Archive for the 'Science' Category

Smoking and Obesity – a Boon to Saving Health Care Costs?

In a refreshing breath of academic honesty, a study debunks the nanny state myth that smoking and obesity increase government health care costs.  So it may be time to dispense with this oft repeated myth.  A myth that has long been used as a major justification for governments’ intrusions into these health aspects.    

This should have been simple common sense, but unfortunately common sense just doesn’t work with bureaucracies hell bent on arbitrarily stamping out things they don’t like.  So a formal study was required.  The not-so-surprising findings and conclusions?  Smokers and the obese die earlier and thus have far less overall lifetime health care costs than the otherwise “healthy.”  Moreover, smokers actually provide the added government “benefit” of paying extra taxes. 

Of course, as anyone who has ever watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” knows (“Zuzu’s Petals!”), when a person dies early (or as in the movie, ceases to exist) there are actually costs that are intangible, difficult to quantify, or impossible to know, so purely looking at lifetime health care costs in itself may not be a true measure of overall cost; but it is at least a start down the road of academic honesty.  An honesty that is sorely needed as governments seek to regulate more and more aspects of peoples’ private lives and behaviors.

Keeping Health Care Costs Down (Part I)Keeping Health Care Costs Down (Part II)

Hash House Harrying and Krispy Kreme Challenging

I heard of a few amusing new “sports” this week: 

I figure such events are only the natural progression of all those supposedly well-meaning matrons forcing junk food on their kids at those youth sporting events.  I can remember at my kids’ soccer league games, I was always a bit peeved by the parents who were compelled to organize the “halftime snack” of juice boxes and Little Debbies.  Especially since I figured that this was probably the only time half of those kids had gotten out of the house away from this junk all week; yet even here in the middle of the soccer pitch, junk food was thrust on them.

On the other hand to look at the positive side, if you figure folks are just going to eat donuts and drink beer anyway, they might as well get in some jogging (and puking).  But be careful, and I am not making this up, one of the few “rules” is “no puking on purpose.”

So move over bowling, darts, and pool, eating and drinking just found a new companion sport.  Krispy Kreme Pizza House Harrying Anyone?  Jog a 5K while eating a dozen donuts, a medium pizza, and drinking a 6-pack of beer. 

Smoking Bans and other “Feel Good” Legislation yet Government just can’t Quit the Smoking Habit

Legislative smoking bans and the general outright social disdain for smoking seems to have had some interesting consequences that I wonder if their proponents ever foresaw:

  • A dramatic increase in the number of smoke shops (exempt from smoking bans) where people smoke far more dangerous things than cigarettes such as cigars and even hookahs
  • An increase in the use of smokeless tobacco – even new kinds of smokeless tobacco are being developed and marketed, such as Snus, and are immensely popular (smokeless tobacco use is increasing something like 10% a year – well in excess of the increase of the redneck population)
  • Smoking ends up being as rebellious and anti-establishment as it ever was

Legal smoking alternative?You see, the issue is simply this: for any “low-grade” vice you can think of, there is a certain percentage of the population who is going to engage in that vice – often regardless  of the consequences.  Legislative solutions to these classes of problems have consistently been shown not to work.

Governments’ half hearted attempts to limit drinking and smoking are particularly disingenuous and cynical when they use the tax revenues generated to support budget shortfalls and normal operating costs.  Remember that big umpty bazillion dollar State Tobacco Settlement that was supposed to go toward (1) funding government health care for smokers and (2) smoking cessation efforts?  It didn’t – it went into state coffers to be squandered on completely unrelated state budget items.

When it comes to complex social ills such as vices, you can be sure of only one thing: that simple, “feel good” solutions won’t work and will probably make the problem far worse.  Can they be solved?  Sure – we were able to get the Romans to stop feeding Christians to lions for entertainment, weren’t we?  But it takes a genuine commitment beyond the simple, superficial, “feel good” type. 

And above all you have to be honest and consistent in your message.  If you say something is evil and deadly, you then don’t take this “blood money” and use it to fund your state budgets.  Governments are the first ones who need to quit the smoking habit – perhaps then others will follow their example.  

Of Mindpixels and Madness

Following a somewhat ignominious tradition started by Alan Turing*, the modern-day father of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI), 2 more prominent AI researchers committed suicide within a few months of each other as reported in this excellent article in Wired Magazine

One of the now-deceased researchers was Chris McKinstry who formed the MindPixel project, which I became interested in when I read this I, Cringely article several years ago on the subject.  The MindPixel project was a database of atomic, discrete expressions/thoughts (those would be the MindPixels**) entered by volunteers.  The thinking was that this database could then be used to build higher-order thinking in machines.  As a notable exception to the dot-com bust companies of the time, this project actually had (a) a well-defined goal and (b) an attainable business plan for reaching this goal.  Nonetheless, MindPixel failed to spark any mainstream business or technical interest or achieve appreciable success, and this may have been caused, at least in part, by McKinstry’s own sometimes eccentric and abrasive personality.

As also detailed in the Wired Article, following an eerily similar path, Push Singh was working on a similar subject matter, the Open Mind Common Sense project with many of the same goals as MindPixel.  In contrast to McKinstry, who most would agree had a somewhat unstable personality, Singh seemed to be the very picture of professional success and stability.  Yet such appearances are rarely good predictors for suicide.  And sadly, it seems that Singh’s initial depression was the result of poorly managed pain that resulted from a back injury.   

So what are we to learn from these 2 unfortunate souls driven to despair and suicide?  Are scientists who work on difficult problems more likely to commit suicide?  BBC had a documentary “Dangerous Knowledge (video here)” which looked at the lives, accomplishments, descent into insanity, and sometimes suicides of 4 prominent scientists (including Cantor who drove me a bit mad with set theory and orders of infinity).  But I don’t think highly driven people and geniuses are any more or less prone to depression or suicide than the rest of us. 

If anything is to be learned from any suicide it is to try to seek out help and treatment before attempting this “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”  Even if you are not a Turing, McKinstry, and Singh, you no doubt still have much to contribute to the world.      

* Alan Turing himself followed a tradition started by Oscar Wilde of being criminally prosecuted by the British for homosexuality and then dieing in his mid-40s.

** Google is also trying to define something similar to a MindPixel with its concept of the “knol (knowledge unit)” though these knols seem to be much higher ordered concepts (articles in fact) 

Cough Medicines Too Risky for Kids but Psychotropic Drugs are Just Fine

Here in the Middling Years of the Nanny State, it is with little surprise that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to ban cold medicines for young kids.  Like most such prohibitions, the ban is not completely without its merits: the argument that adult remedies rarely work the same on kids and that they may not work at all and the fact that 750 kids per year had to go to the hospital for reactions or side-effects (though this hardly sounds like a statistically significant number in a nation of 300 million – 150 children a year actually die from bee stings but we haven’t outlawed bees yet).

So OK, now that we have this evil cough syrup menace taken care of, wonder if the FDA can be troubled to turn its attention to far more serious drugs that are specifically marketed and targeted to children: serious hard-core psychotropic drugs such as Ritalin, Paxil, and many others (which are mostly speed/amphetamines – remember when those things were bad?). 

Sometimes given with good cause, sometimes irreverently referred to as a “straight-jacket in a bottle,” these drugs have skyrocketed in use in children over the past 15 years.  Yet,  no-one (except the drugs companies and medical professionals who profit no doubt) even knows exactly what percentage of kids are on this stuff (estimates seem to place the number at 5 million US kids).  

Far more disturbing are the consequences of these policies of mass medication: 

Government drug policy makers must be on some serious mind-altering drugs themselves when they prioritize relatively benign medicines such as cough remedies before these incredibly potent drugs.  Where is a Nanny State when you need one?