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The Incomprehensible Math of Medicare

September 10, 2012 in Solutions

We run into a lot of things that are confusing these days.  Issues about energy, health care, and retirement, are a part of this list.  While these are all things we must deal with, paying for them can often be so difficult that we refuse to deal with it.  This doesn’t make the issue go away but we can avoid looking at it until there is nothing to be done and can give up.

Health care at retirement is something that we all assume we will have because of our participation in the Medicare system through contributions taken through payroll.  We trust the government to take care of us at a later date when we need it based on our relatively small contribution now.  In essence we are taking part in an insurance program in which we all pool our contributions so that we won’t be bankrupted by infirmity later in life.

So how do these numbers actually stack up?  According to the Tax Policy Center an average couple making a combined income of $89,000 will pay in $119,000 in contributions to the Medicare system.  The average amount of claims for the same couple is currently $355,000.

The basic principle of insurance is that the risk of a few is spread across the ability to pay of many.  If we know the claims are on average going to be three times the contribution we’re past any concept of insurance and into the realm of major failure.  This is compounded by the fact that the monies gathered today are spent today, not saved for our use in the future.  This means that we are relying on the generations that follow us to pay for our care which will most likely only be more expensive than it is today.

So what are the solutions?  We’re doing well at burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problem.  We imagine our electorate will suddenly and magically come up with a solution for us, but the reality is that the bills have to be paid with something or they have to be reduced.  We could ration care and only approve care which is considered effective thus reducing costs, limit payments, or increase deductibles, but in a society where no one wants to give up what they feel they are entitled to, this is unlikely to happen.

Seizing assets at death isn’t much of a solution as more than half of Americans die with less than $10k in assets. That’s not going to solve a $118,000 per person shortfall.  In the end we’re probably going to have to approach this from three sides.  Find less expensive ways to deliver care, motivate our citizens to take care of themselves and manage their own care effectively, and pay more without getting more.

We’re already unhappy to be taking on the burden our parents put on us, is it fair to just pass it along to the next generation?  If we don’t put a solution in place soon the one we get will be somewhere between Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, and not the good parts.



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How to Stop Global Warming

September 3, 2012 in Solutions

In the last ten years the world has made it clear that Global Warming isn’t something dreamt up by scientists or politicians in an attempt to control what we buy and make us spend more on things we already have.  Significant changes in weather, long term conditions of polar ice, and changes in plant maturity, have all made this phenomenon not just the subject of speculation but a real and impending issue.

So how do we address this?  Thirty years ago conservation was the watch word that is still basically our only option today.  We’ve failed to develop the new sources of energy that are used on Star Trek and the guys with the perpetual motion generators are still thwarted by the rules of Thermodynamics, leaving us with the same sources we had before and many times the demand.  Rather than reduce our voracious consumption of energy and output of greenhouse gases our society has found even more ability to destroy our habitable lands.

The best solution would be to somehow develop new technology to create limitless, free energy, from nothing, and use part of it to scrub these nasty gases out of the air and bury them back where we got them.  Of course, this isn’t going to happen now, nor does it look good for happening in the foreseeable future.  Ideas like space mirrors and seeding the atmosphere to limit sunlight aren’t feasible with current technology.  If anything our global consumption of energy is continuing to ramp up requiring us to search out and use every form of energy we can.  When we look at what is available, fossil fuels are still the most efficient as they exist with energy already in them, they are safe, easy to transport, and can be used with minimal risk to personnel.  Wind and solar are both varied by nature and time of day not to mention that the best generation points for these energy sources are usually the furthest away from folks who need energy.

Thinking about this problem from a simple perspective might be the place to start.  Imagine you have an empty bucket that represents the capacity of the atmosphere and oceans to absorb CO2, this was our pre-industrial greenhouse gas existence.  At this time we pretty much only used renewable sources of energy for our needs.  Animal and water power provided most of our mechanical force and plant and tree based fuels provided our heat and cooking fuel.  This was a great thing as the world’s plants and forests would re-absorb the gases that were generated in a continuous cycle.

As we began to develop better metals and understood our physical world better we were able to build steam powered equipment and the mining and use of coal in large amounts began.  The big difference being that coal was not the result of current removal of CO2 from the atmosphere but rather the removal of it millions of years before.  Our bucket is starting to fill as we release this stored gas into our atmosphere.

As the industrial revolution continued to grow our bucket filled further, every time we removed coal from the ground we were re-liberating the CO2 and other components that had naturally been stored away for so long.  With the advance to the current era and the use of electricity our consumption of these stored hydrocarbons exploded.  Oil, gas, and coal, suddenly became huge industries and the convenience of the gasoline engine gave rise to energy consumption on a scale never before considered.

Now we flash forward another century to the world today, the bucket is full.  We are rapidly heading toward a population of 9 billion people, all of whom would like to have electricity, transportation, and air conditioning.  We also all want to eat, have shelter, and possibly even some household goods.  Fossil “fuels” have now been used as components to make plastics, fertilizer, foods, and drive industrial processes.  Now the liberation of formerly stored away CO2 and greenhouse gases is no longer just a way to have convenience, it has become a part of our food chain.  Yet the bucket is full.  The oceans are believed to have absorbed as much as they can and the ice caps are melting.

Yet our energy usage continues to grow in industrialized nations as it grows even faster in those that are catching up.  Our bucket is now overflowing.  Conservation is no answer as the bucket is full, not only do we need to stop, we need to find ways to return these materials to storage and while we wait, more of them are coming out of natural storehouses like permafrost and the ice caps.

So what solutions do we have?  We can’t empty the bucket, we can’t make it bigger, and we can’t stop using fossil fuels.  The reality of most alternate energy systems is that they use up as much energy in their creation as they ever generate during their usable life.  The driving force of the world economy requires constant consumption and expansion of markets in search of profit even at the cost of our survival.

The reality with our current technology, world government system, and growing population, is that nothing can be done about global warming that wouldn’t be worse than what it is doing to us today.  We continue to be distracted by daily life and don’t feel the impact of climate change enough to do anything about it.  The solution to global warming will occur when it overwhelms the other problems we are already dealing with, at which point we’ll have to figure out how to create a parachute while in free fall.

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Pot Makes You Stupid? Apparently only if you’re a researcher.

August 29, 2012 in Opinion

This week AP felt the need to write an article about a research project done in Australia and suggest that somehow the research suggested that use of marijuana during teen years resulted in lower IQ later in life than if you started using pot after 18.

While I can’t say that this is incorrect I am stuck on what they qualify as research. According to the article they IQ tested 13 year olds and then IQ tested them again at age 38. The ones who used marijuana during their years 13-18 had lower scores at age 38 than those who started at age 18.

While this is an interesting correlation this is a super example of stretching information to make your point. A lot happens in 25 years and some of it might be attributed to other factors. No mention was made of a control group or how they balanced out other factors such as family, economic status, other drug use, etc. There are certainly many other factors which could affect an IQ test during a 25 year period than just the age at which you started using marijuana.

While the idea that pot use and loss of intelligence have been anecdotally suggested for decades, trying to disguise sloppy research as proof is quite disappointing on AP’s part.

Should their characterization of the research be accurate this also says a lot about what we accept as proof and scientific method. To test a theory properly there needs to be ways to account for and eliminate external factors which could affect the outcome. These factors can lead to feeling that your point is proven by methods other than what is tested for.

Unfortunately one of the hardest things to accept is that sometimes the proof you are looking for proves your theory incorrect. While difficult to accept a researcher with integrity will go back to their theory and adjust it and test again. While we can’t stop sloppy research we can be vigilant for such weak ideas and unjustified propositions so that we aren’t swayed by unproven arguments.

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The Dangers of Generalization

August 22, 2012 in Philosophy

These days we are barraged by language and comments that sound important and informative yet are mostly meaningless. The idea I am talking about is generalization. A very useful tool in language which allows us to simplify what we are saying in order to shortcut the communication process.

Unfortunately this method of shortcutting doesn’t serve us so well when we apply it to ideas and concepts that truly need specific definition. A simple example is the idea of a mission statement, something common in business which is written in such vague and nebulous terms that it is nearly meaningless.

The trap of generality is when we imagine that we have set a real goal when we’ve only talked about it. In a business plan your generalities have to be specified at some point so that your plan truly gives direction.

An important consideration in breaking the general habit is to quantify what you are talking about. Instead of “generate more income” use increase sales to x dollars per day. This way you have a real goal and objective rather than just a vague goal.

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Systemic Thinking

August 16, 2012 in Solutions

When we look at how things are done a question that often arises is “how did this choice or decision get made?”

As we no longer teach much in the way of soft subjects like philosophy most folks have never been trained in different thinking methods. While teaching math, English, chemistry, and the like are important, we have now generated folks who have never been trained in how to think.

This may seem like an odd thing to mention but technical knowledge without a framework for how to apply it isn’t that useful. As our society has become very specialized it is unlikely that our parents printed us with the right thought skills to do many things.

Unfortunately as soft skills are relatively untestable they have been ignored in most curriculums.

Fortunately these skills are learned easily, this is not to suggest that you can instantly learn philosophy but rather that you can learn a set of steps in thinking that make things easier.

This is similar to troubleshooting equipment in which the best technicians apply a step by step process to the problem. While they may no longer be aware that they are using an explicit process they still are doing so.