Sunday, April 29, 2007

Cookie Dough: Cold Killer?

Greetings, bowl-lickers.

A friend of mine who enjoys the odd clandestine spoonful of uncooked cookie dough suggested to me last night that I look into the risks involved in his filthy habit. (Just kidding - I regularly eat raw cookie dough by the scoop.)

We're told never to eat cookie dough because raw eggs may contain the bacterium Salmonella enterica, which can make you sick. Despite all the warnings, cookie dough eating is rampant in North America. Does cookie dough cause widespread poisoning deaths, or is it just another paper tiger? Read on to find out.

Salmonellosis: Symptoms and Rates

Any medical condition with a Latin name sounds scary. However, the majority of Salmonella infections cause gastro-intestinal upset and a fever for 4 to 7 days and then go away without formal medical intervention. If you're old, an infant, or have a weak immune system, you could need antibiotics to make your infection go away, and a particularly bad Salmonella infection can cause lasting conditions like arthritis or death. However, these big-ticket fears are relatively uncommon; this CDC study says the ratio of illnesses to hospitalizations to deaths for nontyphoidal salmonellosis is roughly 2,426 to 28 to 1.

The same CDC study estimates that the number of cases of salmonellosis in the United States is about 182 000 per year, or about 1 in 1 500; but since most infections go unreported it's really hard to tell. Its best guess is that salmonellosis from shell eggs causes about 2000 hospitalizations and 70 deaths per year: in other words, salmonella from eggs is about 1000 times less deadly than the flu (from this .pdf, page 2; this comparison is apt since both flu and salmonellosis are grave threats mostly to people with compromised immune systems).

Is Cookie Dough a Big Culprit?

Most of the salmonellosis outbreaks that make the news come from large-scale slip-ups where dozens of people get ill, rather than from small families tasting the occasional batch of cookie dough. Is this just because it takes a certain number of cases before a story is newsworthy, or is there another cause at work?

This CDC page warns that in large-batch recipes where 500 eggs are used the Salmonella risk is greater, since one contaminated egg could taint the whole batch. So what's the risk of getting salmonellosis from eating cookie dough from a two-egg recipe?

This study estimates that only 1 in 30 000 eggs is potentially contaminated with Salmonella, so at most there is a 1 in 15 000 chance that your dough is going to have any Salmonella bacteria. (If the first egg doesn't have Salmonella, the second egg has a smaller than 1 in 30 000 chance of having it too, so 1 in 15 000 is an over-estimate of the risk.) Assuming that it's certain that you will catch an infection from tainted dough, that puts your risk of death from tasting the dough at less than 1 in 36 million; if you have a healthy immune system your risk is considerably smaller. The daily chance of getting a flu as bad as a non-fatal flu-like Salmonella infection are 1 in a few hundred, so you really don't need to worry about salmonella from cookie dough: background risk levels are much higher.


Let's put that 1 in 36 million figure in perspective. The Equivalent Driving Distance (EDD) is just under 2 miles (for those new here, that means a 2-mile car trip is as likely to kill you on average as eating 2 raw eggs) and the Life Expectancy Decrease (LED) is less than 37 seconds (eating 2 raw eggs decreases your life expectancy by only 37 seconds - here I assumed on average my readers might have 42 years left in life and divided by 36 million). For more on the LED and EDD risk metrics, see this introductory blog post and this wiki page for recording risk levels.

So on average the risk of being killed by your baking is negligible. But is the fear over-hyped? Considering there are 294 000 Google hits for "salmonella raw eggs America" and only 70 Americans die of Salmonella from raw eggs, the Google Hits per Annual Fatality (GHAF) hype-metric is 4 200: about as high as for West Nile virus. (See an introduction to the GHAF metric here and a list of GHAFs for various risks here.)

Conclusion: Lick On!

Eating cookie dough gives you a negligible risk unless you have a particularly weak immune system. Whip yourself up a batch and eat it all: it really doesn't matter. Oh, and please save me a spoonful while you're at it.

Bon Appetit!


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Contest Results

Greetings, Knaldskalle.

Hi all! This is just a quick post to confirm that Knaldskalle has won the metrics contest with his two entries of "terror" and "school shootings," both of which reveal that we over-hype interpersonal violence. As your reward, Knaldskalle, do you have any ideas for a "Many Ideas" blog post?



Saturday, April 21, 2007

Taking Ears Off Your Life

Greetings, colonels.

Today's post is going to look at some of the dietary consequences of US corn subsidies. The United States corn industry is politically untouchable since so many processed foods are made from corn derivatives. (If you're interested in more details about factory foods, I thoroughly recommend Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

While many wary eaters know that corn products like corn-fed beef and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are wrecking dietary havoc among the American people, it's difficult to assault the entrenched food industry without convincing facts about just how much direct damage corn subsidies do to our health. In this post I'm going to show that we can blame pretty much all of our HFCS woes on corn subsidies, and I'm going to show how much damage HFCS really does.

Corn Subsidies

Ever since 1975, the United States has been paying farmers to grow corn in excess of the quantities which the market would naturally bear. Taxpayers make up the difference between the market price and a government-guaranteed price, which is often in the neighborhood of twice the buying price of corn. Americans pay over $5 billion per year (about $17 per capita) to keep farmers producing way more corn than we could ever safely consume.

Consequences of Corn Subsidies

Corn farmers aren't the ones getting rich; the net effect of corn subsidies is to ensure a huge surplus of raw biomass to be used to manufacture higher-value food products. From The Omnivore's Dilemma, I learned that about 60% of the corn grown in the United States goes to animal feed, and much of the remainder goes into producing HFCS. If you drink diet soda or if you steer clear of US-grown meat, your taxes are paying for someone else's unhealthy diet. (Show of hands: would anyone out there resent subsidizing tobacco?)

HFCS Created by Corn Subsidies

If I'm going to accuse subsidies for making us eat unhealthy corn and corn-fed meat, I'd better be sure the subsidies are actually to blame. There are three factors which make methink corn subsidies are the root cause of pretty much all the HFCS consumed by Americans. First, HFCS is cheaper than cane sugar in the US due to subsidy. Second, in Europe, where corn isn't favored like it is in North America, HFCS is almost never used as a processed food sweetener. Third, the timing of the introduction of the corn subsidy coincides with the explosive growth of HFCS consumption in the US, as is evident in this graph (from this USDA site):

Corn subsidies were introduced in 1975, before which it's plain that HFCS was a bit player. Also note that soft drinks began phasing in HFCS as a sweetener, a transformation completed by 1984. (I fancy I can see the kink in the HFCS curve around 1984 - I wonder if that's caused by saturating the soda market.)

Fat Caused by HFCS

If HFCS were like normal unhealthy food, at least a calorie of HFCS consumed would displace a calorie from some other source, meaning that HFCS wouldn't be more responsible for today's obesity epidemic than any other unhealthy food. However, as I mentioned in this post, a recent study showed that HFCS doesn't make you feel full, so consuming HFCS will not make you eat less of other things. (The 95% confidence limit to this study was that 100 HFCS calories may displace 24 other food calories, but the study's best estimate is that people actually eat 17 more calories of other foods for every 100 HFCS calories they consume. Also note that other liquefied sugars may be just as bad as HFCS at displacing other calories.)

Even if you take the most charitable view towards HFCS allowed by the study's margin of error, 76% of the HFCS calories consumed by Americans go to fat. The average annual per capita consumption of HFCS in the United States is 59 pounds. Even assuming half of that gets wasted, that means annually an extra 22 lbs of sugar per American is consumed just because HFCS happens to be today's sweetener of choice. According to this publication (page 13 - also interesting because it claims HFCS might be not worse than other liquid sugars), HFCS is about 4/9 as calorie-dense as fat, so the availability of HFCS means that on average Americans gain an extra 10 lbs per year.


On average, $17 of your taxes every year go to a subsidy which causes people to gain an astonishing 10 lbs per year just through the HFCS mechanism I've outlined. (I expect subsidized animal feed also makes Americans fatter, but the story there is harder to untangle.) Moreover, the over-fertilized Iowa corn monocultures are horrible on the environment, and have killed Mexican farms which can't compete with American corn prices. (Those of you who object to Mexican farm labor should throw your lot in with the anti-subsidy crowd: it's just the subsidies which enable Americans to pay migrant workers $4 an hour while just across the boarder no farmer can afford to hire at $1 an hour. It's not something magic in the soil which makes American farms magically 4 times as efficient at turning labor into food - its the subsidies.)

In conclusion, corn subsidies do enormous harm. While I haven't supported every anti-subsidy argument in this post, I've shown that without corn subsidies you'd have the equivalent weight loss of 10 lbs per year. (I suspect many Americans diet more because of their HFCS-related weight gain - imagine if you got an extra 10 lbs of "free" fat per year! Mmmm... what I'd do!)

It's going to be a tough fight against the food industry, but there are lots of good reasons to abandon our current destructive corn-driven Leviathan. Let's ditch the subsidies and let 'em howl.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Local Produce vs. International Peace

Greetings, Macaroni Munchers.

A lot of my friends are concerned about buying food from too far away, in the interests of both helping out the local economy and of reducing fossil fuel consumption. It's a scary thought about how much our food supply depends on non-renewable resources like transportation fuel, and it's appealing to have the visceral connection to what you eat that you can get only from being able to visit the place where your food grows.

Agriculture and the Developing World

The unfortunate consequence of favoring domestic produce, however, is that you deprive the developing world of the much-needed foreign exchange which comes from agricultural exports. In fact, in non-industrialized areas of the third world, pretty much the only thing they produce that we consume is food.

A typical Nicaraguan farm worker earns about $.25 an hour (a quarter the minimum wage of neighboring Costa Rica). The cost of living there may be quite low, but still I'm disgusted by the fact that they could pick coffee for 8 hours and not earn enough money for a singe espresso shot in an American café.

By insisting on buying domestic food, we're just driving developing-world wages down farther. There are plenty of options for Americans: they don't all need agricultural work to stave off extreme poverty. Giving meaningful work to developing nations promotes the sense of coöperation which leads to good feelings and peace.

Dependence on developing nations for food can also lead to peace-making policy. You're less likely to invade another country if you need the food they produce to survive.

Aside: I'm being overly-dramatic. Americans consume on average 3790 calories per day (although some of that is spoilage), so losing even a third of food imports wouldn't spell widespread famine. At the same time, you're less likely to go to war with an entrenched trading partner; the European Union may have ushered in an age of post-historicism, now that individual countries are so economically entwined that it would be sillier than ever to go to war.

Fuel Costs by Sea and Land

Trade and peace aside, many of my friends want to consume as little fossil fuel as possible in getting their food delivered, so they're careful to buy only from locally-grown produce. However, raw distance-from-home is a poor tracker of fuel consumed, since freight by sea is so much more efficient than by land. Let's figure out just how much more efficient it is to ship a container one mile by sea than by land.

By land, a typical mileage rating for a semi truck carrying a 53-foot trailer is about 6 miles per gallon. Page 5 of this document has all of the relevant information: an ultra-sized container ship traveling at 22.5 knots burns 180 tonnes of fuel per day, and carries 10 000 twenty foot-equivalent units of cargo. After a little math, we find the ship transports the same 53-ft container at 44 miles per gallon.

A ship coming to the United States from Chile burns about the same amount of fuel per container as a semi truck traveling about 700 miles, and if people drive 8 miles to the grocery store to buy 50 lbs of groceries in a car rated at 30 miles per gallon, they burn as much fuel per grocery item as that container ship from Chile.


Before jumping on the "local food" bandwagon, please consider the impact of shunning the developing world. Also, consider biking, busing or walking to the grocery store when possible if you're really interested in reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reacting to the Virginia Tech Massacre

Greetings, fellow clods.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Meditation XVII
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?
Leonard Cohen,"Who By Fire"

It's a terrible thing that every once in a while, a human mind snaps so violently that they take out others in their passing form this world. Shootings such as those at Virginia Tech yesterday, which claimed 33 lives, provoke deep reflection from those who hear about it. We all want to know what could make a person so down on humanity, so destitute that they would deliberately try to do it as much raw damage as possible.

Mental Earthquakes

However, people who decide to run on shooting sprees and then kill themselves are exceedingly rare. Only a tiny fraction of people do one-person massacres; it is usually institutions like governments which do the majority of the killing (see below). Mental breakdowns of different magnitudes might follow the same sort of power law as earthquakes, and perhaps there are some analogous reasons; releasing small amounts of tension in such actions as swearing being much more frequent than going on a shooting spree.

Obligatory Dig at Institutionalized Violence

It's interesting to compare the Virginia Tech massacre to the situation in Iraq in terms of raw mortality. It is tempting to visit sites like "Iraq Body Count" to get raw data. However, Iraq Body Count lists only confirmed dead registered with western-style authorities, and its upper limit on civilian casualties is 67 703 as of today. I'm not sure what their motives are, "never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity," but a Lancet article shows they're off by an order of magnitude.

On October 11, 2006, this article in the Lancet took a different approach: they did a cross-sectional study of 50 clusters in Iraq chosen at random. They essentially asked "who was alive before the invasion" and "who had since died due to the war", and then extrapolated to get an estimate of the true number of Iraqi killed to date. Since the clusters were chosen at random it's possible to get statistical confidence intervals.

Their estimate is that, as of July 2006, 654 965 (95% confidence interval 392 979–942 636) Iraqis have been killed as a consequence of the war. (About 90% of these through direct violence, and not through secondary causes like the famine and health care breakdowns which accompany war.) That's an average of over 1000 per day, or a death rate of more than one Virginia Tech-scale massacre per hour for more than one thousand days straight. In other terms that's 218 times the total death toll of the September 11 2001 attacks. I feel a little hypocritical devoting a whole post to the Virginia Tech massacre when the war in Iraq causes so much more senseless violence.

My Recommendation: Don't Change Domestic Policy

It seems like the appropriate reflex at times like this is to seek some remedy: some change in domestic policy which will ensure that shootings such as these will never happen again. The anti-gun activists will use this massacre to justify harsher restrictions on weapons, while the libertarians will claim that if each student had been armed, one of them would have been able to have dropped the gunman before he had shot too many people. The Virginia governor has declared a state of emergency (as if that's going to help now). People are madly using this event as a fulcrum to leverage their own political agenda, because there's a public consensus that something must be done.

Even if a non-invasive policy could totally eliminate rampage shootings, it wouldn't change life appreciably. However scary rampage shootings are, they kill few people: on the order of 10 per year. In contrast, traffic claims about 44 000 lives a year (US DOT report, page 8 of a .pdf). If on average Americas devoted about 1 hour to thinking about the Virginia shootings, a collective 438 lifetimes would be spent mourning the passing of the 33 victims. Allowing politicians to push through new measures to monitor us under the auspices of keeping us safe is at best a waste of time: we are already safe.


My heart goes out to everyone who has experienced a loss: the Iraqi victims especially (who I'm sure mostly just want a chance to live a life untorn), and to the many fewer traffic casualties, whose deaths are as senseless as any. Let's not allow our fascination with criminal psychology obscure the truth: that the vast majority of Americans live free from the risk (if not the fear) from violence, whereas 2.5% of the Iraqi population has been killed by the invasion. Don't let the deaths of 33 Virginia Tech victims become a political bargaining chip. Keep things in perspective, or we're going to offer up our freedoms and cheerfulness in exchange for the appearance of removing a risk that's not significant in the first place.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Metrics Contest

Greetings, high-rollers!

In today's post, I'm announcing a new, exciting contest for my Many-Ideas readers: the Metrics Contest!

LED, EDD and GHAF Recap

If you're new here, let me fill you in a bit on the history and aims of this blog. I'm interested in putting risks into perspective and in deflating over hyped issues.

But how do we know how risky a certain activity is in a way that's easily understood? And how do you quantify hype?

To give risk probabilities a human touch, I've introduced two new metrics: the life expectancy decrease (LED), which gives you the expected amount of time your lifespan decreases from engaging in the said risky behavior, and the equivalent driving distance (EDD), which finds the distance you would have to drive to accrue a risk comparable to the activity in question. The LED is calculated by multiplying 85 years by the chance the measured risk will kill or seriously maim you, while the EDD is calculated by multiplying the risk by 1 billion (10^9) miles and dividing by 14.6, since in 2005 in the US there were 14.6 fatalities per billion miles driven.

The GHAF measures undue hype, not just pure risk. Bigger risks deserve more attention, but they don't always get it. "GHAF" stands for "Google Hits per Annual Fatality," and measures the ratio of the attention an issue gets to the real threat it poses. It's a very approximate measure, but the GHAF for different risks is so variable (from about 1 to over 100 000) that it's still useful in identifying over hyped issues.

The inaugural LED and EDD post is here, and the post introducing the GHAF is here. If you're new here, check them out to get an idea of how they can be calculated.

Risk and Hype Lists

There's a wiki to keep track of both the risks of certain activities (here) and the GHAF of certain phenomena (here). There are many fascinating cases of hype which these lists miss, which is why I'm holding this contest.

Contest Rules

Calculate the EDD, LED and GHAF for a risk of your choosing, and post it to me along with an idea for a Many Ideas blog post. On April 23rd I'll announce my favorite, and I will do a full investigation and posting on the winner's topic.

Submissions will be rated for originality (5 pts) accuracy (5 pts) and for how much they reveal about out risk biases (15 pts). Entering your EDD, LED and GHAF to the wiki pages earns an extra 2 points.

May the juiciest entry win!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Killer Cellphones?

"Pronto? MoshiMoshi? Hello?"

I was reading Digg today, which pointed me to an article speculating that cellphones are causing "colony collapse disorder," the name for an alarming phenomenon whereby the majority of honeybees in every colony are mysteriously disappearing. (By the way, this isn't jsut about the honey bees produce. The value of their crop pollination is in the billions per year; would anyone like to post a comment with a more exact figure?) The article sounded interesting until they went off the deep end by vilifying cellphones with a few cherry-picked debunked claims:

Evidence of dangers to people from mobile phones is increasing. But proof is still lacking, largely because many of the biggest perils, such as cancer, take decades to show up.

Most research on cancer has so far proved inconclusive. But an official Finnish study found that people who used the phones for more than 10 years were 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumour on the same side as they held the handset.

Equally alarming, blue-chip Swedish research revealed that radiation from mobile phones killed off brain cells, suggesting that today's teenagers could go senile in the prime of their lives.

Chilling. Let's go into an account of how much damage a cellphone can do, and let me cite a few studies of my own.

Traffic Dangers

We have lots of evidence that cellphones impair driving ability. A University of Utah study found that cellphone conversations impair about as much as a .08% blood alcohol content, the threshold for the legal drunk-driving limit in many North American states. The World Health Organization says talking on a cellphone while driving increases your risk of accidents by a factor of 3 to 4. Taking a 100-mile drive decreases your life expectancy on average by about one hour, i.e., it has and LED of one hour (see posts with the tags LED and EDD for more, or this one which introduces them). Talking on your cellphone bumps the LED up to three or four hours, meaning that the driving-related risk starts to overcome the old-age-related risk you'd incur anyways if you call people while driving.

Other than impairing driving ability (and repetitive stress injuries from thumb-typing), cellphones aren't going to hurt you. Let's take a look first at the physics of cellphones (which will show them to be benign) and then take a look at the epidemiology of cancer among cellphone users, citing the most thorough study ever done, which happens to be Danish (Long Live Fear-Dispelling Vikings!).

The Physics of Cellphones

Cellphones communicate by broadcasting microwaves to cell towers. They use one of two frequency ranges: either about 850 MHz (the PCS band) or about 1900 MHz (the cell band). The peak power of a cellphone's transmission is about 2 Watts, so the amount it broadcasts into your head isn't more than about 1 Watt.

There are three potential concerns which make cellphones potential health risks: heat, chemical damage, and brain interference. Let's assess each potential risk.

Of Cellphones and Sunbeams

It turns out many of you non-hat wearers heat your head with electromagnetic radiation on a daily basis. A fusion-powered blob of gases over 100 million km away bakes your melon with an intensity of over 1000 Watts per square meter on a cloudless day. If the cross-sectional area of your head is about 3% of a square meter, that means the sun warms your head with over 30 times the power intensity of a cellphone. If cellphone-related heat can cause damage, so can the sun.

Mutagenic Conversations?

The next most commonly-feared etiology of cellphone-related cancer is through the photons in the microwaves causing genetic damage by affecting our DNA. However, the energy in even the highest-energy cellphone photons is far too low: a 1900 MHz photon has an energy of less than 8 microelectronvolts: about 100 000 times less energetic than the kind of photon needed to make any chemical change. At body temperature, random thermal fluctuations give every molecule constant kicks of over 25 millielectron volts: over 1000 times as powerful as a cellphone photon. No cellphone is going to turn you into a toxic avenger.

Nokia Mind Control?

I've seen one more way in which fear-mongers propose that cellphones could harm you:. They think it's possible that the pulses of electromagnetic energy could interfere with brain functions. It's true that neuroscientists use pulses of transcranial magnetic energy to temporarily (and, we hope, reversibly) poke an area of gray matter to try to figure out what it does. Could cellphones be doing the same?

Again, the relative magnitudes are way off: neuroscientists use field strengths around 10 Tesla, while cellphones typically have much smaller magnetic field strengths: around 50 Gauss or 5 mTesla (1 Tesla = 10 000 Gauss: one of those Metric System anomalies). Once again there's a yawning, factor-of-1000 gulf between the strength of a cellphone and the effect size needed to make worrying sane. It's even worse when you take into account the fact that the energy associated with a magnetic field goes as the square of the field strength, so it's more like a factor-of-1-million difference between what a cellphone is and what we'd worry about.


By now, it shouldn't surprise you to find that the most extensive study done on cellphones (the Danish one I alluded to) "found no evidence for an association between tumor risk and cellular telephone use among either short-term or long-term users." The study followed 420 095 persons for up to 21 years each, and saw that cancer rates were not higher than among the population in general. Breath a sigh of relief, and don't believe the fear-mongers who say cellphones are risky.

What about studies which show a correlation between cancer and cellphone use? There's a dirty little secret in science called publication bias. In a nutshell, it's precisely those stories which seem to defy common thinking which seem most newsworthy, get the most press, and get published. In cases where there's a lot of public interest and attention, it's a good policy to disregard studies with small sample sizes, since there are probably 20 unpublished small studies with null results for every 1 study with a stunning effect that's significant at the 5% level.


I don't know that much about bees, but cellphones are safe to humans, provided that their attention isn't needed elsewhere and that it doesn't over-stress them to have a cellphone. It's not totally outrageous to guess bees might be confused by cellphones, since the Earth's magnetic field is only about 0.3 Gauss. I'm not an expert of bee navigation, but it shouldn't be to hard to experimentally verify the connection between active cellphones and bee death. In the meantime, color me skeptical, especially considering that the article repeats loony fears.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Financing Hippies

Greetings, venture capitalists.

In my last post, I talked about how it would be a good idea to force all list prices to reflect the expected use cost, so that consumers would be able to more easily compare total costs. In the comments on that post, I also said it would be a good idea to increase energy costs until they hit their "true cost," whatever that might be.

These two suggestions together would be a shock to the economic system, so I'm going to propose a way to finance energy-efficient housing such that the net effect is that nobody gets a stiff bill and energy-efficient technology gets used where appropriate.

Forging a "Standard Deal" with the Banks

Here's the scoop. Everyone want to decrease the taxes they pay towards energy subsidies. Governments are bad at giving environmental incentives proportional to the environmental good done. Banks are greedy. Homeowners don't have piles of cash sitting around, but they're willing to pay huge sums over time in tiny increments.

Here's the plan. Introduce a "standard deal," whereby you can request for a bank to send a housing engineer to your (already-built) home. They will determine which energy-efficient technologies would be most profitable for the house in question. If they decide it to be profitable, the banks could then authorize and pay for energy efficiency updates to be done on the home in question. From that time on, the banks could have a lien on the property for an amount equal to the cost of the thermal upgrading, and for some years' time they would be authorized to take 80% of the difference between the current and pre-improvement utilities bills as estimated by historical usage. The banks would keep the lien on the house until either 10 years have elapsed, or until the amount the bank has drawn has covered the upgrading expense compounded at 15% per year.

Effects of the Standard Deal

The net effects of the standard deal are: homeowners get a short-term small reduction in their utilities bill, and after a few years they get a substantial reduction. Banks get a 15% return-on-investment for their cash, at a fairly low risk. Banks have an incentive to hire engineering firms which will install the most energy-efficient technology which will have a payback time of less than about 8 years. Energy usage will go down across the board. Since the energy-efficiency improvements make the house more valuable, the lien plus improvements actually increase the value of the house (unless the banks made a mistake in terms of what kind of improvements to order).

Case Study: Victorian Toronto Mansion

In the case of the Toronto house I mentioned last post in a footnote, over 10 years they were paying more than $100 000 in heating bills. As long as technology exists which is capable of reducing their winter heating bills to less than $1000 per month, that's more than a $50 000 10-year reduction, so if banks could finance a $30 000 or so insulation retrofit for that house, they'd be rolling in dough. The starving students who lived there would see an immediate but small ($200 - $300) reduction in monthly utility costs, and future students living there would do even better.

Standardizing the Deal

I think there should be no new laws made for this program, but that governments should draw up and promote this standard deal into fill-in-the-blanks contracts between homeowners and banks. If banks want to alter the deal, fine; but governments should provide a default agreement which doesn't screw anyone over as a baseline, in part for efficiency's sake and in part because banks have a lot more expertise at getting what they want out of contracts.

Conclusions: Sometimes Everybody Wins

There doesn't always have to be a trade off between the environment and free enterprise. We can't all be top-notch thermal engineers who know what modifications make the most fiscal sense. With this standard deal, everyone can profit, and there will be an increased economy of scale for energy-efficient technologies which make the most sense. It's win-win-win; let's do it.

Upfront Cost Disclosure

Greetings, homeowners.

If you're a regular reader, you'll already know that I have both an environmental and a capitalist streak in me. I don't think these two need be in eternal conflict; in fact today's post is going to outline a way in which we can encourage the adoption of green technologies without messing around with the marketplace.

Good Policy Assumes Laziness

First of all, let me fire a diffuse attack at all of the legislated incentives to get people to adopt new green technology. While legislated incentives can be better than nothing, often the incentives are not proportional to the environmental good done (e.g. giving a fixed tax rebate to cars purchased with better than a certain mileage - there's just a threshold and no proportionality), and almost always these bills can't and shouldn't be passed when the technology has only limited applicability. However, I think that there are potentially many diverse opportunities for incremental improvements that just can't be addressed by legislated incentives. Good policy should automatically reward where it should; good policy is lazy and future-proof.

Virtue should be Its Own Reward

In this post I'm going to outline a way to promote environmental benefits in a natural, non-legislative way. Specifically, we should require that the advertised price of goods reflect the total cost of ownership, and not just the sale price. For example, when buying a house, the only price you would be allowed to advertise should be the sum of the sale price and the forecast cost of 20 years of utilities in the house. This way, houses with the same listed price would be equally affordable, and there would be incentives to build houses that were greener. Let me slow down a bit to unpack all of these comments so that they make a little more sense.

I'm Lazy Too

How many of you have bought a house or rented an apartment without first calculating the expected utility bills? I have never requested past utility statements for any property I've rented, and I certainly haven't done any thorough analysis of properties I'm only marginally interested in. I think I'm pretty typical in my laziness too: while I might try to factor in energy efficiency, I don't have a clear idea as to how much a given setup will affect my bottom line.

Modern economists acknowledge that humans make decision (and big ones too) with imperfect information, which results in less-than-optimal buying decisions. The most common numeric piece of information people take into account when looking to buy a house or rent an apartment is its price; my idea is to fold utility costs into the price from the outset so that people can make a lazy but correct decision as to how much they would like to spend on a heated domicile.


If I ruled the world, the list price for all houses would have to be the sale price plus 20 years of expected utilities costs, based on prior use records. (Aside: 20 years is a round figure on the order of the inflation-adjusted doubling time of money at prime rates, so if you were to invest this sum at the time of sale its simple interest could pay utilities from the interest essentially for ever. Perhaps 20 years is a little on the short side.) The sale price would be allowed to be advertised only as a line item in conjunction with the utilities cost and the total list price. Lying would be considered fraud.

Guessing the efficiency of a new building might be difficult, but it should be possible to use statistics to fine any construction company which consistently lowball's the heating estimates of the buildings they make.

The same idea could be applied to automobiles: add the cost of driving 50 000 city and 50 000 highway miles before getting the list price. (Aside: this will come out to around $10 000: enough to perhaps convince many people to buy newer, more fuel-efficient cars. Who would want a clunker when the list price is $11 200? We might be able to persuade car manufacturers to lobby for this idea since it would boost new car sales.)

Perhaps major appliances and computers should have a similar addition to advertised price, maybe also including the mean time until failure. At some point gizmos become too small for these advertising restrictions cease to make sense, but I don't know if this transition happens at the "toaster" level or the "microwave" level.

Lazily Greener Incentives

Consider the implications of my idea on builders and house maintainers. If you build a house that's more energy-efficient, its value to the seller will automatically be higher, since it competes with houses of the same list price. The 20-year cost of heating a poorly-insulated house in a cold climate can top $100 000*, so energy-efficient designs and materials could give a significant edge on the open market.

Moreover, if home buyers were to display a fraction of the eco-chic that Prius-cravers show, perhaps small 20-year heating cost stats would carry the same caché as slim cellphones. In any case, energy efficiency could be reducible to a dollar value, which is great for putting things into perspective.


Let me recap a few of the reasons why I think we should add use cost to sale price to determine the list price of automobiles, houses etc.
  • It's the duty of the government to protect consumers from false advertising.
  • Markets are more efficient when more information is used.
  • It's easier to perform cost analyses once per item sold than once per potential sale.
  • Green policy should provide continuous incentives to make better products, and these incentives should be proportional to the environmental good done.
  • Legislated incentives are rigid, slow-to-implement, and fiscally inefficient.
In summary, let's get our policy into the adaptive 21st century by making the cost advertised closer to what the consumer is really going to pay.

*Friends of mine in Toronto rented a house with typical winter heating bills of $2000 per month, even though some of them opted to turn the heat down and sleep in arctic sleeping bags. I'm sure that if this heating were advertised in the listed rent they would have rented elsewhere. The 20-year heating cost for this Victorian behemoth would have been over a quarter-million bucks: a significant warning to any prospective home-buyer, and a burning incentive for the current owner to insulate better to protect the house's retail and rental value.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Where Would Gaia Tan?

Greetings, sun-worshipers.

Today's post in by request. A bronzed goddess I know who's recently traveled aboard a Caribbean cruise wanted to know if cruising takes more or less fuel than a transatlantic airplane trip to Europe. Here's my take.

Fuel Cost of Flying

According to this chart from Nova, a typical transatlantic flight aboard a 747-100 will consume 57.7 gallons of fuel per passenger, or 115.4 gallons round-trip. (I'm not sure why they include three significant figures; I'm sure the variation is at least a few percent.) Incidentally, if you could drive solo all the way to Europe you would burn about five times as much, so flying isn't that bad in terms of mileage relative to driving a car alone.

Fuel Cost of Cruising

On the other hand, taking a one-week Caribbean cruise will burn about 140 gallons of fuel per passenger. (Here I assumed fuel efficiency of about 20 feet per gallon on a modern cruise ship - inspired by the QE II's mileage of 29 feet per gallon; a cruising speed of 22 knots, 3500 passengers and 3 days of full-speed cruising of the 7 total days.) The per-capita mileage of a cruise is then about 13 miles per gallon: about the same as driving alone; perhaps a little worse.


A transatlantic flight and a one-week cruise consume about the same amount of fuel. You're not exactly doing Gaia a great favor by vacationing on either, but the occasional vacation isn't going to outweigh habitual energy usage either. If you have a 2-hour commute in your own car, you'd burn roughly 25 gallons per week, so cruising once a year isn't going to overwhelm your daily habits.

Who knows; maybe the next generation of cruisers will like fuel-saving tech like this too? (Personally I would love a nuclear cruise ship as much for its silence as for its eco-friendliness, but I don't think that's in the cards.)

Coöperative Democracy

Greetings, citizens.

Today I'm going to talk about ways in which we can improve democracy by changing the way in which we vote. Specifically I'm going to point out a few flaws in the widespread "plurality" system of voting, then I'm going to promote an alternative: approval voting.

What's Broken?

Before I go into my proposed changes, let me persuade you that there is room for improvement in the current system, especially vis-a-vis vote splitting. Vote splitting is what allowed the Nazi party to take power in Germany, and what let LePen into the final round of the 2002 French presidential elections. In both cases, the majority of the electorate detested the above ultra-conservatives, but since the right was united their total vote count was large enough to give them disproportional power.

A similar situation happened in the 2006 Canadian federal election, where only 36% of Canadians voted for the Conservatives, but since there is only one significant right wing party and there are three left-wing parties the Conservatives took power.

Problems with Plurality?

Vote-splitting is a problem in any democracy where the winner is determined by a plurality, or first-past-the-post system. Since the candidate with the most people voting for them is the one that wins, one of the most tragic ways to lose a pluralist election is to have many good politicians agree with you. I suppose in some ways the threat of splitting the vote might be a good thing in that it encourages politicians with similar platforms to amalgamate, fostering simplicity; but this small good in my opinion is outweighed by occasionally electing extremist governments which don't reflect the will of the people.

However, given that there are going to be a few maverick politicos who refuse to take up another's banner, the reasonable parts of the political spectrum will become crowded with egotists whose best chance at getting ahead is by sabotaging their fellows' images, and politicians adopting unreasonable views will enjoy unsplit votes and my be able to wield disproportionate power.

The poor voter's only recourse is to vote tactically: to give power to a lesser evil to defeat a greater evil. Such tactical voting systems result in meta-stable power structures with all the appeal of a prisoner's dilemma; let's look for something better.

Alternative 1: Approval Voting

My favorite alternative to a plurality system is approval voting. Under approval voting, each voter is given a list of checkboxes next to the names of each candidate. She checks off each candidate which meets her approval. The candidate with the highest approval rating wins the election.

Under this system, one can check just one box (if one approves of just one party), one can check a whole range of boxes corresponding to parties that are all compatible with the voter's views (perhaps along with a few one-issue parties to show support without throwing away a vote), or one can officially show disgust with the entire slate by leaving all boxes empty, indicating that the voter trusts none of the meager offerings this year.

Aside from solving the vote-splitting catastrophe, approval voting discourages mud-slinging among politicians, since discrediting others doesn't behoove politicians as much. Politicians can build platforms partially atop of one another: one could declare "my views are similar to the popular Mrs. X's (which are reasonable and well-considered), with the distinction that I would pander less to the unions than she" without fearing vote-splitting disaster. It would finally make reason and politics more miscible than oil and water: it would be a genuinely good strategy to adopt good policies regardless of "whose turf" they belong to.

It goes without saying that the two-party fiasco of the United States (which in my opinion has done harm by dividing the nation into tribes) could be instantaneously remedied by approval voting: if any new party could win power through good centrist policy with bipartisan support, I would expect a lot less extremism in American politics. Sane policy is awaiting your approval.

Alternative 2: Borda Count

Another vote-counting system is to allow each voter to rank each candidate, potentially letting unranked candidates tie for last. While this method seems appealing since it allows voters to give more information than even approval voting, it suffers from complexity and from odd consequences of tactical voting, as will be described.

Assume that, like any current ballot, a Borda-count ballot has a few big shot politicians and alongside a motley crew of amateurs. The tactical voter who wants to maximize her chosen big shot over the other predominant big shot will rank the former first and the latter last, filling in the middle positions with dimwits whom everyone knows won't get elected. The trouble is: I don't trust voters to rank the filler politicians randomly: perhaps there will be a tendency to rank the unknowns from #2 at the top of the page through #(n-1) at the bottom. This will mean whichever dimwit #1 at the top of the ballot (who will be ranked #2 by pretty much every tactical voter) will have a higher voting score than either of the two leading choices (who will get a roughly 50-50 split between first and last place from each tactical voter) and we'll elect only dimwits. That would be horrible!

Borda himself acknowledged the Borda count's vulnerability to tactical voting. From Wikipedia (so beware the source):
In response to the issue of strategic manipulation in the Borda count, M. de Borda said "My scheme is only intended for honest men".
Let me know if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that there's no advantage to voting tactically in an approval voting system: if you don't like a candidate, there's never an incentive to endorse her, and if you do, you should always endorse her. The only potential for failure might happen if a few "single-issue" parties (like the marijuana party) get more approval than any other; if this is the case thought than the leading parties clearly have missed the wishes of the electorate and deserve what's coming to them.


So far, my favorite system of vote counting is approval voting. It gives everybody an equal say, remedies vote-splitting, is invulnerable to tactical voters and encourages collaboration among politicians. Let's start adopting this simple yet powerful method for expressing one's political opinion, and let the reasonable, collaborative, centrist policy begin.

PS: More on Voting Systems

Alas, there is no one perfect method of voting which allows voters to express a nuanced set of preferences, and always elects the best candidate under any criterion. Mathematicians have thus gone berserk in their search for esoteric methods for determining who gets elected; each one is "optimal" for a given view of what should be. If you're interested in the diversity of vote counting systems out there, take a look at the following Wikipedia articles (I'm just amazed by how many there are):

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Today's Oxymoron: Airport Security

Greetings, passengers.

Show of hands: how many of you out there feel safer due to the airport security measures which supposedly keep bombs off planes? If you raised your hand you must think both that there are plenty of terrorists who try to bring down planes, but that the security checkpoints are in general pretty good at keeping them out. In this post, I hope to disabuse you of both of these notions.

First of all let me vent a little. I'm sick and tired of people talking about terrorists in general terms. I hear it all the time: "terrorists look just like us," "terrorists think what bringing down planes is God's will," and other such phrases which imply that there are enough terrorists to lump them into a uniform seething pile of hatred.

In truth, there are very few terrorists in the United States. When was the last time you heard about a US plane hijacking? Terrorism just isn't a big enough threat to justify its looming shadow over the US psyche.

The 90% Hole in the Airport Security Net

Why am I so sure that there aren't dozens of annual attempts at bringing down planes which we don't hear about due to the covert actions of TSA officials who anonymously shield us? It turns out security is regularly audited by undercover teams of agents who try to smuggle bomb-like devices aboard planes, and they succeeded in about 90% of post-September 11 2001 attempts, as reported here.

The take-home message is that the world doesn't hate us as much as militant politicians want us to believe. If about 90% of attempted plane bombings would be successful and yet US passenger planes don't regularly explode, we're left with no other conclusion than airline terrorism is exceedingly rare. If there's been one take-off for every 5 seconds since September 11, that's more than 30 million terrorism-free flights.


We're safe in the air, not because of an army of screeners, but because people don't hate Americans as much as we're told. Now, dear readers, could you let me know if you think our paranoia over plane bombing is just garden-variety misplaced fear, or does it come from a conspiracy of plutocrats in a position to profit from it?