Archive for March, 2010

The functions of various regions of the human brain.

March 29th, 2010  |  Published in blatant-lies

I have compiled, from a number of reputable neuroscience texts, information on what we know about the functions of various parts of the human brain and visualized this information in a (hopefully very useful) graphical representation:

This uses HTML5 canvas elements, so won't work in IE. Also it doesn't work on mobile Safari, annoyingly enough.

What the hell, people.

March 23rd, 2010  |  Published in google, what


The Distribution of Various Quantities Across the Contiguous United States

March 22nd, 2010  |  Published in blatant-lies

I have painstakingly compiled and plotted various interesting statistics about the distribution of various quantities across the inhabitants of the 48 contiguous United States (sorry Hawaii and Alaska, but you ruin just about every visualization you touch):

This was made with Processsing.js, and so uses HTML 5 canvases -- it therefore won't work on IE or older browsers.

An Etymology of the word "Fuck"

March 14th, 2010  |  Published in blatant-lies

At last, my months of philological toil bear fruit, with this informative infographic describing the etymology of the most obscene word in the English language, "fuck". I am, as far as I know, the first to be able to successfully trace the word back to the original Proto-Indo-European, and subsequently trace the term back down a few branches of the well-known Indo-European language tree. I really am quite excited to be able to present my research for you here:

This was made with the extremely-neat Processing.js library, and uses HTML5 Canvases (and so won't work in IE. Also, it doesn't work on mobile Safari right now, heh).

I hope you enjoy my exciting new etymological discoveries.

Health Care Reform and the environment

March 5th, 2010  |  Published in idiocy

In true Freakonomics style, I will offer a poor argument that contains numbers. This poor argument will relate health care reform and global warming.

Let us assume that a reasonable reform of the health care system in the US will result in an average increased life expectancy of 0.1 year per person [1]. Since there are about 308,805,776 people in the US right now [b], this means that health care reform would add about 30,880,578 person-years to the total number of years lived by US citizens [2].

On average, each US citizen is responsible for 22 tons of CO2 emission annually [3]. If HCR adds 30.8 million person-years, this means that we'd expect health care reform to be responsible for, minimally, an additional 679 million tons of CO2 released [4]. That's Two Extra Australia-years. Or a year's emissions from the UK. That's a lot.

The solution is, I believe, to don't fix what ain't broke, and, additionally, to consume the elderly.

However, let it be stated:

There actually do lurk beneath this stupid argument some tricky things (for reasons why the argument is weak, see footnote 4).

What are our policy goals? Is a primary goal the maximization of expected long-term aggregate benefits for humans? That sounds OK, I guess. So making our lives a bit worse and shorter is worth it if we're pretty confident that by so doing we're also making our children's children's lives longer and better than they would be.

Is there really a tradeoff, though, between our quality of life (better healthcare, cheaper flights, heated pools, etc) and the quality of life of future generations (who have to live with a destroyed planet)? I'm sure many people much smarter than I have answered this question reasonably, but the answer is, it seems to me, a resounding "maybe."

This seems to be a situation in which we can perhaps have our cake and eat it too -- we can still have nice things like longer life expectancies and heated pools, and our descendants can also have nice things, so long as we are working like hell to get very low-negative-externality and sustainable energy production [5].

So, I suppose, the tradeoff exists now (adding years to our lives and adding cars to our garages fills the air with CO2; burning oil leaves our descendants less oil), but things could change hugely if we pay enough engineers to change the world in sufficiently wonderful ways.

So, in conclusion, we need to sponsor much more basic research, so someone can invent me some damn cold fusion already so I ain't gotta feel bad about having two laptops open right now.

[1] The number was basically chosen randomly. However, according to the UN, the US average life expectancy in 2005-2010 is 78.2 years, and the UK average life expectancy is 79.4 years [a]. It is not at all implausible that a more effective health care system would, ceteris paribus, remove 8% of the difference in life expectancy between the two. (This corresponds to a 0.13% increase in average life expectancy, by the way.) In any case, the analysis holds so long as any HCR does, indeed, result in better health care; the numbers will merely be different.

[2] A person-year is, of course, a unit of time for describing cumulative years spent doing something (in this case, breathing). Two people each living forty years live a combined total of eighty person-years. This is really silly because, in the short and mid term, we expect the US population to grow exponentially, and so healthcare reform will end up affecting a much greater number of people. A reformed health care system will probably affect our children's health care as well. In any case, let's just consider the people who are alive right now.

[3] Data from [c], which is from the WRI. They give the 2002 US figure as 20 tons / person / year, but also say that the 2006 figure is probably 12-15% higher. I've conservatively added 10% to get a 2010 figure.

[4] This is tricky for a number of reasons I'm sure you can see. Tacit assumptions abound. Most notably:

  • We assume individuals are, on average, responsible for a uniform amount of CO2 emissions throughout their lives (since good HCR will help old people more than young people, if old people's CO2 footprint is different from young people's, we'll have to take this into account). I'm not sure. I cannot find the data. It doesn't seem intuitively that wrong, though.
  • There is a lot of uncertainty we're just writing away. Will technologies change? Will 50% of humanity be killed by WWIII in a decade? I don't have the patience or the knowledge to rattle off lists of conceivable "things" and assign probabilities to them, so I'm ignoring them.
  • Is the provision of better health care to more people alive right now to be considered morally equivalent to the prevention of damage to the earth which we expect to affect future generations? That is to say, assuming we have perfect knowledge of how our actions affect future generations, is an expected 0.1 year increase in life expectancy for a person now the same as an expected 0.1 year increase in life expectancy for a person in 200 years? The problem is, of course, confounded by the fact that we don't have anything even closely approximating perfect knowledge. Anyways, I'm washing my hands of that whole ordeal, as this is just a "blog" and I am not an "expert" but instead am just "some guy with a keyboard and a beard."
  • Most importantly, this assumes CO2 emissions will remain static over the course of the lives of the people we're reasoning about. This is, given the evidence, ludicrous. CO2 emissions will probably increase quite a bit over a good chunk of our lifetimes (we're perhaps one of the last generations afforded this luxury). The figures given above actually probably quite understate the actual situation. They should be considered a lower limit, given the caveats above. Also, as noted in [2], population numbers have a habit of growing exponentially. Well, probably sigmoidally, actually, but that sure looks exponential from here. So that's two nonlinear functions that we actually assume to be constant, which is just plain silly, really.

[5] Note: we are not currently working like hell to do this.