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January 8, 2011 / marios

It might rain or it might not

I am quoting from the New York Times article “In Battle Over Health Law, Math Cuts Both Ways“:

The director of the budget office, Douglas W. Elmendorf, is the first to acknowledge that there are many uncertainties around the projections. But he has also defended the agency’s numbers in public forums and numerous meetings with lawmakers and Congressional staff.

Mr. Elmendorf has stressed that the budget office used the “middle distribution of likely outcomes,” meaning that the health care law is just as likely to save the government more money as it is to cost more. (Emphasis added.)

Thanks for nothing:)

The article continues the argument saying that

Assessing the effects of making broad changes in the nation’s health care and health insurance systems — or of reversing scheduled changes — requires assumptions about a broad array of technical, behavioral and economic factors…

Well, obviously. No one can predict the future, that is why it is pointless to even debate about the long term outcomes of such complicated legislation. The fact is that the health care status quo in the U.S. is appalling for a large percentage of the population, hence change is needed. Let the new law stand for a few years and then debate its usefulness. But if one cannot make such a simple, straightforward argument with Republicans at this time, then all hope is lost… (Who claim, by the way, that the U.S. has the best health care system in the world. Do they know how the health care system of every other country in the world really works, I wonder? Have they ever seen a detailed U.S. hospital bill in their life?)

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January 4, 2011 / marios

Creepy clown

December 24, 2010 / marios

Should you trust medical research?

I keep reminding myself on a daily basis that I should ignore news headlines about any kind of medical advice. Every day we are bombarded with all kinds of trivial advice on how to “improve” our health and live longer. I am a scientist and I am confronted on a regular basis with fairly complex systems that need to be analyzed. I have learned over the years how difficult it is to draw any reliable conclusions about even the simplest systems, especially in the absence of diverse and extensive datasets.

Compared to the systems I am working with, the human body is a vastly more complicated machinery. My intuition tells me that no study can draw any reliable conclusions, no matter how many individuals it follows and for how long. There are so many parameters that are impossible to control that any reasoning will be flawed (the variability of diet and lifestyle, and the inherent unreliability of subjects are two examples).

On a yearly basis I remember reading certain advice that was refuted only months afterwards. An anecdotal example was evidence that eating more white chocolate has positive effects for your cholesterol levels; at the same time drinking whole milk and eating a lot of sugar is bad for your cholesterol… Hence, I learned not to heed any advice, even if it comes from respected medical professionals. I’d rather heed my own common sense. I eat white chocolate every once in a while.

Thankfully, the other day I came upon a very interesting article in The Atlantic, titled “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” that scientifically reinforces my belief. The article talks about Dr. John Ioannidis who is on a mission to quantify how many medical studies have been already refuted. Quoting from the article:

He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. … Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable.

It turns out that scientist cannot agree even on claims based on common sense. For example, longitudinal studies about the effect of obesity on longevity, as it turns out, are not conclusive. Apparently, slightly overweight people live longer. This reinforces my point that no conclusions are possible. The experimental setup itself is chaotic and impossible to control. Now, take into account confirmation bias and the financial conflicts of interest and it is no wonder that Dr. Ioannidis has a very simple advice on how to choose which of these findings to take seriously: “Ignore them all”. I certainly do…

December 24, 2010 / marios

Total recall, Redux

A while ago I mentioned Jill Price and the fact that she has Total Recall of her memories. She can remember almost every detail of every day of her life. It turns out that she is not the only one. A number of people have come forward, with exactly the same superhuman abilities. 60 Minutes run a two-part special on the subject a while back, that is very insightful and worth your time:

Part one of Leslie Stahl’s report.

Part two of Leslie Stahl’s report.

December 20, 2010 / marios

Ploom

Right when you thought that tobacco consumption in the U.S. was dead:

December 15, 2010 / marios

You Will

Talk about foresight! These are adds of AT&T from back in 1993:

December 13, 2010 / marios

Efficient Welfare: Not necessarily a contradiction

Food stamps is by definition a social welfare program. Nevertheless, few conservatives oppose the program. The main reason is that the program is not only working very efficiently, with low waste, fraud and overhead cost, but also helps local business and reduces the likelihood that a family will go into more expensive welfare programs. Why? Because families in need of food will spend the money immediately, which creates business, which creates local jobs; it is a virtuous cycle. This is a great welfare program.

Contrast this with unemployment benefits. If you give people a salary while they are looking for a job, lazy people (that is, most of us) will spend a small percentage of money for basic needs and put the rest of the money in the bank while they sit at home watching TV. Everybody is talking about high unemployment lately, but everyday on my commute to work I see signs for open positions. Today I saw a sign at a garage store saying that drivers were needed. The other day I saw a sign requesting applications for various positions in a new restaurant. I don’t know about you, but if I received 36% of my previous salary in unemployment benefits (let’s assume around $1000 on average), I ‘d rather stay at home and watch TV than work either as a driver or in the kitchen.

So, here is my question. I understand that unemployment benefits are important, at least for a limited amount of time. So why doesn’t the federal government try to make the program more efficient by introducing checks and balances? Simple examples: 1. Require that a certain percentage of money is spent on a monthly basis (this creates business); 2 Require proof of effort to find a job (e.g., at least one interview per month with proof from potential employer). Now, there might be higher administrative overhead in order to achieve these goals, but if it is possible for food stamps it must be possible for unemployment benefits as well.

December 7, 2010 / marios

Art is the lie that tells the truth

I just watched “I’m still here“, the latest movie by and about Joaquin Phoenix (Casey Affleck is the director, writer, actor). I am assuming that everybody has seen the infamous appearance of Joaquin Phoenix at the David Letterman show, where he reiterated the fact that he is retiring from acting and pursuing a career as a hip-hop singer (this statement was made at a time near the apogee of his acting career). The clip caused an unprecedented stir, with people wondering whether it was a hoax or Joaquin had simply gone nuts.

It turns out that Joaquin was living a role for more than a year and half of his life. Living a role is not a new concept. A nice example is the documentary “Super size me” (in which Morgan Spurlock documents himself for a 30 day period during which he only eats McDonald’s food), and an interesting concept from the world of magicians appears in the excellent Christopher Nolan film “The Prestige” (based on a novel by Christopher Priest in which identical twin brothers, Albert and Frederick, both live the life of Albert and go to great lengths to keep this fact secret from everybody they know, including a girlfriend, in order to perform a stunning teleportation act where Albert seems to appear from one location to another instantaneously, defying the laws of physics).

But Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix took this concept to another level, in real life, not in fiction, and for a prolonged period of time. I have to admit that they had me fooled for all this time. Their act was extremely convincing. I refrained from reading any news about Joaquin or the movie, before I watched it, and I have to admit that even while I was watching the film I could not decide whether Joaquin was playing a role or if he had just hit rock bottom. In my opinion it was a stellar performance and an interesting study of celebrity and the fact that the consumers of celebrity (i.e., us) by and large are ready to shred to pieces human beings when they seem to be most vulnerable, simply for entertainment (I am thinking about Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, etc.).

Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times conducted a very revealing interview with Casey Affleck that gives more intimate details about the concept and filming the movie and is worth reading. I can hardly remember the last time a piece of art created such a prolonged debate or stirred the interest of so many people. I always liked Joaquin Phoenix as an actor, but I have nothing but admiration after “I’m still here” — the guy has guts! I wish this one goes down as a great performance in the Oscars.

December 2, 2010 / marios

The next technological leap

I have been quite disappointed the past few years regarding any technological improvements from a wide spectrum of sciences. If I try to think of any seemingly important advances that affected the daily lives of ordinary people, the two that come to mind immediately are the ability to access the Internet from your mobile phone (granted this is a tremendous achievement) and eServices (eCommerce, eMaps, Wikipedia; all these services simplified our lives tremendously). Nevertheless, these technologies only affect the few, so far. We have also seen improvements in medication for AIDS, but no cure, and practically no progress in the fight against most types of cancer. The great promise of sequencing the human genome has resulted in the ability to predict the likelihood of certain diseases expressing in certain individuals, but nothing beyond that yet; nevertheless it has also increased our understanding of how our bodies really work. Nanotechnology still seems to be closer to science fiction than reality and material sciences have not produced the super materials that everybody expected; everything we produce has improved in quality, but is fundamentally the same.  All our activities are powered primarily by fossil fuels, and there has not yet appeared a panacea for our energy worries. Food production has increased but the world is still facing food shortages. And we all know where  innovation in financial products has led to. In other words, critical technological advancement seems to have slowed down significantly.

But now, it seems to me that a new technological leap is about to happen. Who hasn’t heard of the incredibly promising applications of Graphene. Metamaterials are making a come back. And even home entertainment just made a huge step forward in the form of Microsoft’s Kinect, which is posed to change the way we interact with technology forever. Scientists have been making tremendous progress in stem cell research; a nice example being tissue regeneration. And we are finally starting to see promising new alternative energy technologies like the Bloom Box and Shale Gas drilling (albeit, all of them with their share of drawbacks for now). Finally, crop engineering through selective breeding and genetic modification is booming (whatever the advantages and disadvantages of that may be). I can sense a revolution brewing.

November 25, 2010 / marios

You are welcome