Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bob v. Frum

Bob Wright and David Frum argue over who caused the housing meltdown.1 Bob argues that large deficits drove up interest rates + caused the credit crunch, Frum blames it on unqualified people getting houses. I'm going to bat for Bob here... Many people got adjustable rate mortgages, so an increase in interest rates could make a just-barely-affordable house go out of reach.

1. They call it the credit crunch, which from my bench refers to the troubles of banks / investment houses e.g. Bear Sterns, IndyMac., but they are clearly talking about the housing market (which in an economy of course interacts with the banking sector).

Dollars and Dollars

In re: Megan McArdle's pondering about single payer spending.
Right now, just about half the healthcare dollars spent in America come out of government coffers. This is expected, in the not-too-distant future, to open up unsustainable holes in the budget. Single payer will patch those holes only if we can generate a dollar in reduced spending on the currently uncovered for every new dollar we want to spend on the sickly. The three general proposals to do so are:

  1. Reduce administrative costs
  2. Squeeze out pharma profits
  3. Preventative care
With administrative costs only 15% of private spending, and pharma profits about 10% of the 10% of healthcare costs represented by drug spending, that had better be some amazing preventative care.

This strikes me as a weird comparison. Assume that the government does pay ~50% of medical costs, including medicare, medicaid, and the VA. If the government picks up the rest of the population, they get the other half of the funding.1 The 15% administrative costs is not just wrangling (which medicare doesn't do), but also profits. Medicare admin costs are frequently cited at 3%, which would mean that if you take the other 50% of revenue, 12% of that, i.e. 6% of total spending gets freed up to cover the currently uninsured. Sure, it's weak math, but then so is McArdle's.

1. Or whatever. The public will feel they are entitled to approximately what private insurers were getting before.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Red Rabbit! Red Rabbit!

So, I just finished listening to Tom Clancy's Red Rabbit. I read a lot of Clancy in high school - they were large, adultish looking books, they were about war, and you could be sitting calmly in class reading a semi-decent sex scene. Clancy wrote a book in which an airliner is used by a terrorist to crash into the U.S. Capitol, so he got a lot of credit in the post 9/11 world.1

In the End of History, Clancy stories about a more dangerous world held a fascination. In an actually more dangerous world we see how Clancy has been refighting the last war, Thinking about a clash between a secret cadre pulling the strings in China/India/Japan/Iran and the U.S. in which Japan, India, and Iran try to distract the U.S. in various ways so China can seize a large chunk of Russia, completely ignoring how such a group would come together or possibly exercise power in a type of 'Risk Board Thinking.' The only non-state actors are a group of eco-terrorists based in the U.S. When Muslin terrorists set off a bomb in the U.S., the real problem is making sure the President doesn't launch nukes at Russia.

Red Rabbit (written 2002) is set during Tom Clancy's comfort period, the cold war. Unfortunately, it bears the marks of its time travel. The narrator lectures on how the CIA is much more competent than people think, if only we knew of their successes. Everyone knows the Soviet Union is about to collapse, despite it coming as a surprise in the real world.

This is the plot: The KGB decides to kill the Pope, a guy in the KGB decides to defect, Jack Ryan sits in the same truck with him as he is snuck out of the S.U., then Jack Ryan tries to stop the Pope getting shot, and basically fails.

But that's not what the book is about. The first quarter of the book is about Jack Ryan moving to England and talking about how Engly it is, and Ed and Mary Pat Foley moving to Moscow and talking about how Sovi it is. The next quarter is a bunch of Russians pushing paper to kill the Pope, with all (all!) of them pausing to briefly consider that Marxism-Leninism (always said by my narrator in a particularly haughty accent MARS SCHIZM LENA JISM). Then, the Russian Protagonist, Zeitsev (the Rabbit) decides that he doesn't want to kill the pope. He'd rather defect. Sorry, I just don't buy it. I live in a country where the largest single religious faction is the Catholics, so I've gotten plenty of Rah Rah Pope in my life, and if I were at CIA and they said 'the Pope is causing political trouble for us, let's whack him' I'd do it. Zeitsev was raised in a country that's actively anti-religious, he's not a secret Christian, and Mother Church in his country is the Orthodox, not the Catholic. So his motivation is a no go for me.

As the 'Jack Ryan series' has progressed, the U.S. government gets more competent - in Cardinal of the Kremlin, Jack Ryan is the only competent person in the government, In Clear and Present Danger, Clark appears as a guy that's super competent at killing people, and by the time we get to Rainbow Six, all the named characters (Robbie Jackson, Dan Murray, Clark, Ding, the Foleys) are in the top jobs, so the Gov't can do no wrong. Chronologically, Red Rabbit takes place before Hunt for Red October, but the 'super competence' juice has sunk in completely.

This causes serious plot problems. Before the Foleys can have sex in every room of their apartment (Clancy has them screw an unusual amount), Ed is contacted by the Rabbit and both Foleys proceed to have several conversations with him totally unobserved, apparently Golovko, the Clancified future KGB chief hasn't gotten his juice yet. The Rabbit tells the Americans that their communications are compromised, but that the British are not. He also tells them that there is a high level spy in Britain. He refuses to tell them about the Pope till they get him out of Russia. Since Ryan is in England, they send him to Romania to get the Rabbit on what is the most boring fetch quest ever. Ryan meets the Rabbit and his family, they take a truck to Yugoslavia and an airliner back go England. Because the Brits are super duper competant. The Russians don't realize the Rabbit is gone since the Americans subbed a bunch of burnt up corpses and started a fire in the Rabbit's hotel room. Because the CIA doesn't want people to know they have the Rabbit, they won't try to stop the Pope getting shot, so Ryan goes down there, has a gun in the back of the putative assasin, but the assasin has hired a flunky to take the shot, so the Pope still gets shot. The story ends with Ryan bitching about having a long plane flight from England to Virginia so he can drop off the Rabbit at CIA headquarters.

Oh, and it turns out that American communications aren't compromised, so there was no need to involve the Brits. Oh, and there's a bunch of Rah Rah Catholocism.

That's super boring. This is Patient Etherised's Red Rabbit:
Zeitsev is a secret Catholic, descended from Americans that came over during the '30s and reverted to Catholocism after they saw how bad it was. They're thoroughly back-crossed so he looks Russian. He approaches the chief of Moscow station that's NOT Ed Foley. The Chief of Station gets made because someone saw Zeitsev reverse pickpocketing him, but they didn't see that it was Zeitsev, and Ed Foley has to arrange a crash meeting with Zeitsev while Zeitsev is still under vague suspicion, the meeting taking place in front of the KGB headquarters as Foley pretends to bug Zeitsev for a story. Zeitsev tells Foley the Americans have a spy high up in their espionage community, so the Brits are involved, despite having a spy high up that passes on diplomatic and political intel. The Zeitsev family goes to Slovenia to do the escape, the bodies get switched, but when they try to cross the border to Yugoslavia, they are challenged by the Secret Police. The Rabbit has been sold out by the British Traitor, Ryan's officemate, Harding!!! Dan Murray plays a tense game of cat and mouse with the latter day Philby as he tries to make his way to an East Bloc embassy, finally throwing himself into the Thames. Ryan, the Rabbit et al. make a run for the Aegean Sea, bugging out to a backup spot on some rugged terrain. After a tense day of listening to their radio, they hear from a sub in the area and are picked up by Seals on boats (so it's a repeat of Cardinal in the Kremlin, so what?).

Zeitsev tells Ryan about the Pope Shoot (heh heh) and the probable identity of the assasin. CIA has no files on him, so Ryan takes Zeitsev to Rome for a visual ID. At the same time, the KGB has realized they got the wrong bodies! (This is not so much a missed opportunity as an actual hole). Despite being burnt, the bodies show very low blood carbon monoxide (it would diffuse out of the body in the week of transit and storage + since the bodies can't breathe they wouldn't re carbonate in the fire) also, the blood types don't match (blood is routinely typed, and the Americans didn't ask what Zeitsev's was). Dental records are checked and the discrepancy revealed.

The assasin is notified, but they decide to risk it anyway. In St. Peter's Square, as the Pope begins circulating and blessing the crowd, Zeitsev identifies the assasin to Ryan who puts a gun in his back. At that point, a second assasin emerges from the crowd, shoots Zeitsev and aims for Ryan. Ryan turns his gun on assasin #2, then assasin #1 shoots at the pope while the crowd closes in.

We close with Jack taking Zeitsev's widow and daughter to Disneyland.

1. Debt of Honor / Executive orders.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Petraeus: If Obama says out, we go out

Charlie (paraphrased): Would you still order withdrawal if the commanders advised against it?
Obama: Because the commander-in-chief sets the mission, Charlie. That's not the role of the generals. (link)

[Petraeus] added that the feasibility of withdrawing U.S. troops in 16 months would depend on conditions that could not be forecast with much certainty.

“It depends on the conditions, depends on the mission set, depends on the — the enemy,” (link, emphasis mine.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Get a life!

Just watched the podcast snippet of Morning Joe in which Joe fails to apologize for saying "what's community organizer?" (link to original quote). Given that this is a major piece of Barack Obama's resume / essential to his worldview, you should know what that is.

Let me translate that: "What's a squadron leader? What's a squadron?"

It's not an offensiveness thing, it's a 'doing your homework' thing.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The end of my toenail

I observed with fear the headline of Wired's "The end of theory." After all, theory is what distinguishes us from the apes, right? I couldn't bring myself to read it, but it popped up again on El Reg. Basically, the thesis is that by mass observation and correlation, no model (i.e. theory of causation) is necessary. Key quote from Reg:

"Would Anderson be willing to help test a drug that was based on a poorly understood correlation pulled out of a datamine?" Timmer challenges, apparently unembarrassed to be seen in flagrante putting an ad hominem argument. Of course not, which is why we test on guinea pigs. (And why should Anderson be first?)

But if anything, this is a reason Anderson could use. With sufficiently good correlations, it might finally be possible to spare guinea pigs, chimpanzees, or rats trial by laboratory testing.

Question: Where would those correlations come from? Sole Possible Answer: Mass observation of humans exposed to random doses of random chemicals.* It's not just Anderson that would be testing it. Note also that a good pharma shop will have thousands to millions of different drugs on the shelf.

Quote two:

Yet increasing computing power, both in hardware and statistical analysis algorithms, can still bring forth useful correlations, and new interesting discoveries. Anderson cites Craig Venter's DNA sequencing: having done with sequencing individuals, "in 2005 he started sequencing the air. In the process, he discovered thousands of previously unknown species of bacteria and other life-forms."

"The opportunity is great", he adds, because "correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all."

Well done Craig! Anyway, what's a species? How does DNA sequencing work? Why would DNA sequencing tell you that you've found a new species? What's DNA? Obviously, in order to know that you need to perform a ligation reaction on an air substrate, amplify with phiC31 rolling circle replication, and sequence via CV's secret method, your species must either: A. Have a theory as to how ligation, phiC31, and DNA sequencing work or B: Run around performing random chemical reactions on the atmosphere until something repeatable yet awesomely variable comes in.

Don't get me wrong, this mass observation stuff is great, but a theory provides so much more direction.

*: But, you say, couldn't you just test the blood/urine/semen of people that recover from or are immune from disease X and then correlate some common factor as the cure? 5-FU! Many drugs derive from naturally occuring compounds, but virtually no drugs are in the form / dose / route that could reasonably occur. Sure, some workers might be exposed to fluorine gas in an industrial accident, and some of them might have cancer, and some of those cancers might regress, but in order to get enough N, you'd have to engineer fluorine leaks all over town (and that stuff is NASTY).

OK, so you figure out that nucleoside analogues are great. But you find that only some of them work on cancer, while others work on HIV (you do subscribe to the germ theory of disease, right?). Is there some way to figure out which ones are more likely to work? Well, if you have a theory of DNA, and DNA polymerization, and recombinant DNA technology it just so happens that if you add the right fraction of some goo that kills bacteria to a mixture of factors that contain something significant for allowing human cells to grow [which you produced by heating human cells in a reaction well with some random chemical strains that you synthesized, then heated it, then cooled it, then heated it, then cooled it, and so on {in a chain} 30 times {a number you hit on randomly} ] with something that allows the bacteria to survive when you add that mold extract that a technician dropped the fertilizer in one day, then treat the bacteria with that one solution and fractionate them, you can try to use one of those fractions to do something similar to that heating/cooling thing (EXCEPT YOU MUSTN'T HEAT IT) in the presence of various nucleoside analogs, and perhaps so many mice won't have to die.