Dear 16-year-old me…

I got a message from my mother this morning with a link to this video. Just five minutes and three seconds, it was a short investment to make me think about this issue from a completely different perspective.

Malignant Melanoma is far more deadly– and far more common– than I thought. This short video was created by a company called evidently for the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund and contains people, all of whom who have either suffered from skin cancer or lost someone to it, sending a message to their former selves. They don’t intend to reach them, of course. They hope to reach you. And me. And everyone that any of us care about.

Spend five minutes watching, maybe read up a little to know more about melanoma, and then, for God’s sake, get to know your own skin.

Thanks, Mom.

Bill Maher insults, well… everyone

Bill Maher’s appearance on the George Lopez show last night was interesting for two reasons:

  1. First, he called Republicans the “ignorant, hillbilly half of America” to the loud cheers of the audience
  2. Then, he basically insulted everyone in the audience by saying that American voters were “like dogs; too stupid to understand issues” and reacting only to “fear, dominance and inflection.”

And maybe he was right, because the audience cheered that, too, even though he was clearly including them in his opinion.

Here’s a brief transcript of this portion of the conversation:

Maher: “We have Democrats for one reason: to drag the ignorant, hillbilly half of this country into the next century. Which in their case is the nineteenth.”

Lopez: “Yes. Absolutely. I agree. How do you think that Barrack Obama is doing halfway through his term?”

Maher: “You know, I mean, look: Democrats are always a little disappointing, that’s why they’re democrats. Uh, but given the hand he was dealt, I give him an “A”.

“I’ll tell you this about Americans, about the American electorate, the voter: Um, they love a winner. You know as soon as he passed healthcare, it went up 15 points. They don’t understand the issues. They’re too stupid. They’re like a dog. They can understand inflection. They can understand fear. They can understand dominance. They don’t understand issues. But when he won on that issue, he went up.”

Lopez: “Right.”

Maher: “I’ll tell you something, if Tiger Woods had come back and won the Masters, he could have murdered all those girls he was f&#*ing. But he didn’t win, and therefore America turned on him. Because they were like, “We’re pissed off, it’s not right to try to f&#* every waitress in America… some of us are still waiting for bread.”

Obviously, that last bit was purely for comic benefit. But the overall message was one he clearly believes. Take a look and decide for yourself:

Be true to your principles, or solve the problem?

Malcolm GladwellI really enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s work. His approach to looking at problems is fresh and interesting, and he’s able to draw correlations that are not only unusual, but incredibly insightful. I find I’m often struck by the obvious relationship one thing has to another after he’s made it clear. This just happened to me as I was reading an article originally published in The New Yorker and republished in his book “What the Dog Saw.”

The article was about homelessness, specifically the cost of homelessness, both in the humanitarian sense and dollars-and-cents-sense. He explores the notion that many of us have about the homeless: that it’s a problem with a normal distribution (a bell curve) that represents a huge mass in the middle that accounts for most of the problems. Recent studies suggest, however, that homelessness is really what they call a power law distribution that is shaped more like a hockey stick, with a relatively small number of ‘hard core’ homeless that drive the cost. In fact, according to a study done by Dennis Culhane in the 1990’s, more than 80% of people in shelters are in and out very quickly. “In Philadelphia,” Culhane says, “we found that the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. The second most common is two days.”

Gladwell points out that when we perceive problems to have a normal distribution, the resulting impression is of something that is too big to fix, so we treat the symptoms instead. But if the problem has a power law distribution, then it’s possible that it’s a big problem caused by a relatively small number of people. In other words, the problem itself could be fixed.

In Denver, this is exactly what they’re trying to do about homelessness. Realizing that they need to get these chronically homeless off the streets (and, subsequently, out of the health care system, which is where they are really costing the rest of us the most), Denver officials have begun giving them apartments. And this approach makes perfect sense economically: it’s far cheaper to pay someone’s rent than to continually pay to for the health care costs associated with them being on the streets. In fact, the article was originally titled “Million Dollar Murray”, a reference to one chronically homeless man in Nevada who cost the state more than a million dollars over ten years of homelessness.

The problem with solving a power law distribution like this is that, while it makes sense economically, it doesn’t seem fair morally. Gladwell says:

“Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand – and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.”

“There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit – to observe the principle of universality – isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are of little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice.”

And then he followed up this argument with the sentence that still has me pondering this whole notion, more than two weeks later:

“We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.”

Related articles of interest:

The Ultimate Arrogance

I’ve long thought that taking a basic food staple and turning it into fuel for our cars was the ultimate arrogance. The nose-thumbing equivalent, say, of turning down a friend needing a $4 loan and then using that $4 to buy a venti vanilla latte.

“Yes, I know you’re hungry,” we seem to be saying, “and I know you have kids to feed, too. But if I turn all of this corn into ethanol, there’s a chance I could save ten cents a gallon.”

The good news, I guess, is that we’re developing new ways to create ethanol from the solid walls of plants that will be more efficient than the current method, which only uses about 50% of the dry kernel mass of corn. The bad news, which goes largely ignored, is that mileage decreases fairly significantly with E85, thus causing us to burn more in the first place. The rest of the bad news is that the “demand” for ethanol is driving food prices up and creating a food shortage.

You may have already noticed rising rice prices. Some retails stores in the US have begun rationing the amount of rice you can buy. Why? We’re consuming (both eating and burning for fuel) more rice than we’re producing. “For the first time, it’s been clear that we are consuming more rice than we are producing globally,” said Robert Zeigler, head of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute.

Honestly, it all makes me just want to ride my bike.

Immigration Issue "Fixed"?

Kris W. Kobach, D.Phil., J.D. and Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.have written an article about the current immigration bill that is making it’s way through the Senate. Though it certainly uses some inflammatory language, it’s well worth the read. Personally, this seems like a deeply flawed attempt to fix the immigration problem, but you can decide for yourself. Regardless, it’s always important to know what’s inside these bills.

Be informed, get involved. This is your country, and these are your representatives. Make sure they know what you think!

[Read the Heritage Foundation article, “Rewarding Illegal Aliens: Senate Bill Undermines The Rule of Law”]
[Read the legislation]