Archive for December, 2013

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Policing the police

December 30, 2013

I’ve heard several people suggest this idea but I hadn’t heard that it had been put into practice. This article appeared in The New York Times in late August. (My emphasis.)

RTWT. And advocate this for your local police forces.

In California, a Champion for Police Cameras

RIALTO, Calif. — “Get on the ground,” Sgt. Chris Hice instructed. The teenage suspects sat on the curb while Sergeant Hice handcuffed them.

“Cross your legs; don’t get up; put your legs back,” he said, before pointing to the tiny camera affixed to his Oakley sunglasses. “You’re being videotaped.”

It is a warning that is transforming many encounters between residents and police in this sunbaked Southern California city: “You’re being videotaped.”

Rialto has become the poster city for this high-tech measure intended to police the police since a federal judge last week applauded its officer camera program in the ruling that declared New York’s stop-and-frisk program unconstitutional. Rialto is one of the few places where the impact of the cameras has been studied systematically.

In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period. […]

William A. Farrar, the Rialto police chief, believes the cameras may offer more benefits than merely reduced complaints against his force: the department is now trying to determine whether having video evidence in court has also led to more convictions.

But even without additional data, Chief Farrar has invested in cameras for the whole force.

“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Chief Farrar said. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.” […]

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A failure to communicate

December 23, 2013

Here’s some interesting news from Australia (with an interesting analogy for bad communications). I assume "late next year" refers to late 2014.

The potential fall-out from this one boggles the mind.

Cause of ageing that can be reversed
19 December 2013

Medical researchers have found a cause of ageing in animals that can be reversed, possibly paving the way for new treatments for age-related diseases including cancer, type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting and inflammatory diseases.

The researchers hope to start human trials late next year.

The study, published today in the journal Cell, relates to mitochondria – our cells’ battery packs – which provide energy to carry out key biological functions.

The work, led by David Sinclair from UNSW Medicine, found a series of molecular events enable communication inside cells between the mitochondria and the nucleus. As communication breaks down, ageing accelerates.

“The ageing process we discovered is like a married couple – when they are young, they communicate well, but over time, living in close quarters for many years, communication breaks down,” says UNSW Professor Sinclair, who is based at Harvard Medical School.

“And just like a couple, restoring communication solved the problem,” says the geneticist.

Via Gizmag

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How to manage health care

December 22, 2013

I’ve mentioned price transparency for health care before. This article in The Freeman describes a surgeon who’s making it happen. And he confirms my long-held idea that what makes medical care so expensive is all the paperwork and overhead.

Can This Man Save Healthcare?

While the country focuses its attention on the sputtering implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), one man is quietly revolutionizing American medicine. Dr. Keith Smith, founder of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma (SCO) in Oklahoma City, is bringing market forces to healthcare by posting his prices online.

Healthcare costs in the United States have increased at an average rate of 7.7 percent per year since 1980, compared to 4.6 percent for the consumer price index. Smith believes price wars and other market mechanisms, not increased government control, are the best way to stem and reverse this inflation. With the ACA’s implementation, the prospects for formal healthcare policy changes are limited. Smith hopes, however, that he and a handful of other transparent fee-for-service providers will be the vanguard of a free-market movement that runs parallel to the ACA. “The price transparency and price deflation,” Smith says, “aims at the soft underbelly of the beast.” […]

Healthcare Doesn’t Cost That Much

According to Smith, “Healthcare doesn’t cost that much, but what healthcare professionals charge is another matter.” By cutting out hospital administrators and the bureaucracy involved with third-party payers, the SCO is able to offer healthcare services at deep discounts. For example, for a patient with a bad back, the SCO was able to perform a two-level disc decompression for $8,500. That paid for the surgeon, anesthesia, and supply costs as well as an overnight stay. The patient’s next-closest bid was $60,000, saving his company’s health plan $51,500. While few would argue that high four- to low five-figure treatment costs are cheap in absolute terms, in relative terms they are. For major spine surgery, the SCO charges $16,500, which Smith admits “is a lot of money, but people are flying here from Alaska and Massachusetts to get this price because in their home states it’s not uncommon for this surgery to cost $175,000.” […]

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Five reasons

December 22, 2013

Here’s a very interesting article from ThinkProgress.org. I’ve kept their five reasons but omitted the specifics. If you’re intrested, RTWT.

5 Reasons Why 2013 Was The Best Year In Human History

Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.

But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.

Contrary to what you might have heard, virtually all of the most important forces that determine what make people’s lives good — the things that determine how long they live, and whether they live happily and freely — are trending in an extremely happy direction. While it’s possible that this progress could be reversed by something like runaway climate change, the effects will have to be dramatic to overcome the extraordinary and growing progress we’ve made in making the world a better place.

Here’s the five big reasons why.

1. Fewer people are dying young, and more are living longer. […]
2. Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, and the world is getting happier. […]
3. War is becoming rarer and less deadly. […]
4. Rates of murder and other violent crimes are in free-fall. […]
5. There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world.

I have a few differences with the author:

  • I’m not worried about inequality of outcome so long as equality of opportunity still applies. While I don’t think it always applies everywhere, I think it’s true more often than not. Let’s not make the Perfect the enemy of the Good.
  • Neither am I worried about the "deadly dysfunction" of a government shutdown. Democratic partisans like to ignore the fact that passing sweeping legislation (Obamacare) on a strictly party-line vote will always result in determined opposition from the other party. (No Republican representatives voted for the bill.) But if the roles were reversed, then Democratic partisans would be lauding their own obstructive efforts as The Will Of The People or whatever.
  • I’m not too concerned about "runaway climate change" and my guess is that many who are concerned now will change their minds later.
  • He neglects to mention that deaths from cancer continue to fall in the U.S.

Overall, I think the article highlights some very positive trends. There are always so many people using Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt to promote their agendas — and so many fans of Apocalypse Porn — that it’s very easy to ignore all the progress that’s being made.

After you read the ThinkProgress piece, check out the Cato Institute’s HumanProgress.org site for more in the same vein.

And Happy New Year!

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Seasonal humor 2013

December 21, 2013

I take the candy, you keep the Keynes

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You’d still be wrong

December 9, 2013

…if you thought "the lessons from letting governments mismanage economies would be apparent to people by now and that they wouldn’t let their governments try that" (as I wrote six months ago).

This article from The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Venezuelan government is still trying to micro-manage the country’s economy in the usual statist manner. That is, by force and the threat of force: "levying hefty fines and even jail time on venders who don’t comply with government-approved prices." (My emphasis below.)

Venezuela: where used car salesmen are king?

For the past nine months, Luis Medina, a building caretaker, has scoured new car listings, searching for a light truck or SUV. Despite having the cash in hand, he’s regularly turned away from dealerships due to years-long waiting lists.

“At this point it’s whatever’s available,” he says.

New cars in Venezuela have become something of a rarity, yet many like Mr. Medina balk at the thought of buying used. “They’re far too expensive for what they’re worth,” he says.

The premise may leave car enthusiasts in other parts of the world scratching their heads, but vehicles actually gain in value in Venezuela – as soon as they’re driven off the new or used lot. Shortages and government-mandated currency controls have led to higher preowned car prices, as many consumers are desperate to find a vehicle.

On TuCarro.com, a popular used car website, a secondhand 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee is more than double the price of a new one. Similarly, five-year-old Ford Fiestas and Explorers easily match factory sticker prices.

But in a move to protect consumers, Venezuela’s National Assembly has sought to throw the brakes on soaring car costs. Last month, a bill was passed that, if signed into a law by President Nicolás Maduro, would attempt to regulate both new and used car prices, levying hefty fines and even jail time on venders who don’t comply with government-approved prices.

As though the poor citizens of Venezuela don’t have it bad enough with 45% inflation, now they’re probably facing price caps when selling used cars — as though the boys in Caracas have all the used car angles figured already.

When do you think the Venezuelan government will figure out that citizens are both consumers (buyers) and producers (sellers) in a used goods market? I haven’t met many people who’ve bought used cars but never sold any. Have you?

Will the Venezuelan government ever make that connection? Or will it be too proud of its new law to ‘protect consumers’ to notice that today’s buyer is tomorrow’s seller?

Speaking of the Venezuelan government, I wonder how its campaign against that nasty toilet paper conspiracy turned out?

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Paging Mr. Bastiat

December 8, 2013

What is seen

Here’s the start of a recent article at Gizmag about a Mexican inventor’s scheme to harvest energy from passing cars.

Low-cost system uses passing vehicles to generate electricity

Over the years, various researchers have developed systems in which the weight transferred through cars’ wheels onto the road – or through pedestrians’ feet onto the sidewalk – is used to generate electricity. These systems utilize piezoelectric materials, which convert mechanical stress into an electrical current. Such materials may be effective, but they’re also too expensive for use in many parts of the world. That’s why Mexican entrepreneur Héctor Ricardo Macías Hernández created his own rather ingenious alternative.

In Macías Hernández’ system, small ramps made from a tough, tire-like polymer are embedded in the road, protruding 5 cm (2 in) above the surface. When cars drive over them, the ramps are temporarily pushed down.

When this happens, air is forced through a bellows that’s attached to the underside of the ramp. That air travels through a hose, and is compressed in a storage tank. The stored compressed air is ultimately fed into a turbine, generating electricity.

What is unseen.

Oil-production

I’m not the first person to make this point about this type of scheme, but what Senor Macías Hernández’ system does is to steal a small bit of energy from each car that passes it. Ultimately, his system is powered by whatever is powering the cars – and petroleum is still a pretty safe bet.

Further, Macías Hernández’ system generates electricity through the rather cumbersome process of burning the refined petroleum in small-scale internal combustion engines (at 25 – 30% efficiency) to propel the cars over an air pump in the pavement (and I’d like to see how efficient that process is) to compress air to drive an electric generator.

Mr. Rube, meet Mr. Goldberg.

I think several factors probably go unseen in this picture.

1. There’s a cost imposed on the drivers of the cars. It’s probably so small that it would be difficult to measure but, still, it’s there. Otherwise, there’d be no energy to harvest.

In effect, there’d be a barely visible tax imposed on drivers using roads with this system in place. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a reductio ad absurdum argument showing a measurable result. What would happen to your car’s fuel economy if you had to drive over one of these air pumps every block or so?

2. What are the construction and maintenance costs of the recovery system? Unfortunately, the Gizmag article doesn’t give any figures for expected construction costs (despite calling it a "low-cost system") nor does it address the cost of maintaining the system.

Once the politicians have got a Green buzz on from sponsoring such a project, will they still be willing to vote for maintenance money after the buzz is gone?

How long will it take to pay back the capital investment? What will the cost be for a megawatt-hour generated from the compressed air? How will that cost compare to the market price for electricity?

3. What’s the opportunity cost of this system? Since it’s built into roads, my guess is that city, state or national governments (the typical road-builders) will be the agents building this thing. What else might be done with the taxes that would fund the building of Senor Macías Hernández’ system?

If a government agency wants to generate & sell electricity, doesn’t it make more sense for it to build a generating station and burn the petroleum directly instead? Of course it does.

What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.


Note: I have no problem with people producing petroleum nor with people burning it. The unseen problem here is not the use of petroleum in itself.

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Nicely put

December 7, 2013

Yesterday I watched a Reason interview of Arin Greenwood that was about her new book Save The Enemy. I haven’t read the book (nor her other book).

But I did follow Reason’s link to Ms. Greenwood’s tumblr site and I read some of the essays she’s written.

I especially liked her essay titled Wanted: Gullible Lawyers for several reasons. First, I thought she has a very pleasant written voice; I liked her style in other words.

Second, what she recounts in that essay was both pretty interesting and pretty amusing (in a dark sort of way). One of the interesting parts to me was the group-think that she and her team members got caught up in. Another was the Man-Behind-The-Curtain, Gerald Edward. He sounded like quite an operator (in the fourth sense given here).

Finally, I was struck by these sentences in her essay.

That is what you do when you’re a lawyer. You figure out how to learn what you don’t know, and you quickly become an expert in new, tricky fields. Haven’t you ever noticed that lawyers know everything?

That’s just how I think about engineering and I believe you could substitute ‘engineer’ for ‘lawyer’ in these sentences and they’d make just as much sense. (Though I’ll guess that our definitions of a ‘tricky field’ might be different.)

And I’ll add that those sentences can apply to almost any profession or trade, depending on the person practicing it. Put another way, the abilities to figure out what you don’t know and teach yourself what you need to know are really character traits. They’re due to attitude and adaptability more than they are to what you do for a living, what degrees you’ve been granted, or how you’ve been trained.

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