Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Questioning the flu vaccine

I enjoyed Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer's boldness in questioning everything we thought we knew about the flu vaccine. I felt that they did not go far enough. The main distraction was the focus on mortality outcomes. This is an example of an irrelevant outcome of a study. Many healthy people get vaccinated not to prevent dying from the flu but to prevent the flu in the first place! I get a flu shot because getting the flu is a pain the ass, not because I'm afraid of dying from it.

Moreover, if vaccination is effective, it also prevents other people from getting sick. It is possible, for instance, to have an whole unit or group out sick just because one person did not get a vaccination. (externalities)

However, they only touch on the general efficacy of the flu vaccine, i.e.:

... vaccine “mismatches” occurred in 1968 and 1997: in both years, the vaccine that had been produced in the summer protected against one set of viruses, but come winter, a different set was circulating. In effect, nobody was vaccinated. Yet death rates from all causes, including flu and the various illnesses it can exacerbate, did not budge.

I would like to be able to replace the phrase "death rates" with "infection rates".

... Studies show that young, healthy people mount a glorious immune response to seasonal flu vaccine, and their response reduces their chances of getting the flu and may lessen the severity of symptoms if they do get it. But they aren’t the people who die from seasonal flu. ... Is vaccine necessary for those in whom it is effective, namely the young and healthy?

Focusing only on the young and healthy, a randomized trial would not have the same ethical problems as a randomized trial of the elderly. They also do not consider the externality effects of vaccination (if vaccination is indeed effective):

From a paper I have yet to read:

Vaccination provides indirect benefits to the unvaccinated. Despite its important policy implications, there is little analytical or empirical work to quantify this externality, nor is it incorporated in a number of cost-benefit studies of vaccine programs. We use a standard epidemiological model to analyze how the magnitude of this externality varies with the number of vaccinations, vaccine efficacy, and disease infectiousness. We also provide empirical estimates using parameters for influenza and mumps epidemics. The pattern of the externality is complex and striking, unlike that suggested in standard treatments. The size of the externality is not necessarily monotonic in the number vaccinated, vaccine efficacy, nor disease infectiousness. Moreover, its magnitude can be remarkably large. In particular, the marginal externality of a vaccination can be greater than one case of illness prevented among the nonvaccinated, so its omission from policy analyses implies serious biases.

Education earmarks

James Fallows identifies the U.S. political system as something that needs to be fixed in order for America to "rise again". He quotes the president of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman:

Scientists I spoke with said that as more and more research money is assigned by favoritism and earmark, it becomes harder for scientists to pursue the most-promising research opportunities. “The amount of earmarking that has percolated into the scientific establishment is disturbing,” Shirley Tilghman, of Princeton, told me, referring to congressional appropriations that single out particular scientists or projects for support rather than letting research organizations distribute the money. “Science is not a democracy. It is a meritocracy. The old cliché that 90 percent of the progress comes from 10 percent of the people is true. You want a system that acknowledges that the first priority is to get resources into the hands of the very best scientists, who are going to do the vast majority of the work that will move us ahead.”

My reading of Too Damn Much Money points to the rise of earmarks as a result of the so-called meritocracy. The NSF and other grant making entities were viewed by schools such as Tufts, Georgetown and Boston University as a clubby "old-boys" network. The schools that already had the grants tended to get more grants because they already had established research to rely on. Schols trying to break into research and hence grants were not able to do so and responded by hiring lobbyists to earmark appropriations for them.

A description of this process is here. Robert Kaiser identifies Tufts and its president Jean Mayer as the person who changed the course of lobbying history.

In the summer of 1976, a famous nutritionist named Jean Mayer responded to the mass mailing that Kenneth Schlossberg and Gerald Cassidy had sent to nearly everyone they knew, offering the services of their new Washington consulting firm. Mayer's reply changed the course of history.

... Within two years Congress appropriated $27 million for the nutrition center, which stands today in Boston's Chinatown neighborhood -- the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. And soon afterward, Congress appropriated $10 million more for the veterinary school. In effect, Mayer, Schlossberg and Cassidy had hit upon a new technique for extracting federal dollars for a "special interest." Within a generation their discovery would transform the way the federal government spends money.

Those appropriations for Tufts' human nutrition research center constituted a new kind of modern "earmark." Members of Congress had always voted for projects that "brought home the bacon" -- "pork barrel" spending meant to help their home states or districts, and by extension to help members politically. Bridges, highways, post offices, water projects -- these were traditional pork, often included in "earmarked," or specifically designed, appropriations items. ...

Sentence that stuck in my mind

Afterward, we drove out Orange Plank Road, east of Grant’s path as he marched toward Richmond; we turned onto Route 3, and after a few miles saw an assortment of big-box stores blooming out of the horizon. We grumbled some about the spoilage of development—and then stopped at Cracker Barrel for breakfast.

This is from Ta-Nehishi Coates.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Giovannini describes today’s next step as developing “a framework that at least lists the domains that outline what this project should look like.”

This is from Megan McArdle on how a measure of well-being besides GDP is being constructed - or at least according to the article it is being studied on how to plan to construct a measure using various bullet points that highlight what needs to be discussed.

Update: Lant Pritchett (HT: Chris Blattman) says the Human Development Index is a victim of its own success:

The Human Development Index (HDI) has been a politically and rhetorically powerful counter-point to measures of “development” that focus exclusively on economic indicators, such as Gross Domestic Product per capita or household consumption expenditures. However, the relevance of the HDI is increasingly challenged by success.

For instance, by pitching the education component of the HDI at a very low level (literacy and gross enrollment) which has an upper bound, as more and more countries attain near 100 percent literacy and 100 percent gross enrollment of the young the education component ceases to contribute to progress in the HDI.

For countries above the low educational thresholds this implies that more progress in education (e.g. expanding tertiary enrollment, improving quality of learning outcomes in primary school) does not raise the HDI while increases in GDP per capita do raise the HDI.

As Megan McArdle points out, the weights in the HDI are somewhat arbitrary. Perhaps a reweighting of the index is needed.

Congress debates relativity

As in The Theory of.

After three weeks of lectures and receptions in New York, Einstein paid a visit to Washington. For reasons fathomable only to those who live in that city, the Senate decided to debate the theory of relativity. On the House side of the Capitol, Representative J. J. Kindred of New York proposed placing an explanation of Einstein’s theories in the Congressional Record. David Walsh of Massachusetts rose to object. Did Kindred understand the theory? “I have been earnestly busy with this theory for three weeks,” Kindred replied, “and am beginning to see some light.” But what relevance, he was asked, did it have to the business of Congress? “It may bear upon the legislation of the future as to general relations with the cosmos.”

From here?.

Regulating leverage

Does regulating leverage have a future even when value investors believe its the only way to make a decent return?

Value investors love to deride academics and the efficient-market hypothesis, but they can’t deny that stock-screening tools and other analytics have taken away many of the best bargains. At least some managers have lost the will to wait patiently for superdeals and have taken on more risk to get more return. As we walked to dinner through the soft Omaha twilight, a fund manager I had encountered at a “meet and greet” suddenly said, “The only way to make money these days is leverage.”

We had been discussing Mohnish Pabrai, a famous value-fund manager and author, whose portfolio had reportedly declined severely in 2008. Pabrai’s apparent willingness to invest in leveraged situations where a major loss is possible has caused some to argue that he isn’t really a value investor. But here was another Buffett follower essentially defending leveraged investing, because only leverage generates the kind of returns we’ve all come to expect. Investing in a highly leveraged company, or in a bunch of them, exposes you to many of the same risks as taking on leverage yourself. And my dinner companion seemed to be saying that value managers couldn’t compete with other funds without taking at least some of those bets.

This is a controversial position. Yet arguably, even Warren Buffett himself profits from substantial financial leverage. Like banking, insurance is in some sense a leveraged bet. Companies take on large deferred liabilities, in the form of future claims or account withdrawals, in exchange for payment now. They make their money by investing most of the proceeds from the deposits or premiums and keeping a moderate cash reserve, relying on the pooling of many accounts to ensure that at any one time, the demands on their assets will be smaller than the reserves set aside to cover them. Like banks, insurance companies are therefore vulnerable to a sudden mismatch between claims and underlying assets.

Sea level rise and investment

First there's this from LA Times:

An island midway between India and Bangladesh that became a catalyst for military threats in the 1980s is now submerged under the rising sea.The Bay of Bengal island, which India called New Moore Island and Bangladesh referred to as South Talpatti, has ceased to exist, the Jadavpur University's School of Oceanic Studies declared this week.

Some also think that the Maldives will also be a victime of sea level rise in the future. So what does it mean when I read the following:

The just-opened Shangri-La Villingili in the Maldives, with overwater bungalows (my dream accommodation), postcard-perfect powder white sand, and crystal-clear water. There's also a spa with a yoga pavilion overlooking the Indian Ocean--yoga with a view is, naturally, more conducive to a deep meditational state. I also like the idea of the 11-mile bike path that leads across five islands past villages and lush jungle.

In fact, several resorts are either in the pipeline or are already opened.

Suppose an investor commits $100 million to a new resort with an annual operating cost of $1 million per year. What does this imply about:
1. Expectation of sea-level rise (in terms of years in the future that it will happen)
2. Discount rate assuming that sea-level rise is imminent in 10 years?

Is Brad Pitt a public good

This thought occurred to me when I read about his Make It Right foundation which is trying to rebuild New Orleans (emphasis mine):

Green high-design utopianism is virulent at Make It Right, as at Global Green, and all the houses feature sophisticated systems to achieve net-zero energy use. At an open house last year, a Make It Right organizer insisted that I go down and watch the electric meter running backward as solar energy coursed back into the grid. I stood around with a few others, murmuring appreciatively, as if witnessing a high-tech voodoo ceremony.

New residents undergo training on the operation of their homes, and receive a thick technical notebook and a smaller user’s manual. They also get a dedicated phone number to call with problems; at the other end, a staffer will troubleshoot or send out a technician. I suggested to Tom Darden, the project’s executive director, that this didn’t seem to have much in the way of real-world application. But he shrugged and said it was part of the plan. Make It Right’s mission includes testing new approaches and discarding those that fail, a luxury few for-profit developers can afford.

For-profit developers under the pressure of competition does not engage in R&D to make a better product? Hmm...


Was sympathetic when I read of HCW's experience in a blog post of the same title. We had this problem twice (though not in the past 2 or 3 years, thankfully!). The first time, we literally went all out with the lice shampoo (which we still have some and I really should get around to throwing it out), daily vacuuming, washing and putting away all brushes and toys. The second time, we just did the nit picking with the metal comb which after the first experience we decided was what worked best.

After all, if the lice and nits are so hard to come off the hair how can they stick so easily to pillows and sheets. I'd seriously like to see a randomized control trial of how effective daily washing and vacuuming plus nit-picking is compared to just nit-picking. From our experience, all the other activities were just time consuming, stressful and pretty much useless.


Been busy painting a garage converted into a mudroom/storage room.
Hate most:
1. Cleaning up especially since I'm a slow painter and am doing one or two walls a day.
2. Taping. If there's a better idea I'm all for it. Was also a little disappointed that when I peeled off the tape, some fresh paint came off with it. Either it wasn't completely dry when I put the tape on or it was the tape.

I would hire someone except that I would expect a perfect job. I don't expect perfection from myself of course - so is this a fair performance measure? I noticed that the drywall wasn't completely smoothed out especially near the corners and the parts near the registers and electric outlets. I expected perfection - so as far as painting is concerned - even if it is not perfect, at least they're my imperfections. As for the drywall and the paint job - in time, I'm not even going to notice the annoyances that I had when I was scrutinizing everything.

Now, I've been moving stuff into the room - mainly to de-clutter the rest of the house. And its gotten spring cleaning into my system so I may have to take another hiatus from blogging.

Friday, March 12, 2010

DC Bag tax

There are many not to like the bag tax but after several months of this it doesn't really bother me that much. What I don't particularly like is the following:

... the remaining 3 or 4 cents go to the new Anacostia River Protection Fund. DDOE will administer this fund. We will use it to provide reusable bags, educate the public about litter, and clean up the river.

3 or 4 cents? Come on - why does it sounds so wishy washy?

Water, water, water

Came across the EWG Tap Water Database and I looked up WSSC which to me didn't seem to fare all that well. Neither did WASA. While I get the point that drinking tap water may (or not) be bad for our health I am left with more questions:
1. Is it safe to wash fruits and vegetables?
2. Is it safe to cook with - e.g. boiling pasta?

Too Damn Much Money

I enjoyed this tremendously. By Robert Kaiser and a expansion of The Citizen K Street Project it gave me a great view of how lobbying became such an industry. Cassidy and Associates were not the first lobbyists but they were the first to popularize and use "earmarks" for their clients which were mainly universities seeking federal funds for building new centers and renovations of existing buildings.

The strange thing was that I had expected to be angry at all the waste of tax dollars but I was not. There was no clear cut reason for coming down on one side or the other of the earmarks that the universities were seeking. It all goes to show that whether it is waste or not depends on your point of view.

The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal really goes to show that it is a matter of degree (and perhaps it is a fine degree) whether lobbying is a legal and above board or distasteful and illegal.

In all this was a great retrospective on lobbying in Washington DC.

Green shoots in DC?

1. Noticed two houses on the market for almost a year (listing north of 1.5 million) now have "Contract" on their realtor signs.
2. Have been trying to get some home repairs made - plumbing and roof but 2 out of 3 contractors I called were either too busy (or not accepting new work) or didn't bother to show. (Then again, this might be a result of the winter storms rather than a structural improvement.)

Are these positive signs for the country? Probably not. Washington DC is only a microcosm of itself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chile's GDP

Krugman looks at Chile's GDP over time and uses it to slam Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. Tyler's reaction as always, is more measured. I look at the graph and see a lack of consistency in anything - be it policy or government or ideaology.

Are auto sales comparisons still meaningful

Jim Hamilton summarizes the latest auto sales numbers. My reaction? Given that American consumers have been over-consuming on cars for the past 10 years, are these comparisons still useful?