Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, September 07, 2009

How We Got Where We Are

Random thought: standardized test scores are like FICO scores. Meaningful, but with serious limitations that are routinely ignored.

Which I think makes me an alt-A borrower with a zero-down, high LTV option-ARM. Thanks, America!

Sunday, September 06, 2009


So it occurs to me that no one ever properly explained the circulatory system to me. I always pictured it as a sort of pipe weaving its way through the body, with blood rushing through it thanks to the heart. Each blood cell would make a complete circuit of the body.

But that can't be right. It must be two series of tubes, one high-pressure and one low-pressure. The blood is forced across tissue by the difference in pressure. The heart pumps blood from the low-pressure system to the high-pressure system to maintain the differential. Each blood cell crosses over at some point and then immediately returns to the heart - so for instance, it might go from the high-pressure system to the low-pressure system somewhere in the leg, and immediately return to the heart.

Now it strikes me that the lungs must be set up to intercept each blood cell either before or after it goes through the heart, because of course one of the main points is to carry oxygen throughout the body.

Anyway, it's a testament to my pretty devastating lack of intelligence that I never learned how circulation works. That's, like, second grade, right?

Education and Charity

So in the comments to my previous post, Pillar of the Stoat asks for a charitable version of the Robin Hanson post I mocked to Grobstein's chagrin.

I can't do it for medicine - I just don't see how one can see medicine (with the possible exception of cosmetic surgery) as wasteful signaling - but I can do it for education.

The basic idea here is that you don't really learn that much in college. And, especially, you don't learn that much more at a place like Amherst College than you do at the University of Massachusetts. The difference is that an Amherst kid has been approved by the Amherst College admissions department, and the UMass kid (probably) has not. So even if you get into both schools, and even if you will learn substantially the same amount at either institution, you might be better off at Amherst College simply because the degree signals to the world that you were elite enough (in whatever way) to get admitted to Amherst College.

So then there's some kind of complex game where:

1. Schools compete for top students with financial aid, good facilities, good faculty, etc. A lot of this stuff is a waste of money in that it doesn't contribute to educational outcomes and it isn't priced in the market - it's a windfall to elite students.

2. Students compete to get into elite schools, defined as schools that can afford to be especially selective about admissions.

3. Alumni/ae contribute financially so as to maintain the value of their degree and to give their children a boost in admissions.

All of this involves huge diversion of resources to what is essentially bullshit, given that you could achieve the same quality of education for much, much less money. It's all individually rational and socially wasteful. Which is quite an indictment of the free market, by the way, but let's not think dark thoughts tonight.

And of course, given the existence of financial aid, community college, etc., anyone who doesn't get a higher education is automatically suspect. We could very well be in a bad equilibrium in which everyone is required to at least try to get a college education, however ill-suited he/she is.

There is a counter-argument, along the lines that college is hugely valuable for the elite and not horribly costly for everyone else, that as society grows richer we should devote more resources to not-strictly-cost-justified pursuits like widespread higher education, that colleges are valuable centers for subsidization of research and other academic pursuits, etc. I don't really buy it, but it's certainly a respectable argument.

Anyway this should give us pause about the non-profit status (and thus implicit government subsidy) of elite colleges.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Well, All Right Then

So I guess Robin Hanson is a male. And it turns out that this scathing critic of wasting society's resources on medicine is a believer in cryogenics (link courtesy of Wikipedia). The mind boggles.

An Arms Race for Not-Being-On-Dialysis

So my blog muse strikes again, linking to this insane post by Robin Hanson. I may write a sober refutation at some point, but I don't think the post deserves one. I will instead focus on a particular claim, one that I think is not incidental but rather indicative of Hanson's overall ridiculousness and unseriousness. Sarang used the term "unhinged" to describe a right-wing assertion the other day, and the word seems to fit this one perfectly.

The gist is that Hanson is upset that a wealthy entrepreneur gave money to charity, thus "pissing it away." Hanson illuminates his (her?) point by noting that the entrepreneur (Alex Grass) apparently donated money to a hospital. This constitutes pissing money away because medicine is mainly a wasteful signal - we already have too much of it.

Hanson doesn't actually specify which medical procedures or products constitute wasteful signaling, but I think we all know some of the big culprits. Number one on my list would be the antibiotics that transplant recipients take because their immune systems are compromised. Why are their immune systems compromised, you ask? Get this - they actually take drugs called immunosuppressants, which are exactly what they sound like. You read that right: these assholes take drugs to weaken their own immune systems, and then take another drug to prevent infection. All because they're scared of something called "rejection." Listen, we're all scared of rejection. I've got a suggestion, morons: stop pissing away society's resources on wasteful signals.

Plenty of other wasteful examples come to mind: antiretrovirals, chemotherapy, antipsychotics, artificial limbs, neonatal intensive care units, and skin grafts. I could go on. Blood transfusions are basically redistribution from the healthy (what we used to call "successful") to the sick and maimed. Did you know that there are drugs to treat high blood pressure and drugs to treat low blood pressure? Make up your mind!

But in a way I'm wasting my time with these examples. I think it's fairly obvious that the field of medicine is mainly a wasteful signal. The larger point is how galling it is that "philanthropists" waste their money providing medical care to people who otherwise couldn't afford it. If you must piss away society's resources on something like a bone marrow transplant, for God's sake, do it on your own dime.