Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reversing inflated health care costs: a free market approach

The Atlantic has a good analysis and a solid proposal for affordable health care in the U.S., which pays twice as much for health care as the average for industrialized countries. Although it was written 6 years ago, the inflated costs it talks about have only become worse since then.

It's very long, but IMO well worth reading. The techniques by which his proposal will reduce costs should excite Democrats and its focus on free markets should excite Republicans, but I fear that Democrats won't support it because it's tantamount to admitting Obamacare sucks, and Republicans won't support it because reducing health care costs would eat into the profits of hospitals and insurance providers.

Thus, those who want intelligent reforms will have to reform Congress first. Fix democracy first: vote Lessig in the primaries, and don't vote for anyone that doesn't support campaign finance reform.

Hello again, Deepak Obhrai asked its supporters to express their top priorities to their new MP, but my new MP is the old conservative MP (who clung to his seat with 48% of the vote). I wrote him anyway.
To be honest, I'm not a conservative, but I do think there are merits to common conservative beliefs, such as low taxes with minimal public services, a hands-off approach to governance (I mean, Calgary zoning regulations really tick me off sometimes!), a reluctance to support abortions, and so forth. I'm even sympathetic to the Conservative reaction against the niqab - hey, it creeps me out, too.

However, the Harper conservatives adopted bad policies that are not core elements of conservatism, such as the "war on data" (killing the long form census, sending libraries to landfills even if they contain the only remaining copies of certain publications, muzzling scientists), or C-23, a bill to reduce minority voter turnout, among other things. Plus, the conservatives maintained the long tradition that all parties in power enjoy, of rejecting election reforms (Direct Representation and Proportional Representation) that would make the power of people in Parliament reflect voters' wishes accurately.

So I would just urge the conservatives not to get in the way of electoral reform, and to favor small-c conservative values over big-R Republican ones.

The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing

When I was in my last year of university, trying to get my degree in Computer Engineering, one of the courses I took required me to choose a goal and write a program to fulfill that goal. My goal was to add unit inference to a programming language. This would detect, for example, that in "dist + 2 km", dist must be a quantity of kilometres; and if dist seems to have a different unit elsewhere in the same program, the program must have a bug in it.

One requirement of the course was to find and read five academic papers related to my goal, and I was indeed able to locate 5 academic papers about unit checking and unit inference. I remember there were multiple papers about unit checking that I was able to follow, but they weren't really useful because I wanted to go beyond unit checking and do the more complex task of unit inference (I won't bore you by explaining the difference between unit checking and unit inference; the essential difference is that unit inference is easier for a programmer to use, but harder for the programming language to perform. In other words, it shifts effort from the programmer to the computer.)

As I recall, the academic paper that ultimately seemed most relevant to my work was also the most incomprehensible. I'm unable to locate the paper now, 9 years later, but I remember being stuck on its use of obscure terminology such as "abelian groups" and other jargon, its reliance on an obscure programming language like ML or Lambda Calculus, and/or its use of notation that looked something like this:

(For non-programmers reading this, just let me clarify that most programmers, and perhaps most computer scientists, have never seen anything like this.)

Look, there are literally millions of professional programmers in the world. So here was a paper about concepts that all engineers know about (unit checking) that is relevant to most programmers (we all make bugs involving units at some point), for a goal that could benefit all programmers (unit inference), yet no matter how hard I tried, I could not comprehend that paper or any other paper that had useful information about the subject. In the end, the papers were worthless; I ignored them and figured out how to perform unit inference by myself.

Since that time I have tried hard to write in ways that my audience would be able to understand, and to use other communication techniques not used by those damn worthless papers (such as using good examples). Today I'd like to thank The Atlantic for reminding me about the importance of comprehensible writing, and for reminding academics that they're still doing a crappy job.

See also:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Yahoo News supports climate change denier

A few years ago I began receiving unsolicited Yahoo News emails from Yahoo. Since I didn't already have a source of news in my email, I accepted and often read the articles it suggested.

I was a little surprised recently when Yahoo sent me to a "news" article with the headline "Perth electrical engineer’s discovery will change climate change debate":
A former climate modeller for the Government’s Australian Greenhouse Office, with six degrees in applied mathematics, Dr Evans has unpacked the architecture of the basic climate model which underpins all climate science.

He has found that, while the underlying physics of the model is correct, it had been applied incorrectly.

He has fixed two errors and the new corrected model finds the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide (CO2) is much lower than was thought.

It turns out the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has over-estimated future global warming by as much as 10 times, he says. “Yes, CO2 has an effect, but it’s about a fifth or tenth of what the IPCC says it is. CO2 is not driving the climate; it caused less than 20 per cent of the global warming in the last few decades”.

Dr Evans says his discovery “ought to change the world”.

“But the political obstacles are massive,” he said.
Since this article flatly contradicts my own knowledge, I had to dig deeper.

To put it simply, 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, and I have the impression that there is a consensus not just on the cause but also on the magnitude of the problem. It's a fairly strong consensus, and overturning that consensus will take more than one guy publishing a blog series that one newspaper calls a "discovery". For that reason alone, I would caution you not to take David Evans at his word. Wait for him to publish a properly peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal, then see how other scientists respond to it.

But of course, at least one scientific group has already published a rebuttal. This rebuttal isn't to the "news" story, but rather to an article that David Evans himself published in the Financial Times. Have a look:
The main error Evans makes here is to claim that climate sensitivity is simply a number churned out by climate models. In reality, climate scientists have used many different lines of evidence to create numerous independent estimates of the planet's climate sensitivity. These include not just climate models, but also empirical observational data (Figure 1 and Figure 2).
And here is another article (blog post) from someone who himself debated David Evans on the topic of climate change.

Vote Together, Canada!

It's federal election day in Canada. It's important to defeat Harper, but with our broken voting system, that won't happen by simply voting for your favorite candidate. That's why Vote Together was set up, to help you choose which candidate in your riding has the best chance of defeating the Harper Conservative.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Final Leaked TPP Text is All That We Feared

Citizen groups in North America and elsewhere are concerned about the TPP for a variety of reasons. Among geeks, the biggest concern tends to be the copyright provisions, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes as "all that we feared".
If you dig deeper, you'll notice that all of the provisions that recognize the rights of the public are non-binding, whereas almost everything that benefits rightsholders is binding. That paragraph on the public domain, for example, used to be much stronger in the first leaked draft, with specific obligations to identify, preserve and promote access to public domain material. All of that has now been lost in favor of a feeble, feel-good platitude that imposes no concrete obligations on the TPP parties whatsoever.
Despite being finalized, the text of the TPP is being kept secret and the text reviewed here was leaked by Wikileaks. A note for voters: Stephen Harper is a strong supporter of the TPP. Visit to learn about how to defeat the conservatives. If you are still unsure who to vote for, vote for the parties that support electoral reform: NDP or Green.