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Health Insurance Plan Comparison Calculator. Plus…Hamlet!

November 18th, 2013 No comments

Gentle Readers:

Sorry to be incommunicado for so long. I’ve been working hard on a couple of projects.

I built a spreadsheet for myself a few years ago to compare health-insurance plans — cost versus financial exposure/protection. I just built it out into a web app that others can use, and I’ve posted it here.

You enter premiums (after deducting any subsidy), deductibles, co-pays etc. for up to four plans, and it estimates your total outlays in different health/spending scenarios:

Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 7.37.09 AM

It’s especially good for ruling out relatively bad deals. For instance, why would anyone buy the purple plan here for an extra thousand dollars a year, instead of the green plan, which offers the same or better financial protection?

There are simply too many variable in health plans to compare them in your head. I’m hoping this app will be as useful to others as it’s been to me.

Farther afield, the second edition of my Hamlet book was just published, along with a fully hyperlinked ebook edition that I’m rather proud of. (Turns out it was a lot of work to create a really good ebook.) If you’re even one tenth as interested in this play as I am, you might find the book interesting and entertaining. Further insights into the true depths of this obsession at princehamlet.com.

HamletEbookCover400x615

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

 

Why Visiting U Chicago is Cool

December 1st, 2011 No comments

Just arrived, walking to The Pub, two students walking by the other way.

…fading in… “the argument you’re making makes no sense. It’s like saying ‘if all Serbian men were made of cheese…’  …fading out…

Nice to be here.

Asymptotic Freedom

November 21st, 2010 1 comment

I really love that term, though I just barely, maybe understand what it means.

Eric Drexler (he of Engines of Creation, the breakout 1987 book on nanotech) thinks the source is very cool indeed. Here from November 7:

…the most exciting paper I’ve seen on quantum field theory and gravitation in a long time. It offers no speculations about strings, extra dimensions, new symmetries, or the like, and no loop quantum gravity or causal dynamical triangulations, just a carefully cross-checked mathematical analysis that reveals how general relativity transforms quantum electrodynamics at very edge of the breakdown of GR [general relativity] itself.

The question is the strength of electric interactions — the effective magnitude of a single charge — and how it changes (as it does) at high energies and small distances.

In brief, QED predicts that the strength approaches infinity;
QED + GR predicts that the strength approaches zero.

Many of the (meager) news reports to date describe Toms’ paper as if it merely smoothed out some difficulties with calculations in QED — those pesky infinities! — but that misses the point: This result extracts new physics from old physics, sharply revising our understanding of current physical theory as it approaches the Planck scale, the very edge of the unknown.

Here it is:

Quantum gravitational contributions to quantum electrodynamics
Quantum electrodynamics describes the interactions of electrons and photons. Electric charge (the gauge coupling constant) is energy dependent, and there is a previous claim that charge is affected by gravity (described by general relativity) with the implication that the charge is reduced at high energies. However, that claim has been very controversial and the matter has not been settled. Here I report an analysis (free from the earlier controversies) demonstrating that quantum gravity corrections to quantum electrodynamics have a quadratic energy dependence that result in the electric charge vanishing at high energies, a result known as asymptotic freedom.

Why Is This Traffic Stopped??

September 16th, 2010 7 comments

Update from the comments, Nov. 3: Harold gives us this brilliant link. Completely contradicts my surmise below. Definitely watch the video.

Being cursed with a curious mind, when I’m driving — especially on the highway — I’m always wondering about the hydrodynamics of traffic. Here’s an interesting insight:

With cars moving fluidly in a tight pack even a seemingly innocuous change of lanes may cause a tiny disruption which is propagated backwards for many miles.

[A new study fingers] timid and aggressive driver behaviour as the main culprit. … vehicle speeds drop to zero if just a few drivers accept shorter distances between their car and the one in front, and a handful of others in the same lane prefer a greater gap, relative to the “equilibrium spacing” which in theory ensures a steady ride.

It’s been my impression that one car leaving excessive distance –especially in the left lane — can clog up everything. I’m not advocating tailgating (I hate that), but…

Here’s my solution to highway traffic congestion: the government or some civic-minded nonprofit should give away these bumper stickers:

Largest Oil Spills

May 1st, 2010 No comments

I got curious about this. Here’s what WikiPedia says:

——————-

Oil spills of over 100,000 tonnes or 30 million US gallons, ordered by tonnes[a]
Spill / Tanker Location Date Tons of crude oil Reference
Gulf War oil spill Persian Gulf January 21, 1991 1,360,000–1,500,000 [19][20]
Ixtoc I oil well Gulf of Mexico June 3, 1979–March 23, 1980 454,000–480,000 [21]
Atlantic Empress / Aegean Captain Trinidad and Tobago July 19, 1979 287,000 [22][23]
Fergana Valley Uzbekistan March 2, 1992 285,000 [20]
Nowruz oil field Persian Gulf February 1983 260,000 [24]
ABT Summer 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) off Angola 1991 260,000 [22]
Castillo de Bellver Saldanha Bay, South Africa August 6, 1983 252,000 [22]
Amoco Cadiz Brittany, France March 16, 1978 223,000 [20][22]
Amoco Haven tanker disaster Mediterranean Sea near Genoa, Italy 1991 144,000 [22]
Odyssey 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) off Nova Scotia, Canada 1988 132,000 [22]
Sea Star Gulf of Oman December 19, 1972 115,000 [20][22]
Torrey Canyon Scilly Isles, UK March 18, 1967 80,000–119,000 [20][22]
Irenes Serenade Navarino Bay, Greece 1980 100,000 [22]
Urquiola A Coruña, Spain May 12, 1976 100,000 [22]

a One tonne of crude oil is roughly equal to 308 US gallons, or 7.33 barrels.

——————-

News reports say the current Gulf of Mexico well is leaking 200,000 gallons a day, which comes to 650 tons. Do that for a month and it’s about 20,000 tons.

And did I just miss it, or was there essentially no mainstream coverage of the Gulf War oil spill?

The Exxon Valdez spilled about 37,000 tons.

I’m wondering: how much was spilled during the Battle of the Atlantic in WWII?

Change Your Goddam Voice Mail Message! (Pass It On)

April 10th, 2010 2 comments

Starting today, your outgoing voice mail message should start (and quite possibly end) with:

Hi this is [insert your name here]. Press [star or pound] to leave a message.

I probably don’t have to explain why. But I will.

1. Everybody hates waiting through your message, and they really hate waiting through the instructions on how to leave a message.

2. You  never know whether pound or star will bypass all that crap. Each voicemail system’s different. If you press the wrong one, you’re really pissed off because … you know. So you wait through the goddam message and instructions.

It takes a good twenty seconds to go through that crap, every single time.

It’s not just annoying. A back-of-the-envelope calc (based on utterly reliable data randomly sourced from the interwebs) tells me that all those 20-second annoyances are worth about 1.2 trillion dollars a year (if our time is worth $20/hour).

Yeah: if everybody changed their messages, we’d increase our country’s annual GDP by 10%. (Or enjoy the equivalent in more free time.)

Pass it on.

Delight and Abject Dismay on Richard Dawkins’ Birthday

March 26th, 2010 15 comments

Another of those convergences: I just joined the Richard Dawkins group on Facebook, and discovered that today is his birthday. (Happy birthday sir!) It’s a convergence because over the last week I’ve been horribly dismayed. After decades of near hero-worship on my part, I’ve discovered that he is not acting as the man I’ve always believed him to be.

The issue is his position on group selection. (Don’t go away: it matters.) The way he has defended that position seems contrary to everything I have always so admired about him.

And I have so admired him, for so long. I have to watch myself constantly to avoid the kind of wild-eyed evangelism that serves only to give aid and comfort to the creationist enemy. The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype provided (some of) the fundamental underpinnings for my understanding of (human) existence, and the belief and value system that’s built on that understanding.

I didn’t really need to read The God Delusion — preaching to the choir — but I did so and greatly enjoyed it purely for the joy of his arguments — the lucidity, the cogency, the logical and rhetorical coherence.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve recounted his anecdote about an aging professor who changes his mind. (“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” . . .  “We clapped our hands red.”) It still brings tears to my eyes when I read it, and epitomizes how science, for all its real-world failings, is fundamentally different from faith. (Here. Start with “It does happen.”)

So, again, I’m nearly teary-eyed at the stance he has taken, and the rhetoric he’s deployed, in response to a body of thinking that has grown over decades and came to something of a culmination in 2007. (I’m late to the party on this one.) That body of evidence and theory contradicts one of his longest- and strongest-held beliefs: that group selection is hooey, that it could not have had any role in the evolution of human altruism.

Remember the stated goal of Dawkins’ seminal book: “My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism.”

His basic theory: genes are the units of selection, and organisms are the vehicles of that selection. If a gene causes organisms to have more grandchildren, the gene’s frequency expands in the population.

Based on this, he rightly pooh-poohed warm, mushy, poorly-reasoned notions about genes contributing to “social cohesion” and the like. No altruistic gene could survive in a group if it didn’t provide net benefit for the individual containing that gene — either by helping the individual, helping kin who have the same gene, or through reciprocal payback from other individuals.

But what about the success of groups? Could groups with more altruistic genes have more grandchildren than groups with more purely self-serving genes? Could that group selection effect predominate over individual selection within the group?

It seems plausible, and from the first time I encountered the conundrum, it has always seemed to me to be a purely statistical question.

And that’s how (a damned impressive set of) mid-20th-century evolutionists went at it. They built models, ran the numbers, and determined that no: group selection could not overwhelm the forces of individual selection. If a gene isn’t good for an individual (and/or his kin), it will die out.

That belief achieved an orthodoxy in the political ecology of scientific academe that largely prevented later scientists from even raising the question, and successfully crushed most of the few efforts to re-examine it. It’s agonizingly similar to the despicable response that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology themselves encountered over those same decades, from the likes of Lewontin, Gould, and the “Theory” humanists.

As a result, both professionals and amateurs — including reasonably diligent amateurs like me — have been unthinkingly chanting along with that orthodoxy for years, decades. I don’t know how many times I’ve discredited thinking that seemed rooted in group-selectionist thinking.

And I was wrong. At least, I was too categorical. So I was sometimes/often wrong.

Here’s what makes me so sad: Richard Dawkins has been perhaps the most powerful voice for that orthodoxy, and he seems to be clinging to that idol even when its feet — his feet — are looking resoundingly clay-like.

Cutting to the meat, simplified:

In 2007, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson (the founder of sociobiology and one of the most brilliant, diligent, and sober evolutionary biologists to ever live, as Dawkins certainly agrees) published a paper (PDF) laying out the cogent, lucid, and compelling case that group selection can indeed predominate over individual selection in the evolution of altruistic genes — that the group can be a vehicle of selection, just as the individual can. (They talk about “multilevel selection.”)

In other words, genes that benefit the group can proliferate in the larger population, even if those genes are disadvantaged within the group. Again, it’s all a matter of models and statistics, and the Wilsons (no relation) deployed and cited damned convincing models and statistics showing that the earlier evolutionists probably got it wrong.

Now if Dawkins had cogent takedowns of those models and statistics, there is nobody I would rather hear them from. But his counterarguments have all been from principles, even when those principles are not thrown into question by Wilson and Wilson — their arguments are based on those principles.

What’s more dismaying is that Dawkins’ few dozen paragraphs in reply (remember, it’s been three years since then) bear all the hallmarks of a religionist who has not a leg to stand on, lashing out in frantic, desperate defense with red herrings, tangents, inapplicable arguments, dodges, weaves, and personal invective. (I’m not a professional in the field, but I know good and bad arguments when I hear them.)

This post is already too long, so I won’t detail everything here. You can see one of Dawkins’ replies here (PDF), and you can read the whole story from D. S. Wilson — including much of Dawkins’ response — here. Wilson’s 19-post blog thread is here in a one PDF.

I’ll just quote one passage from Dawkins to give the flavor of those replies:

…as far as I am concerned, the statement is false: not a semantic confusion; not an exaggeration of a half-truth; not a distortion of a quarter truth; but a total, unmitigated, barefaced lie.

This is not the Richard Dawkins I’ve known and (intellectually) loved for lo these many decades. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of that Richard Dawkins.

I can only quote D.S. Wilson’s words, which precisely echo my most heartfelt feelings:

In my dreams, I imagine him reading my modified haystack model and saying “Well done, David! I have been wrong all these years.”

Richard Dawkins won’t you please come home?

Reason and Intuition: Is There Really Any Difference?

November 22nd, 2009 1 comment

My sister just sent me the link to this discussion by Razib Khan on reason and intuition–timely, because it refers to Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter, who I just saw (and spoke to briefly) when he spoke at University of Washington last week on his book tour. (I found him engaging, interesting, and well-armed with fascinating facts and anecdotes, but he didn’t deliver any aha! moments for me–I’m definitely the choir, and he’s definitely preaching.)

My sister thinks Khan “gets it just about right,” and I certainly hesitate to question her sagacity. (She is older hence certainly wiser, after all.) But I came away from the post distinctly less satisfied. My basic problem: Khan–like almost everybody else that I hear discussing this subject–doesn’t seem to have any idea what he actually means by “intuition.” It’s tossed around generally in contradistinction to logical, syllogistic thinking (which is often referred to–in another example of poorly or un-considered thinking–as “linear” thinking).

To put the parenthetical aside first: logical thinking about any reasonably complex subject or problem is rarely linear. While portions of the thinking will certainly include “A leads to B which leads to C,” it also almost always includes some type of recursion and (I haven’t studied this so can’t give a good list) a variety of other decidedly nonlinear cognitive tools.

Returning to intuition, though: a definition by negation (“it’s non-logical, non-linear thought”) is useless even if “logical” and”linear” were accurate and clearly understood, because intuition can then encompass anything that isn’t that one thing. Khan exhibits this in spades. He suggests that intuition might be:

  • Innate knowledge: “These stances encapsulate the wisdom of evolution (e.g., aversion to sibling-sibling incest) and/or society (again, aversion to sibling-sibling incest).”
  • Surmise based on casual observation: “folk physics”.
  • Easily understandable explanations that are in accord with everyday experience: “Science allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive their theories are.”
  • Knowledge so ingrained through practice as to feel automatic: “Specialists in technical fields often develop domain-specific intuitions through long experience.”

There are almost endless other possibilities. (Ones you hear often involve “humaness,” “empathy,” “holism,” etc., all of which seem to grope toward something that does seem right for the definition.) Some may stand up as good definitions of intuition. But if the writer/thinker hasn’t done the thinking to even know what he’s talking about when he uses the word–or has only employed wooly, half-hearted noodling without nailing down what he means–the writing doesn’t yield much light.

I’ve always thought of intuition–in an almost equally useless definition–as “back-brain processing.” It’s the stuff we’re all familiar with, embodied in the phrase “lemme sleep on it.” We know that the mind (and the brain, though in a different way) is made up of a whole lot of semi-autonomous modules that are good at particular things. Consciousness–which is sometimes (inaptly) called “the executive function”–is only one of those modules. The operations of those modules are most often completely opaque or downright invisible to other modules–including the “conscious thought” module. For instance, we can’t perceive or much control the modules that handle various types of visual or spatial processing, even though (see Pinker’s How The Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought) those very modules and a whole lot of others are being turned to task for us (even) when we think we’re thinking consciously and “logically.” A lot of thinking, of any type (including logical thought), is farmed out to the back brain.

And those back-brain modules are no slouches. They use the same kind of complex, recursive, and yes, linear cognitive techniques that the “logical” mind does. (They may only use one or two techniques each–some use this a lot, some use that…there’s a big toolbox to draw from.) All that processing may emerge in the consciousness module with the appearance (to us) of logic and linearity, or it may appear as a flash of “intuition.” But it’s the same mass of modules that’s doing the grunt work down deep.

Now maybe “intuitive thinking” refers to a method that employs particular mind modules more, or in different ways from, those that are used for “logical thinking.” Fair enough. But I don’t know what those methods and modules might be, and I’m quite certain that 99.999% of people who talk about “intuition” don’t know either. Also fair enough–you shouldn’t be required to know intimately how the mind works to think about the issue–especially as we (even cognitive scientists) still have very little understanding of how the mind works.

But scientists are, finally, learning a hell of a lot these days–actual knowledge, tested by controlled experiments that can overcome our innate predilection for self-delusion, as opposed to the armchair surmise that has constituted the stuff of psychological “knowledge” since Freud started the courageous effort to plumb our deepest mystery. (As Steven Pinker has pointed out, the brain/mind is actually going from the status of “mystery” to the status of “problem that can potentially be solved, at least in parts.”)

It was some of that experimental knowledge–delivered in a talk by Jonah Lehrer that I attended, and in his book How We Decide–that started to crystalize the fuzzy notion I’ve always had of intuition as back-brain processing. He explains that we learn through a dopamine-feedback system. We make predictions and when they turn out right, we get a little dopamine hit. Feels good. When we get them wrong, though, the pusher holds our fix, and it feels really bad. (This goes a long way toward explaining why humans will go to such extraordinary lengths–destroying relationships with loved ones, etc.–to avoid [the self-perception of?] being wrong.) Our decisions are always based–at some fundamental level–on how something feels. (This is not an endorsement of “just trust your feelings”; see “fundamental level” in the last sentence.)

Lehrer also points to a set of experiments that seem to show that when we think we’re making a decision in our frontal cortex, in fact the decision has already been made, milliseconds before, elsewhere in the brain. (Though Daniel Dennet does a fairly convincing job of discrediting these experiments in Freedom Evolves.) The message that goes to our so-called “executive function” is not in the form of a thought, it’s a feeling: feels good, or feels bad. That’s how the back brain communicates the already-made decisions to the front brain–through pleasure and pain. (How else could we possibly know what we “want”? How could a nematode know that it wants food, or learn how to get it, aside from a pain/pleasure feedback system?)

In short, what feels like conscious decision-making really isn’t. We feed the problem back into our back brain, and ask it, essentially, “how do ‘I’ feel about this?” It responds with a “Tarzan feel bad” or “Jane feel good” signal strong enough to emerge into, be felt by, our consciousness module.

This does not negate the value of logical thought, but it casts our control over that process in a very different framework. We don’t (just?) control our “impulses” on their way out of the back-brain/id/reptilian brain/whatever you want to call it, as in the Freudian and other psychological models. Quite the opposite really: Our real power is in what we feed back into that massively multimodular brain. We can deliver it the information, experience, and experimental results (including feelings that emerge from that back brain itself, further processed consciously) that it needs to make smart decisions, or we can feed it pablum and pap, well-processed or not. It’s a true garbage-in-garbage-out situation. We can, to some extent, manage the process that sometimes looks (to us) like logic and sometimes looks like intuition, but that is mostly made up of the very same back-brain stuff.

In other words: intuition is reasoning. And logical reasoning–except of the simplest sort–inevitably relies on intuition.

At this point I think I should throw the baton to a writer who has done his thinking damned carefully (though without the benefits of experimental knowledge that we have). In a long-favorite passage of mine, Milton in Paradise Lost has the Angel Raphael (speaking to the as-yet-unfallen couple of their blissful state) comment on two types of reason:

Discursive, or Intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours

Raphael knows: humans aren’t very good at intuitive reasoning. It’s the stuff of angels. (Partly because we’re forever polluting it with various combinations of the stuff that Khan vaguely thinks of as “intuition.”) We should should stick to the the lowly, earthly discursive stuff that our measly frames are fit for.

But when we do achieve it, that divine intuitive reasoning, the results are downright angelic. Even heavenly.

This is all still feeling like pretty loosy-goosy thinking to me. But I hope it at least shows an effort towards actually knowing what I mean when I talk about “intution.” I think I’m gonna have to sleep on it.

“Branding Happens”

February 10th, 2009 1 comment

My ex business partner Steve has a new post asking why anybody uses glossy branding ads, when direct marketing is so much more cost-effective, and builds brand at the same time.

The weird thing about us was that we cared about conversion (vs “branding”) , and despite dozens of attempts to make ads pay, the ROI on print ads was always abysmal compared to direct mail.
Despite our total neglect of “brand management” (we simply focused on getting people to our events, and then making their experience as close to perfection as possible) we developed a fabulous brand. …

Our mantra was “Branding Happens.” Getting and keeping customers is the way to achieve that.

I used to wonder the same thing (think: Dell), but I remember hearing a big honcho Pepsi ad manager speak at one of our events, and her saying "you don't build a big brand with direct marketing." And for something like Pepsi, she's absolutely right.

We were pushing high-ticket, carefully considered purchases. Same as Dell. Most purchases aren't like that.

I went to Jonah Lehrer's (How We Decide) book-tour lecture last night at Town Hall in Seattle. He mentioned the studies done mimicking the Pepsi challenge. Give a Pepsi lover a Coke and tell them it's a Pepsi, and they love it. And vice versa. The brand association overrides any true direct experience of the product.

The same is true even with cars and other things that you'd think would be rationally considered purchases. Sadly, they aren't. (Even in politics–look how many people vote for Republicans!)

The rational mind parses information and feeds it back to the emotional system, sort of asking "how do I feel about this?" The emotional system responds with feelings. Firebird good! Camaro bad! It's ultimately The Decider. (Where else can "I want" come from?)

Branding ads try to bypass the front-brain parsing, and aim for a straight conduit into the emotional system.

If you're selling sugar water, or perfume (same thing)–where there is no real rational parsing to do–or overpriced watches that do the same thing as a $20 Timex (so you need people to avoid the parsing and analysis), branding is all you got.

And if you're selling something where the number of choices and choice criteria is large, beyond people's ability or willingness to sort through rationally (not doing the up-front work for the emotional system), branding wins.

Think: Sarah Palin.

Sarah, can you give us your thoughts on the battle between Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney over Lincoln's (and eventually Congress's) suspension of habeus corpus during the Civil War?

Education Needed?

February 9th, 2009 No comments

The #9 search term on ask.com for the week ending January 29th:

“How to get pregnant”

This is pretty funny at first blush. But it’s curious at second.

Google Trends shows searches for this prase nearly tripling  from June to December, 2008.

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Do tough economic times make it harder to conceive?

Interestingly, the United Arab Emirates is the #1 source for this search, significantly ahead of the U.S.–even though the U.S. has 75 times the population. A Google News search doesn’t turn up any recent changes in UAE policies that might explain that. Go figger.