Monthly Archives: December 2007

Is plastic flotsam good for the environment?

The latest environmental “crisis” is the floating garbage polluting the world’s oceans, which is said to be killing “more than a million seabirds and 100,000 mammals and sea turtles each year.” But does this number really mean anything? The number of animals killed alone is meaningless without context. Understanding why requires a little ecological intuition.

Suppose that a hunter goes into an isolated forest once a month to kill a deer. What is the hunter’s impact on the deer population? In the short term, after each deer is killed, the population decreases by one deer. In the long term however, the forest is only capable of sustaining a fixed number of grazing animals, and each deer that dies makes room for additional animals. Each dead adult means that there is more food available for the next generation. Whether the deer population remains stable or decreases depends on the adaptive capacity of the species to reproduce fast enough to compensate for the missing deer. If only a small percentage of the population is killed each year, then there will probably not be any change in the population.

Given that there are colonies of sea birds which number over a million and a single sea turtle lays 150-200 eggs, it is far from obvious whether the number of animals killed by garbage has any impact on their population. Animals that survive due to decreased competition may balance the animals killed by plastics. Furthermore, the more drastic the impact on animal populations, the higher the evolutionary pressure for the surviving animals to adapt to their new plastic-rich environment.

It is conceivable that plastic waste has a beneficial impact on the oceans, as it is well known for attracting schools of fish, perhaps because it forms a base for microorganisms. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that environmentalists were dramatically wrong about the impact of a deadly pollutant. In any case, the evolutionary process will certainly maximize the potential of marine species to take advantage of their new environment.

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The war on drugs: US vs Netherlands

Social Indicator USA   Netherlands  
Lifetime prevalence of marijuana use (ages 12+) 36.9%
1
17.0%

2

Past month prevalence of marijuana use (ages 12+) 5.4%
1
3.0%

2

Lifetime prevalence of heroin use (ages 12+) 1.4%
1
0.4%

2

Incarceration Rate per 100,000 population 701
3
100

4

Per capita spending on criminal justice system (in Euros) €379
5
€223

5

Homicide rate per 100,000 population 5.56
6
1.51

6

MoreSource 

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First-person video from a radio-controlled airplane

I would love to find this under my tree:

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Thought crime in America

What thoughts will be against the law tomorrow?

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Broken promises

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The F.B.I. Oath of Office:

I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Is it too much to ask FBI agents to keep their oath?

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Humans, global warming vindicated as mammoth killers

The global extinction of megafauna –giant mammals such as mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, and giant sloths has been one of the great mysteries of paleontology. The classical suspects have been global warming (the end of the Ice Age) and over-hunting by humans. These causes are suspect as complete explanations for a variety of reasons, such as evidence that humans have been hunting mammoths as early as 1.8 million years ago, and the mid-Pliocene global warming that failed to cause a mass extinction.

Newly uncovered evidence offers a radical new theory – meteorites. Magnetic metal particles have been discovered in mammoth tusks, with compositions and impact patterns that clearly indicate un-earthly origins. There are no recorded instances of a human being killed by a meteor, so the discovery of meteor particles in at least eight animals from different time periods suggests repeated, devastating strikes. The scientists also found a black layer in the sediment, which may be “the charcoal deposited by wildfires that swept the continent after the space object smashed into the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Most people believe that nature operates by slow, gradual changes, which drive the extinction and formation of species. Yet the new evidence supports the view that evolution substantially operates by regular cataclysmic events. Furthermore, nature is not only well-adapted to catastrophe, but relies on crises to weed out fragile species which are over-adapted for specific environments – for example, the fangs of the saber-toothed cat, or the dietary requirements of panda bears.

Update:  besides meteorites, trees were recently identified as suspects in the extinction of woolly mammoths:

Professor Adrian Lister, a palaeobiologist at University College London, has found that the extensive areas of frozen grassland on which mammoths thrived were gradually replaced by forests, leaving the animals nothing to eat.  Analysis on the DNA extracted from hundreds of fossils has revealed that the genetic differences between individual mammoths were so slight that the animals were unable to adapt to the changes in their environment.

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Wild about Mint.com

I just signed up with Mint.com, a free personal finance management site. You provide your banking and credit card login information, and it provides detailed analysis and alerts regarding your financial situation.  I’ve never used personal finance software before, but this seems like a terrifically useful application, especially for anyone who wants to stick to a budget.  Check out the screenshots for youself.

I also tried Geezeo.com, which is the same kind of thing, but it’s not as slick, and was unable to import my accounts for whatever reason.

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Real entrepreneurs don’t take bribes from the state

The Israeli government is trying to lure back some of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli expatriates with “tax breaks, employment and small business loans.”  The campaign is set to cost $36 million a year.  Israeli politicians must realize on some level that their best and brightest citizens are leaving in growing numbers because their grant experiment in utopian socialism has turned out to be a total failure.  What they failed to consider however, is that to the extent that the campaign is successful, it is will bring back the wrong kind of people: those who value a short-term bribe over freedom and entrepreneurship unhindered by the interventionist state.

 

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Genetic discrimination saves lives

Thanks to recent technological innovations, companies like 23andme are now able to offer comprehensive genetic profiles that can reveal predispositions towards certain health problems, and allow patients to take proactive measures to prevent them. Unfortunately, this potentially lifesaving diagnosis will not be available to most individuals because of so-called “genetic privacy” laws, such as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, passed by the House earlier this year. One common argument used to justify such laws, is that genetic profiling will lead to a “second-class” of people who cannot obtain insurance or employment. Like most “ethical dilemmas” attributed to technology, this “Gattaca argument” demonstrates a lack of understanding of individual rights and basic economic principles. An analogy is useful to understand its flaws:

Suppose that you wanted to buy a used car. You have a choice of two dealerships: One dealership will provide the full specifications of the car, offer a test drive, let you look under the hood, provide a complete history from a trustworthy third-party, let you take it to your own mechanic, and even let you take the car back after a few days if you don’t like it. The other dealership tells you the year and model of the car and allows you to look at it, and that is it. Take it or leave it. Which dealership would you prefer?

Suppose that used car dealerships lobbied for a law that limited your information about their cars. (Such laws are common for doctors, lawyers, and drug companies, who face numerous restrictions on their freedom to advertise.) Who benefits from such a policy? First, due to the increased risk of purchasing a lemon, the value of used cars will fall dramatically. Owners of reliable cars will now prefer to keep their cars longer, while owners of lemons will prefer to sell. Less people will be able to afford a decent used car, and more will be stuck with cars they don’t want. There will be less incentive for car owners to maintain their cars, since their resale value will fall, as will the quality of used cars on the market. The auto dealers margins will go up, but their sales will shrink. New dealers will find it more difficult to enter the market because reputation will become more important than the prices and quality of individual cars. Much more effort will be spent on both advertising and researching reputable dealers. The overall effect will be to raise costs for everyone, discourage responsible ownership, increase fraud and deception, and benefit incumbent dealers at the expense of newer competitors.

Consider the consequences of such an egalitarian policy if it applied to health insurance. If the government completely outlawed discrimination based on all risk factors, insurance companies have to offer all customers a single rate. Healthy young women would be quoted the same rate as overweight, elderly men. What would be the result? It does not take an economist to predict that rates would immediately rise, as healthy people, refusing to pay for their neighbor’s health risks, stopped using insurance altogether. As the young and healthy jump ship, insurance companies would have to increase rates, accelerating the trend. Without further government interference, the health insurance business would disappear completely, shortly after millionaires on their deathbeds became the only people able to afford policies.

While such drastic restrictions on the ability of insurers to discriminate seem unlikely, the same principles apply to less restrictive measures, as well as “universal” insurance schemes. In response to the higher insurance premiums that these laws create, the public lobbies legislatures for price controls on health insurance and subsidies for the uninsured. Insurers and taxpayers respond to the growing costs of health welfare laws by pushing legislation that makes unhealthy behaviors and products (such as smoking and fatty foods) illegal. The more the government restricts discrimination based on health risks, the more pressure it faces to regulate and provide subsidies for health providers and forbid “unhealthy” behaviors by the public. Each additional restriction of insurers requires a corresponding subsidy or restriction of consumers, controls breeding more controls, until the entire healthcare industry is nationalized and freedom sacrificed for the “common good.”

Industries that do not face the odious regulatory burden of the healthcare industry have strong incentives to compete on the quality of their product. As their margins have shrunk, the total size of the market has grown. In competitive markets for used cars, some dealerships give cars expert inspections, refuse to buy lemons, and advertise their pricing up front.

If discrimination based on comprehensive genetic screening is legal, we can expect health providers to tailor plans according to our individual risk factors. That might be to the disadvantage of a minority of high-risk individuals, but greater information about risk factors will lower uncertainty, and thus lower rates overall. Furthermore, insurers will offer incentives to people who take proactive steps to discover health risks and take steps to alleviate them. Expensive procedures such as frequent biopsies or preemptive removal of organs might be fully covered for individuals whose genetic profiles uncover a high cancer risk.

If individuals are concerned with keeping the results of their genetic screenings private, they should ensure that screeners like 23andme are contractually obligated to keep their test results private, and prosecute them for the full damages resulting from an intentional or accidental disclosure. While the supposed purpose of genetic anti-discrimination laws is to “protect genetic privacy,” the actual effect is to remove the ability of insurers to provide financial incentives for people to get screened for potentially fatal genetic risk factors. This will only lead to unnecessary deaths from treatable genetic disorders and higher health insurance costs.

 

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Christmas Was Secular Before Your Righteous Indignation Was In Your Mommy's Sacred Womb

I know no one likes a history lesson, but my point here isn’t that your Christmas shouldn’t be about Christ. I don’t care what you do on Christmas. But when you get on television and complain that your kids wanting a Nintendo Wii is a vast departure from the “real” meaning of Christmas, you are an asshole. Christmas has no meaning because it is culled from so many sources. It means the birth of someone’s savior, sure. But it’s also a time for people to drink and be merry. And have sex. And worship the sun god. And feast on the harvest during a dark time.

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