Friday, October 31, 2008

Universal Health Care

On Sally's last visit here, I admitted to being more or less in favor of universal health care in America. I had neck surgery last year, and one thing that I said was that, yes, I might have had to wait longer in Canada or the UK (though it's hard to be sure, of course), but if the only reason I don't have to wait longer here is that other people can't get into line at all, that's not such a good thing. I think we actually were talking about knee surgery, but the principle is the same.

I got mocked for this later, but I stand by it.

Sally asked me if I then see health care as fundamentally different from something like a widescreen TV, which people may also want and not be able to afford? And yes, I do. The reason I do is that the thought of not being able to obtain life-saving (or -extending or significantly -enhancing) care is intolerable to me, while the thought of not being able to buy a Hummer or a yacht or a particularly nice piece of wall art or a house is not.

"Intolerable" really has to be judged relative to overall wealth. I would not bankrupt the country by having us provide universal health care to, say, all of Africa, even though the illnesses and deaths of people there are just as real and pressing. Lines have to be drawn for practical reasons. But when a country can afford to meet a vital and universal need, that will otherwise remain largely unmet, I think it ought to do so.

What about food? Well, on a kind of basic level, the vast majority of Americans seem to be able to obtain sufficient food. We do have food stamps, and I'm in favor of that. I would not actually mind if there was "universal food" - maybe some kind of flat government food allowance that everyone could get - but it doesn't seem like it would add much to what we have now. But I do think the government should act to prevent starvation in a rich country like ours.

Health care is different from food in that it's not a fully predictable flat cost type of thing. The cost varies hugely from person to person. And, unlike food, it can be very expensive even by our standards. (Food is expensive for some people in some places, but even high-quality, high-convenience groceries would cost me less than 5% of my gross income.)

It is difficult to get private insurance, at least for a lot of people. Among those not covered by the companies they work for, generally only the older and sicker actually try to buy private insurance, which means it's bound to cost more. Without being part of a "pool" some people just don't make any sense to insure. (Take my dad, for instance. At age 50 he'd had two heart attacks and had uncontrolled Type II diabetes. He could never have been insured profitably at any cost he could have afforded.)

For an individual, it might make sense to try to get a job that comes with insurance, but there are millions of jobs that don't provide it, and someone has to do those jobs. And I don't think forcing more companies to provide more insurance is a good solution at all.

So, despite the problems involved, I am in favor of some kind of more universal solution run by the government. I don't know how it can best be done, so I hope that Obama, if he's able to do this, has good wonks. (I think he actually does; he seems very pragmatic and reasonable in general.)

Going back to the "Would you really want to have to wait six months or a year for a surgery you needed?" question, although I don't think you should vote exclusively based on what you'd personally prefer, I would personally far prefer to live in Canada or the UK in terms of health care, despite that I've always had good insurance and gotten excellent care so far. And I mean that from a purely selfish perspective.


The Internet makes it easy to get all of your news and analysis from sites that share your worldview, which has the unfortunate tendency to reinforce what you already think, while making your opponents' ideas seem increasingly ridiculous and out of touch with "reality." I find I'm a lot more reasonable and sane (and even relaxed) if I take in information from a variety of sources, including some that come from a different perspective.

I've recently been really enjoying The Confabulum, the group blog of the moderate conservatives behind Culture 11. I can't read blogs like the Corner because so much of what they say is really ridiculous to me, but I can enjoy this level of discourse.

The post "And Then What II" by Conor Friedersdorf is good and representative. An excerpt:

I’d now like to levy some criticism of my own. The fact is that most conservatives — not all, but most — believe that were their model of society adopted, human suffering would be reduced, not exacerbated or ignored. It is mighty convenient, as Freddie lays out his account of conservatives and suffering, that he ignores the many conservatives who tithe to charity, or build houses for Habitat for Humanity, or participate in Catholic charities, or whose churches adopt communities in Africa, or who donate to secular charities. Don’t they offer a perfectly respectable conservative answer to "And then what?" Who is ignoring human suffering more, those conservatives who give to charity and also favor a limited government and low taxes, or liberals who favor higher government spending on social programs and willingly pay higher taxes, but who don’t themselves donate to any charity? It isn’t so clear, is it. Someone who believes that government is on balance the most efficient or least harmful way to serve the less fortunate is surely justified in advocating for higher government spending. Obviously it makes as much sense for those who are deeply suspicious of government — who in fact believe it often harms the people it is trying to help — to favor alternative means.
Anyway, if you're in the market for a conservative blog, check it out.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


I voted this morning at my local early vote location. The line was existent but not bad - I think I waited about 20 minutes. The machine seemed to work fine, though it is a receipt-free electronic touch screen thing, so there's no way to know if it actually recorded my vote properly. I would never choose this as a voting system, but without evidence of actual wrongdoing or systematic malfunctions, I'm not going to worry about it. It was certainly convenient and easy to use.

I voted for Obama and I voted Democrat for the Congresscritters. I voted to retain and not retain judges in accordance with the committee's recommendations. I skipped several of the very local races where I know nothing about the candidates; I decided to let the people who are more informed (or more partisan, or whatever) decide those races.

I voted no on most of the ballot measures.

I voted against letting the gambling towns vote to have longer hours and higher-stakes games with most of the money going to fund community colleges.

I voted against making employers have good reasons for firing people.

I voted against something that was supposed to give more money to help the disabled.

I voted against higher severance taxes on oil and gas.

I voted against prohibiting affirmative action by the state. (Correction: I actually can't remember how I voted on this. I was torn.)

I voted against defining "person" in the Constitution to include fertilized eggs, embroys, and fetuses.

I voted against disallowing local governments from taking automatic deductions from paychecks except for legally required things. (This is about unions. I've intuited from the various ads that some firefighters and other public servants get union dues automatically withdrawn, though they can opt out if they wish. The new bill would have prohibited that. I decided not to prohibit it.)

I voted FOR making it illegal to require someone to be in a union to work at a certain place.

I voted against holding company executives criminally responsible for the criminal acts of their companies.

I voted against some very complicated thing about funding education. (This offensive TV ad about it didn't help.)

I voted against requiring companies with more than 20 employees to provide health insurance.

I voted against requiring companies to provide a safe working environment and making it easier for lawsuits to be filed if a worker is injured.

So, basically, I voted Democrat on the national parts of the ticket, and on some state races, and then voted against the common man for most local measures. Or something.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Advantages of a Log Scale

One option that Excel has, and that I imagine most graphing software has, is to convert one of the scales from the regular linear scale to a logarithmic one. In a logarithmic scale, the equally-spaced intervals represent powers of 10.

In the oil industry, we use log scale charts quite a lot, and they often make the data more sensical. Today I made the following scatter plot, which shows the oil to gas ratio for some wells in Oklahoma. The x axis represents how long the well has been running, so the idea is to see how these ratios might change over time, and how they vary from well to well. It came out like this (get a bigger image by clicking):
This is obviously not acceptable as a graph. The couple of really high values near the top edge make all of the more normal values clump together at the very bottom. And no matter how much I limit the range of the y axis, I get basically the same effect. Here I've limited it to 2000, which cuts off some data points:

It's better, but it's still not great. Then I tried a log scale:

And voila. Suddenly this data makes sense.

Log scales are a bit tricky for people to read, so it does help to add the minor gridlines.

The spacing of the minor gridlines helps remind you how the scale works, and you can also use them as a guide. The line immediately above 1000 is 2000, then the next one is 3000, etc., and they are spaced accordingly.

I love these types of data representation issues and when I make a display that is more intelligible than it might have been, it makes me really happy and proud.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Health at Every Size

Right now I am reading Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon. Apparently Health at Every Size (HAES) is a general movement, of which Bacon is a part. The book essentially argues that you are unlikely to succeed at intentional weight loss over the long term, and that trying to do so might harm rather than improve your health, but that you can improve your health regardless of your size by other measures.

I haven't finished the book, so I won't try a full review, but although it's written at a fairly low level (similar to diet books in general) and is slightly polemical, I have only minor quibbles with what I've read so far. Bacon is an actual researcher with the kind of credentials you'd want to see. There are hundreds of citations throughout the text so that if she asserts something, you can easily investigate if you're so inclined. I think the book is worth reading whether you end up agreeing with its conclusions or not.

Bacon and some other researchers who are much more supportive of weight loss did a study in which they enrolled 78 (I think) overweight women and put them into two groups. Both groups met once per week for six months (divided into smaller support groups of 9 or 10 people), and then once a month for six months. One group followed a HAES approach and the other was a standard diet and exercise group.

After two years, neither group had lost any weight, but the HAES group had several measurable health improvements (things like fitness, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure), while the only statistically significant change among the dieting group was self-esteem, which went down.

This was, of course, only one study.

Overall, I find this approach appealing. I have lost a lot of weight (over 60 lbs) intentionally in the past, but I've regained a lot of it over time. I know that the key to maintaining the loss is to get a lot of exercise and maintain a constant focus on it, and I can't seem to do that at all right now - especially the "maintain focus" part. I can't seem to do anything systematic about my weight for more than about a week at a time.

What I can do (and I'm just starting the actual recommendations part of the book, so I'm now just writing about my own experience) is exercise and include more fruits and vegetables in my diet regardless of what or how much I am eating in general. And for now that's working out pretty well. I've got Ed going to the gym with me three times a week (which I generally enjoy a lot even though it's easier not to go) and I'm regularly eating pretty high amounts of fruits and veggies. (I'd say I average about 5 or 6 servings a day, which is not super high, but is at least within recommendations.)

I don't know. If I continue to inexorably gain weight I may have to revisit the idea of intentional weight loss. But if I can maintain some weight or other and increase my fitness to a normal level while eating a somewhat healthy diet, that might be a better approach for me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Timely Advice for a Friend

Take note please of some pithy getting-into-grad-school advice.

Ballot Issues

I'll be voting any day now (hopefully before election day), so the other day I sat down with the government-provided booklet that is mailed to voters describing the various ballot measures I get to vote on, and giving recommendations on retention of judges. (Surprisingly, one of the judges was strongly recommended NOT to be retained. That was fun reading.)

One proposition I get to vote on, Amendment 48, would alter the Colorado Constitution to define the word "person" to include fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses. Obviously I will be voting no on that.

A lot of the other measures have a deep similarity based on the TABOR bill that is active here. That stands for "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" and it says that, basically, the state government is not allowed to grow by more than inflation, and any extra tax money collected has to be refunded every year.* Any spending that wants to be exempt from TABOR has to be approved specially by voters.

So we get a million of those every election cycle.

For instance, Amendment 50 would allow the cities in which gambling is allowed to vote to extend the hours and/or the types of games that are allowed and, if they do so, the extra money collected would be allocated 22% to those cities and 78% to community colleges, and it would be exempt from TABOR. It is being billed as a way to increase funding for our community colleges "without a tax increase." Of course, the money for this does in fact come from additional taxes (it's not free money from heaven), but I suppose it's not an increase in the rate of a tax.

Or there is Amendment 59, which ballotpedia says "would create a state education fund savings account within the state education fund, to be funded from 10% of the monies deposited into the state education fund, including revenue that would otherwise be rebated under the TABOR rules, which the measure calls for diverting to the state education fund; would also require that state educational spending increase by rate of inflation plus 1% through fiscal year 2010-2011; and restricts spending of the state education fund to specific education expenses ."

I honestly don't know how to vote on these things. I mean, if they had one that said senior citizens would be charged extra for eyeglasses and that money would be allocated to a special fund to provide extra pet waste collection bags in city parks, exempt from TABOR, I would vote no. But I don't intrinsically object (in the case of Amendment 50) to longer gambling hours, local control, or funding community colleges. Except that all of these different bills make it impossible for someone (the legislature, I suppose) to sit down and figure out the state budget in a rational manner. I don't want all kinds of unnecessary money (which is, again, not free money from heaven) overfunding a bunch of pet projects.

Should I abstain from voting on things I'm not sure about, allowing those who feel more strongly to control the outcomes, or should I guess that my own guesses or gut feelings are better than (or at least equal to) the firmly held opinions of people who might be simple-minded morons or ideologically opposed to me? Or should I vote "no" on things I'm not sure of, out of some general conservative instinct? (Or, as my mother once told me, "yes" because "if someone thinks it's a good idea, it probably is.") I feel an internal pressure to vote on every issue.

As far as the Presidential race goes, I am unequivocally in favor of Obama. On social issues, which are important to me, I am firmly liberal, and the Republicans of the past 8 years have done nothing to shrink the size of government (quite the opposite), which is the only thing I might (might) favor about them. They've ramped up federal spending crazily and at least Bush and Cheney have fought for (I can't even say "argued for" since they have hardly bothered to inform the rest of us) untrammeled executive power completely out of line with what the Constitution actually says. McCain was my favorite Republican in the primaries, but I haven't liked much that I've seen since. And his completely cynical and insulting choice of Sarah Palin, who started off seeming underqualified and is now shown to be incapable-of-becoming-qualified (IMO) for VP...well, it doesn't help. And, outside of his trade protectionism, I see nothing to dislike in Obama.

I'm looking forward to watching the results Nov 4.

(*Disclaimer for this whole post - I am not an expert on Colorado law and have not done extra research to ensure accuracy. If you are seriously concerned about the specifics of anything you read here, please do your own research. I am quite likely simplifying or outright wrongifying some of it.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My Haircut

It's been a few weeks since I shaved my head. Since then, I've trimmed the hair down to 1/4" (I think) with the trimmer I have at home (a heavy industrial seeming thing that is pretty delightful to use), and then I got a professional trim at Great Clips, to 3/8", with a decent neck and around-the-ears shave. (They charged me $5. Woot!)

(Also amusing: they have me in their computer there, so when I gave the woman my phone number, and she looked it up, she looked at me and said, "So I guess you're not going with the bob anymore!")

So my head is plushy-soft all over, just short enough to still stick out in every direction and not fall down into a regular boy-type haircut. It is just slightly shorter than cutie Matt Damon's over there.

I fucking love it. I am right now at the point of thinking I will never change it against because, just, why? It's awesome.

Before I shaved my head, I was afraid it would look bad. And frankly, one of the fears I had was that skinny girls can get away with having a shaved head or very short hair, but it looks bad on fat girls. And of course, the truth is, cute skinny girls will usually look cute in almost any style. It's like Matt Damon up there - what kind of haircut would make him not hot? He starts off hot and that's a huge boon.

But I'm starting to think that a crew cut is actually a comparative advantage for a fat woman, if you don't mind looking butch. Because my observation about myself is that I am a lot better looking as a butch than as a femme. I am not really either one - a butch or a femme. But my old hairstyle was a regular girl type of cut, and this one is distinctly butch. (I suspect that on a skinny girl, a haircut like this might give you kind of a "pixie" look and not be so butch.)

The net effect on my appearance as judged by other people might still be negative, because being butch might be negative in the eyes of many. But among people who like both looks, I have to think this makes me more attractive. I certainly look more attractive to myself, and to Ed.

Last night at the gym, I picked up a couple of hand weights to do some bicep curls, and then happened to see myself in the mirror. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt. And I looked incredible. The combination of the weights and the shirt and the short hair - it was crazy butch and I just loved it. I felt super macho.

I have a slight inclination to scoff at women who claim they make some traditionally supported beauty decision (like surgical breast augmentation) not to please others but because it makes them feel more confident, but that's how I feel about the hair style. It makes me feel attractive and strong. And I'm going to keep it.

Terrestrial Critter

One of the blog I subscribe to is NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, and over time I have noticed something about my responses to the pictures they have there, to wit: I am basically bored by pictures of stars or other space objects (galaxies, nebulae, etc.), but vastly interested in pictures that show planets or landscapes.

For instance, boring:


pretty but boring:

Sharpless 171

Saturn's moon Enceladus as seen from Cassini


red cliffs on Mars


the Sun

I'm not sure why there is such a disparity in how I view these.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Can't Be Much To It

Ed has a friend (who I guess by now is my friend too) who is very down on software engineering. Software engineering isn't about how to write code - it's more about how to manage and run software projects. So it is partly about how to write code, but it's more about the general procedural aspects of how to write code (e.g., is it better to code in pairs? what kind of coding standards should be in place? how does a group manage working on code together? how can we make sure we're building what the client wanted?) than on things like how to craft the perfect algorithm.

Anyway, Adam basically thinks software engineering, at least as currently taught/practiced is full of shit. He had one course in it in college and what he learned was, he felt, a lot of "buzzwords." He later had to regurgitate these in interviews, and found that basically doing some reading on Wikipedia was enough to satisfy the demands of this process. ("Oh, I'm supposed to know what 'agile' means, fine...")

There are a lot of buzzwords, you could say, in business in general, but there are also stark differences in methodologies. I'm sure (as Ed pointed out to me) that "assembly line" was once a buzz word. It's also a significant, radical way to manufacture things. And if you're going to make up new ways of doing things, then assigning words to them enables discussion, right? So if I've decided that these five or so factors are key to the way I want to work in a team to program something, and I name that style "Extreme Programming" (or XP) then is that wrong?

And if I wanted to go to work for a company that practiced XP, it's reasonable to think I should know the term, right? And have an opinion about it? Or concerns and questions about the actual implementation. I should know whether I love or hate or am curious to try pair programming, for instance.

I feel like Adam's dismissal of "buzzwords" in software engineering is related to a general tendency that some people have to assume that, if they don't know much about something, there must not be much to it. Some things, like brain surgery, seem intrinsically complicated and aren't subject to this phenomenon, but other things, like sociology, get no respect. What, don't they just write papers about how people act just like anyone with any common sense would think they'd act?

I imagine most fields have their bullshitty elements. There are probably buzzwords in reinforced concrete structure design. But I try really hard not to assume that academic disciplines have nothing to them, just because I know nothing about them, because I've found that usually, the more you learn about a field, the more you see it expand before you into something deep and rich with detail.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Discrete Math

One of my classes this semester is Discrete Math. I ended up in this class because of a scheduling problem. I originally had Linear Algebra MW 5:00-6:50, and then Prob & Stats 7:00-9:00. Unfortunately, my linear algebra class was cancelled, leaving me just the one class. I decided that an extra math class is always a good thing, and signed up for Discrete Math in the empty slot.

I didn't actually know what Discrete Math was, I think.

The "discrete" in discrete math contrasts basically with the continuity of, e.g., calculus. When we deal with functions, we are mostly dealing with functions in the natural numbers (1, 2, 3, ...). There are things like set theory, combinatorics, probability, and graph theory.

One of the most challenging topics for me so far has been recursively defined relations. These are things like, for instance, the Fibonacci sequence,

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8

where each number is the sum of the previous two.

We've been learning different techniques for determining the "closed form" rule for such a sequence, which allows you to do something like calculate the 100th term without calculating all of the ones in between. (The "closed form rule" is what you usually get for a function, like f(x) = x + 3, instead of it being defined in terms of the previous term or terms.)

So far, the class is very interesting. There are about 12 students, so they all become familiar pretty quickly, and our professor includes a lot of class discussion and has us lecture each other at the board a fair amount by asking questions like, "Can anyone come up here and explain why this makes sense?" or "Would someone repeat what I just said in a different way?"