Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category.

Technological Progress: The Hardback Replaces the E-Book

I did something the other day that I hadn’t done in 2 years: I bought a book. Like many I’d taken to reading books on e-readers, in my case the Amazon Kindle Fire, and after purchasing the Kindle I had thought my book buying days were over. But over time I noticed something: what I read on the Kindle didn’t seem to stick with me as long. I’d even sampled books I had already downloaded and read. Something wasn’t right.

I began investigating whether there was a link between poor reading comprehension and e-readers. This article, originally published in Scientific American, suggests there is.

At least a few studies suggest that by limiting the way people navigate texts, screens impair comprehension. In a study published in January 2013 Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway and her colleagues asked 72 10th-grade students of similar reading ability to study one narrative and one expository text, each about 1,500 words in length. Half the students read the texts on paper and half read them in pdf files on computers with 15-inch liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors. Afterward, students completed reading-comprehension tests consisting of multiple-choice and short-answer questions, during which they had access to the texts. Students who read the texts on computers performed a little worse than students who read on paper. (source)

Around the same time I bought the Kindle, I was having a carpenter install bookshelves in what was going to be our library, and I remember feeling almost nostalgic about the books that were boxed and ready to be placed on the shelves. I’d always taken the measure of a man by the books he read, and the library struck me as a place that told more about him than he perhaps wanted known. It wasn’t just their subjects that gave away their owner’s secrets. Were they paperbacks that were tattered from being carried around backpacks and the backseat floors of cars, dog-eared and marked up with various inks? Or were they pristine collectors edition hardbacks whose spines had never been broken, likely owned and cherished for their spines and little else? If one looked carefully one could even glimpse the reader’s evolution, from paperback science fiction novels of her early teens, to the paperback Tolkien sagas of her college years, followed by the physical science pre-med and medical school textbooks bursting with margin notes and photocopied hand-outs, to the growing number of travel books reflecting a restless soul who needs to wander to exotically named places like Marrakesh and Zanzibar.

I had to delay my gratification for two days until the hardback arrived in the mailbox, and its cost was approximately double that of the electronic version. But the feel of the book in my hands was like the handclasp, and the smell of the pages was like the old familiar perfume of an old friend. Three days after its reception, it’s due to join the rest of my old friends in the library in the center of our home. The copy of PJ O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell that has holidayed with me in Africa and Asia. The Stephen Jay Gould collection. The Feynman books. Like all devoured and at my finger tips to be referenced at a moment’s notice.

Recommended Life Skills From A Nobody

The following are what I consider to be life skills for everyone that you won’t see in the usual lists floating around the internet. Mastering just a few of these will improve your well-being as they have mine.

If you already know them, teach a friend or if you have kids, teach them. For specifics on how to do any of the following, Google and YouTube are your friends.

Now you might ask, “Why should I listen to an old fool like you? You aren’t famous. You aren’t rich. You’re really a nobody.”  I admit I’m old and often foolish and while I may not be rich I am comfortable. As for being a nobody, I’m somebody to the animals I’ve rescued and care for, to the Kid and to the Wife. Their opinions about me matter more to me than the number of  readers I have of this blog, Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Besides my advice won’t kill you, unlike Jenny McCarthy’s.

As MM catches in the comments there is no particular rank to these skills. They’re pretty much in the order they came to me, and this being an easily editable blog post, I’ll continue adding to the list. Enjoy!

1. Safely change a flat tire. Nothing screams “Moron!” like driving on the shoulder with a flat-tire, turning a $10 problem into a $200 one. And while I recommend AAA, there’s no reason to call them for a flat unless you are a woman. I’ve driven half a million road miles and have never seen a woman change a flat. Evidently it’s something that men can do that women can’t, like pee standing up (although I have seen women do that.) You’ll know we’ve achieved true equality of the sexes when you see women changing flat tires. Sexist? Yes, but you don’t need much upper body strength to fix a flat.

2. Learn how to do laundry. Hint: Like likes like. Oh, and read the label (if you haven’t cut it out already).

3. Be able to prepare and cook at least one breakfast, one lunch and one dinner. The key? The only time you use high heat is to boil water. Everything else cooks best with moderate heat. Always keep a jar of pasta sauce, box of spaghetti and a bag of frozen meatballs on hand. Within 20 minutes you will have dinner for two.

4. Learn how to use a multimeter, specifically how to measure resistance. I’ll admit I’ve used multimeters for a long time but only figured out how to measure resistance last week. It’s like using a hammer for years to pry nails up and then realizing that gee, you can beat them into the wood too. Seriously it was a revelation. Once I learned this I was measuring conductivity of everything in the house. (Tip: Cats are NOT conductive, at least at the amperage contained in your average multimeter.) Bad fuse? You’ll know instantly. Short somewhere? Your multimeter will help you find it.

5. Balance a checkbook. Learn how to handle cash flow, especially when using checks and maintaining a small balance.

6. Floss. Your dental hygienist is right. Flossing makes a big difference. Not only does it keep your teeth clean, it helps maintain your health. And it makes kissing bearable.

7. Learn how to correctly iron a shirt. In today’s casual business environment of “wrinkle-free” shirts and slacks, you might think this is anachronistic. Think again. Even the so-called wrinkle-free shirts look positively frumpy compared to a well-ironed shirt. It’s a small detail that says a lot about you to your colleagues and will be noticed, even if you are a jeans/t-shirt type at heart. Every decent motel contains an ironing board and an iron. If you are traveling on business, use them.

8. Do your own taxes. Using software is okay, but before you go to H&R Block or let your brother who is studying accounting do them for you, do them yourself. Doing so will teach you your relationship to society. You will see learn that the rebate check you receive after you file isn’t a gift: it’s the money taken from you throughout the year that’s leftover after the government takes its cut.

9. Sew a basic stitch. Buttons pop off at inopportune times, and small tears can often be handled with a few stitches. Sewing kits tend to breed in drawers. Learn how to use them.

10. Never run out of gas. If you live in a hurricane prone area it’s a good idea to never fall below half a tank during hurricane season. If you can’t think far enough ahead to avoid running out of gas you probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.

11. Learn how to say “No, thanks.” This is one of those general life rules that should be common sense but isn’t. Learning how to say “no” without causing offense or leading to intimidation is one of those skills that once learned can save you from a lot of grief. Is a guy hitting on you wanting to buy you a drink? Say it politely. Are your buddies offering you one for the road? Don’t take it. The boss offering you another project to take on to your overwhelming work load? Say, “Not until I get some bandwidth. As soon as I finish (X project) I’ll be happy to take it on.” No is one of the shortest yet most important words in the English language. Use it to avoid trouble.

12. Make being skeptical instinctive. Everyday we receive more marketing offers than ever before promising us endless opportunities and joy. None of them actually deliver. You are a target, a walking wallet to an assortment of sundry, often shady enterprises. Maintaining your skepticism will help you avoid being scammed.

13. Pay your bills on time. Preferably a couple of days before they are due. Get in the habit and you’ll avoid late fees, collection calls, dings to your credit rating.

14. Safely handle a firearm. Guns are not everyone’s cup of tea, but you’d be surprised at how tasty the tea is once you try a sip. There’s a  mystique about guns thanks to the anti-gun media, and it’s one that isn’t based on reality. The reality is that like any tool they have their uses. Knowing your way around a handgun or rifle de-mystifies them. They are tools with a purpose, and just as you wouldn’t think about playing with a running chain-saw (at least while you’re sober) if you treat guns with the same respect you will have nothing to fear from them. As an ex anti-gun person who is now a card-carrying member of the NRA, take my word for it. Even if you decide you do not want a firearm in your house, learning about them will help you make an informed decision.

15. Learn a poem by heart. I’m not sure why it’s important, but trust me, it is. In college I memorized Theodore Roethke’s I Knew a Woman, and every time I recite that poem something stirs deep within me.  It’s not meant to be explicable, just experienced. “She moved in circles, and those circles moved.” Delightful!

16. Avoid socializing with emotional vampires. I first saw that term used years ago in a Harlan Ellison book where he recommended this, and experience has taught me the wisdom in this statement. You have to recognize that there are people you can’t save. Often these people don’t want to be saved or merely exist by feeding on the kindness shown to them by their friends and family members. In the end they will suck you dry of your money, your love, or your mental well-being, leaving you a drained corpse while they move on to their next victim. Whether it’s a family member or friend, run don’t walk away from these people and cut them out of your life.

17. Memorize the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. Not only does it sound charlie-oscar-oscar-lima when you say it, it also helps people understand you when you’re talking on the phone. I find it ironic that while telephones have improved and become more mobile thanks to the invention of the cell phone and its evolution into the smartphone, call quality hasn’t improved. If anything it’s gotten worse, so knowing the phonetic alphabet will help you order the right item on a website, or help guarantee your name is spelled correctly on a form.

18. Learn how to ride a motorcycle. Yes they are dangerous. According to a UK study motorcycles have 16 times the rate of serious injuries compared to cars. According to most motorcyclists though, they are at least 16 times more fun to ride. There is nothing quite like the joy of riding a motorcycle on the open road.  A motorcycle makes you feel a part of a landscape instead of feeling apart from it, puts you in it instead of seeing it through panes of safety glass in a steel cocoon. While I wouldn’t dream about using a motorcycle to commute to work with on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia, I’m glad I own one for the occasional times when I just want to escape. Oh, and another thing: You can’t multi-task on a motorcycle. Being on a bike forces you to enjoy the moment in a way a car cannot.

19. Keep a pet. Keeping a pet forces you to think about something else besides yourself. If you’ve never had a pet before start with something small and easy like a goldfish and work your way up. Seriously. Don’t immediately adopt that cute Jack Russell you saw outside the Petsmart; you have to work your way up to high maintenance animals like that. Oh, and never pay for a dog or cat unless its to cover spay/neutering or other vet costs. There is no shortage of these animals, and while I recognize that most breeders are decent people who care about animals, the reality is that the shelters are full of animals needing homes.

20. Live in a foreign country. Nothing teaches you about your own country like living outside of it. Sure you’ll learn about your host country, but you will become a window through which others see yours. You’ll be surprised at what they say and think about your country and your people, and you’ll gain a new perspective on what being a citizen of your country means.

21. Learn how to wait. Most of life isn’t exciting and the fact is you will spend a lot of time waiting. There are several kinds of waiting – waiting for the right man/woman to come into your life, waiting for better times… But the waiting I refer to here is of the more mundane variety such as what to do while waiting in line. The next time you are in line at the grocery store watch what others do while they wait. The majority fidget, checking their phones or the headlines on the tabloids. Hardly anyone relaxes or simply observes the world around them. I’ve been told that veteran soldiers become the masters of handling down times like waiting. They’ve been trained to use the free time to rest their minds, even sleep when possible, so that the next time things get exciting they will be mentally alert. When I’m feeling particularly Zen I like to practice mindful meditation, focus on my breathing and allow the world to happen around me as if I were a leaf on a pond. But since I suck at Zen I struggle just like everyone else. Like all of these items on this list I am learning to perfect this skill which isn’t easy to do since my monkey mind is rather gorilla sized.

22. Study a foreign language. As my friend PJ suggests in the comments, this is a life skill worth trying. I stress “trying” because I’ve never come close to speaking a foreign language fluently the way my friends like PJ or the Wife (who’s fluent in several) have done. Learning a foreign language has many benefits, some more obvious than others depending on circumstances. But regardless of what you study you will see the world from a different perspective, even if you never attain fluency. Take Japanese. I never came close to mastering it, but learning the basics of the language taught me some key assumptions. For example, in most cases “I” is never used and is implied. This ambiguity touches upon the cultural trait of the Japanese stressing the group over the individual. The language also relies upon honorofics,  for example the “-san”, “-chan” and “-sama” suffixes that portray the rank of the speaker and whom he or she is speaking to. Japanese conveys the social contexts of the speaker and the listener in ways that are impossible or at best archaic in other languages. Think Downton Abbey for a taste in English.

23. Listen to an old person. I know people who met people who had been born into slavery. Others I’ve talked to remember life without indoor plumbing. While waiting for a car repair to finish I once talked to a Vietnam vet who flew psyops over North Vietnam. What’s better than talking to someone about history who’s lived it? For most of our history as a species the only history books we had were our elderly. The only problem with these “books” is that often by the time we need them, they’re gone. It’s a cliche to attack our youth-centric culture, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the frivolity of youth as long as we keep the more important of life’s decisions in the hands of those who appreciate history and the sense of proportion such knowledge brings. Everyone has elders. Get them talking about a particular subject they are interested in, then listen to them. You might learn something.

 24. Patronize an unknown artist. Perhaps there’s a street musician you pass by on the way home who is playing music you like. Don’t just toss him a buck; buy his CD if he has one laying out. Visit art fairs and art shows that spring up locally and put some of your hard-earned cash into the hands of a skilled but unknown artist or craftsman. Instead of buying a poster of a dead artist, buy an actual print of a living one. We live in an age of mass production where few things are handcrafted. Even things that were once hand made like prints of the Masters are now mass produced. We are human beings, each crafted through evolution by genetics to be one of a kind. We should celebrate this not hide it  behind some cheap prints picked up at Ikea. There are artists in every community who are doing amazing, unique things in their preferred medium. Each piece purchased is guaranteed to be one of a kind and makes more of a personal statement than the same French Cat poster that everyone displays (I admit I used to display it too).

25. Challenge yourself. It might be to do something easy like take a different route home from work, or it can be more difficult like quitting smoking or starting the novel you’ve always wanted to write. The key point here is to force yourself out of your comfort zone and do something that will surprise your friends, your family and ultimately yourself.  It really doesn’t matter if you succeed or not, only that you tried. And once you’ve quit smoking, taken that out of the way route home or written that novel, try something else. I’m teaching myself the mathematics behind quantum physics because I’ve reached a point where I feel I need to understand the math in order to understand the physics better. My goal is to someday touch the math describing the collapse of the wave function. That will be enough for me.

 

The Ethics of Altered Time Perception

The Daily Mail has a thought provoking article on the use of drugs and other methods to prolong the sense of time for criminals, making their incarcerations seem longer than their actual sentences. While the article does a fair job of covering the morality of using such drugs on prisoners, it completely ignores uses of the technology for more benign purposes.

Imagine a drug one could take that could make a two day vacation feel like a month. Or prolonging those instants of joy that spontaneously arise in our lives into minutes, hours or perhaps even days. Would any of us not take a drug that would allow us mastery of time, to fight the inexorable rush forward, reducing it to a creep at certain times of our lives? There are moments we want to last forever. Soon there will be an app for that.

The article raises profound concerns about what justice means, and as the technology comes into existence we as a society should consider each of them carefully. But are we prepared at all for the opposite? Could there be a downside to stretching out those joyful moments artificially?

The Vanishing of Malaysian Air Flight 370

While the world wonders what happened to Malaysian Air Flight 370, a quote keeps recurring from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s unflappable Sherlock Holmes. “(W)hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth(.)” The longer this mystery continues it’s hard not to speculate and perhaps even engage in a conspiracy theory or two while remaining mindful of the fictional Holmes’s dedication to the evidence.


Unfortunately when it comes to that, we’re pretty screwed at this point. Six days after the plane disappeared we seem no closer to resolving the mystery. It is very difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine a plane full of 239 people simply vanishing. The longer the mystery remains the worse it will be. If in three months we have no further evidence of what happened to this plane, I have no doubt that it will become the most talked about disaster of all time, becoming the 21st century’s Titanic.


One of the most intriguing possibilities comes from the Wall Street Journal, that quotes US investigators theorizing that the plane’s transponders were turned off intentionally and the plane flown to an unknown airstrip. The map at the bottom of the article shows the range of the aircraft, covering some of the most rugged and isolated areas in the world. That’s a lot of area to land a plane in. And if this theory turns out true, there won’t be a kid on the planet who won’t know the name of the mastermind behind it.

The Painful Implications of Invertebrates Feeling Pain

Do invertebrates feel pain? Evidently some, like crustaceans do. “Brown crabs rubbed and picked at their wound when a claw was removed, as it is in fisheries. At times the prawns and crabs would contort their limbs into awkward positions to reach the injury…”

But the same article says we don’t have to feel guilty when we smash a stink bug. “Even in extreme cases, insects show no evidence of pain. Imagine a praying mantis eating a locust, [Wageningen University professor Hans] Smid says. With its abdomen opened up, the locust will still feed even while being eaten.” Good to know because I’ve become a regular American Psycho when it comes to stink bugs.

So Science has decided that animals as simple as hermit crabs feel pain. Yet we are led to believe that human embryos and fetuses prior to birth do not, and the research that states otherwise remains controversial. This isn’t a philosophical problem for me since I eat animals and oppose laws outlawing abortion in the first trimester. I accept both are murder. But it strikes me as a bit of a conflict when my liberal friends support abortion without restriction yet won’t touch an egg because of the suffering the hen went through making it.

I’ll start taking vegans seriously when I meet one who opposes abortion for the same reason they oppose consuming animal products.

The Dollars and Sense of a College Education

If you peruse this website you’ll see I think deeply about many subjects. Two subjects that are dear to my heart are medicine and higher education. Why? The first is obvious: I’m married to a doctor and have a nice perch from which I can view the industry’s operation and development. The second is not so obvious. Although I am a college graduate I have no particular love for my alma mater. In fact when I visited it a few years ago I was surprised by how little a connection I felt on campus. It had changed as I had, but there was something else. I felt that I had been processed, just one of thousands that graduated from the university that by-gone year. It was a very mechanical operation. I paid my money, got my card punched for the required classes I needed, and received a certificate and a handshake at a forgettable ceremony at the end.

Yet I still think about and worry about higher education. I recognize its importance in a free society, which is why I rail against its takeover by leftists and fret over its cost. I also I have a child who will soon be college age, and so I’m mindful about the choices and opportunities higher education offers him.

Medicine and higher education also share one thing in common. Their prices are completely opaque. I recently lost my health insurance as a direct result of  Obamacare, and as I get older I worry more about how long my body can last without seriously breaking down. Take for example a hernia repair. I had one done in 1999 and was similarly under-insured at the time. The price back then was $3,000 and was split 50-50 between my insurer and me. As I begin to prepare the farm for Spring (funny to think about considering I’m waiting to be walloped by a deadly winter storm as I write) I’m moving heavy things around. Every once in a while I get a twang in my lower gut on the opposite side of the repaired hernia and it scares me.

How much would a hernia operation cost me today?

I have absolutely no clue. I can go online and find the price of nearly any car. I can search real estate sites and learn the prices of houses in any neighborhood in North America. I can even find out how much companies charge to clean out my septic tank, but I cannot tell you how much the local hospitals are charging for hernia repair. All I know is that it’s probably going to cost me more than $1,500. Probably a lot more.

Why is this?

Similarly I can look up the cost of tuition at any college or university in North America. In many cases such numbers aren’t easily found, and when they are they really don’t mean much. For one thing the costs don’t include many mandatory fees that one has to pay. They also often don’t provide the cost of living one has to pay to attend. And finally, the tuition figure is a lot like “manufacturer’s suggested retail price.” Hardly anyone pays that number except for wealthy foreign students who tend not to be price sensitive thanks to their parents being members of some kleptocracy in the Third World. In most cases the cost of tuition will be lowered by need-based grants or scholarships.

Other costs are never mentioned. For example opportunity costs. For arguments sake let’s imagine that my son will attend college and graduate in four years. Not only will I have to account for the direct cost of his education such as tuition, fees and books, but I’ll have to include indirect costs like room and board, transportation, food, entertainment, clothing etc. On top of that there’s the cost of lost wages. During those four years he could have worked full time and earned say, $20,000 a year. That’s $80,000 in earnings he’s forfeited and that he will have to make up through better earning power of his degree. If he graduates and earns just $20k a year, then he’s wasted his time and I’ve wasted my money.

But by far the largest unmentioned cost is compound interest. As Einstein once said compound interest is the most powerful force in the Universe, and anyone who’s ever paid back a student loan knows he was right. Every month I cut a check to pay back the Wife’s medical school loans and the balance barely budges, and the reason it doesn’t is compound interest. Students may not understand that when they borrow $10,000 at 5% interest to attend school, they aren’t paying back $10,500 after they graduate. While they are in school that loan is capitalizing, and the interest is compounding so that by the time they pay back that $10,000 loan ten years after graduation they will have paid back $20,000 on top of the $10,000 they borrowed.

So how much does a year of college really cost?

Again, it’s difficult to say. The best I can do is estimate it.

I’ll start with my alma mater, University of California – San Diego which is to education what factory farming is to the poultry business. UCSD off-campus cost including tuition, estimated room, board, transportation is roughly $30,000 for the 2014-15 school year. I’ll assume my kid gets some grants, knocking the cost down to $25,000.

Say I throw in $15,00o leaving him to come up with $10,000. Since he’s a typical teenager, he won’t understand compound interest, so he’ll borrow his $10k and pay it off after he graduates. Because it will take time for him to pay it off, that original $10,000 will become $30,000 by the time he authorizes the last debit to his account for his student loan creditor. Adding in my original $15k means his year at my alma mater will really cost us both $45,000.

To reiterate, that’s the cost for one year at a public school in California based on the following assumptions:

  1. He graduates in 4 years. This is a big if these days. Many kids are taking 6 years or longer. The longer they take, the worse the compound interest on their student loans as the interest on the deferred loans compounds while they are in school.

  2. He gets $5,000 or roughly 17% in need based grants or scholarships. UCSD provides need-based aid to 70% of undergraduates, and some of that includes loans according to an admissions officer at the university I spoke to.

  3. I provide $15,000. That’s more than my entire stay at UCSD cost back in the 1980’s by the way…

  4. He borrows $10,000 and takes 10-15 years to repay it.

One of the dirtiest yet most effective ways to manage one’s time I’ve learned as a per-hour professional contractor is to determine the cost of whatever I’m doing or not doing in terms of a dollars per hour figure. What would it really cost my son to attend an hour long class at UCSD?

UCSD requires 180 units to graduate. So based on our assumptions that’s 45 units per school year of 30 weeks. Dividing the cost of the school year $45,000 by 30 weeks gets us $1,500 per week. In order to maintain our assumptions and finish in 4 years, our student will need to take 15 units per quarter, which translates into 15 classroom hours a week. Dividing the cost per week ($1,500) by classroom hours per week (15) provides us the cost of a classroom hour: $100.

We’ve all heard about dumb classes kids take.  Rutgers University is offering “Polticizing Beyonce” ostensibly to explore race, gender and sexual politics. Assuming Rutgers charges the same as UCSD, I wonder how popular the class would be if students had to peel off a Benjamin each time they entered the classroom. Would they be as willing to explore race, gender, and sexual politics in a classroom for the same price they could explore race, gender, and sexual politics with a moderately priced hooker in private? Granted one doesn’t have to worry about catching an STD by attending class; then again with some of the types I’ve seen on university campuses these days, I’m not so sure about that.

People alter their spending habits when they know what the price of something is and can estimate its value, and the fact that both are hidden from us whenever we consider medicine or higher education should make us stop and ponder “Why?” The free market is a ruthlessly efficient thing. If students had to pay for each class they took when they took it, one could bet that higher education spending would be revolutionized.

Universities would focus on providing better teachers that students would be willing to pay for. They would be forced to cut costs, cutting back on the administrative bloat that inflates the cost of tuition. After all, a typical undergraduate core subject class at UCSD might have as many as 150 students in it. Multiply that number by a $100, and it’s quite likely the adjunct professor teaching the class and the dozen graduate students TA’ing the course see a pittance of that $15,000, the TA’s working for free and the adjunct prof earning about $25/hour. Where did that $14,975 go?

It went several places. To pay down the loan on the new student rec center. To pay off the new training equipment for the track and field team. And on administrators, hordes of administrators, a veritable plague of administrators. As this article shows, a new study finds the number non-academic administrative employees at US colleges and universities has doubled at the same time the number of part-time faculty has grown from a third in 1987 to half of all teachers today. University presidents contend they are doing everything to cut costs, but Richard Vedder, an economist and director at The Center for College Affordability, calls them liars.

“I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.”

Some of my friends have commented that my arguments attack the liberal arts and that I focus too much on STEM courses that provide good job opportunities after graduation. I don’t have a grudge against the liberal arts per se. In fact one of the most useful courses in terms of my career as a systems analyst I ever took was a philosophy course on logic. Some of the English courses were excellent too in terms of value.  Being able to communicate to a broad audience is critical in business these days, yet so many students lack the basic ability of crafting a memo let alone being able to articulate complex subjects to non-technical audiences. If I could go back in time, I would happily peel off a Benjamin to pay for an hour of that logic course. It was worth it to me, and would likely be worth it to others. I’m advocating a system of price transparency and reform that will likely save such classes because the administrators who are waking up to the threat posed by parents like me are scrambling to cut costs by cutting teachers and courses instead of cutting their own jobs. Maybe Politicizing Beyonce is a great course well worth the cost, but the market, those paying for the class, should be given the opportunity to decide its true value.

Facebook’s Culture of Like Breeds Conformity

I don’t post on Facebook anymore, and haven’t since August 2012.. Like many conservatives/libertarians most of my friends are liberals. In fact just for kicks I went through and categorized my “Facebook Friends” into Liberal, Moderate and Other political categories based on their posts. 60% of these “friends” were avowed liberals while the remainder was split evenly between moderates and “other”. This exercise didn’t take much time; I don’t have all that many “friends” on Facebook. In fact I’d quit it completely if it wasn’t for the posts of a small subset of friends and George Takei.

I quit posting on Facebook after finding myself drawn into an argument with a liberal friend from my college days. I’ve been on the Internet since before it was called “The Internet.” When I was in college I hung out at a local BBS and frequented Usenet groups. I quickly learned the perils of flamers and trolls, and so by the time the 2000’s rolled by I had a full education on what topics to avoid and which to pursue and more importantly, how to pursue them, on the Internet. I learned that writing or posting in a faceless medium tended to make one abstract a friend into an opponent, an opponent into an enemy, and an enemy into a representation of pure Evil. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I’ve fallen into it many times, usually here on TheRazor, and sometimes in discussions with like-minded friends. But usually I’m smart enough to recognize when I’m stuffing straw into a scarecrow in my arguments and realize that it’s a conscious fight to remain civil. Most of my liberal friends know I am no longer one of them, and they avoid reading this journal.

Unfortunately Facebook makes it easy to demonize the other side, whichever side that is on an issue, and the forum does not accommodate disagreement. There’s a “like” button but not a “dislike” button, so one can agree with a post but cannot disagree. This encourages conformity within a post by making it easier to like something that dislike. If one disagrees with a post, one has to express it in the comments.

When did we begin to expect people to agree with us? Was there ever a time in the past when people disagreed with each other without, to quote Gerald Ford, being disagreeable? Facebook’s culture of “like” makes any opposing view appear harsher in a post regardless of how gently it’s worded. Instead of offering a chance for intellectual stimulation that leads to growth, the culture of “like” demonizes alternate perspectives, encouraging group-think and conformity. Those who express contrary points of view in a post risk jeopardizing the “friendship”. The boosterism and jingoism of the “like” also encourages the poster to “play to the crowd” by providing posts and opinions that are known to be popular, thereby reinforcing the overall conformity of the group. I have learned that at heart I am a contrarian with a natural distaste for majority opinion – which can pose a problem at parties which is why I avoid them at all costs.

If I designed Facebook I’d have not only a “dislike” button but a “you’re f—-ing off your nut” button. I need to say this to my “friends” sometimes and hear it myself. I believe that all of us need to be challenged in our beliefs, and perhaps even change as a result.

And that’s another issue that depresses me with Facebook. The liberal friends I knew back in my college days without exception are liberal today, while I have gone from being a liberal to a conservative/libertarian. I don’t understand how one can hold the same perspectives and worldviews at 50 that they did at 20, or even want to. The world is so much richer and more complex than anything I imagined 30 years ago, and how could one’s beliefs resist the travails of time and experience?

So I’ve given up on Facebook, and it appears that others are doing the same. I’m increasingly seeing fewer and fewer people responding to the posts of others as they are drawn to a few popular figures like George Takei, just as the traffic for blogs has gravitated to a few sites, leaving others to speak or write to the void. This too shall pass, a wise man once said, and for Facebook (and the Obama administration) it can’t pass fast enough for me.

 

 

Levitating Objects Using Sound

Cool stuff. Watch the short video below to see small objects levitated and moved using sound waves.

Would a Different Software Methodology Have Saved Obamacare?

A long time ago I wrote a fiction novel. 120,000 words whittled down from about 175k. It turns out it wasn’t any good although looking at it now some 20 years later it does have its moments. A nice turn of phrase here, an interesting description there. Although it was never published it was written and stands complete. For a week I outlined the novel, sometimes working on chunks then arranging those into a puzzle with pieces missing. I then added scenes to link these chunks together to create a narrative that I thought made sense. After another week or so of arranging the outline, I sat down and every day wrote 2,500-4,000 words, starting at one in the outline and ending at the next. By following the outline and writing from one element to the next, focusing only on the goals laid out in the outline while avoiding detours caused by tangents that weren’t relevant to the plot or the characters, within eight weeks I had completed a rough draft of the novel. I then spent the next four years editing and revising it, reviewing and rereading and re-everything , doing anything I could think of to make the novel shine. But it never did. It was still terrible. Hackneyed and predictable plot. Unbelievable characters who would be complimented by being called “two dimensional.”

Fast forward two decades and I’ve achieved my dream of being a paid writer. Sort of. As a systems analyst in the financial industry I am paid to write requirements documents and detailed software specifications. I have put together specs longer than my novel that could be measured by their thickness in inches if anyone dared print them out (people stopped doing that about 10 years ag0.) I have also put together specs that could fit into a PowerPoint presentation with enough space for goofy stick figure clip art. What differentiates the two is not my writing skills or even the size of the project: it’s the software methodology used by the institution.

Basic software design follows this process: People get together and decide on a solution to a problem they have and create a set of business objectives. A typical business objective that I deal with might be, “Let’s cut down the time it takes to report on delinquent accounts to senior management.” These objectives then determine the business requirements (the “what” of the project) which determine the functional requirements (“how” the business requirements are achieved), followed by the detailed design specs which tell the developers and coders what they need to build. The coders then code following the design spec and afterward conduct basic tests on their code to make sure it functions. The testers then work backwards, creating a test plan based on the functional requirements, then actually test what has been coded to make sure what the developers and coders coded actually matches what was laid out in the functional requirements specifications. Wrap the whole thing in a traceability matrix that ties the project objectives to the business requirements to the functional requirements to the tech specs to the testing documents, add in issues tracking for the inevitable bugs found and corrected before rollout, and you have a software project.

In software design there are two fundamental methodologies: “waterfall” and “iterative.” Waterfall methodology uses the metaphor of a series of waterfalls with one waterfall feeding another downstream. This requires all the project objectives to be clearly defined at the beginning of the project, the “waterfall top.” It assumes that you know everything there is to no about your business environment and needs up-front. The objectives cascade down to the business analysts who develop the business requirements before passing the documentation to the systems analysts, who produce the functional specs. Each team member does his or her assigned task without input from those who created the documentation “up stream” and is not involved in the consumption of the spec s/he creates  by “downstream” developers, coders and testers. Once you produce your delivery artifact, the requirements document or functional spec for example, your role on that project is complete and the documents you created are expected not to change.

The iterative methodology starts with the business objectives, but instead of defining them all so that they can be codified into requirements, the expectation is that they will change and be added to throughout the process. In contrast to the waterfall methodology, the expectation is built into the process that you do not know everything about a particular system or business process at the project’s beginning, and you will learn as you go along. Documentation for these types of projects tend to be brief with lots of edits and versioning.

There are several different types within each methodology. Common iterative approaches are “Agile“, the first true iterative methodology developed in the early 1970s and “Extreme Programming,” developed in the 1990s but based on lessons learned during the Apollo space program. Some try to combine aspects of both methodologies. For example Scrum, an iterative methodology, takes what I consider a more waterfall approach by breaking up business objectives and spreading them throughout a project. This provides a more flexible approach to meeting a particular business requirement without changing the business objectives set at the project beginning which do not change through the project.

Most  software projects fail. The reasons for these failures depend on who you talk to. As an analyst I often blame poor requirements documentation and questionable analytical techniques as well as spaghetti coding by developers who never invested time in reading the requirements and testers who were more concerned about ticking off check boxes than they were in actually using their brains and finding errors. But by far the greatest source of project failure is upstream with the decisions made by the business at the project’s inception.

What got me thinking about all this was an excellent piece by Clay Shirky on the failure of the Obamacare website. He cites Waterfall methodology. “The preferred method for implementing large technology projects in Washington is to write the plans up front, break them into increasingly detailed specifications, then build what the specifications call for. It’s often called the waterfall method, because on a timeline the project cascades from planning, at the top left of the chart, down to implementation, on the bottom right.”

Waterfall methodology has its place, although where that place is eludes me right now. The problem I have with waterfall is that it’s great for simple projects with a small set of clearly definable project goals and requirements. But complexity demands too much from the methodology which is why I find its pure form so rarely used in design these days. Most projects I’m involved are huge project impacting numerous business lines, data warehouses, and outside vendors. It is impossible for management to know all there is to know about their own business processes and systems, and the smart managers don’t even try. They speak in very broad, general terms and leave the impacted technical teams to hash out the details. That “hashing out” usually requires in depth analysis and reverse-engineering of the impacted systems designed by developer no longer with the institution from poorly detailed and written specs that were stored on someone’s hard drive that got wiped once they quit.

Shirky continues, writing, “By putting the most serious planning at the beginning, with subsequent work derived from the plan, the waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work. Instead, waterfall insists that the participants will understand best how things should work before accumulating any real-world experience, and that planners will always know more than workers.”

This is a particular conceit of the Obama administration and bureaucrats in particular. One of my core beliefs is that the Law should leave a “light footprint” on a free society. It is impossible for legislators to write laws that are capable of responding to every circumstance, therefore laws should be written carefully to give the citizenry the benefit of the doubt, and give prosecutors and judges latitude to decide violations of the law on a case-by-case basis. It’s one reason why I oppose mandatory sentencing rules and making abortion illegal even though I recognize it as murder. Unfortunately legislators and bureaucrats don’t see their job that way. They strive to make new laws and write new regulations instead of making those that exist more effective and less onerous on the citizenry.

In the case of Obamacare the Obama administration thought it understood how to design software. It is a typical show of arrogance coming from the administration who brought us the “Reset with Russia” resulting in a new Cold War, supported the Arab Spring which has resulted in everyone in Egypt hating America instead of the two-thirds of Egyptians who hated us prior to the Obama administration,  and now the Iranian Nuke Deal which results in Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Giving this administration power was like giving hookers, cocaine, cars and guns to a group of teenagers. It’s going to take decades to undo the damage this administration has caused.

But in the meantime we have Obamacare. As the one lemming said to the others, “Forward!”

 

Sending Legislators To the Unemployment Line

Ever since the government shutdown I have been thinking long and hard about the very nature of government. Are we doomed to become slaves to an increasingly bureaucratic centralized state? The complexity of our society suggests to me that we cannot have no government at all. Although I consider myself a libertarian, I like well-maintained roads and since I live on a river and derive my water source from a well I value clean air and water. Does this mean that I have to give up my freedom to some bureaucrat hundreds or even thousands of miles away?

I have started reading up on the Swiss. One doesn’t hear much about them unless you are in the banking business or are a World War 2 historian, but the more I learn about their government, the more I like. The Swiss pride themselves on having a weak central government with most power residing at the local level. The Swiss also directly participate more in government than any other people. But as the Greeks discovered, direct democracy has limits when government becomes so large and complex that citizens would spend all their time managing the affairs of state and doing nothing else.

As an IT geek it’s easy for me to imagine a technical solution for this situation.

Software vote proxies.

Imagine: Each citizen fills out a questionnaire, quizzing him or her about their attitudes towards topics of the day. The survey would be amendable at any time, and surveys would expire every four years. These surveys would act to create a rules-based engine that would act on behalf of the citizen on existing legislation. Legislation could be proposed by the citizen at any time, and would have to garner support from other proxies before being considered by the entire group. Once reaching that threshold, the legislation would be put to all voters, and the proxies would vote on it based on the rules built from the questionnaire answered by the citizen it represents.

Legislation would have to be simplified. There would be no ““But we have to pass the [health care] bill so that you can find out what’s in it…” excuses from Nancy Pelosi. Legislation would have to be simplified and formatted in a way that would help the proxies act on it.

Algorithms already control  73% of trading volume in the US. This means that software is making the vast majority of the day-t0-day decisions that impact the health of your company and your 401k. One could argue – and many do – that computers already control Wall Street and therefore our economic lives, so why shouldn’t we trust them to manage our political lives? The difference is that each one of us would have our own algorithm – making split-second decisions in favor of us, not Goldman Sachs or a hedge fund.

Would there be problems? Of course, just as there are with using algorithms to manage our economic destiny. Yet these problems haven’t curbed their uses by banks and other financial firms. Additionally it will be much harder for lobbyists to influence policy. Instead of treating a congressman to an all-expenses paid “fact-finding” junket to Aruba, the firm would have to try to sway thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions. It wouldn’t be feasible for all but the largest interest groups to pull off.

Judicial oversight would remain, and perhaps judges could develop their own proxies eventually.

The biggest problem with this system isn’t technological or even political; it’s social. We have outsourced our political responsibilities to a ruling class, one that we believed was more intelligent and savvy than we are. The problem with this is that this class now acts in its own best interests and not in the interests of those who elected it. By doing away with this ruling class each citizen would have an increased responsibility to become more knowledgeable and aware of the world around him or her. That’s a lot to expect at a time when “sheeple” has entered the lexicon of public discourse to describe the supporters of one’s opponents, and when Americans are shown to be statistically as dumb as a box of blocks compared to the citizens of other nations. And it’s also ironic, I suppose to be discussing a software solution to a problem at the same time the government can’t design software to enroll people in health insurance.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. If Americans aren’t willing to pay attention to what’s happening around them in their communities, then we deserve to lose our freedom. Software vote proxies are the means to gain it back.

 

 

How to Sink a Company in 45 Minutes

There are so many “teachable moments” in the Knight Capital’s software role out that nearly sank the firm in 45 minutes for those of us in software development. Note also successive failures also known as the “alignment of the stars” any of which could have been avoided and saved the firm from the disaster. Everyone who knows what SDLC means should study this disaster.

Sunday Drive-By – Random Shots

After spending the weekend troubleshooting my own tech gear I’m not sure things have gotten better since my first PC purchase in 1988. That computer lasted until 1997 and could have survived longer if I had access to spare parts in Japan.  The 4 year old PC that I put together using quality enthusiast parts will be lucky to make it another year. And if someone had told me in ‘88 that I would be troubleshooting system interrupts a quarter century later, I think I would have become a Mac fanboi in an instant. I’ve noticed that many of my tech friends have given up on the Wintel platform because of issues like this, and I’m wondering if I should too. Then I look at the cost of a new Mac vs an upgrade to my existing rig and well it looks like I’ll be troubleshooting my kit for another 25 years. Not only am I penny-wise, pound-foolish but I have boxes upon boxes of cables, software and other wintel gear that I’d have to recycle if I ditched the b***h and made the switch.

If I send you a lengthy email, chances are it’s important and chances are even better that it involves tech. I don’t spam people, and if I need to reach out it won’t take more than a line or two. When I send a multi-paragraph email rest assured that I have spent at least 45-60 minutes writing it and another 15-30 reading and rewriting it, condensing it down to the barest amount of information that is necessary to convey my point. When it’s a reply to your email, it means the answer you are expecting is quite complex. I will do my best to explain that complexity to you in a straightforward manner, but it will take time. The least you can do is read what I’ve written before penning a reply that shows you haven’t read my email at all. There’s a circle in hell awaiting developers who do this to analysts.

What’s in my wallet? Not a Capital One credit card. Alec Baldwin has made a career shilling for these jackals yet sympathizes with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, even penning an article in Huffington Post in support of the anti-capitalism movement. Capital One feeds off the subprime crowd and was sanctioned as recently as last year to the tune of $165 million for deceptive marketing practices. No word if Baldwin’s poor acting skills were part of those practices (I much prefer the Vikings; the goat is particularly a better actor than Baldwin). So I appreciate the delicious irony of Baldwin’s MSNBC show where right out of the gate he deep-throated RCP candidate for NYC mayor, Bill de Blasio. The cognitive dissonance required by Baldwin to hold such leftist positions while being the face of everything they hate should cause his head to explode – but it hasn’t, likely because Alec is not the Baldwin with cognitive functions.

So McCain and McConnell are in negotiation with the President over the debt ceiling and federal government closure. Seems to me it’s the moderate wing of the Democratic Party negotiating with the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party. It just makes me wonder how the Obama administration could be so vicious in domestic politics and such pussies in foreign policy. Either Obama is Machiavellian at least when it comes to domestic politics or the GOP house leadership are the pussies; I’m starting to think its the latter.

That reminds me. Liberals like to talk about the Tea Party “extremists” in the Republican Party, but make no mention of the extremists in the Democratic Party. I hear this everyday from my liberal friends, as does the Wife. With Obamacare the Democrats lead by President Obama subverted the legislative process, using reconciliation, a procedural gimmick used to reconcile bills between House and Senate, to push through it through without a single Republican vote. Had Bush done this I’m sure he would have been impeached, yet this doesn’t strike any Democrats as being even the slightest bit extremist? Then there’s the unprecedented  usage of the IRS to attack administration opponents. Even Nixon avoided using this tactic, but not Obama. Using the IRS as one’s personal assassin isn’t an extremist act? Let’s also remember that prior to the 2010 there were no Tea Partiers in Congress. They didn’t exist until Obamacare became legislation and began to be rammed through Congress. It seems that it’s easy to be an extremist these days: all you have to do is question authority. It wasn’t that long ago when dissent was the highest form of patriotism. Now that a liberal is in the White House, dissidents are extremists.

Speaking of idiots, the survey I received from the RNC is in the mail. In it I ask why Reince Priebus and the other geniuses in the RNC haven’t committed seppuku after their continued failures starting in last year’s election. Amount enclosed? $0. The money that would have gone to support the RNC went to this candidate instead.

Finally, China is calling for a de-Americanized world. Fine with me and most Americans. Isolationism is in our DNA, and we’re not keen on being the world’s policeman. But I find it hard to take a government seriously that gets its knickers in a twist over this guy and this guy and this bunch. Don’t you have some islands to invade, or cheap Chinese crap to send our way filled with these bugs in the packaging?

 

Electronic Health Records: The $6 Billion Cure for Bad Penmanship

David Gerstman has an interesting piece up at Legal Insurrection about the IT panacea for Obamacare. He notes an op-ed by Thomas Friedman that received an endorsement by Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that paints a glowing picture IT investments made under the act will have at providing better and cheaper medical care. Gerstman then follows up Friedman’s breathless piece with another that asks a simple question, if the impact of IT on health care is so wonderful Why Is Your Doctor Typing? Forbes’s Steve Denning writes about his experience at his doctor’s office where he watches his doctor typing on a computer during his exam.

Surely, I said, computerized medical records generate benefits. They are easily retrievable. They can be transferred from one practice to another and accessible to the many different service providers—hospitals, laboratories, specialists, radiology and so on—that might be involved in any one patient.

“In theory, perhaps,” he replied. “But in practice, it’s a horrible and costly bureaucracy that is being imposed on doctors. I spend less time with patients, and more time filling out multiple boxes on forms that don’t fit the way I work. Often I am filling out the same information over and over again. A lot of it is checking boxes, rather than understanding what this patient really needs.”

What about retrieving information? Isn’t that easier?

“Again, in theory, retrieval should be easy and quick,” he said, “But you can’t flip through these records the way you do with a paper file and easily find what you want.

I mentioned the articles to Dr. Wife and she said, “The only thing EHRs have done is make it easier to read a doctor’s handwriting.” Since the US is projected to spend $6 billion on EHRs by 2015, that’s a lot of money spent trying to make up for the failure of primary education to teach penmanship.

Being married to a doctor and an IT professional specializing in “big data” in the financial industry, I have watched the Wife’s experience with various EHRs with levels of amazement and dismay. It’s as if the lessons learned by the financial industry in the 1990s, such as poorly designed software that is incompatible with other software will cost more money to replace than it did to implement in the first place,  have been completely lost by the lemming-like rush towards electronic health record (EHR, also known as electronic medical records EMR) systems.

The basic problem is that EHRs are not designed to suit the ways doctors practice. This is complicated by the fact that the way doctors practice varies between specialties, an orthopedic surgeon doesn’t practice medicine the way a primary care physician does, and by the additional complication that how doctors practice varies within the same specialty, often the same office. Even the same doctor will treat patients differently depending on what he feels works best for each patient. Yet these variances between specialties are only rudimentarily addressed within EHRs, and handle variance within specialties one of two ways, providing either a set workflow that dictates to the doctor the way she should practice, or one that provides so much flexibility that she is lost trying to get basic tasks.

The key decision in any software development is to address who the software is for and the key needs it is meant to address. Judging by the current EHR systems available none were designed for doctors. Instead they were designed for the employers of doctors such as large health systems, insurance companies and the federal government who are interested in aggregated data in order to answer questions such as “How many patients are uncontrolled diabetics?” or “How much is being spent on obesity-related illness?” These are questions which might be of interest to a doctor in general, but they are not what he’s thinking about when he’s facing his patient, say a morbidly obese, uncontrolled diabetic medicaid patient. Instead he is interested only in that particular patient’s problems. Is her agoraphobia contributing to her obesity, or is it the result of it? How can he wean her off HFCS soda and begin to move and diet when getting her into his office requires so much effort? Most of all, how can he encourage her to take an active role in her own medical care and help him treat her?

Current EHR systems will be very good at picking up his patient as an uncontrolled diabetic, and the data can be used by medicaid to threaten to cut his reimbursement for her treatment as is under discussion to control health care costs. But his patient’s needs and his attempts to deal with them will be lost in the sea of data the EHR generates because current systems are modeled on existing software developed in the financial industry which was the first to successfully integrate the technology with its existing business. Even that integration wasn’t painless, occurring over decades after many fits and starts, adoption of dead-end technologies and gargantuan piles of wasted money.

A key difference between the medical and financial industries is in the nature of the data itself. Financial data is transactional, meaning that money is traded for a good. Transactional systems are repetitive. For example, a store will sell a loaf of bread for $2.59 to every person who comes into the door and asks for it, but a doctor seeing a sore throat today knows 99% of the time her patient likely only has a viral condition, and that remaining 1% can present with a sore throat but have much more serious, perhaps even fatal, underlying conditions. Doctors are taught in medical schools to “think horses when you hear hoof beats, not zebras,” but the problem is that in reality zebras are not limited to the Serengeti Plains: they are mixed in with the horse. So while a doctor should think horses when he sees an 8 year old with a high fever and sore throat, he always must rule out he’s hearing a zebra. This is why when you see your doctor complaining of head and neck pain she makes you touch your chin to your chest: doing so rules out meningitis, a rare but very serious infection, a zebra running with horses.

The equivalent of this repetition and poor data is handling would be going to the store and buying a loaf of bread with your debit card. This bread would be tailored to your specific needs on site. Prefer no crusts? The crusts would be removed. Like thicker slices? The store would slice the bread to your exact specifications. The cash register would report the sale to your bank via fax. A person at the bank would read the fax transaction and key it into the bank’s debit card system which would then debit your account for the payment to the store. Since the store’s financial records are kept at another bank, your bank would then email the credit to the store’s systems, and someone at that bank would open the attachment, read it and add the amount to the store’s bank account. Such a transactional system would be costly to run, inefficient with the same task performed multiple times, and time consuming. A similar system already exists today with check processing, but that is limited to a handful of data elements such as the bank, amount paid and the account number of the person writing the check, and the name, the account number and bank of the payee depositing the check. That’s six pieces of data that costs banks billions to process every year. Banks hate checks which is why they have backed the current system of debit cards working to replace them.

From a physician’s perspective, what should an electronic medical records system do? It should provide her with the treatment plan from the previous encounter. Most systems hide this information from a doctor, making her search for the notes from the last visit. The system should provide lab work and test results directly from the laboratory providing the test results. Currently labs do not have set data standards, and electronic medical records systems do not have the capability to receive these records directly. Instead the records are either faxed or sent via email where they are “attached” to a patient record. This is akin to attaching a picture to an email, meaning that the contents of the picture remain completely unreadable by the system. The email system doesn’t know if the picture is a snap from your trip to the beach, whether its of a sunset or a personal portrait. Data in a picture or as commonly sent PDF format cannot be read and translated into a data record directly. Instead either the doctor, mid-level or medical tech must look at the results in the attachment and physically key them into the system.

Dr. Wife tells me her current system, one of the top used in the US, can only report weight and BMI results from last visit. Lab values and other pertinent information is hidden in attachments or non-indexed patient notes. Prior to the EHR she would open a patient’s chart and look at the lab result for a patient’s hemoglobin a1c result. Since the labs were in a separate section of the paper chart she could open it up then flip backwards through the stack to immediately find the results of previous tests. Similarly she could open the chart and see the notes from the patient’s last visit to see what recommendations she had then, or flip back further to see how the patient’s condition had changed with time. To do this in her current EHR is much more difficult than flipping through pieces of paper. Instead she has to search for and find lab result attachment which may not only be located in the lab result folder, but which may have been filed mistakenly by a medical tech into the fax folder because the lab result may have arrived via fax, and was scanned and added as a patient communication. Since the information is not indexed, there is no way for the physician to type in a search box “hemoglobin a1c” and have all documents that contain the phrase pop up. Instead she has to open each attachment to determine what it is and whether it’s the lab result she is looking for. Since EHRs are rarely known as fast and responsive, opening each attachment takes 5-15 seconds depending on size and EHR file complexity, making a search which would have taken three or four seconds flipping through a paper charts several minutes to complete. When a doctor is allotted 15 minutes per patient, anything that makes a doctor’s job harder for no benefit to him or his patient whatsoever will not be appreciated. Yet hospital administrators and software companies wonder why medical practitioners loathe electronic medical records systems?

Here’s what Dr. Wife described as her dream medical records system. First, the entire encounter would be recorded to protect her from future litigation or in case anyone needed to review or document anything from the patient encounter later. Next she would be able to choose from a set of predefined dropdowns or checkboxes the treatment plan for the patient. Lab values would be available on the right side of the screen, and she would be able to click on any one of them to see details or trends. These would be automatically populated by the labs themselves without any input from the doctor or practice staff, and could be signed off by the doctor simply by clicking the value. It would be a simple app that would run on an iPad. Suri would be used to transcribe a brief note after the visit, which would allow Dr. Wife to spend more time with her patients and doing what she is paid to do, diagnose illnesses and develop treatment programs, instead of typing, filing and other busy work skills that is so devalued in today’s workplace that much of it is offshored.

Another alternative would be to hire scribes, medical technicians who are trained to enter data into the EHRs. Many optometrists who must use their hands and eyes in concert use scribes already to notate lens dimensions and other key patient facts, so their presence in the exam room wouldn’t be completely new. Such positions would pay $12-15/hour with benefits, about what medical technicians commonly earn today, and would offer advancement thanks to the coding skills and familiarity with the software developed with experience. Of course adding a scribe for each physician would increase personnel costs, but ask yourself, does it make sense to pay someone $75 an hour to do a job that can be done by someone making $15 an hour? And from the patient’s perspective, would they rather pay an extra $4 a visit to have the undivided attention of their doctor for 15 minutes instead of watching him divide his attention between them and his computer?

 

The New Scientist Admits Political Bias

I read and subscribe to the New Scientist because I consider myself an amateur scientist of sorts and like to keep abreast of everything from dung beetles navigating by the Milky Way (seriously, the idea of these critters wearing tiny hats to block their view of the sky warms my heart and contrary to what you might think, increases my support of such esoteric research) to the idea that our reality is a computer simulation. But New Scientist still manages to drive me crazy and to the keyboard where I bang out letters to the editor in complete futility. Science should be a non-partisan effort, and scientists should reflect the political leanings of the general population as a whole, but it doesn’t and they don’t. Scientists are inevitably leftists, and New Scientist is about as left wing as Mother Jones, the only difference being that latter doesn’t claim to be non-partisan while New Scientist believes it is and that those of us on the Right who point out it’s leftward bias are “anti-science.”

So imagine my surprise at reading the leader of this issue of New Scientist, “Challenge unscientific thinking, whatever its source.”


Berezow and Campbell further claim that progressives who endorse unscientific ideas get a “free pass” from the scientific community. The suspicion must be that this is because scientists themselves lean towards the left, as does the media that covers them. (Both friends and critics of New Scientist tell us we lean in that direction.)

NewScientist then prints Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell’s oped, “Lefty nonsense: When progressives wage war on reason,” in which they point out that today’s liberals are not liberal in the Lockian sense but social authoritarians. “Unlike conservative authoritarians, however, they are not concerned with banning “immoral” things like sex, drugs and rock and roll. They instead seek dominion over issues such as food, the environment and education. And they claim that their policies are based on science, even when they are not.”

This has dangerous implications as when the Left champions the anti-vaccine movement that has killed unvaccinated children, and its war against GM foods has contributed to malnourishment and premature death in the Third World. And don’t get me started about Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” which killed millions indirectly through malaria by banning DDT.

As Berezow and Campbell note, “But conservatives don’t have a monopoly on unscientific policies. Progressives are just as bad, if not worse. Their ideology is riddled with anti-scientific feel-good fallacies designed to win hearts, not minds. Just like biodegradeable spoons, their policies often crumble in the face of reality and leave behind a big mess. Worse, anyone who questions them is condemned as anti-science.”

I always get a Generation X irony-high whenever global warming alarmists equate the anthropogenic cause of global warming hypothesis to evolution, as if the former idea is as proven as the latter theory, then try to paint AGW deniers like myself using the same brush as they do creationists. Of course that doesn’t stop them from exhibiting the same anti-science attitudes towards fracking, where science backs the safety of the practice against concerted and deeply entrenched Green opposition, the result of which is that Germany is about to blow it’s CO2 emissions sky-high by resorting to coal to replace nuclear instead of clean burning natural gas. Oh, and if you didn’t know it, fracking is why the USA is on track to meet CO2 goals unlike the anti-fracking Europeans. I’m even so sure of the safety of the practice I’d welcome it on my property where we rely upon a freshwater well for our drinking water. Unfortunately there’s no natural gas in these parts (now gold? Maybe…)

So why are scientists lefties? The terminology used by Berezow and Campbell provides a hint. “Social Authoritarians” implies a more realistic and nuanced view of one’s political belief system, showing the dichotomies between authoritarianism and libertarianism, and socialism/capitalism aka “Left” and “Right” as shown in the diagram below.

Two dimensional political belief system

In this view the Moral Majority and the environmental movement would appear in the upper right and left quadrants, both showing a keen affinity for authoritarianism. While the current Chinese government calls itself Communist, is is far more neo-liberal or Capitalist than it will admit. In fact one could make the case that is much more capitalist at this moment than the USA, and certainly more than Europe.

Scientists often are employed by large institutions in government, healthcare or academia. These institutions tend to fall on the upper side of the chart towards Authoritarianism. The bottom of the chart is sparser for a reason: it is the area where individualists, entrepreneurs, artists and philosophers live and these tend to fly under the radar. But for scientists there isn’t much money or opportunity on the bottom of the chart. The days of the experimenter or the Amateur Scientist are for the most part gone although the ideal lives on today with amateur astronomers who do much of the heavy lifting in their field including the tracking of near-earth objects. The recent approach of asteroid DA14 had NASA using live feeds from amateur run telescopes in Australia for example. But most of the jobs for scientists today are with large institutions who can afford the equipment and relatively high salaries scientists demand, and that can only be found in the upper half of the chart. When you add in the fact that scientists today are highly educated, and academia itself is an authoritarian institution with deep ties to Communist and Leftist ideals, it should be no surprise that scientists find themselves in the upper left quadrant of the matrix.

Is this a good thing for Science as a whole? Berezow and Campbell don’t think so and neither does the New Scientist. It’s candor surprised me, but I don’t expect it to let go of the bias and the dogma that compels it to support large, authoritarian schemes to find solutions to problems from Global Warming to Cancer any time soon. Still it was refreshing, and I hope that more than a few readers realizes that Science ultimately should be a non-partisan effort. But I’m not holding my breath…

The Sublime Joy of Internet Radio

Growing up in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s was like living in a musical desert. St. Louis had a pop music station, a hard rock station, a classical music station, a black music station, a country music station and a smattering of adult contemporary stations playing Air Supply and Captain and Tenille. That was about it. If your tastes varied from that menu, then you were pretty much on your own. There was a single college radio station run by Washington University, and most of its programming was devoted to classical music and jazz. But for an hour or two a week it played what was then called new wave and punk rock. The show was called Pipeline, and on that show I was exposed to a veritable smorgasbord of alternative genres, from the punk rock of the Sex Pistols to the synthpop of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. The first time I ever heard Madonna was on that station, and Pipeline provided a taste of The Specials, Siouxie and the Banshees and the Cure that sent one scurrying to the local record stores like Vintage Vinyl, West End Wax and Euclid Records to buy what was heard or even something similar recommended by one of the knowledgeable hipsters behind the counter.

It wasn’t until I moved to San Diego that I could tune into a radio station that played music I liked, and even that came from south of the border, 91X based in Tijuana. Things actually got worse when I landed in the Philadelphia area. Philly didn’t even have a classical station, and the rock stations could often be found playing the exact same song at the same time. There was little variety in that market, so as soon as I could afford it I purchased a CD player and pretty much never looked back. Today I have switched to MP3s loaded on a USB stick, 16 GB of everything from the hard-rock of The Cult to seizure inducing Skinny Puppy mixed in with lots of electronic dance music from DJs like Christopher Lawrence, John 00 Fleming, and DJ Apsara.

Several months ago The Kid introduced me to Pandora. For those who don’t know, Pandora is internet radio that plays music based on the selection of a particular band one likes. As I understand it, Pandora then plays songs by similar bands or bands liked by listeners who share interest in the band. For example, I have a Frankie Goes to Hollywood “channel” (I’m too old to be embarrassed). It loads up and might start with the band’s greatest hit, Relax, but then might follow with a song from The Fixx or Duran Duran, bands that are also liked by 80’s nostalgia freaks like me. I have several stations for African music, ska, industrial, techno, and hard rock. Pandora is streamed to my smartphone across Verizon’s 3G network, and I connect my phone to the car stereo. It’s like having your very own radio station but one for any particular mood you find yourself in.

It is a customized radio experience, and it is one of the ways I know I’m living in the 21st century. 30 years ago I couldn’t have even conceived of such a thing, but here it is, and what’s even crazier is it’s free. It’s paid for through advertisements targeted at the demographic of people who like a particular artist, so I end up getting a lot of Home Depot and Over 50 Singles ads directed at me.

Congress of course is still stuck in the 20th century, and tries to regulate internet radio in ways favorable to Clear Channel, the dominant force in dinosaur radio. But once you hear new music that appeals to you on your very own radio station, why would you go back to listening to dinosaur radio where you only hear what the record labels pay to be played? It doesn’t matter what your tastes in music are, or even your taste in music at this moment, Pandora and it’s competitor Spotify, will provide you with music. Welcome to the future.