Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The 'Destruction" of Wealth

OK, economics is not my thing. I am pretty good at seeing the big picture, the concrete, the forest that all the tree are in, whatever, but economics largely escapes me.

NPR was talking about the "great destruction of wealth" that is going on.

I don't understand the concrete reality of this. Wealth usually has to do with money, yes? So you have money or you don't. If you have money and put it in the bank, the bank presumably will give it back to you when you withdraw it. If you have money and you put it under your mattress it will stay there, but also serve no useful purpose in the meantime. If you put your money under your mattress, smoke in bed, catch your mattress on fire and burn up your money, you have destroyed it.

Now, if you put your money on a bet on a horse, you no longer have that money, you spent it. It is not destroyed, it has been spent. If you were clever and lucky, the horse wins and the track awards you money based on how much total money was bet on the horse out of the total money spent on that race, and taking their profit margin into account. Overall, all the people betting on that race put more money in than they get back with winnings, and the best horses win some money, and the track makes a profit off the bets, the horses entered, and the people who paid admission to watch as well as what they ate and drank. All together no wealth was destroyed, though it got moved around.

Now if you are a bank you have people pay money into a variety of banking services, the bank in turn pays money out in various ways that they hope to make money on. In recent years the banks foolishly sent money out to people who were buying houses that they couldn't really afford, and spent money on other things that were essentially bets. The banks were not clever or lucky and they lost a lot of bets. the money is not GONE it just got moved around.

Similarly, people bought houses by taking out loans and then bet on the idea that their houses were increasing in "value" and took out more loans etc.

Turns out that the housing market was overinflated. Real Americans just can't afford to pay that much for houses, so the bets were not good ones. Any perceived wealth that these people thought they had was just not there. Nothing was destroyed. The houses still exist. Unfortunately for the mortgage holders, they can't make their payments, the loans default and all the money that they HAD paid to the bank stays with the bank and the people are tossed out of the house. So the people spent a chunk of money and only got the time they lived in the house from it, kind of like paying rent. The bank got some but not all the money they loaned back, only the original seller should be still happy. nonetheless, the money used was not destroyed, rather it is all in the hands of the bank and the original seller.

I would chalk it all up to foolish betting. Investors were imagining big wins that they just didn't get.

Unfortunately, that left these bank's money spread in places where they couldn't get it back, so they are short on cash and won't lend money easily and we are way to used to doing too much on credit so the whole economy skids. But, no wealth was DESTROYED.

So, what am I missing?

Educate or leave it be?

I am an educator. I also have a standard academic/intellectual approach to things. I am happy to debate, I like to find out what the truth is, I take a bit of odd egotistical pride in admitting I am wrong when I am.

Now, what if someone else is wrong, or says I am wrong when I'm not? My native tendency is to correct them, and supply direct evidence showing what I am saying is true (or as true as we poor human creatures normally get to).

Now add on another hitch suppose the misinformation that the other person has is common misinformation? I run into this problem frequently, as there is a lot of common misinformation out there.

And finally what if the misinformation is propaganda? This is where I get the most conflicted. 1) Wow is that WRONG and it is used to support what I think of as bad ideology on top of that! 2) If I give this person the information that will show the errors they will think it is an attack on their ideology, which in truth it will be and they may take it very personally. 3) They may be so successfully propaganda brainwashed that they will assume that I am the one who is, and disregard all evidence to the contrary.

But still, there I go, bringing out information, showing data, all with a sinking heart.

Tonight I was doing it about stem cells. I was so pleased to see the removal of Bush's strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research. There has been so much promising work done with mouse ES cells that it is a real shame that similar work has lagged so with human ES cells. Obama's removal of Presidential limits will not open the field wide of course, congress and States need to deal with it now. But, I was pleased and Obama's statements about separating science from ideology were nice to hear.

Of course I found myself accused of being blatantly political in my approach to science. I was told that "All of the promising research is in adult or umbilical cord stem cells. This is nakedly political." In truth the person doesn't think that the federal government should support ANY scientific research, or education for that matter. The free market should handle everything. Personally I would not want to live in that entirely free market world. I think the government provides societal roles that the free market really can't, but that is besides the point.

There is some very exciting embryonic stem cell work being done. Most of it is done with Mouse ES cells, and a good chunk of it not in the U.S. So, I supplied lists of articles and titles and authors for a handful of cool new ES studies published in the last few months. Most of them were done with mouse cells, most of them were not dne in this country. A couple of them checked non-embryonic stem cells to see how they might work. Answer? Not so well.

I completely expect to be lambasted for this, or to be met with hurt. Oh well. It seems that I can't not do it. I want to set the facts straight.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Truth, and Falsehoods, are Out There

“Why” Noelle said to me on the phone ”do people get angry when you tell them the truth?”

My immediate thought were of people asking for an opinion on how they looked, or the taste of a newly tried recipe, or a student asking “is this ok?” about some idea for a paper. That was not what it was about.

Noelle’s son is in a parochial school. It was a little before Christmas. His teacher had told his class a story about the meaning of candy canes. The teacher said that the hook shape is the letter J for Jesus, that the red stripes were for the blood of Christ shed on the cross. She had a Christian meaning for everything. (you can find this kind of interpretation with minimal Google searching on the internet). Even the pepperment flavor has been linked to a biblical herb.

Noelle had thought that this sounded bogus, so she looked up the origins of candy canes. All even semi-scholarly accounts had them starting as simple sugar sticks as a treat for kids that were initially bent (according to legend) in shepherd’s crook shape by a Choirmaster at a cathedral who would give them to the children there in the 17th century. They hung nicely on Christmas trees and caught on. People made them at home, simple white bent sugar sticks hanging on Christmas trees. Some played with flavors and colorings.

The “traditional” flavor and striping are 20th century additions. The red stripes were pretty on the trees, the peppermint flavor cheap and popular, and were incorporated by commercial manufacturers. They sold well.

Noelle told this to her son, and then, out of curiosity asked her husband what he knew about candy canes. Even though he is an atheist, he repeated the blood of Christ story, which he had heard when he was young. When Noelle told him that that was modern myth-making, he was angry.

So, the phone call: I said that I found the attached meaning to be pretty harmless. If it had been my kid, I would probably have looked it, found it not to be true, and told the kid that that wasn’t the origin, but that adding the meaning to the modern red striped canes helps remind us of the origins of Christmas. If I had been the Catholic school teacher (and more religious than I currently am) I would have said that the red stripes can remind us of the blood of Christ who died on a cross for our sins, and if you turn the cane upside down it is a J, and if we do that, even this simple candy treat can take on Christmas meaning for us.

Noelle was not impressed.

Since then I have been thinking about this often. More and more I am seeing in it an underlying flaw in human nature. People tend to make up or hear stories that they like. They invest in them emotionally. They go through all kinds of avoidance and denial of any facts that might show the story to be false. On occasion this can be helpful, or harmless, but more often it is counterproductive or even harmful.

People take hypotheses or even cobbled together bits of poorly sorted observations and treat them as if they were true facts and explanations, not unsupported ideas. Then they willfully adhere to them in the face of contradictory information, or simple refuse to look and see if they might be false.

Our student newspaper had a headline “Parents say MMR vaccine linked to autism” when the article was about a court decision to not allow people with autistic kids to get monetary compensation from a vaccine-related damages fund. The article went on to correctly report that huge studies have found no link between autism and vaccines and that author of a founding study that led to the idea of the connection had been found to have manipulated and falsified records to support his hypothesis. Yet, the headline implied the well-refuted hypothesis.

For ten years individuals advocacy groups have been raising money wasting time and energy on a incorrect hypothesis. There is no problem with that initially, as hypotheses need to be tested, but once it is clear that they are wrong, work on others! Years of time and money that could REALLY have made a difference wasted. Children were put at risk, and some died due to fears about vaccinations.

Interestingly, the student newspaper also reported a story about Beer Pong and infectious diseases such as herpes, supposedly reported by the CDC. Um, no. That study has not in fact been done. Once one newspaper reported it, large numbers of others picked it up. It was an the kind of story the student newspaper wanted. The editor published a well thought out apology for jumping on the bandwagon without checking the facts.

Needless deaths, our history is full of them, and often they are due to willfull belief in falsehoods. What about the Bush administration’s belief, or if one is more cynical, the Bush administration’s success at getting many Americans to unquestionably believe, that there were WMDs in Iraq. How many lives did that cost? How many trillions of dollars? If only people had paid attention to the quality of the evidence. Certainly, one can argue that Saddam unchecked would have cost many many lives as well, and that would be true, but that was not the argument that took us to Iraq. I suspect that there would have been MANY better possible solutions that what happened, many that would have not cost so very much in money and destruction and lives.

I talked to a bunch of people in Colorado in 2004 who had allowed themselves to be convinced that Saddam had orchestrated the bombing of the World Trade Center. When I tried to say no, all the evidence points elsewhere, I was accused of having been brainwashed by the "liberal media". I wonder if there are still people who believe that. Alternatively, a couple of Middle-eastern students on campus told me that it was an Israeli plot and that all of the Jews had been warned in advance and so didn't go to work in the towers that day. All the information about Jewish people who died in the towers was ignored, or said to be misleading lies. Craziness.

What about the long denial by smokers that smoking was harmful? What about the conspiracy theories that perpetuate hatred?

Why do people want to believe things that aren’t true? These days it is so easy to go online and sift through information from a variety of sources and often quickly determine what is likely to be valid, and want is just rant, and opinion, and uncontrolled observation. Why is that so hard to do?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Narcissistic Post

My last entry was number 100. I suppose that I should have paid attention and maybe done this there.

Sometimes I wonder how many people are out there who are like me. Only two or three people look at my blog so it is hardly the place to find out. Nonetheless,it makes me think about what I think are my defining characteristics. Katie occasionally puts up a list of assorted things about herself. Is it useful? Is it an exercise in narcissism? I don’t know. It is why people design and repeat memes. So, with those useless ruminations I am going to embark on a list of what I think are defining characteristics about me, numbered but in no particular order:

1. I’m smart. My IQ was measured at about 160 when I was a child. I assume that it hasn’t changed. Though one never knows.

2. I’m dyslexic. I attribute to that my poor spelling, inability to tell left from right, inability to memorize, and poor organizational skills.

3. I’m creative. I’m a creative cook, have an arty side, like to doodle and draw and create things from beads, clay, whatever. Unfortunately I have little time for that.

4. I’m devoted to and like my job, and it was what I wanted to do since childhood, a Genetics Professor and researcher and a teaching oriented University. I like science in general, biology more specifically. I view the whole world through my scientist eyes.

5. Unfortunately I am a procrastinator and a slow grader.

6. I’m unusually strong. I do not need to work out to keep my unusual muscles, though I like to work out.

7. I’m fat. I have fought with my weight since puberty. Before puberty I was scrawny.

8. I love music, a lot of music, though I tend to dislike pop and country and the classical impressionists like Ravel. I like Beethoven, Bach, Poulanc, Shostakovich, Dvorak, Schubert, Beatles, Led Zeppelen, Stones, REM, Radiohead, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Reggae, blues, jazz, some rap and reggaeton…. you get the idea. I like my music darker and harder, less sweet and fluffy.

9. I like fantasy and science fiction in book and film.

10. I am interested in politics.

11. I like my steaks very very rare.

12. I am handy with tools and equipment.

13. I have never been in a lasting romantic relationship. In fact, my longest relationship was almost 30 years ago and it lasted 3 months. I find the opposite sex quite attractive in general, and I liked sex in the distant past when I actually had some, but I guess trying to find someone is way low on my priority list.

14. I painted my office a deep winy purple. I like it.

15. I think greed is one of the greatest evils of our age.

16. I like to garden.

17. I’m pretty lazy at times.

18. I dislike heat.

19. I don’t wear pastel colors.

20. I think valuing things based on the label and the price is very silly. As a result I really don’t pay attention to labels. I see women exclaiming over a purse or shoes. I look, they rarely look practical or aesthetically pleasing, so I don’t understand the fuss. Turns out, they are expensive, have a name attached that informs people of their expensiveness. Those people who judge by shoes and clothes… well, they won’t think highly of me.

21. And yet. I am picky about clothes, shoes etc. I have to LIKE them, they need to please me in cut and color and comfort. They gain desirability to me if they are inexpensive as well.

22. I really, really wish I were a better housekeeper.

23. I have too many cats. Anybody want one?

24. I have a healthy ego.

25. I have no phobias.

26. I rarely get sick.

27. I dislike the vast majority of junk food and fast food.

28. I have little interest in sports. Curling kind of fascinated me a couple of Winter Olympics ago though.

29. I think snow is beautiful.

30. I like having four seasons.

31. I was born in California but have something of a distaste for the state now.

32. I think that more people, ideally almost all people, should be able to think critically and have the ability to tell what is substantiated from what isn’t.

33. I am not good with handling money. Some of that may come from the fact that I don’t truly care if I have money or not. I have survived on very little (10K a year living in Manhattan) and it’s quite doable, and not terribly oppressive. 5 years ago I lived in Cambridge England for 5 months on almost nothing. I rented a room in a house by the week. I rode an old bike to get around. I had possessions to fill two suitcases. I was very happy.

34. I am not frightened by the future.

35. I will take off by myself on 9 hour drives, or travel overseas without concern.

36. I like to drive.

37. I can drive through the entire night without a problem.

38. I have some trouble driving entirely through the day, particularly if it is sunny and warm, I get sleepy.

39. As I have little interest in sports, never had kids or a long term relationship I can be very uncomfortable in social situations with adults my age. Everyone talks a lot about sports, their kids, and spouses. I find it difficult to project the appearance of interest and involvement in these conversations.

40. I like to wear black.

41. I like rich spicy scents, sandalwood, patchouli, roses, peonies, nicotiana, cinnamon, wood fires.

42. I seem to be able to get older babies and toddlers to stop crying by catching their eyes and holding hard to their gaze. Stare hard, they shut up. I don’t know why.

43. Generally I don’t like gold or diamonds, except for ornamentation as in gold leaf, and giant diamonds in museums. Huge diamonds hold the light in an interesting way, mesmerizing.

44. I am almost always wide awake at midnight.

45. I like red wine. I know a glass a day is probably good for you, but I often am busy or forget. Once in a while I will have two or three glasses. That is not probably what the studies showed benefits from.

46. I wish I could figure out a way to easily stop doing one thing and start another. I tend to do whatever I’m doing for long periods of time. Other things don’t happen.

47. I think about everything.

48. I love to debate or take a contrary stance just to think about all sides of something. My family as a whole does that all the time. There is no emotional weight attached to it.

49. I am not a very emotional person, I am rarely sad, anxious, blissful, giddy, angry, furious, or depressed.

50. I like to dance, even all by myself.

Fifty is good.

Monday, March 02, 2009

So, you want to be a Doctor?

Some days I just don’t understand people.

I find myself asking good friends odd, rather basic questions, to see if the way I approach and think about things is way outside the norm. The answer is often yes. Often enough, the norm is simply incomprehensible to me.

I recently was interviewing prospective students for a very advanced, accelerated program that ideally takes kids who just graduated from high school and pops them out as newly minted MDs in 6 years. I teach Genetics, which is required for the program.

(Yes, yes, I know many people say “graduate high school” but as no student I know finishes their education by measuring and marking the institution that was conferring a degree upon them.)

In any case, these were high school kids who have been very successful students, with high GPAs, high test scores, and great recommendations. They claim that they want to be doctors. They claim to ready to dive into year-round classes with high workloads and potentially go 200,000 in debt over 10 years (you have to add on internship and residency in the timeline) to end up licensed to practice medicine. Even in the accelerated program this is a long time and a lot of money. No one should go into it unless this is what they really, really want. I know several people who left the program, already in debt, either realizing that medical school or being a practicing physician was not for them. I have interacted with even more who I would never want to be my doctor because they have little interest in the well-being of people, and even less in truly finding out how to be a good doctor. There are many outstanding students, of course, who will end up fine physicians, but not as high of a percentage as I would like.

Our Medical School’s goal, which is stated frequently, is to produce general practitioners, ideally for rural and urban under-served areas.

I was tired of the same old questions and the typical pat answers.

"Why do you want to be a doctor?"
"Because my (mom, favorite uncle, best friend's dad, or beloved grandparent) got sick (and maybe died) when I was (5, 7, 11, 14). I spent lots of time in the hospital and saw that doctors really help people so I want to be one"
or "My father is my role-model and he is a doctor and I want to be just like him"

"What would you do if your best friend in college was cheating?"
"I would tell her that she shouldn't, it's wrong, and turn her in"

"What are your strengths and weaknesses?"
"I'm caring and smart but I can be impatient, or I need more confidence, or I can be too serious"

"Why did you apply to this accelerated progeram?"
"Because I really want to get done and be a doctor and help people as soon as possible" or "Because this is the main way to get into you wonderful high -ranking med school!" (which is bull, we do not rank high)

So, what did I do? I made the mistake of thinking about how I was as a high school student. I wanted to end up a professor of Genetics before I even entered high school. There was no life-changing event, or great teacher, or geneticist parent to inspire me to do this. Rather, I read a lot, I read the newspaper, the information that I ran across about genetics fascinated me. I looked up more things. I read “The Double Helix” by James Watson when I was a Sophomore in high school if I remember right.. I followed news on the topic, I looked up all kinds of things in the library. I knew how political candidates stood on issues of Biology, and the Environment, and Education, and yes, even health care.

I never had a great Biology class. In fact I think I had ONE biology class total in Jr. High and high school combined. It was experimental. It didn’t work well. It didn’t matter. My heart was already in it. I also played in orchestras, drew and painted, swam on a swim team,and had fun writing in AP English, but Biology degrees and Genetics was where I was going.

So I asked these candidates questions to determine whether they were devoted to their area or not, such as:

1. What do you think of the various health care plans that the Presidential Candidates presented before the last election?

2. What problems face health care in the U.S. now?

3. Do you know what the rough rank U.S. health care holds in terms of cost and infant mortality among developed countries?

4. Why do you think the U.S. has the most expensive per capita health care and yet the highest infant mortality rate amongst “advanced” countries? (this one added when clearly no student had a clue about the last one)

5. What do you think general practitioners could do to help the health care status of individuals in their communities?

1. “I don’t follow politics”
2. “Ummmmm”
3. “I don’t know… we are pretty good, right?”
4. “Ummmmm”. Finally, after being pressed two of the batch that we interviewed (two interviewers and one student at a time) said “Welll, I guess Americans eat too much junk food, and some people really don’t take care of themselves.”
5. “Ummmmm.” One finally said “Maybe doctors could spend more time with their patients.

After this debacle we started asking whether everyone in the U.S. had good access to health care. The answer “Yes!” and then on seeing our faces said, “Well I guess some people might live a long way from hospitals”

Of the eight, six had fathers who were doctors. How can they know NOTHING about issues in area in which they want to work?

I also asked questions about medical news to no avail.


What are we doing? What are THEY doing?

I asked several people if I was being unreasonable. Some said that high school kids don't read newspapers and should not really be expected to know much about the area in which they plan to eventually work.

But I did!