humani nil a me alienum puto

random rants about news, the law, healthcare law, economics and anything I find amusing

TED Talk: Reimagining Global (Health) Data

I just love these TED talks. I previously have postedabout TED. I first discovered it when Pogue (NYT columnist) was talking about the conference and the wonderful web site. This talk is by Hans Rosling who was confronted by a dilemma. There’s tons of great data out there that tells wonderful stories about the world that can inform policy, destroy myths, demonstrate compelling trends, affect both our views of the world and what we have done and can to to improve. But tables and non-interactive graphs are just incredibly boring — and the underlying stories can be completely missed. Take a look at his presentation and then take a visit to his site. Kudos to Health Economist blog to turning me onto this. Really neat stuff. I’m trying to think how I could use something like this in a presentation (even being a lawyer — has to be something creative I can glom onto here).  About Hans Rosling from TED:

Even the most worldly and well-traveled among us will have their perspectives shifted by Hans Rosling. A professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, his current work focuses on dispelling common myths about the so-called developing world, which (he points out) is no longer worlds away from the west. In fact, most of the third world is on the same trajectory toward health and prosperity, and many countries are moving twice as fast as the west did.

What sets Rosling apart isn’t just his apt observations of broad social and economic trends, but the stunning way he presents them. Guaranteed: You’ve never seen data presented like this. By any logic, a presentation that tracks global health and poverty trends should be, in a word: boring. But in Rosling’s hands, data sings. Trends come to life. And the big picture — usually hazy at best — snaps into sharp focus.

Rosling’s presentations are grounded in solid statistics (often drawn from United Nations data), illustrated by the visualization software he developed. The animations transform development statistics into moving bubbles and flowing curves that make global trends clear, intuitive and even playful. During his legendary presentations, Rosling takes this one step farther, narrating the animations with a sportscaster’s flair.

Rosling developed the breakthrough software behind his visualizations through his nonprofit Gapminder, founded with his son and daughter-in-law. The free software — which can be loaded with any data — was purchased by Google in March 2007. (Rosling met the Google founders at TED.)

Rosling began his wide-ranging career as a physician, spending many years in rural Africa tracking a rare paralytic disease (which he named konzo) and discovering its cause: hunger and badly processed cassava. He co-founded Médecins sans Frontièrs (Doctors without Borders) Sweden, wrote a textbook on global health, and as a professor at the Karolinska Institut in Stockholm initiated key international research collaborations. He’s also personally argued with many heads of state, including Fidel Castro.

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P.W. Singer TED Presentation: Wired For War

I really love the talks on TED.  See my earlier post.  I heard one tonight that I wanted to log.  Peter Warren Singer is the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.  His TED talk discusses his current book, Wired for War, and the emerging use of robotics to replace humans on and above the battlefield.   He’s been out on the circuit promoting his book — I heard him on NPR’s Fresh Air a few months back.

What’s fascinating about all this is how quickly some of these technologies are now emerging.  The robotic pack mule, the drones, etc. are amazing.  But even more interesting is the psychological and practical effect these technologies might have.  I think we are entering a world of profound unintended consequences.  No, not Terminator — but maybe disturbing.  Take a look.

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Friedman Talks about Externalities – No Drill Baby Drill

I love it when someone talks about externalities.  I’m twisted that way.  It gets me going.

As long as I’ve been reading his column, Friedman has continually hit the drum beat for us to recognize the true costs in our use of energy.   The price we pay for our carbon based energy is not fully loaded.  In his article today, he gives us some examples of how we miss these externalities, while he talks about the energy and conservation policies of one of our neighbors to the south.

[I]f a chemical factory sells tons of fertilizer but pollutes a river — or a farm sells bananas but destroys a carbon-absorbing and species-preserving forest — this is not honest growth. You have to pay for using nature. It is called “payment for environmental services” — nobody gets to treat climate, water, coral, fish and forests as free anymore…Right now, most countries fail to account for the “externalities” of various economic activities. So when a factory, farmer or power plant pollutes the air or the river, destroys a wetland, depletes a fish stock or silts a river — making the water no longer usable — that cost is never added to your electric bill or to the price of your shoes.

In fact, there are hidden costs in almost every market.   Many items in a our markets have significant positive and negative externalities.  Friedman provides examples of negative externalities above: the classic example of pollution needing to be recognized in the ‘true’ cost of a product.  But there are also positive externalities.  Accessible public eduction, for example, is the most profound one that has reshaped the United States and our civilization.  If not subsidized through taxes, far fewer would receive education to the detriment of society as a whole.  Tax payers paid more today for a benefit that paid dividends a decade or a generation later.

The bottom line of all this is that if you do not recognize the real cost or benefit of goods and services in a market you will over utilize certain goods and under utilize others.  So, what are we to do if energy markets contain significant externalities?  Well, you and I can’t do much.  We, individually, are  incapable of recognizing these true costs since they are spread out to everyone and energy costs are bundled into just about every downstream derivative product or service we utilize.  Oh sure, a many of us can take actions such as “recycling” and using canvass bags and, maybe, use those lousy fluorescent bulbs to a point.   Stuff that makes us feel good — and it might help to a point.   But externalities have to be addressed systemically — because they are a systemic market problems.

Please do not misunderstand me.  No one should be taking the position that individuals or energy corporations are acting irresponsibly.  Quite the contrary.  They are acting rationally.  It’s the market that’s out of whack.  The objective of a corporation is to maximize return to shareholders within legal constraints.  They have no requirement to identify the true cost of an item to others unless there is some legal contraint that they do so, be it tort law or some regulatory regime.   In fact, if they can arbitrage by exploiting unrecognized externalities, then not only will they, but they must due to their legal directive to shareholders.  And if they do not and their competitors do — they’ll risk being driven from the market.  And you and me, while individuals are as diverse as can be, number in the billions.  In the aggregate and in the longer term, we react en mass to price signals that a market provides more than any other factor.

So, what’s to do?  Well, identifying significant distorting externalities is a core responsibility of government. Friedman gives the example of Costa Rica in his article.

More than any nation I’ve ever visited, Costa Rica is insisting that economic growth and environmentalism work together. It has created a holistic strategy to think about growth, one that demands that everything gets counted.  So it did something no country has ever done: It put energy, environment, mines and water all under one minister… [W]hen Costa Rica put one minister in charge of energy and environment, “it created a very different way of thinking about how to solve problems,”…‘Look, [the minister was able to say,] if you want cheap energy, the cheapest energy in the long-run is renewable energy.  So let’s not think just about the next six months; let’s think out 25 years.’”… [A]nd today it gets more than 95 percent of its energy from these renewables.

So does this mean taxes?  Sure.  Be it direct or a cap and trade system, it’s about taxes.  See Friedman’s article earlier in the week.  We tax a lot of things due to their externalities.  We already tax gas in part because of this in order to maintain roadway infrastructure — which use of gas impacts.  The important point that, if done correctly, and that’s a big ‘if’, the net cost to everyone is far less over time than the cheaper fuel today.

To pay for these environmental services, in 1997 Costa Rica imposed a tax on carbon emissions — 3.5 percent of the market value of fossil fuels … If government policies don’t recognize those services and pay the people who sustain nature’s ability to provide them, things go haywire. We end up impoverishing both nature and people. Worse, we start racking up a bill in the form of climate-changing greenhouse gases, petro-dictatorships and bio-diversity loss that gets charged on our kids’ Visa cards to be paid by them later. Well, later is over. Later is when it will be too late.

I think we’ve finally moved away from the question of whether there are significant externalities in the energy products sector.   You don’t really have to look to ‘global warming’ for this.  You need only realize that carbon based fuels are a finite supply and a critical resource.  The demand/supply curve very possibly will not price the commodity in gradual manner to encourage the infrastructure development to move away from it.  So it’s a pay me now or pay me a lot more later question if sudden price distortions hit the market and then stick around, unlike the 1970s and last year.   So, in any event, we’re finally onto the policy questions:  (a) how big are these unloaded costs and (b) what mechanism or mechanisms do you use to incorporate the true price into these products.

The first is a function of policy choices relying upon terribly incomplete data.  How big is the global warming problem?  What is the probabilities related to loss of GNP in the future due to global warming?  What’s the potential costs of politically fragile regions holding so much of the word’s supply of carbon based fuels?  Carbon based fuels are finite — what is the realistic time frame that they will remain economically cost effective?  Will pricing really gradually rise to encourage alternative development or is the infrastructure costs so huge that we have to encourage significant R&D and infrastructure alternatives earlier?  What effects would major disruption have on supply, the cost of oil and related GNP growth stability?  These are really meaty questions without hard answers.   But we have to make policy judgements on these types of unknows all the time.   Insurers do this every day — they figure out potential costs and probablities of poutcomes and attribute premiums accordingly.  (AIG’s credit swaps, perhaps, excluded. )

And practically, what mechanism is politically possible to pass through Congress?  Can we articulate why we are choosing those mechanisms and the underlying issues.  These are really difficult policy decisions.  And vested interests (and you and me who might not understand why higher prices today mean for much lower overall cost tomorrow) have the ability to block rational policy making.  Still, like Friedman, I remain hopeful.

via Op-Ed Columnist – (No) Drill, Baby, Drill –

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TED and Academic Earth

I have two very interesting intranet sites if you like to listen to interesting lectures on interesting ideas.  The first, which I’ve posted about to my Facebook friends at least is TED. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.   It’s annual conference brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).  Tickets are, well, expensive and sell out a year in advance.  But — you can view many of the speakers that attend the TED conference (and twin conference) for free.  The speakers range from the most influential politicians of both to the elite More than 200 talks from TED are available, with more added each week.  These videos are released under a Creative Commons license, so they can be freely shared and reposted. Trust me, you’ll find something that is interesting, informing, entertaining and probably mind-blowing.  It’s a lot better than most of to stuff on Discovery Channel and the History Channel (and I like

The other is a site called Academic Earth.   More and more of these sites (and similar pod-casts from leading Universities) are popping up, giving people access to interesting lecturers — and in some cases whole courses — from prominent academicians and Universities.  These are kind of like auditing a university class.  One that I started was a series of lectures on the current economic crisis.   I’m going to, sometime this year, do the Intro to Astrophysics class.  I’m sure it’ll be over my head in a profound way — but I’ll tell you how it goes.

I have to say that the TED presentations are more interesting and lighter fare.  If you didn’t like college, Academic Earth isn’t for you.  But the quality of most of the ones I’ve seen on Academic Earth are really good.  The TED stuff is pretty mind-blowing and condenced.

Check it out — keep learning!!!

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Spread the Light

I’ve been a big fan of the TED Talks (here, here, here).  I’ve also started reading the Marginal Revolution blog after reading Brooks article not long ago that reference an idea that the blog posted.  I think I made a quip about having enough reading on my blog list and that they better impress or I’d drop them like week old kung po chicken in my fridge.  The blog’s still in my fridge and it’s still tasty.

In any event, I read that Alex Taborrak, one of the authors of the blog and holder of the Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at George Mason University,  had been invited to make a TED Talk about globalization.  The talk, which I very much liked, is posted below and worth a watch (or listen — podcasts on itunes) since it is looking like we might be slouching off the hang-over from our last several bubbles and this so-called Great Recession.

His theme — economic development in other counties increases the most important marketplace, that of ideas which benefits all nations and peoples — is, I think, optimistic, forward thinking and (the sunnier part of me cries out) ‘spot on’.  He likens the world’s population to a massive computer whose CPUs have been mostly off for lack of wealth driving education maximizing people’s potential.  In other words, if all Einstein could have done would be to work in a farm field, would he have been able to develop and allow us all to benefited from his illuminating ideas?

In the last half the the 20th century, wealth creation throughout the world has been driven by the implosion of trade, communication and political barriers.  This has been particularly robust for the peoples of China and India.  And this explosion has transformed and expanded marks in human ideas — and certainly every other conceivable economic market.   Even Africa is seeing a better future.  (cf a related post of mine that discusses lost opportunity even in the United States educational system (here)).

And yet, another cynical part of me also looks back at the other history of the 20th century and I wonder if the walls and barriers to development could not go up again as fast as they have fallen.  If you want to wallow in gloom, take a listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcasts of the WWII eastern front battles Ghosts of Osfronts I, II, III – available on itunes or here.  But I, for one, won’t be Eeyore tonight.  Check out his talk.

Alex Tabarrok on how ideas trump crises | Video on

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potpourri podcasts & links

A few noteworthy podcasts/links of the week:

Diane Rehm Show.  On Thursday, hosted Jill Tarter, Director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute’s Center for SETI Research.  Jill Tarter also has a neat little presentation when she recently received the TED prize.  I’ve posted on TED talks before.  Discussion around SETI @ 50 years!

Diane Rehm Show.  On Wednesday, hosted Maxwell Mehlman, professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University and the author of “Wondergenes”; “The Encyclopedia of Ethical, Legal, and Policy Issues in Biotechnology”; and “Access to the Genome” and one of my old professors.  The conversation is about his recent book, Price of Perfection.

The Lost Decade.  What’s been the economic growth rate over 1999 – 2009 and how does it compare to others during the modern post-War period.  Ouch.

Co-Ops.  What are they and are they a bridge to bipartisan healthcare reform?

Recession bottoming out?  One of the two steel blast furnaces in Cleveland are finally firing up again.  “[W]e are restarting C-5 blast furnace, a steel shop, hot mill, pickle line, tandem mill and galvanizing line at ArcelorMittal Cleveland…However, we do not expect demand to return to the levels seen in 2008 for sometime yet and remain cautiously optimistic for a low and progressive recovery.”  When both furnaces were turned off (I think late last year), it was a signal of the unusual depth of this ‘Great Recession.’  I’ve been watching to see when they’d fire up again.  This is a good sign.

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Podcasts I’m Listening To – Week of 4/15 – 4/26

Show Podcast
And Justice For All We The People Stories
Senator George McGovern on Abraham Lincoln We The People Stories
Using Tiny Particles To Answer Giant Questions NPR: Science Friday Podcast
It’s All Politics April 9 2009 NPR: It’s All Politics Podcast
NYT: Science Times for 4/07/2009 Science Times
CIA Interrogation Memos, Possible U.S.-Cuba Talks Top Week’s News NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Podcast | PBS
EPA Finding Opens Door to Regulating Greenhouse Gases NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Podcast | PBS
Newly-released Memos Detail Harsh CIA Interrogation Tactics NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Podcast | PBS
Fighting America’s ‘Financial Oligarchy’ NPR: Fresh Air Podcast
Kristin Chenoweth Is ‘A Little Bit Wicked’ NPR: Fresh Air Podcast
NPR: 04-17-2009 Fresh Air NPR: Fresh Air Podcast
‘Hey I’m Dead!’ The Story Of The Very Lively Ant NPR: Hmmm…. Krulwich on Science Podcast
#354: Mistakes Were Made This American Life
#378: This I Used to Believe This American Life
The American Presidency We The People Stories
From Revolution to Evolution We The People Stories
The Future of the Republican Party We The People Stories
Legacy of 1808: Deconstructing Reconstruction We The People Stories
The NAACP Centennial We The People Stories
Better Brewing Through Synthetic Biology NPR: Science Friday Podcast
Green DIY Projects To Reduce, Reuse, Recycle NPR: Science Friday Podcast
Harnessing Nanoparticles For Targeted Cancer Treatment NPR: Science Friday Podcast
Is Missile Defense Ready For Prime Time? NPR: Science Friday Podcast
Skunked? Tomato Juice Is Not The Answer NPR: Science Friday Podcast
Shields, Brooks Mull Torture Memos, Obama’s Leadership Shields and Brooks | NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Podcast | PBS

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Doctor’s (Gag) Orders : NPR

On the Talk of the Nation, March 24, 2009 (which you can download as a podcast or listen to on the link below), TOTN discusses the emerging trend of consumer driven web reviews of doctors.  Dr. Jeffrey Segal, CEO and founder of Medical Justice, talks about this trend and efforts of some providers of having patient sign waivers agreeing not to participate in them (or otherwise limiting what they say on them).  I had, a few years back, a limited experience with this.  A patient of a physician client of mine had posted an inappropriate post on a general comercial review site.  The site was not focused on reviews of physicians.  After quickly reviewing the post and the terms of service of the site, I emailed the service provider, indicated that the poster was violating its terms of service, and the post was quickly removed.  I hear (but have not researched) that Angies list is now getting into the physician review game.  Wonder where this will lead.  via Doctor’s (Gag) Orders : NPR.

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