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February 26, 2007

Bloggum Resumptum

(My apologies to anyone who knows Latin.)

The blogosphere beckons, and I can't stay on indefinite video game holiday. Now I remember why I didn't take a game console to college.

To the curious, no, I haven't saved Zelda yet — that's a looong game. It tells me I've played for over twenty hours and I've only gotten through the first three dungeons. Curse my engineer's compulsion to explore every cranny! I also tend to waste time experimenting on ways to reach areas that actually aren't reachable yet; I've done this at least 4 times…

Tonight, sleep. Tomorrow, perhaps some writing.

February 20, 2007


No blogging. Spending all time playing Wii. Must save Zelda.

February 17, 2007

But How Many Qubits Does It Have?

Journalists are usually generalists, and it's often easy for a domain expert to spot serious errors or misrepresentations in news stories. (And that's a little depressing, because if they report your field so badly, how can you believe anything else they write?)

I had a very good chuckle over this:

The machine currently runs at 16 qubits, the basic unit of quantum computing. That's less power than most standard computers and what the company calls a proof of concept.

I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a statement.

Martin said the company plans to have it running at about 1,000 qubits by the time the product goes on sale next year.

OMG 1,000 qubits mine only has 64 bits so it's gonna be like three times faster!!!one

February 12, 2007

Illegal Incandescents

A couple days ago I saw in the news that the legislatures in California and New Jersey are considering legislation designed to limit the use of incandescent lights, in favor of flourescents. The California proposal would ban incandescent bulbs.

The spectra of flourescent and incandescent lights are not the same; Megan experimented with flourescents and then had to defend her decision to stick with incandescents. Some people would be significantly affected by a mandatory switch to flourescent lighting.

In this case it isn't the technical advantages and disadvantages of different lighting systems that interest me; it's the political angle. Specifically, I'm worked up about the fact that this is a political issue at all.

Lighting legislation is merely the latest symptom of the disease of using political power to control others. Driven by environmentalism, liberal politicians want to force everyone to use the "right" kind of lights. But there's no shelter available by turning to conservative politicians; they have their own agenda of control (for example, restricting gambling).

I feel a longish essay coming on. I have many things to say about why it's wrong to try to control others' decisions. Even — especially — when you think they're making the wrong decisions.

February 08, 2007

Bad Medicine

Before I went to work this morning I caught the end of a segment on CNBC that had two people debating the FDA and pharmaceutical industry. One of the participants was Dr. Peter Lurie, M.D., Deputy Director, Public Citizen's Health Research Group — and what he said made me almost incoherently angry.

It's several hours later now, so I've calmed down enough to attempt to respond rationally to this arrogant lunatic. (Ah, it would seem I'm still a little worked up about it…) Here's a transcript of the relevant portion of the debate; you can also watch the video:

Michael Tanner
… the current FDA regulations [are] keeping drugs away from people. We talk about Vioxx. Taking Vioxx off the market did help some people but there are thousands of people now who are in pain that don't have access to that drug that was helping them.
Dr. Peter Lurie
Look, they could be taking aspirin. Vioxx was never any better than aspirin. The difference is it killed by FDA estimates, or rather caused heart attacks in, about 160,000 people. I mean, why do we need that risk when it doesn't work any better than aspirin?
Michael Tanner
Well doctors disagree, and that's why they were prescribing it, and doctors are complaining now that they don't have a class of drugs that they need to help some people who couldn't take aspirin for a variety of reasons.
Dr. Peter Lurie
Those doctors are wrong. And if you look for clinical trials that compare Vioxx to aspirin you will not find one in which Vioxx is better, or you will not find a preponderance that show that.
Michael Tanner
Look, you're disagreeing with every academic study that is out there. There is every cost-benefit analysis that's been done on the FDA by economists across the board, left and right, has shown that there is more harm done by FDA regulation than could be benefited by new regulation.
Dr. Peter Lurie
Absolutely not, and the academic literature is absolutely made filthy by the amount of drug industry funded research, including the kinds of stuff that you're busy citing right now.

I go apoplectic at comments like "Vioxx was never any better than aspirin" and "those doctors are wrong" because this is personal, this is family. My sister took Vioxx before it was withdrawn and it has been hell trying to find a suitable alternative. Dr. Lurie's insistence that aspirin is a substitute for Vioxx, even after being reminded that some people can't take aspirin, is a shocking position for a medical doctor to take.

(It's also revealing that Dr. Lurie backpedaled twice during his comments — first about heart attacks and then then about clinical trial data. Did he keep suddenly remembering he's on television, and not safely preaching to his choir?)

Here's an addendum to the earlier article my sister wrote, explaining what happened with the additional medications she's had the "opportunity" to try since Vioxx was pulled:

Running out of options, my doctor gave me a sample of Darvocet to help control the pain. I decided to be cautious with this one and took only half the pill, only to be vomiting it back up within 30 minutes. Several more minutes of dry heaving and I decided that pill wasn't going to work. Next we tried Altram. I felt fine, great in fact — for the first 12 hours. Then I lost the sensation of touch everywhere on my body. I became so dizzy I couldn't stand up, my tongue swelled making speech very difficult, and finally relentless vomiting ensued. My symptoms worsened to the point my aunt had to rush me to the ER were I was given Phenergan and IV fluids and allowed to sleep off the rest of the side effects in the ER.

Now I'm back on Naproxen and my pain grows worse daily. I can only hope that someday, someone will realize the huge mistake of taking Vioxx off the market and return it to those of us who so desperately need it.

There are a lot of pain relief medications, sure. But that doesn't mean they're interchangeable. Some people can't take certain drugs, and the fact that my sister has had to take pain medications for most of her life has given her an unusually long time to develop resistance or an allergy to particular drugs and to whole classes of drugs.

If a new drug provides "the same benefit" through different chemistry, that is an improvement. If a new drug provides "the same benefit" while reducing side effects, that is an improvement. If a new drug provides "the same benefit" through a different form of application (e.g. oral instead of injected, or topical instead of oral), that is an improvement. If a new drug proves "the same benefit" while reducing dosing frequency, that is an improvement.

All the differences between drugs that Dr. Lurie, M.D. is so quick to dismiss are important. This is a matter of life and death, and someone with a title like Deputy Director of the Public Citizen's Health Research Group should behave like he cares about the people he pretends to represent.

February 04, 2007

Insurance and Gardasil

When I wrote last June about Gardasil, Merck's cervical cancer vaccine, I got some surprised reactions from people who thought that was a topic way, way outside my usual field. Surprise, it's back!

It's an expensive vaccine — $360 for a course of three shots — and people who want it are running into trouble with insurance:

Many practices must tie up $50,000 or more in vaccine inventory, run multiple refrigerators, insure the vaccines and spend lots of time on inventory management. They also must absorb the cost of broken or wasted vials and say that's not possible with most insurers reimbursing at just $2 to $15 over the $120 per dose charged by Gardasil's developer, Merck & Co. of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey.

"Doctors are drawing a line in the sand on this. They're either not giving it or requiring a surcharge," said Dr. Daniel Schwartz of Broadway Pediatrics Associates in Westport, New Jersey, which charges patients a $25 surcharge per shot.

One of the underappreciated problems of traditional health insurance is what is usually touted as its primary feature: payment insulation. You don't pay for your health care except for some nominal co-pay or deductible — your insurance pays instead.

But there's a catch. Your insurance might not pay enough to properly reimburse your health care providers. The insurance company decides how much something is "worth" and if their reimbursements are too low, you're in trouble. It's out of your hands — it's not your decision. As the example of Gardasil illustrates, doctors may refuse to give you the service or product you want or they may add a surcharge. Then you're paying a whopping insurance premium and the surcharge, if you can get the care at all!

People with high-deductible insurance plans are in a better position to get Gardasil. Even if their insurance won't apply the entire cost of Gardasil against their insurance deductible, they can still pay for the vaccine from a Health Savings Account and get the tax benefit on the entire cost of treatment. (And since most people with high-deductible insurance plans won't exceed their deductibles anyway, the tax benefit is all that matters.)

This example doesn't affect me personally because I'm not a teenage girl, but it still makes me glad I have a high-deductible insurance plan. I'm also glad that I'm not a teenage girl, 'cuz that would be like, so, totally, ohmigod!

February 01, 2007

Why I'm a Long-Term Dollar Bear

If you've been reading my blog for a while you've probably noticed that I'm one of those wacky commodity money advocates. (You can recognize us in the wild because we snicker whenever the phrase "barbarous relic" comes up in ordinary conversation.) I'm predisposed to pointing out unsettling facts such as the U.S. dollar losing half its value over the past 20 years.

There are many reasons why a commodity money, and especially a money backed by precious metals, is economically superior to fiat money. But those reasons don't matter here; I don't invest in precious metals because of my economic preferences. I invest in precious metals because I think the U.S. dollar is going to be under a lot of pressure for a long time. Why?


This is not a bad thing — I love globalization. But I do think this economic megatrend has some interesting implications for the U.S. dollar, and I've shaped my investments accordingly. (#insert <std.disclaimer>)

The U.S. dollar is often described as "the world's reserve currency" because for the several decades after World War II this country had the most attractive economy around — large, strong, and growing. Everyone used dollars, and even today important commodities like oil are still primarily traded on dollar terms even when the trading partners don't use dollars in their domestic economies. The use of dollars in exchange, and as central bank reserves (the origin of the phrase "world's reserve currency"), are felt on the market as a demand for dollars and boost their value.

I'm a dollar bear because rapid growth in developing countries is leading those countries to represent a greater fraction of the total world economy. Ipso facto, the fraction represented by the United States will fall. As a simple matter of diversification it is a reasonable move for other countries to shift some portion of their central bank reserves to other currencies, such as the euro, which has become a credible alternative to the dollar. Simultaneously, the use of non-dollar currencies in international trade also becomes more attractive. (For example, Iran has been planning to open a euro-denominated oil bourse.)

As the United States' dominance of the world economy wanes, the dollar will become relatively less attractive both for holding and for trade, so its value will fall. That's it — simple and inexorable.

Oh yeah, and all those stereotypical gold-bug reasons in favor of investing in precious metals are true too. :)

I considered adding some charts to this article, but charts take a lot of extra effort, and I'm lazy. Let me know if you'd strongly like to see some charts so I know it would be worth the effort.

Net Worth Report - End of 01/07

I reached $500,000 this month. I guess it's time to schedule a fitting for a top hat and monocle.

Net Worth Figures

Note the sharp decline in short-term holdings. I made my 2007 contributions to my Roth IRA ($4,000), HSA ($2,850), and am making the maximum 401(k) contributions (50% of payroll) allowed by my employer. I'll be drawing from my short-term holdings for the whole first quarter. I won't be making any significant new investments until I raise cash by selling a batch of ESPP shares when I see a good opportunity sometime in the next few weeks.

Last month I talked about how my employer's contribution to its profit-sharing plan caused a discontinuity in my January goal figure. Well, they're a few days later this year than last year and haven't made the contribution yet. I adjusted my model, so now the big jump shows up in next month's goal.

Goal-Tracking Figures
Adjusted Net Worth$457,304.04$469,206.09
Next Month's Target$467,162.22$478,716.19
Estimated Contribution-$4.82-$62.45

No change in credit card arbitrage this month. But I got some 0% balance transfer checks in the mail and I continue to be astonished that they haven't realized I'm taking advantage of them yet. I'll be increasing my arbitrage by about $10,000 soon.

Credit Card Arbitrage Figures
Balances @ 0% APR$25,012.71$24,868.60
Monthly Payment$500.25$497.37

You can keep track of other personal finance bloggers at NetWorthIQ. I've updated my entry there.

Tiny Island