Saturday, September 26, 2009

I'm a little neuron!

Where this blog fits in.

Blessed reader! Let me get you a cup of tea, comfortable chair, and a pipe. Don't smoke? How about some nice mood music while we settle in? There now. It's been a year of blogging, and what a fun ride it's been! Perhaps you've had a few chuckles, a few sighs, and some smoke coming out of your ears. Well, I appreciate your attention in any case.

For me, it has been a pleasure. I thought the ideas would dry up by now, but they keep trickling in, for better or for worse. Not only that, but I have a reading list of other blogs that grows by the week, from wingnut economists to climate alarmists. It has been fascinating to tap into this inspired and free-form media experience.

I've begun to think of blogs as neurons in the great cyber-brain. Some are stimulatory, proposing new ideas and policies, while others are inhibitory, given to critique. Some gather actual news, serving as perceptual neurons, while most, (as in the brain), reprocess and refine that news to generate deeper, or just orthogonal, (or just derivative), insights. Over a week's time I gather ideas and links through an arbor of dendrites, all mangled and processed into an axonal splurge on the weekend's post, distributed to you, dear reader- the few, the proud, the blogotariat!

What is this cyberbrain doing? Many bloggers interconnect in primitive circuits, (mostly positive feedback, but what the heck!), developing ideas, arguments, tastes, memes. Until they have a random spike of expression to the "real" world, like scooping some news or changing someone's mind. What used to be dinner-table conversations over the news can now be transcontinental musings, analysis, and discussion, injecting quite a bit more variety into the average person's information diet.

The whole pulsing inter-piped web of blogs, discussions, news, etc. is our expressed consciousness. It shapes how we think, subjecting privately held models and fixations to critique while spreading more sophisticated and diverse conceptions of the world. Or perhaps just spreading group-think. It is hard to tell the difference before these ideas meet the real world in some empirical test, like the financial crisis through which we are passing. But they have effect, as the progressive buzz of thought propagates to the neuromuscular junctions- those who have actual effects on the world, deciding how to invest, whom to vote for, and how to conduct our affairs.

This collective brain progresses at a glacial pace- we are still dealing with cultural inheritances from Rome! But it does progress, and we all participate. The cultural movement towards gay rights has been astonishing, in its slowness but inexorable progress, little by little, as people's minds are turned with new understandings.

Are some neurons more equal than others? Yes- as long as old media lives and gives perches to super-bloggers like the New York Times columnists, FOX cable commentators, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, some will have megaphones far louder than the common run. A recent article in the New Republic was devoted to the influence of one columnist in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, who is leading the world's financial elite by the nose through this crisis. (Well, they made it sound that way.) In economics, as elsewhere, everyone knows something and no one knows enough (or even very much), so the one person who knows a little more than the rest of the field gains powerful influence, at least until the next crisis uncovers yet other forms of ignorance and forgetfulness.

But increasingly the platform will not dictate the readership. Assembling a network of blogs and other reading on the internet requires little regard to the sponsor, the quality of advertising, or the ancillary features. Each writer will gain an audience based mainly on individual consistency and quality. Such Darwinism occurs on several levels in the brain as well. During development, far more neurons are born than ultimately survive. Those that make no connections die, while those that do connect, survive. Later during active brain function, ever-changing coalitions of neurons constitute the focus of attention and consciousness by synchronized firing, in a sort of competition for participation in a metastable system. Thirdly, while regional specialization in brain is broadly mapped out in development, substantial regions of neurons can change their functions depending on use even through adulthood, such as when a limb is lost and brain regions associated with its sensation and action are taken over by those operating the nearby body regions or other senses. Competition lies at the heart of many information economies.

  • Glen Greenwald rakes David Brooks, NYT über-blogger, over the coals for his neocon warrior schtick.
  • The Nation similarly deals with other megaphones of the right.
  • More on-the-ground news from Afghanistan- who are we kidding?
  • The sense of self: magic, or neuronal?
  • Homeschooling goes awry.
  • Statistics and the bell curve.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fear of Freedom

What happened to Greek rationalism?

Mining another gem from the local Catholic library, I found Oxford Don E. R. Dodd's 1951 classic, The Greeks and the Irrational, recommended by blog correspondent Wayne Dynes. A pleasure to read, with both erudition, wit, and generous notes/references, the book is about the various cults, religions and mind-sets afoot in ancient Greece. Especially about how the Greek religion gradually transformed from the classic/archaic conglomerate of honor, militarism, and the irrational daemon at one's side ... to a split between intellectual rationalists and the mass of people who regressed to various branches of magic. In Dodd's telling, the former were still not entirely rational, but enough to scoff at the old beliefs, to radically twist and revise them (as Plato did), and to inspire centuries of respect and even (ironically) abject devotion. The people, now deserted by the leading intellectuals (or vice versa), regressed bit by bit into magic.

This split is illustrated in the trial and execution of Socrates, the founding event of recorded philosophy and paradigmatic episode of anti-intellectualism. The trial signalled the breakdown of societal consensus on religion when, after the long and disastrous Peloponnesian war, Athens sought scapegoats and also a theological explanation for why they had been deserted by their civic gods (shadows of 9/11). Even though Socrates was largely traditional in his own religious beliefs as far as they are known, his relentless skepticism was provoking and irritating, and Dodds proposes that the citizens were right to decry his influence on callow students who might not have had as firm a moral grounding and take skepticism to unhealthy, nihilistic lengths. Dodds points out that Socrates was far from the only person persecuted for blasphemy and disbelief at this time, after heresy was outlawed circa 432 BCE. Others were Anaxagoras, Diagoras, and Protagoras, and, Dodds speculates, possibly Euripides as well.

Dodds spends his final chapter (entitled "Fear of Freedom") on the fate of rationalist philosophy after the high point of Socrates/Plato/Aristotle (not to mention Eratosthenes, Archimedes, and Hipparchus). What caused the slow and tortuous decline in knowlege and philosophy, leavened only by a few bright spots like Plutarch and Plotinus, culminating in almost complete retreat into magic, astrology, alchemy and supernaturalism through the dark ages? Was the culture of Rome the problem, or economic factors, or other cultural currents in Hellenism?

To understand the reasons for this long-drawn-out decline is one of the major problems of world history. We are concerned here with only one aspect of it, what may be called for convenience the Return of the Irrational.
Other scholars have emphasized the internal breakdown of Greek rationalism. It "wasted away," says Nilsson, "as a fire burns itself out for lack of fuel. While science ended in fruitless logomachies and soulless compilations, the religious will to believe got fresh vitality." As Festugière puts it, "on avait trop discuté, on était las des mots. Il ne restait que la technique." To a modern ear the description has a familiar and disquieting ring, but there is much ancient evidence to support it. If we go on to ask why fresh fuel was lacking, the answer of both authors is the old one, that Greek science had failed to develop the experimental method.

Dodds then flatters Marx with some respect for the economic theory that it was slavery that insulated Greek intellectuals from the need to seriously engage in practical or applied science, which is to say, in technology, which was the missing motivation for developing the experimental method as a matter of doctrine and practice. Greek intellectuals remained for the most part content to be deductive and philosphical. But then says:

I find it hard to be certain that their religious outlook would have been fundamentally different even if some scientist had changed their economic lives by inventing the steam engine.

If future historians are to reach a more complete explanation of what happened, I think that, without ignoring either the intellectual or the economic factor, they will have to take account of another sort of motive, less conscious and less tidily rational. I have already suggested that behind the acceptance of astral determinism there lay, among other things, the fear of freedom- the unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members. If such a motive is accepted as a vera causa (and there is pretty strong evidence that it is vera causa to-day), we may suspect its operation in a good many places. We may suspect it in the hardening of philosophical speculation into quasi-religious dogma which provided the individual with an unchanging rule of life; in dread of inconvenient research expressed even by a Cleanthes or an Epicurus; later, and on a more popular level, in the demand for a prophet or a scripture; and more generally, in the pathetic reverence for the written word characteristic of late Roman and mediaeval times- a readiness, as Nock puts it, "to accept statements because they were in books, or even because they were said to be in books."

I'd disagree a bit, because as Dodds portrays throughout the book and alludes to in connection with his ambient time, a flight from freedom/rationalism is perennial in the human condition. Atheism is repugnant not because it is false, but because it is true- it puts the human in a mature relationship with himself and his surroundings, neither subject to its mysterious demonic meddling, nor able to buy favors with propitiating offerings and occult thoughts. It represents an achievement of consciousness over unconscious longings and fixations. This supreme achievement, (or dry disenchantment), which can also be called freedom, is existentially bewildering and uncomfortable. Humanity's emotional language is anything but dry and maturely objective, however. In any age, it takes work and dedicated cultivation to maintain rationalism.

In our own age, the position of science is secure not because of its congeniality or due to alterations in human nature, but entirely because of its successes both theoretical and applied. If science had not afforded the United States the most productive agriculture, the most remarkable conveniences via electrification and now the internet, and the most awesome weapons ever deployed to kill our fellows, its position would hardly be so culturally secure. Each success has created further impetus for education and increased appreciation for the gifts of rationalism. But its counterpart is never far behind, ready to take the field when an academic discipline (think philosophy, English, subatomic physics) reaches such esoteric heights that, whether it has actually lost its rational way or not, it has lost popular rapport if the general educational system fails to keep up.

Creationism is a small example of this dynamic. Few phenomena are better attested than evolution, yet its dry and mechanistic implications for origin myths and the nature of humanity itself are so contrary to our narcissism (image of God, indeed!), that without a thorough commitment to intellectual integrity, people won't buy it (or won't buy it in its entirety- see even the new director of the NIH).

Not for naught do "Muslim" and "Islam" mean subservience- submission to god, to patriarchy, to the status quo, to the theological and political leadership of the so-called scholars and Imams, and to a confused and repugnant text. Such an antithesis of freedom is deeply comforting to innumerable people, not only Muslims.

  • More work by E. R. Dodds
  • Searle writes about postmodernism, relativism, and its own whacky version of freedom- freedom from facts.
  • Fascinating RadioLab episode on parasites... check out the toxoplasma segment at the end.
  • Disturbing compilation of our commitments in Afghanistan.
  • Tom Tomorrow does health insurance.
  • Incredible assignment of blame from a former Lehman employee. As though she and her own company bore no guilt for its own bankruptcy. Caveat laboris!
  • A source of all that wingnut Beck-sterism, to the right of the Birchers.
  • TARP and the Bush White House
  • Tempest among the local captive oysters. Note however, that Corey Goodman, while an all-around super-smart guy, is a molecular biologist, not an ecologist with any kind of expertise on oyster or marine habitats.
  • Excellent macro-analysis of oil and the future.

Postscript: A very simple concept seems to have been lost in the current health insurance debate, and that is whether insurers should have the right to refuse insurance to anyone. Obama's speech indicated a willingness to set up "high risk pools" as per John McCain. This only makes sense if insurers have the right of refusal (or right to price policies differently) to clients, based on any metric other than ability to pay. I think insurers should have no such right. They should compete on uniform price and on plan features over the minimum- that's it. Here is an interesting view of the debate from inside corporate PR.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Oyster Cloister

Oysters like to live in dense, complex, and silent comunities. Who knew?

Oysters have virtually vanished from the eastern seaboard, and numerous attempts at restoration and reintroduction have come to naught. The Chesapeake Bay, among many others, was once carpeted with reefs of oysters, cleaning the water and supplying abundant food to Native Americans and later to European settlers and townspeople. Technology allowed increasingly intensive removal, culminating in "power dredging", which strips the bay bed clean of ... pretty much everything.

Who would have suspected that oysters might not like to be dredged across time and time again, until nothing was left on the bottom to hang on to, but a slurry of silt and muck? Who would have guessed that "conditioning" the bay bottom by repeated dredging might not make it so great for the object of all that dredging ... the oyster?

The short-sightedness of man knows no bounds, especially when motivated by hunger and greed, and when the damage takes decades or even centuries to fully play out. But here we are, with species after species of bay and sea life fished out and stocks even in the supposedly limitless open ocean declining precipitously, or responding to fishing pressure by demographic collapse and selection for smaller adult sizes, among other issues. Whole ecosystems are being deranged. But the sea is the ultimate locus out-of-sight, out-of-mind. A ground-breaking paper some years ago outlined the full historical horror of what has happened to ecosystems that we so casually call "fisheries" (please contact me for the full paper if interested).

Getting back to oysters, a more recent paper demonstrates that oyster reefs can be brought back to vibrant and healthy condition within three years by the simple expedients of not dredging or killing them and of giving them a shoal-like bed of shells to live on. Here we are in the new millenium, having put a man on the moon, espied the smallest substituents of the atom and the farthest reaches of the cosmos and time, and it takes a major academic effort, published in the highest-profile journal in the world, to tell us that oysters thrive if they are given half a chance in a decent habitat? The paper proudly trumpets its success in its title: "Unprecedented restoration of a native oyster metapopulation". They even film their "happy" oysters blowing smoke rings!

Forgive my scoffing attitude, but while it certainly is good to hear about this triumph of oyster restoration (185 million oysters growing over 35 hectares = 86 acres, or 0.14 sq mile, equivalent to ~50 oysters per square foot), it also shows how blinkered and timid the fisheries-associated academy has become. (Here in collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers.) Previous attempts at restoration apparently only used the naked bay floor as previously "conditioned" by the oyster dredgers, on which researchers seeded juvenile oysters, (called sprats), only to watch them succumb to disease and siltation/suffocation.

Here on the West coast, we have similar problems, including a decided lack of oysters. Our salmon runs are defunct or in freefall, after many decades of overexploitation, damming, and water diversion. California's central valley has been sucked dry and turned into a cesspool that will shortly be reversing flow and getting saline floodwater from the San Francisco Bay and ocean, due to our endless need for water, diking, dredging, as well as climate change-related draught. If we are to overpopulate the world, we should at least do so with a little consideration and foresight.

So, spare a thought for the lesser beings and the wild beauty of our world. Don't eat seafood.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Market medicine, II

The Atlantic carries a provocative article on health care reform. And Frontline does too.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Atul Gawande's diagnosis of what ails US health care and makes it more expensive than it needs to be. This week, I extend this analysis, reviewing two more sources, one an Atlantic monthly article by David Goldhill oriented towards laissez-faire solutions, and the other a Frontline documentary by T.R. Reid on how other advanced countries provide insurance.

There are some positive points to Goldhill's piece. He concludes, as I did in my post, that individuals are not really the consumers in our current system. Insurance pays doctors for procedures done, and doctors order procedures based on what they need, either on behalf of patients, or to keep their practices healthy. He connects this incentive system to observations about the shoddiness of care- that hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths take place annually in the US medical system because patients are not the primary customer. Indeed, one might make the case that a hospital-acquired infection, for instance, is found money for the hospital- a new revenue stream, whatever the outcome. And, because costs are carefuly shuffled around or hidden from all the players, little discipline occurs, either to keep profits in check, or to restrict overall health costs.

He also makes a decent case that our current system is the worst of all worlds, worse than either extreme of single-payer care or complete market-based care, with neither the cost discipline of fully market solutions, nor with the regulatory discipline of a single-payer system. Goldhill's solution would be to radically alter the system towards fully market incentives requiring each individual to generate a kitty (much like a 401k) from which to pay for routine, minor, and elective care, with catastrophic care covered uniformly by separate insurance.

Goldhill's prescription seems abhorrent. And it is not surprising that no other country with the means to provide decent health care has opted for such a system. He recommends a single-payer program for catastrophic health events, (to be defined by regulation of some kind), with premiums adjusted by age alone. But why not charge everyone the same? Why stick enormous premiums to the aged, due to their imminent need for catastrophic care? And how would catastrophic care be defined? He suggests 50K in cost, which would create incentives for providers to charge more for care in many instances, not less.

Secondly, Goldhill's personal heath account is to be used for end-of-life care, among many other things, and be bequethable to children, thus setting up just the kind of pro-euthanasia and pro-suicide incentive for the elderly that sounds like a recipe for ethical disaster. There are countless other problems of this kind in the details of his system. One's faith in the abililty of US consumers, in a completely free market system, to drive the core health system to higher quality and performance is shaken by the diet and plastic surgery industries. (Think of Herbalife!) Here is an industry where the assymetry of information, which Goldhill makes much of, is so severe that one has to be extremely careful about touting pure market mechanisms.

And utility is of course not the only issue at stake. Health care is a special kind of good, which we expect to get in the form of "care", not customer service. As a society, we have the feeling (in our better moments) that health care is a right akin to a human right- a fundamental decency by which we recognize our common humanity and vulnerability to fate in its most acute manifestations. It is not a game or a matter of competition, but of solidarity. Additionally, health is not a solely private good. Treatment of communicable diseases as well as mental health and substance abuse problems benefits society at large, often as much as it benefits the direct recipient. We are not only our brother's keeper, but his beneficiary as well.

So one way to make our society better will be listen to Goldberg's lament, but go in the opposite direction, towards a health insurance system that covers everyone (even illegal immigrants), minimizes monetary issues, and uses competition sparingly as needed to make the system more effective as well as more efficient. Currently competition is allowed to take numerous unconscionable and destructive forms, like cherry-picking those who apply for insurance and charging them for involuntary conditions (like age, sex, birth defects, etc.), or like denying care once charges have been rung up, or .. well, the horror stories of the current system are well known.

On the other hand, Reid's analysis was far more interesting. Other countries, like Taiwan, Switzerland, Japan, England, and Germany all have excellent systems, each with specific issues, but none with our toxic mix of uncontrolled costs, crazy incentives, and worst-in-class health outcomes. If we picked any one of them, we would be better off, and probably better also than the proposals wending their way through Congress.

The common themes of these systems is that competition is allowed in certain beneficial ways, but not in non-beneficial ways. No one can be denied insurance (indeed all must have insurance), it is easy to switch insurance (when it is not single-payer), and insurance is subsidized for the poor. No one goes bankrupt for health reasons, period. Insurance is uniformly priced, not priced by how much health care one is thought to need (the antithesis of insurance, actually). But competition does happen. Carriers compete on how fast they pay claims, or on extra features of their plans over and above the uniform basic coverage. In England, hospitals and providers are now competing by popularity. Each provider gets paid uniformly per client or per procedure by the government, but those that can not attract customers face reduction or elimination.

Many of these countries still have a system with non-government insurers. So the "public option" being discussed in the US is not essential, unless one wants to move to a single-payer system (which would not be bad either, as shown by Britain). The main thing is to regulate the industry in a thorough way that makes its incentives beneficial for society instead of destructive. In Switzerland, which only reformed its health insurance system in 1994, most insurers are non-profit but private. They play by a new set of rules, do quite well, and can feel good doing so.

Is there rationing? Yes, indeed there is. Germany and Japan limit payments to doctors. Taiwan sets overall limits on the health budget in relation to GDP, has a single-payer, electronic smart card payment system that simplifies billing and holds the user's medical record, as well as enforcing prices on care. And also conducts "meetings" with people who rack up excessive visits, to resolve issues of hypochondria and loneliness. Is our rationing any better? It certainly is not driving prices down. But it is restricting care- from the 40 million-odd citizens who have no insurance, to those who depend on which employer they happen to work for, whether miserly or generous, and beyond that on how rapacious the employer's chosen insurer is- how willing to obey the current market by evading its ethical responsibilities.

This general regulatory argument is true for other areas of regulation, like finance and politics. On Wall Street, we have toxic incentive systems that value short-term profits and "optics" (not to mention insider information) over the long-term health of companies and thus also of the economy as a whole. In Washington, corporations are allowed to spend freely to make their voices heard and elect favored politicians, under the toxic theory that corporations have free speech rights and citizenship rights just like any other fictitious "person". Perhaps they deserve votes in proportion to their wealth as well!

The health care system is an area where we should value societal solidarity and decency over ideological fixation and mirages of theoretical utility (especially now that the specter of communism is such a withered ghost). We know what works, because health care in comparable countries works. We just need the courage to get from here to there. In all honesty, this isn't rocket science. Compared to the challenges of climate change and re-engineering our cultural energy metabolism, it is downright trivial. Or would be if Washington were not mired in short-sighted corporate corruption.

  • One more lament on our current system, by Nicholas Kristof.
  • Kristof, again, on socialized firefighting.
  • Goldhill's system occurs in India, and serves the well-to-do pretty well.
  • Krugman on our dysfunctional politics.
  • Fed review offers very insightful diagnosis of the euphoria and its regulation
  • Some basic business economics, focusing on IBM.
  • Fascinating essay on the art of mathematics
  • What is the honor in honor killing?
  • Is the US embassy in Afghanistan protected and fit for use?
  • Praying for death?
  • Praying for ... sanity?
  • Religion in a denuded world?