Monthly Archives: April 2011

Act Young To Live Long

People often think I look younger than I am; I usually quip that is because I cultivate an aura of irresponsibility. Turns out, I may actually live longer because I look and act younger. Apparently, thinking of yourself as younger actually makes you live longer:

First, women who think they look younger after having their hair colored/cut show a decrease in blood pressure and appear younger in photographs (in which their hair is cropped out) to independent raters. Second, clothing is an age-related cue. Uniforms eliminate these age-related cues: Those who wear work uniforms have lower morbidity than do those who earn the same amount of money and do not wear work uniforms. Third, baldness cues old age. Men who bald prematurely see an older self and therefore age faster: Prematurely bald men have an excess risk of getting prostate cancer and coronary heart disease than do men who do not prematurely bald. Fourth, women who bear children later in life are surrounded by younger age-related cues: Older mothers have a longer life expectancy than do women who bear children earlier in life. Last, large spousal age differences result in age-incongruent cues: Younger spouses live shorter lives and older spouses live longer lives than do controls. (more)

The paper speculates that this might contribute to rising lifespans – are we overall healthier today because overall we look and act younger than our ancestors? More quotes: Continue reading "Act Young To Live Long" »

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Trust Govt More?

Way back in ’83, I was excited to read that medical expert systems, developed over the previous two decades of research, could often diagnosis as well as human doctors. I judged that artificial intelligence was ready for the big time, and left grad school for Silicon Valley in the hope of joining this exciting revolution.

Three decades later, we have over 10,000 times more computing power, yet medical expert systems are rarely used. Doctors say it takes just as long to enter patient info into a computer as it does to diagnose patients themselves, and medical licensing rules prevent selling such software to the public. Absent such licensing restrictions, expert systems might long ago have revolutionized medical practice.

Similar rules prevent cheaper medicine via nurses directly managing patients, even though randomized trials suggest nurses are just as effective. This all just shows what a strong lock doctors have on medicine right? Well, consider the example of school nurses.

Most states have special laws allowing school nurses to directly manage students as patients. True, school nurses can’t do everything docs can, but nurses who offered these same services to passersby at a shopping mall, without direct doc supervision, would violate medical licensing laws. Apparently, we like the comfort of knowing that medical help is onsite at school, but know that an onsite doctor would be very expensive, and so compromise with school nurses.

For soldiers, we similarly like the comfort of having medics available near each soldier, yet know that requiring medics to be full doctors would be very expensive. So we also relax our usual medical rules to let medics to care for soldiers without being doctors, or under their direct supervision. But we refuse to relax such rules elsewhere in society. Why do we allow the exceptions of school nurses and military doctors, but no other exceptions?

One obvious common element here is that most medics and school nurses are government employees. This seems to be part of a more general pattern, whereby we often relax regulations for the government. For example, the military is also not subject to OSHA rules on workplace safety, and the worst asbestos and hazardous waste sites have been on government property. Congress has also exempted itself from rules against workplace discrimination and stock insider trading.

So why are governments often held to lower standards?  Is it that they hold themselves to lower standards out of self-interest, and voters rarely notice?  Is it that voters like to punish and bring down evil alien corporations, but don’t feel as hostile to governments?

One might argue that we the public think we can trust our government more because we run it via democracy. But if so why don’t we then also trust ourselves to give government employees fair wages – why think they need unions to protect themselves from our exploiting them?

Relevant quotes: Continue reading "Trust Govt More?" »

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Evading Sharing Rules

I’ve argued that although human language allowed egalitarian rules whose uniform enforcement would have greatly reduced the advantages to big-brain conniving, humans had the biggest brains of all to unequally evade such rules. Since rules to share food and other material goods are among the most important egalitarian rules, I find it fascinating to see the details of how modern foragers evade such rules:

Below the melody line in praise of generosity … a grumbling about their stinginess, neglect, and ingratitude also was evident. Public pressure on individual Anbara to share was virtually irresistible, so various counterstrategies were adopted by the diligent to prevent exploitation by the lazy or manipulative. The most effective of these, in Hiatt’s view, was eating during food collection so that the greater part of a person’s produce was in an advanced state of digestion by the time he or she returned to camp. …

Among adult men, demands for spears and other items of material culture were frequent, and two interesting strategies were used to avoid having to meet them. Valued spears or guns could be given to elderly women by their sons or other male relatives or purchased by such women with their pension checks, although the women never used the weapons for hunting. … It … allowed the person who was using the gun or spear, and who normally had it in their possession all the time, to refuse demands for it because it was not his to give. The other strategy relates most frequently to pipes and tobacco, but can be extended to almost anything. Old men, by carving sacred designs on their pipes and then covering them with strips of cloth or paperback, render them taboo to all women and any men who has not had the design revealed to him in a religious context. … Continue reading "Evading Sharing Rules" »

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Statusful Regulation

As an economist who leans libertarian, I’ve long struggled to account for our many apparently-excessive government regulations and interventions. Many theories offered to explain such things have grains of truth, and often do well on particular examples, but to me their sum falls flat an explanation of the whole. So I continue to seek patterns in such regulations, and theories to account for such patterns.

One neglected pattern that stands out to me is that many economically-puzzling regulations and policy inclinations tend to make everyone act like high status folks act, regardless of how appropriate that is for their situation.

Consider one-size-fits-all building codes, food and drug regulations, safety rules, professional licensing, and medical insurance regulations. Such rules tend to make sure that a typical rich person wouldn’t accidentally buy a product or service of a much lower quality than they would desire.

You might argue that rules can only vary so much with circumstances, and poor folks simply suffer by being in the tails of the distributions of circumstances – nothing personal. But many regulations seem to go out of their way to target the poor. Consider min wages, min house lot sizes, max apartment occupancy rules, and child labor laws. Rich folks are in little danger of accidentally violating such rules – the intent seems to be to stop poor folks from doing things that rich folks wouldn’t think of doing.

Policies to subsidize and encourage schooling and homeownership also encourage high status activities. Zoning regulations and complex business rules discourage poor folks from running their own small businesses, especially out of their homes, pushing them to instead become employees of rich folks. Rules against “excess” noise, and against “eyesore” lawns, cars, or clothes, also tend to impose high status aesthetic standards on everyone else.

Drugs like crack favored by poor folks get much higher penalties that drugs like cocaine consumed more by the rich. Much more concern is expressed about poor than rich alcoholics, and about cheaper mixes of alcohol and caffeine. There is also more concern about the teen pregnancies favored by the poor, relative to the over-35 pregnancies favored by the rich, even though the later have much higher medical risks.

So why does so much regulation seem designed to push low status folks into doing what high status folks do? One theory is that high status folks dominate the policy process, and by focusing on people they know, they forget that policies also apply to low status folks. But that is hard to square with policies targeted at the poor.

Another theory is that we want to push away low status folks, so that we will not be lowered in status by affiliating with them. This might make some sense of very local rules, but much less of national rules, as few movements will be influenced by such rules.

A third theory is that we think that a big reason why poor folk are poor is that they don’t act like the rich. So for their sake, we make the poor take on the styles of behavior – to help them escape poverty. This theory requires that we be pretty clueless about how behaviors should reasonably change with wealth. A closely related theory is that high status folks see their own behaviors as just more virtuous, worthy of encouragement regardless of their effect on anything else.

A fourth theory is that we are trying to make ourselves look good to foreigners. If the very visible low status actions of some could make all of us seem low status to outsiders, then we might want to limit such actions to raise our status. This theory requires that we care a lot more about foreigner opinions than we usually admit.

A fifth theory, and one I favor, is that politics isn’t about policy. We (unconsciously) don’t care much about the consequences of such policies – we instead support policies to make ourselves look good. If our support for regulations pushing high status actions is taken as a signal of our personal status, then we can want to support such regulation regardless of what results when such regulations are implemented.

In their private purchases, many people prefer brands that are widely perceived to be high quality. Many like such brands not only because their high wealth induces a higher private taste for quality, but also because such brands are visible to others, and so signal their wealth to others. Such people often prefer not only to consume such brands themselves, but also to recommend such brands to acquaintances, even poor acquaintances, for whom such quality is usually not worth the price.

For example, Apple computers are more expensive, but higher quality. As a rich professional who spends lots of time with his computer, this higher quality may well be worth the higher price to you. But you might then recommend Apple computers to everyone you know, even poor folks who spend much less time with computers.

In such cases, people aren’t recommending the high quality brands to help others, but to signal their own tastes and wealth. Similarly, such folks may well support political policies using the same priorities. More generally, most folks may support policies to make everyone act like high status folks act in order to affiliate themselves with high status acts, and thereby seem a bit higher status themselves.

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Why Wake Teens Early?

Teens learn better if allowed to sleep longer:

This paper uses data on all middle school students in Wake County, NC from 1999-2006 to study the impact of start times on academic performance. … The differences in start time across schools is generated by bus scheduling concerns, while the differences within schools are driven by population growth. … I find that a one hour later start time increases standardized test scores on both math and reading test by three percentile points. Since start times may be correlated with other determinants of test scores, I also estimate the effect using only variation in start times within schools over time and find a two percentile point improvement. The effect of start times on academic performance is robust to different specifications and sources of variation. The magnitude of the effect is similar to the difference in test scores for one additional year of parental education.

The impact of later start times on test scores is persistent. Conditional on a high school fixed effect, a one hour later start time in grade eight is associated with an increase in test scores in grade ten similar in magnitude to the increase in grade eight. … The impact of start times is greatest in grade eight (who are more likely to have begun puberty than those in the sixth or seventh grade). … Students who begin school later have fewer absences and spend more time on homework each week. … Over the seven years examined in this paper, [this school district] grew from 20,530 student enrolled in twenty-two middle schools … to 27,686 students enrolled in twenty-eight middle schools. (more)

Do you predict that once news of this study spreads, schools will all delay their start times?  Me neither.

So why do we insist on getting teens up early, if that hinders learning? For the same reason we test and rank students so often, even though that also hinders learning. School isn’t about learning the content of classes – its more about socializing humans to accept industrial workplace norms and practices.

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More On Kid Work

There were many thoughtful comments on my child labor post.  Let me engage some of them here.

Some talk about the unsafe and unhealthy working condition that working kids often suffered a century ago. But we can and do regulate such things without needing to distinguish kids. Similarly some express concern about kids working too many hours a day, but we can also limit work hours without prohibiting work.

Some say we ban child labor mainly to encourage school. But laws requiring school seem sufficient for that purpose. We let kids devote lots of energy to after-school sports, clubs, music, housework, sibling-care, etc. It isn’t clear that after-school work distracts from school or invests less in the future than these.

Some say employers are easier to police than are sports, clubs, music, and parents. This suggests that we would ban hard/tedious kid work of any sort if only enforcement were easier, which seems unlikely. This might explain our less often enforcing rules against hard housework, but it doesn’t much explain why we don’t even have such rules.

Some say kids are more easily exploited and therefore need more protection. But we aren’t talking about making kids autonomous – parents must still approve of kid jobs. So only parental exploitation could be the issue.

Some say yes, we must protect kids from their parents, since job wages make it easier for parents to gain from kid suffering. But the conflict between kids and parents is just as strong when kids do housework, care for younger siblings, or work at the parent’s farm or store. There’s also a big risk of parents pushing kids to work at sports, music, acting, etc. more for parent than kid benefits – this may be a bigger problem than parents stealing kid wages. Working kids at least get work experience; what do overworked kid violinists get?

Some say parents fear kids with the resources to leave those parents at will. But a parent veto on kid work seems sufficient for that – why also forbid parents from letting their kids work?

The fact that anti-child-labor laws actually only target working directly for money still seems better explained to me by unions once seeking to avoid labor competition, and others later piling on to show concern and to push upper class behaviors on everyone.

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News You Can Use

If you want more evidence that people don’t read/watch news to get useful info, consider the low little interest in this, the most useful article I’ve ever read:

Pooping on a modern sitting toilet is a big part of where hemorrhoids come from, and it can also cause diverticular disease … A 2003 study observed 28 people pooping in three positions: sitting on a high toilet, sitting on a lower one and squatting like they were catchers at a baseball game … Pooping took about a minute less when done squatting and that participants rated the experience as “easier”. In fact, toilets that require you to squat that way have been the standard for most of human history and are still widely used in the non-Western world. …

Showering or bathing daily … wreaks havoc on something hilariously called the horny layer. Hot water, soap and abrasive surfaces strip off the horny layer, exposing living cells to the elements. … Damaging this protective layer of skin makes us more susceptible to disease. … Showering doesn’t kill bacteria or other microorganisms, though it does move them around. … For this reason, surgeons in many hospitals are not allowed to shower right before operating. … There are no measurable differences in the number of microorganism colonies a person is host to regardless of how frequently that person showers. … When you shower, use warm or cool water and a mild soap (if at all), and rehydrate the horny layer by rubbing on some moisturizer afterward. …

The muscle you’re supposed to use to breathe, your diaphragm, is under your lungs and closer to your belly….

Artificial light has pushed our normal bedtime back later and later, and this [natural] segmented sleep has been compressed into a single eight hours. … In a monthlong experiment, healthy subjects were given a long artificial “night” lasting 14 hours. They quickly reverted to the segmented pattern, waking up for an hour or two of “peaceful wakefulness” between two three to five hour stretches. …

Today, the majority of women in America are still directed to give birth in the “lithotomy” position, an odd pose that consists of lying flat on your back with your feet and legs raised, sometimes in stirrups. … This is pretty much the worst position imaginable to give birth in. … The World Health Organization has called use of the lithotomy position “clearly harmful,” and recommended that it be eliminated. …

Flossing is much more important than brushing. … Brushing twice a day is generally still believed to be the best practice. But you should do it away from mealtimes to give your teeth time to recover from acid wear — ideally, right before you eat or drink anything. … You should use a soft brush and focus on your gums more than your actual teeth. …

A study used an MRI to measure the spinal disk movement of three groups of people: one sitting, one slouching and one lying back at a 135-degree angle with their feet on the floor. The last group showed the least disk movement. By the way, this reclining position was common during the Roman Empire. (more; HT Rebecca Roache)

How do people yawn at this sort of article, stay riveted to the latest on Japan nuke plants, and yet tell themselves they read the news to get useful info?

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More Bits

You can get info by listening to general broadcasts, by asking others specifically, by remembering previous related info, or by figuring it out yourself on the fly, either using general slow methods or fast context-specific methods. Improving tech seems to increasingly favor asking specifically for info over listening to broadcasts. It also favors remembering stuff, and especially asking electronic assistants. For such assistants, tech increasingly favors figuring stuff out on the fly, especially via hardware dedicated to a specific purpose, over remembering or asking.

All this is because the world’s ability to crunch bits has grown fast, much faster than our ability to store or talk, and bidirectional talk has grown much faster than broadcast talk. Even so, the raw capacity of a single human body outshines it all:

During the period from 1986 to 2007 … [world-wide] general-purpose computing capacity grew at an annual rate of 58%. The world’s capacity for bidirectional telecommunication grew at 28% per year, closely followed by the increase in globally stored information (23%). Humankind’s capacity for unidirectional information diffusion through broadcasting channels has experienced comparatively modest annual growth (6%). … The per capita [computing] capacity of our sample of application specific machine mediators grew .. [at] 83% … per year. …

The 6.4 × 1018 instructions per second that humankind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second (1017).  The 2.4 × 1021 bits stored by humanity in all of its technological devices in 2007 is approaching an order of magnitude of the roughly 1023 bits stored in the DNA of a human adult. (more)

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Fear Water

The Japan nuke plant damage, with so far zero casualties, still commands far more attention than the tsunami’s tens of thousands of deaths. Consider also:

When, in 1975, about 30 dams in central China failed in short succession due to severe flooding, an estimated 230,000 people died. Include the toll from this single event, and fatalities from hydropower far exceed the number of deaths from all other energy sources. (more)

Human-induced seismicity can be deadly if it triggers the release of accumulated tectonic strain on a large fault. The textbook case occurred in 1967 when the filling of a reservoir behind India’s hydroelectric Koyna Dam—completed six years earlier—unleashed a magnitude 6.3 quake, killing 180 people and leaving thousands homeless. Geophysicists continue to debate whether the Zipingpu Dam, completed in 2004, triggered the [2008] 7.9-magnitude earthquake that devastated China’s Sichuan province three years ago, killing over 70,000. (more)

Add in Katrina and other hurricanes and the Indonesian tsunami, and you might think the obvious lesson is: be afraid of water, not isotopes. People should fear living near the ocean, or under a dam, far more than being downwind of a nuke plant. Why so little fear of water?

Added 5p: I often had childhood nightmares of a tsunami, but never had any nightmares regarding other energy sources. So people clearly are capable of fearing water.

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Child Labor Hypocrisy

School seems useful for basic training and for socializing folks into industrial workplaces. But how much schooling do we need – closer to eight or to sixteen years? You might think the more school option has clearly proven its superiority by now. But it wasn’t exactly a fair fight – we forbade kids to work, and then required them to school.

Watching some young girls sitting for hours in front of a grocery store selling girl scout cookies recently, I wondered, “Why isn’t this child labor?” People often talk as they feel revulsion at the image of a miserable child, working at some hard tedious job, and so they are glad child labor laws prohibit such cruel scenarios. But in fact our society is full of kids working away at hard and/or tedious jobs.

Kids work hard at school, housework, sports, practicing music, supporting clubs, etc. and none of this cruelty is prevented by “child labor” laws. Such laws only prevent getting paid to work; they don’t even stop kids interning for free. If child labor laws come from our revulsion at miserable kids, why are there no laws preventing tiger moms from making their kids practice music for hours straight without a bathroom break, or against parents who make their older kids work full time taking care of younger kids? If job safety is our worry, why not just regulate that more directly?

The history of child labor law is closely associated with unions seeking less competition for adult labor. Like minimum lot sizes for houses, child labor laws also helped to keep out poor folks. And today self-righteous indication about foreign child labor supports protectionism, to keep out foreign products that compete with local firms. Alas, keeping poor kids from working for money not only unfairly biases the work vs. school competition, it needlessly impoverishes poor kids and their families.

While we claim to care so so much about kids forced to do hard and tedious tasks, we only actually prevent doing such tasks for money – many kids around us end up doing such tasks anyway, just not for money, and we hardly care. And yet somehow we’ve used all this to tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the cruel poor folk who might even consider having their kids “work.” Hypocrisy can be amazingly shallow.

Added 9a: Art Carden argues similarly.

Added 6Apr: I devote a whole post to responding to comments.

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