagine if you knew somebody who appeared friendly most of the time but had a few Jekyll and Hyde moments. You'd steer clear of that shady character, and never want to engage in friendly behavior with them. Moreover, you'd tell your friends to watch out for the creep. As a result, being a conscious psychopath is a poor strategy in the long term, since others won't trust you enough to be friendly with them.

However, if our genes keep us behaving civilly towards one another all the time, we're less prone to the slip-ups that betray psychopaths. If we can demonstrate that we always help our friends, more people will want to be friends with us. We don't have to be cold, calculating psychopaths on a conscious level; our genes do a much more consistent job for us without our conscious minds having to bother.

Does understanding the selfish reasons behind friendship make one cynical about human nature? In some ways, knowing that we're hard-wired to do good does exactly the opposite. What do you think?

Money and Friendship
Money, you got lots of friends
-Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr., "God Bless the Child"

Money becomes necessary when the group of people you want to collaborate with becomes too large to develop a personal relationship with everyone. Money lets you have strangers do friendly things towards you, and to earn it you (usually) have to do friendly things to others. Money is impersonal, quantified, anonymous, fungible friendship, in the sense that it keeps track of the favors you're owed from any member of your trading community.

Capitalism and Human Evolution

Capitalism (if you extend its definition to include its instinctual analogue, friendship) is what lets us specialize, and gives us the incentive to work together to produce all those wonderful creations only large groups of (mostly) cooperative humans have been able to do. Without capitalism, we'd be brawling in the muck.

Language is also one of the fundamental abilities humans have that sets us apart from other animals (if, indeed, we are set apart as far as we style ourselves). Language, however, is mostly useless without capitalism (in the sense I've defined it). Without capitalism, you have no framework within which to trust the speaker. Without capitalism, you have no specialized skill set to describe to others. Without capitalism, you have little incentive to divulge information (especially information about food, mates, etc.), so you probably wouldn't bother. Therefore, language evolved to make us better capitalists; without capitalism language would confer little benefit. Either capitalism predated language in our history or there was so much synergy between the two that sorting out who came first is moot.

People also talk about the "theory of mind" as being important in human evolution. Having a theory of mind means that you try to predict what other entities around you know, often by putting yourself in their shoes and wondering what you would do in the same situation. Clearly, having a theory of mind is useful to both capitalists (for outfoxing your fellows) and speakers (so you can relate exactly what the listener needs to hear given what they already know), so it's no surprise that humans excel at guessing what others are thinking. However, having a theory of mind can also be useful in purely competitive (i.e., non-capitalist) contexts: ravens (but not most birds) notice when something (like food) captures the attention of other animals, and even the odd octopus has demonstrated that it is aware of how others see it. However, these animals lack capitalist tendencies (and therefore have no incentive to develop language), which are the true sine qua non of humanity in evolutionary contexts.

The Octopus: Not a Capitalist

Current Issues with Capitalism

If capitalism really is the Promethean panacea I've proposed, why is everybody complaining about it? Let me list a few possibilities, and suggest a couple of remedies.
  1. People don't feel the love when making economic transactions.
  2. Governments and capitalist institutions often do not share a common agenda.
The Alienation of Commercialism

A few days ago, a total stranger picked a bunch of grapes for me. She set these grapes on a truck in Chile, which proceeded to a port where a monumental ocean-going vehicle waited. This floating steel mountain's sole purpose it to get things to where people want them; in my case it crossed the Equator and continued to an undisclosed location in North America. Total strangers unpacked the grapes, checked them for damage, and then placed them in a location where I could easily reach them for my culinary enjoyment.

By now, you've probably guessed what I'm up to: I've described what we'd consider to be the most mundane of commercial transactions: buying Chilean grapes. However, all the people involved in the chain of events (most of them total strangers to me) performed well-orchestrated diverse tasks for my benefit and enjoyment. If the context were anything but commercial, I would be touched to the brink of tears by the selfless generosity implicit in shipping me grapes out of season. Yet, somehow, in the monetized context of buying grapes from a local supermarket, it's unnatural to feel gratitude to the ship's crew or the shelf stocker - it's all in a day's work for them, and that somehow nullifies the joy I'd feel from having all these people slave away for my benefit.

Does it have to be that way? I'm going to give an exercise to my readers. For the next week, please try, at least once a day, to feel the connection you have to the millions of people who help you through the messy web of financial transactions we call an economy. Just for a split second, imagine that they were all doing you favors without letting money enter into the picture. Then open your eyes, and ask yourself if you really have to ignore the fact that all these people are conspiring to do you good just because you're paying them for it.

If your assignment rings false, we should try to find out why. I bet that financial transactions, by default, don't tickle the "friendship detector" circuits in our brains. Possibly we don't feel that friendship glow at the market because friendship with total strangers is impossible. It's also possible that brands have taken center stage in stores; give me a show of hands: who finds it easier to remember the brand of a product you bought than the name of the person who sold it to you? It's hard to feel friendship with a faceless company (although many people try).

Why not try to get to know the local shopkeepers a little by name? Maybe entering into a friendly relationship will give your instinctual friendship detector a face to latch onto, and maybe some of the gratitude you feel for the stuff you buy will brush off a little onto the human. You'll have your instinctual craving for mutual support reinforced at the same time as getting low, low prices. (Prices are ridiculously low because of specialization: imagine how hard it would be to travel on foot to Chile to grow your own February grapes.)

I promised this post would lead to practical suggestions; here's the first:

Quirky Staff, not Faceless Drones

I bet not many corporate executives are going to read this blog, but if they do (or if you know one - remember the power of talk), maybe suggest to them that instead of having sales-force employees follow the replaceable-parts model (i.e., interchangeable, single-faceted, lowest-common-denominator automata), they should show a little more personality, especially if they work in small enough units that customers might recognize them in subsequent visits.

I was a regular at Enterprise Rent-a-car until I got a car, and let me tell you, that company understands the benefit of human interfaces. Even though the company Enterprise might be a monolithic, faceless mega-corp, the employees I talked to at the branch were all charismatic, genuine-personality outgoing types. It's true that they were made to recite wrote-learned phone greetings, but other than that visits were all fun-loving chutzpah. I don't know exactly how to foster that kind of environment, but staid companies might do better if they encouraged their staff to be lively and idiosyncratic enough to make customers see them as people.

Marginally Legal, Inc.

Let's consider the second problem with contemporary capitalism: capitalist institutions often do things against the public good. I haven't mentioned law yet, but let me try to describe it as succinctly as possible. Capitalism:friendship :: law:enmity. I'm not suggesting that capitalism is intrinsically good and law bad. However, law and enmity both keep you from doing bad things to other humans; the former uses explicit codes while the latter uses the same level of thought as friendship (i.e. feelings of attraction/repulsion based on how you've been treated).

Enmity is the necessary mirror of friendship: it's the instinctual process which makes you try to be a pain to those who do you disservice. It's also a good game-theoretic strategy to demonstrate that pissing you off makes you a formidable enemy for an analogous reason to why psychopathy is a bad strategy: if people know you have a mean side, they'll try to avoid crossing you.

Law and capitalism are based on opposite reinforcement mechanisms, though, so when government meets private industry strange things can happen. Typically, corporations will do for themselves as much good as possible while narrowly avoiding getting sued. It's usually a good thing that laws change slowly: anarchy is just democracy with constant elections and one voter. However, when corporations can take advantage of this sluggishness through loopholes, capitalism can lead to technically-legal injustices. Moreover, using negative reinforcement (law) on entities that respond best to positive reinforcement (corporations) is a recipe for trouble: public-private incentives aren't going to magically align themselves without help.

There's a way to resolve the root problem caused by the negative/positive reinforcement mismatch between government and corporations:

Align Public and Corporate Interests with Results-Based Incentives

If governments encourage companies to do as much good as possible, such that their rewards are proportional to the good they do, we can resolve the negative vs. positive reinforcement conundrum.

Practical Example: Road Bonds

Right now, governments set certain requirements in terms of what they would like in a road: they want it made of X material with Y safety feature, and it should last Z years. The company's reward is not affected at all by the value given to the public by the road, so long as the government's contractual expectations are met. If the road doesn't meet expectations, the government can try to sue the construction company for breach of contract: a long and inefficient process. Even in the best cases, the company has no incentive to build a road which will last longer than Z years (indeed they wouldn't want it to last any longer than Z years, since they're in the construction business), and all safety and durability research has to be done by the government body who decides the specifications of the road to build. Research isn't free, and it's hard for public institutions to make the correct call in terms of what research needs to be done.

Scrap the meets-contract/doesn't-meet-contract model. We can do better. Imagine an incentive system like this. When a government wants a road built, the incentive they offer is in the form of a transferable bond. The bond would pay the holder annually according to a formula like so:

Annually, pay $A if the road is usable, but deduct $B per cubic foot of pothole in the road (averaged over the year), $C per vehicle-hour of delay due to repair, $D for every human life lost on this road due to traffic accidents on this road and E% of the costs to drivers arising from damage to their vehicles due to accidents. If, in any year, the road is not usable or the net value of this payment in negative, this bond is valueless for all subsequent years.

Let the government choose B-E, and issue the bonds to the company which accepts the contract for the lowest value of A. Then, the private sector would be able to use new road durability and safety technologies where they make sense in terms of public benefit, without the government having to test any materials or make any policy regarding the specifics of what materials to use. In this case the lowest bidder won't be the one that does the crappiest acceptable job, it will be the one able to maximally align public and private interests, since it benefits exactly when the public does.

In turn, the construction company has the incentive to make durable, safe roads so as to collect the maximum reward from the bonds. By making the bonds transferable, companies good at construction (but maybe not inspection or maintenance) could sell the bonds to investment firms. The better the job they did the more money they could potentially make in the sale.

Governments are bad at details. If you reward results instead of punishing breeches, you align interests and harness the power of that uniquely human tool: capitalism.


Capitalism (including friendship) is more than just what makes being human so good; in many ways capitalism is the fundamental trait that distinguishes humans from other animals. It's vital for our policy makers to understand what capitalism really is and how to harness it to pull our 21st century in the right direction: towards the fellowship, harmony and cooperation. If you like the idea of aligning interests using rewards proportional to benefits, or if you like the concept of being friendly in your commercial transactions, try them out by all means, but also please talk about them. A million cocktail parties could change the fate of the world.

Why Biometrics Scare Me

Greetings, fellow nerds.

I am a lover of technology. I love my Mac. I love the Internet. I love my doubly-shock-absorbing bicycle. I even once had a dream in code. Yet today I'm going to tame my technotropic tendencies to warn you against the threat of widespread biometric identification.

There are few technologies less viscerally appealing to tech nerds than biometrics: imagine a world where machines recognize you for the rich, influential 1337 h4xx0or you are just by scanning your body. Nothing short of tech porn.

In some limited circumstances, biometrics might be appropriate. For instance, if a security guard monitors the process of you putting your finger/retina/receding hairline on a scanner as an extra security layer, that's fine. However, biometrics; when substituting keys, credit cards or passwords; have three serious flaws:
  1. Biometrics give thieves an incentive to chop off parts of your body.
  2. You give out your biometric data all the time, whether you intend to or not.
  3. If you get your biometric identity stolen, you're screwed forever (unless you believe in reincarnation).
Don't Give People an Incentive to Cut You Up

Issue #1 means that not only would I personally refuse to use biometrics, but also that I have an incentive to make nobody use biometrics for identification. I don't want to have my hand chopped off only for thieves only for them to discover I didn't have a fingerprint-enabled bank account like most normal people.

Do you think it's far-fetched for criminals to chop off parts of the body for their biometric payload? It's already happened. Even though biometric identification is rare, we're starting to see the criminal reaction to it. I'd rather give up my cards and keys, thank-you-very-much. I'm horrified to see that the ICICI bank in India is also planning on opening widespread fingerprint-based ATMs for rural farmers who might find carrying cards to be too much of a trouble. I suppose a fingerprint-and-pin solution might somewhat discourage finger-theft, but your average robber might take fingers just in case, the same way a North American mugger wouldn't leave their marks' bank cards behind.

Don't Leave Credit Card Copies Everywhere

Issue #2 is pretty straightforward: getting someone's fingerprint is usually not very hard. Moreover, fooling a scanner with a print lifted from a glass is surprisingly straightforward. Even though expert techniques haven't yet been developed for getting a scanner to accept a print lifted off a glass (at least I'm not familiar with these cloak-and-dagger techniques), some first-try methods have a success rate of 80%. Some scanners can even be fooled by fogging them up by blowing on them to reveal the print of the last person to use them. Unless you'd be OK with leaving copies of your credit card on every smooth surface you touch, you shouldn't use your fingerprints as card substitutes either.

Getting Replacement Fingers and Eyes is Hard

Issue #3 illustrates the importance of disposable layers of security. I've had my credit card info stolen, and it was no big deal. VISA* called me one night to confirm some unusual charges which had gone through my account. When I said I hadn't made these charges, they sent me a replacement card and an affidavit to sign two days later (I guess it's in their best interest to keep me buying), and my old VISA card was sloughed off painlessly. I didn't pay a dime. (My story is not uncommon; identity theft happens to about 9 million Americans a year.)

The point is that fingerprints and retinal patterns are not things you want to have to slough off, ever. I like it that getting a new credit card didn't involve surgery. It's a feature (not a bug) that you can dispose of a credit card if its information gets compromised. Let's not take a step backwards in functionality for the sake of some flashy tech porn.

Conclusions: Now is the Time to Rant

Even though biometrics aren't widespread, the time to rant against their replacing credit cards is now. It's easier to nip a bad technology in the bud than it is to defeat it once it gets serious backing. How are we going to execute the said nip? By talking. That's all. I hope the scenarios I've laid out are sufficiently grizzly to spread through pool halls and cocktail parties; if they spread widely enough we will have done our job.

Take care; go do something amazing with your fingers while you still have them.

*I swear they didn't pay me to write this; I think it's important to get the word out if you feel like a company has done you right.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Death match: Big Macs vs. Unprotected Sex

Greetings, fellow nerds.

My Spanish teacher in Costa Rica (Carlos P. - the P. stands for a word which happens to be the foulest word in the Portuguese language, which was entertaining to the Brazilian immigration officials - that's entirely another story though) asked me why Americans are fanatical about staying AIDS-free, but don't give a pair of dingo's kidneys if they die of being too fat. Carlos, the more I think about it, the more it sounds like you're on to something, and I'm going to follow up your comment with a numerical analysis: today we're going to weigh the risk of HIV contracted from having unprotected sex against the increased risk of dying from obesity by eating one Big Mac™.

HIV risk from unprotected sex: what are the numbers?

First off, let's quantify the HIV risk of having sex with an American chosen at random. The CDC estimates the percentage of HIV-positive US residents to be 0.4% (as of 2003). That's already a low number, but to asses the risk of catching HIV from unprotected sex we have to multiply by the transmission rate: that is, given that you have unprotected sex with somebody who's HIV-positive, what are your chances of getting it?

What is this transmission rate? Take a guess. Now decrease it by a factor of 10. If your guess was like mine, you'd still be way above the truth. I don't know if it's general squeamishness or over-zealous sex ed teachers, but the risk of HIV transmission between otherwise-healthy people is between 5 and 50 cases per 10,000 acts, depending on exactly what kind of (more-than-just-oral) unprotected sex you're having (Wikipedia link + original article). That means if you and your (randomly-selected vis. HIV status) American partner are healthy, you have between a 2 in a million and a 20 in a million chance of contracting AIDS from unprotected sex.

Let's put that into perspective. If you live to be 80, you'll have lived 29 200 days. What are the chances (everything else being equal) that today your number's up? That would be 1 / 29200 = 34 in a million, almost twice the HIV risk associated with receptive anal intercourse from a randomly-chosen American male.

My heart goes out to people who have contracted HIV from unprotected sex. I'm sure they have been demonized for being so careless as to indulge in this (so-called) risky behavior. Let's find out just how risky their behavior really was, in terms of Big Mac™ eating.

What's the Lethal Dosage of Big Macs™?

First of all, I don't want to single out Big Macs™, McDonald's™, or even just the fast food industry as unique bringers of ill-health. The Big Mac™ is however a nearly-ubiquitous unit of culinary over-indulgence; let it here symbolize any overly-calorific meal.

There's a good chance that fast food-related factors other than too many calories cause health problems. Films such as "Super Size Me" suggest that high concentrations of fast food can kill - suppose Morgan Spurlock had spent 100 days on the McDonald's™-food-only diet and found that to be lethal. Then we could estimate the risk of eating a Big Mac™ to be 1 in 300 (for 300 meals). That's a risk of more than 3000 per million meals, or between 150 and 1500 times the risk of contracting HIV from unprotected sex. When spread out over many years, the lethality of Big Macs™ can't be that high, so let's get a low-ball estimate of the risk on Big Mac™ poses by its calories alone.

Weight Gain from a Big Mac™ Meal

Surprisingly, if you eat a Big Mac™ and nothing else as a meal, you get about the right number of calories. Assuming that you should be eating 1800 calories a day, the Big Mac™'s 600-calorie payload doesn't sound so bad. It's the side dishes which add the real risk. Full meals at fast food restaurants can have as many as 1825 calories - 1025 too many for an 1800 calorie-a-day diet. For now, let's assume the typical fast food meal has 800 superfluous calories which will be carried around by the diner essentially forever. (I'm not sure if eating too much has a net positive or negative effect on one's metabolism: if you're heavy you might decide to drive instead of walk so much that it counteracts the need to fuel a bigger body.) That 800 extra calories per fast food meal translates to just under a quarter pound of extra body weight; let's see what that does for your health.

Mortality Increase per Big Mac™

I could give you a laundry list of symptoms you could get by being overweight, but instead I'll just boil it down to a number: how much does your mortality rate increase if you have that extra quarter pound on your paunch? According to this JAMA article, in 2000, 111 909 excess deaths were caused by obesity among the 23.3% of Americans who were obese or extremely obese (defined as having a BMI above 30). In 2000 there were 281,421,906 Americans total, which means that 0.17% of obese people died that year from being obese. That's just for the year though - since HIV can let you live for 15 years or more, the risk of dying from obesity in the same span of time you'd expect as from an HIV infection is 2.5%, or 1 in 40.

The last factor to consider is how likely it is for an extra quarter pound to push you into the danger zone. (Aside: in reality, there probably isn't any sharp divide between safe and risky BMIs, but we can still get a feel for the effect size of being obese by this discretization.) From the same study, 33.8% of Americans have a BMI from 25 to 30. Assuming an even distribution of BMIs in the 25-30 range and an average height of 5'10", about 0.8% of people with a BMI between 25 and 30 would be tipped into the BMI > 30 class from that one extra fast food meal. If we assume the risk of already-obese people is at least as great as the risk to overweight people, that means that for 47.1% of the American population, eating one Big Mac™ has a .8% chance of increasing your mortality risk over the next 15 years by 2.5%. Multiplying probabilities, the total risk of that Big Mac™ killing you within 15 years (again, assuming you're a randomly-chosen American) is at least 94 in a million, or between about 5 and 50 times the HIV risk of unprotected sex! That's an average too; if you're overweight, Big Macs™ are at least twice as deadly.


There are a few weak points in my argument; let me list them. Here are some factors which may make HIV more dangerous than I let on.
  1. People who have more unprotected sex with multiple partners tend to have partners with higher HIV risk too.
  2. Other STDs can increase the rate of transmission of HIV by increasing the volume of fluids exchanged.
Additionally, I didn't factor in that being underweight can be risky too; in other words, Big Macs could be a benefit to skinny people.

However, my final analysis also didn't take into account the fact that fast food is nutritionally poor, an additional danger I have not accounted for. Moreover, I only counted the obesity risk over 15 years, while the risk in fact continues for as long as you are obese.

Conclusion: Big Macs™ are More Deadly than Unprotected Sex in America.

It would be incorrect to state that every Big Mac™ consumed poses more risk of death than every act of unprotected sex. It also would be wrong to claim that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been totally eclipsed by a wave of obesity; factor #1 under Caveats is too big to ignore in an epidemiological context. However, given my reasonable assumptions, I find that on average Big Macs™ are 5 to 50 times more deadly than unprotected sex with a randomly-chosen American. Carlos P., your intuition was right.

Here's the take-home message:
  1. HIV is harder to contract than you might think.
  2. Too much food can kill you.
  3. We should worry more about our diets, and perhaps less about disease.
  4. If you're like me, you probably worry too much about the wrong things.
To address #4, I've started a wiki to keep track of the risks around us. Help me complete and update it; then maybe we can keep a sense of perspective when it comes to banal topics like Big Macs™ and ominous-sounding plagues like HIV/AIDS.