Saturday, September 30, 2006

IT TAKES TALENT
Fascinating article in the New Yorker about how some Cystic Fibrosis centers are much more effective and why that is, not just because I have a personal stake in this issues.

The author doesn't come out and say this, but it seems to me the answer comes down to the talent of the people on that team. The best CF center has an extremely talented doctor who is the driving force behind the center. The Cincinnati center highlighted by the article could improve itself incrementally by doing things similar to how the best centers do things, but they will never be as good, because they don't have that doctor.

We're willing to acknowledge the importance and impact of talent in some contexts. Any serious baseball fan knows that Albert Pujols is several times more valuable to the Cardinals than a utility player like Aaron Miles. Nobody thinks that if the Pittsburgh Pirates could significantly improve themselves by following the same daily routine as the New York Yankees. Teamwork and chemistry are important, but you have to have the horses.

But in the businesses where most of use work, we pretend this isn't the case. I'm a software engineer. Employers do "pay for performance" which usually means that the best engineers get a 5% raise while the average ones get 3% raises, resulting in the best engineers making maybe 10% more than average engineers. This in spite of reasearch showing that the best developers are 10 times more productive than average engineers. Yet, if an organization is looking to improve its software quality, it won't try to hire better engineers, it will refine its processes.

Other industries are worse. The compensation system for public school teachers works on the assumption that the only measure of a teacher's effectiveness is years of service. But if the best baseball players are much more valuable than average baseball players, and the best software engineers are 10 times more effective than average engineers, is there any reason to believe that the best teachers are many times more valuable than average teachers? And shouldn't their compensation refelect that? And if not, won't great teachers become average teachers?

We don't want to believe this, though, because it means that we have to do the work of identifying the best. Something in me wold like to believe that all CF centers are about equal. The idea that changing centers could extend Meagan's life by many years is a bit scary. It would mean that I would need to find out what the best center is, and maybe move our family there. Can't we just assume they're all abot equal and worry about something else? Isn't that why chains are so popular? Walk into a McDonald's and you know what you're going to get. If you're OK with that, then you don't need to research each town you visit to find a restaurant.

Except McDonald's food is mediocre, not excellent. For a quick meal on the road, mediocre might be good enough. But is mediocre good enough for educating our children, caring for a degenerative fatal disease, or producing a new software products. We need excellence, but we're using tools and techniques designed to achieve a baseline of mediocrity rather than excellence.

There's also a rationing problem. By definition, there are few people on the right side of the curve. How can they meet the large demand for their services? For commercial software engineers, the market can determine it -- whoever's willing to pay the most gets the elite engineer's services. But is this how we want to determine who gets access to the best CF centers? the best high shool algebra teacher?

So I guess I have more questions than answers....

Saturday, September 23, 2006

RYDER STYLES
OK -- whose idea was it for the US and European teams to both play their matches in the same color blue shirt an black pants? In a rainy day? With a lot of American rookies and European players we're not familiar with? Unless it was someone like Tiger Woods, you could hardly tell whether each player was American or European.

Would it be too much to ask for the American team to dress in colors from the American flag? Like red shirts with flag blue pants? Forget these stupid pale blue shirts, or the beige/grey stuff from yesterday. Could they actually look like they're proud to represent the country they're representing?

Friday, September 15, 2006

REVISIONS
The Post-Dispatch has a revised version of the article I criticized and parodied yesterday with a more appropriate headline, which I suspect is what was printed in today's paper. Good for them. I'm sure they would say the web version yesterday was so imbalanced because they didn't have time to get both sides before publishing. But this begs the question of why there was such a rush to get this out. Was there anything time-sensitive about that information? Would it make a difference if voters received that information 12 hours later? No and no. And it's difficult to imagine the Post-Dispatch treating a press release from the other side in such a manner. The Post-Dispatch's job is to accurately report the news, not the ensure that the Coalition for Lifesaving Cures gets their propaganda out as fast as possible.

The revised version still has some things worth pointing out.

One of the criticisms those opposing embryonic research often hear is that we're "against science." In this very article, those supporting amendment say that striking it down would create an "anti-science environment" in Missouri. Science is about testing hypotheses with experiments and data, and using that data to draw conclusions. But check this out...


The study also says that banning embryonic stem cell work, as has been attempted by state lawmakers in recent years, would put a chill on biotech research of all kinds, stifling a promising industry.



Winship contends the state's biotech industry won't suffer if embryonic stem cell research is banned, especially because a lot of Missouri's biotech work is based in agriculture. Michigan banned certain types of stem cell work, but it has a vibrant biomedical sector, she said.

Donn Rubin, chairman of the coalition and a leader in building St. Louis' biotech sector, said Michigan business leaders have called seeking advice on how to reverse that state's ban. Their biotech cluster is beginning to lag, "their research infrastructure is going to continue to decline, and their potential for generating a 21st Century economy is going to decline if they can't undo it," he said.


Here we have:

  • One side make an assertion, with no data to back it up.
  • The other side responds with relevant data.
  • The other side dismisses this data with anecdotes and more conjecture

Which side is making unsupported assertions and using anecdotes to trump hard data? That would be the side that accuses the other side of being against science.
Daniel Shipley captured things well: "They say, 'If every person was adequately cured by a totally unproven medical procedure, then the following would occur.' I could make a lot of business cases based on such assumptions and go to a bank, and they would laugh me out of there." But Missourians are supposed to rewrite their Constitution based on this.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

BREAKING NEWS!
AGGRESSIVE INTERROGATION DEFEAT COULD COST TRILLIONS, PROPONENTS SAY
Proponents of a ballot measure that would protect controversial interrogation techniques in the United States today launched an economic salvo: A report claiming trillions of dollars in lost economic opportunity for the nation if the measure should fail.

The report was commissioned by the US Coalition for Lifesaving Questioning, a group of more than 100 miltiary, law enforecement, faith and civic organizations.

A copy obtained by Man Bites Blog reveals the Coalition’s dollars-and-cents case for passage of Amendment X, which would ensure that any aggressive interrogation techniques and the information obtained from them in the United States.

The study considers the costs of limiting questiones' access to interrogation techniques and information that could result from aggressive interrogation techniques. It also says banning such work, as has been attempted by federal lawmakers in recent years, would put a chill on mitlitary efforts of all kinds, stifling a promising industry.

Opponents of aggressive interrogation techniques , which uses Palestinian hanging and waterboarding, liken it to torture. They say promising information can be developed from conventional interrogation techniques.

Most military experts experts say, however,coercive interrogation techniques have the potential to deliver into any type of information show unmatched potential – though after eight years of using these techniques, they have not been used to thwart any terrorist attacks.

The Coalition’s study makes broad economic and scientific assumptions, which critics are sure to challenge. It promises information that today are germs of basic data, years away from reaching decision-m,akers even if they should pan out. It also projects levels of interrogation that could shift under changing national and global economic conditions.

For example, the study assumes aggressive interrogation will lead to the complete neutralization of al Qaeda

If so, the state could save billions of dollars a year currently spent on national defense, the study said. What’s more, these military personnel could return to work or be more productive, contributing to the nation's economy.

A more direct impact comes in Guntanamo, where the Rubber Hose Institute of Interrogation is considering a $300 million expansion – but only if the ballot measure passes, ensuring unfettered questioning opportunities for the world-class interrogators it hopes to employ.

Those 500 interrogators would be expected to receive the same average $72,500 in annual salary and benefits received by the 350 already working at the institute, adding to the nation’s tax base, the study said.

If voters should reject Amendment X, the US’s work to become a hub for intelligence research and industry would be severely hindered, said thechairman of the Coalition and a leader in building the Northeast's intelligencesector.

Interrogators "don’t have to be doing aggressive techniques to be impacted by an anti-intelligence environment," he said. And workers in all types of industries might hesitate to come to the US if they fear a lack of protection provided by these techniques.

Regulatory uncertainty also could keep the best and brightest interrogators away fromthe US's military academites and intelligence-based businesses, the report said.

If Amendment 2 should fail, and lawmakers subsequently aggressive interrogation technques, that "could lead to a general and widespread exodus of defense from the country," it said. "Essentially, l could take the view that the United States laws are unpredictable and antagonistic to the defense environment."
OUR OBJECTIVE PRESS
Gotta love our objective, non-partisan press that puts out articles like this. Headline? : "Stem cell defeat could cost Missouri billions, proponents say". Oh, I guess it is objective, since the headline writer tacked "proponenets say" on to it. I look forward to the similarly headlined articles presenting the other point of view.

Cherry-picking some passages:


Proponents of a Nov. 7 ballot measure that would protect controversial stem cell research in Missouri today launched an economic salvo: A report claiming billions of dollars in lost economic opportunity for the state if the measure should fail.
(Emphasis mine)

Protect is one of the words the press is liking to use in describing this intitative. Who could argue with protection?


The report was commissioned by the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, a group of more than 100 patient, medical, faith and civic organizations.


The article doesn't mention that it's mostly funded by one family.


It also says banning such work, as has been attempted by state lawmakers in recent years, would put a chill on biotech research of all kinds, stifling a promising industry.


And drug laws put a chill on drug dealing, stifling a promising industry that could lift people (mostly minorities) out of poverty.


The Coalition’s study makes broad economic and scientific assumptions, which critics are sure to challenge.


You think?

But I guess that's kind of the point. While we waste our time and energy trying to refute their bogus numbers, they'll run more ads with darling children and poor disease victims who have a chance to beat their disease, but only if you vote for Amendment 2 (don't give up on hope!). These numbers are a distraction. Most voters will (probably correctly) assume that both sides are inflating their numbers a bit, and fall for the emotional story. We'll argue over who'd statistics are better rather than having the real conversation we need to have over what is ethical, and how do we compassionatley respond to disease victims.


For example, the study assumes embryonic stem cells will lead to effective treatments for five conditions that combined affect about 285,000 Missourians: Parkinson’s disease, stroke, heart attack, spinal cord injury and Type 1 diabetes.

If so, the state could save about $299 million a year it spends on treating these diseases, primarily through Medicaid, the study said. What’s more, these patients could return to work or be more productive, contributing to the state’s economy.


Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore ridiculous assertions like this. Would the cost of administering these treatments really be zero? And would they really be instnantaneously effective such that they could immediately return to work? And they would require no other treatment? Really?

Pro-lifers are often criticized for failing to be realistic. But to assume that if we only allow stem cell treatment, than we can eliminate all costs associated with treating a host of diseases even though no such treatments have yet been developed, is completely foolish.


A more direct impact comes in Kansas City, where the Stowers Institute for Medical Research is considering a $300 million expansion – but only if the ballot measure passes, ensuring unfettered research opportunities for the world-class researchers it hopes to employ.
(emphasis mine)


Those 500 scientists would be expected to receive the same average $72,500 in annual salary and benefits received by the 350 already working at the institute, adding to Missouri’s tax base, the study said.


And who would be paying these salaries? Wouldn't they be coming from our taxes,since this is state-funded research we're talking about? So, the cost of their salaries is not a cost, but the 10% of their salaries paid to taxes is a benefit. Right...


Scientists "don’t have to be doing stem cell research to be impacted by an anti-science environment," he said. And workers in all types of industries might hesitate to come to Missouri if they fear a lack of access to potential medical treatments.

Regulatory uncertainty also could keep the best and brightest scientists away from Missouri’s universities and research-based businesses, the report said.


This is the type of argument cultural conservatives make and have dismissed all the time. Remember, "how does it hurt your marriage if two men want to get married?" Can you find a mainstream writer who would refer to the Culture of Life without scare quotes and a snicker? But we're supposed to believe that an aerospace engineer wouldn't want to work at Boeing because we didn't change our constitution to ensure that no ethical considerations will get in the way of Progress.


If Amendment 2 should fail, and lawmakers subsequently banned stem cell research, that "could lead to a general and widespread exodus of scientific research from the state," it said. "Essentially, researchers could take the view that Missouri laws are unpredictable and antagonistic to the research environment."


I've taken on this before, but isn't it also possible that people who might be vulnerable might not want to live in a state whose constitution explicitly says that there can be no interference in using some people for research? In addition to attracting the "best and the brightest," might we also want to attract people who are concerned about others' rights, who don't see people as means to their ends?

In addition to the dishonesty, this approach is deeply insulting to those opposed to the measure -- it pretty much says, "I know you won't set aside your ethical concerns to save people's lives, but maybe you will if it will lower your taxes and improve the national economy." Yeah, I guess that makes it not killing.

More proof that the other side doesn't get pro-lifers at all.

UPDATE: Right now, the front page of STLToday has this paraphrase of a press release tagged as "BREAKING" news. I certainly hope they'll stay on top of the breaking story of an advocacy group faxing them a report.

UPDATE: The article has been revised. The headline now reads, "Stem cell proponents cite money," which is considerably more honest (though it does have the error of conflating embryonic stem cell research with adult and umbilical stem cell reseach, but that's so common it's hardly worth mentioning).

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

AVOIDING THE BULLS EYE
Seeing the Dateline sexual predator show tonight, it occurred to me that thhe producers of that show would probably like nothing better than to catch a Catholic priest, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if they specifically targetted priests, yet they haven't caught one.

Somebody had to say it...

Monday, September 04, 2006

THE CULTURE OF DEATH
Couldn't help but think of it reading this letter to Carolyn Hax in yesterday's paper:

Last time I checked, women choose to have babies, therefore they aren't disabled. My friend says they should be afforded the courtesy. I think I'm already paying for them and their kids (i.e., school costs, time away from work). If you can't stand, don't get pregnant.

This is where the culture is going -- when everything is a "choice", then nobody has any claim on our compassion or decency. Have a child with a birth defect? Well, you made the "choice" to have her, you deal with consequences alone. Pregnant? Don't expect special treatment, that was your "choice." Don't want life support removed? That's your "choice," don't expect help from us.

I also have to ask -- who's really pro-woman here?