Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Atheism Is Not Scientific

According to the dictionary, atheism is "the doctrine or belief that there is no God.” My own experience with atheists leads me to believe that they are 100% sure that there is no kind of Divine Being. They seem to use science as a means to explain why he they are sure there is no God. The irony is in science nothing is for sure.

Science is wonderful – it’s a “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation” (again, from the dictionary). Science has allowed us to understand much about biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. Science allows us to form theories as to how one why things happen.

But there are some things science can't explain. Basic fundamental questions are beyond the scope of science, such as "why are we here?" and “how did we get here?". These can only be answered through philosophy and religion. As far as science is concerned, these are invalid questions. Sure, scientists can come up with theories about how the universe started -- the Big Bang, multiple dimensions, string theory, multiple universes -- but even the most sophisticated theory falls short of explaining who or what started all.

Since there is no way to prove scientifically who or what started our existence, then there is an equally likely chance, as far science is concerned, that there is or is not a God or Divine Being. This is indicated by the middle bar on the graph. As a requirement, those who subscribe to monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, must believe as fact that there is a God. This extra element that boosts a religious person beyond the 50-50 mark of science is known as faith.

An atheist not only rejects faith, but also fails to scientifically prove that there is no God. It's almost as if they had some kind of anti-faith that makes them so strongly believe that there is no God. From the atheists I have met who wholeheartedly reject the idea of a God, it seems that there is some underlying reason for it. Some seem to be frustrated with organized religion. Others seem to have had some sort of loss in the family or some other tragedy in their life that lead them to believe that "if there was a God, He wouldn’t let this happen.” For them, it seems, atheism is emotional and personal. It is ironic how they use science to rationalize their feelings.

There also seems to be atheists that believe that a Divine Being is unnecessary, and reject God on a philosophical basis or perhaps they simply find it inconvenient to believe in God. It is my impression, however, that these atheists are closer to agnostics - as “pure” scientists should be.

Since science can do no better or no worse than agnosticism, that leaves many scientists with a dilemma - should they believe in God or not? Blaise Pascal (you may be familiar with his triangle) argues that it's only logical for a person to believe in God. Pascal's Wager, as it has come to be known, posits that it is a better "bet" to believe that God exists than not to believe, because the expected value of believing (which Pascal assessed as infinite) is always greater than the expected value of not believing. Although Pascal used it as an argument for Christianity, it can more generally refers to any kind of belief in a Divine Being. If one were to believe in God solely because of this Wager, then it would not really constitute a true belief. It would, however, strengthen the argument that atheism is a belief that is not based on science.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Race for Plug-In Hybrids

Early last year, I blogged about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs):

Now it seems the world's two biggest automakers are somewhat in a race to bring to market the first PHEV. I say "it's about time".

For a while now, they're been rumors that Toyota is planning to introduce PHEV version of the popular Prius. The concept has a ready been proven by companies like EDrive Sytems and even a utility company, Wisconsin Public Power Inc. (see story). But for some reason, which makes no sense to me, Toyota has been hesitant. The Prius has been around for a few years now and can be seen all over. Most people know what a hybrid is all about, and are buying them by the thousands. The idea that adding a plug-in option would hurt the reputation of hybrids is foolish.
At the 2007 North American international auto show in Detroit, GM executive Bob Lutz unveiled a plug-in hybrid concept car, the Volt. GM has claimed that they would like to have it in production for the 2010 model year. But some people have been saying that it's only a PR stunt and considerate "vaporware".

Despite all the skepticism, it seems both GM and Toyota are serious about this endeavor. Just yesterday, June 5, GM awarded contracts to two battery suppliers (out of 13 who submitted bids). This comes one month after GM announced that they think that producing the Volt is doable by 2010 .

Recently, a Pennsylvania-based company, Lithium Technology Corporation, announced it was going to manufacture a new type of lithium battery - lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4). This new technology might hold the key for future PHEVs. It seems to offer almost everything the car manufactures are looking for -- lightweight, long-range, and long life.

Even if this new battery technology does not pan out, there are many others in the pipeline (and let's not forget the improvements to the current technology which is pretty darn good).

I would like to see both GM and Toyota use existing technology to make a PHEV. It doesn't have to run 150 miles on a charge, doesn't matter on 50 miles in charge. For now just to get the technology rolling (pun intended) I would be happy with a PHEV echoes 10 or 15 miles, enough for my daily commute and I suspect there are many others who have similarly short commute. And then, next year or the year after they can incorporate new battery technologies and even offer to retrofit older PHEV's, perhaps when the battery life runs out.

Even though Toyota has much more experiences with hybrid technology, I'm personally rooting for the "underdog" GM. They haven't been doing so well in the last few years, I'd like to think that they can do something right for a change.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Islam in a Science Magazine?

I was looking through my mail today when I came across this magazine (see cover picture). At first glance look like a magazine my parents subscribe to -- an Islamic magazine -- except for one small difference: the magazine was Discover - a science magazine!

I remember an issue of Time magazine with an Islamic topic as the main story, but this is the first time I'd ever see an Islamic story on the cover of a science magazine, especially one that comes out and says "Science and Islam" on the cover of Discover Magazine. (oddly, the issue is not dated, so i am assuming it is some special report - it arrived June 5, 2007.) I was curious to find out what was in the article so I flip to page 36 and started reading carefully.

The article's author traveled to several Arab countries to interview scientists. Some of the topics covered in the article included reasons why the Islamic world is currently behind in terms of science, reasons why it will stay that way, also reasons why there is hope for a better future for science in the world.

The article starts out talking about how in some places, such as Egypt, scientists whose views do not fall in line with the way the Quran is currently interpreted are hushed or not allowed to teach or teach conduct scientific research. It also talks about how some supposed “scientists” try manipulating science in order to match the Quran. The article spends time talking about Jordan. As a country where scientific inquiry is being sandwiched between a lack of natural resources, such as water, and a flood of Iraqi refugees, adding to the already strained resources of the Jordanian government (not to say anything about the state of the Jordanian government). Such seems to be the case in many Islamic countries. Between the government trying to provide its services and lending its own pockets, basic scientific research and education just can't compete for funding. Compound in all of this, is an ongoing brain drain that will probably continue for the foreseeable future.

The article doesn't spiral little bit of hope in that it describes the struggles of several scientists in Islamic countries that are trying to make the best of a grim situation. The major bright spot in the entire article was a $10 million facility that would act as a knowledge of center collaboration for many Middle Eastern countries (yes, even Israel).

The article brings out many realities that Arabs and Muslims don't like to talk about. Muslims are always nostalgic about the golden age of Islam. But those times are way over. Muslims need to accept that fact and learn to accept good science, whether or not the ideas are popular.

Although funding will probably always be an issue in countries like Jordan and Egypt, it pains me to see much wealthier nations such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi squandered their wealth on frivolous projects, when they could be putting that money to much better use.

I Edit Wikipedia...

I have become hooked on Wikipedia - I use it almost as much as Google or Yahoo.

Why do I like it so much? Because in medical school, a lot of time we're taught "that's the way it is" or "its idiopathic" (which as Isaac Asimov put it, "A high-flown term to conceal ignorance")

[Picture caption: From Weird Al's "White and Nerdy" music video]

When I look the disease up on Wikipedia, many times there are actual theories that help make the disease make sense to me. The theories may not be correct or verified, but at least there's something!

Its also a great reference to find more information.

I often find myself making changes to Wikipedia - fixing spelling, adding a link, or sometimes even adding new info. On occasion, I even start a new entry.

To date, I have made about 100 contributions (hopefully many more to come).

A friend of mine asked me if people who contributed got anything in return. I responded with the following:

It’s all volunteer work, my friend. Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit organization. As far as I can tell, they pay the board members a certain salary and perhaps a few admins. Other than that, they rely on nerds (like me) and super-nerds to add, edit, modify, and verify the content.

As far as I can tell, they work soley off of dontations from people who care (I donated a small amount last year - I use it so much, I felt I had to).

I edit because it helps me learn the material I am studying and it makes me feel extra warm and nerdy inside :-)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Voice Recognition Software: a Godsend or a Hassle?

While studying form the boards, I found myself taking pages and pages of notes -- I think in all I must have hand written over a hundred pages. It helped me learn the material, but it has one small problem: it really hurts my hand. Along with the constant mouse usage, I found I was developing a mild case Of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I decided it was time for a change. So why are acquired a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 9.

I remember when voice recognition software was still new. It was very frustrating, you would end up correcting a lot more than was worth. But I got to tell you, this new version is really good. I don't know how they do it but so far this thing is very accurate. In fact this entire entry was dictated through the software, so forgive any mistakes I may have missed.

It takes a little bit getting used to, and a little bit of training, but in the end I think it's well worth it. I think part of its success stems from the fact that they use writing pattern and recognition that analyzes your pattern of writing and somehow incorporates your style of writing in to its dictation. This is only to second document that I dictated what the software and yet I have only had to make a handful of corrections.

Voice recognition software is being used more and more in the medical field. Seeing that I'm going to be a doctor soon (I hope) and that means that getting used to using voice recognition software now will be a big advantage in the field.

Most of all, though, I think it's way cool. I remember the first time I saw an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and thinking "wouldn't it be great if we had the ability to talk to computers so easily as they make it seem?"

Now, if only the computers or understand what the heck we were saying. In the next few decades, who knows?

The Captain is Back

After almost a year I decided to return to edit my blog. Why have I been gone for so long? One word: medical school. I just finished my second year medical school. It went much better for me than my first year but it was very difficult. Now it's time to study for Boards (a.k.a. USMLE).

I know I should be studying, but I can't resist sharing my thoughts with the world.

A lot has changed since I first started this blog. I am adapting to the married life, it hasn't been easy but it's been well worth it.

I learned so much in this last year -- not only in medical school, but also from listening to the news, reading blogs, and listening to podcasts.

For those of you who have enjoyed my thoughts thus far, I hope you continue to enjoy them as I make new additions to my blog.

Oh yeah, in case you've noticed I disable anonymous commenting -- it seems that people love to use blogs as a way of advertising. Don't worry can still comment on my blog, I just would like to take responsibility for your content.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hamas – A Case of Policy Hypocrisy

For years, the United States government has been saying “we need more democracy in this world”. Heeding the call in January, the Palestinian people took to the poles and performed their democratic duty – they voted.

The US government should have been jumping for joy. President Bush should have stood on an over-sized army vessel with the banner “Mission Accomplished” behind him.

The exact opposite happened. Hamas won the legitimate, democratic election. The problem: the Palestinians voted for the wrong guys, or so says the US.

Instead of congratulating the Palestinians and their new government, the US quickly condemned them. They moved to block all revenue to the Palestinian authority – effectively starving them of almost all their income. They can’t pay the police, teachers, doctors, nurses – anybody who works for the government which is Palestine’s largest employer.

On one hand, the US has a point. Hamas has not been friendly to the West and incredibly hates Israel. On the other, much larger hand, the US is sending the wrong message to the non-democratic world and to the Middle East specifically. Basically, message goes something like this: we want you to be democratic, as long as you vote for the guys we like.

Sorry Bush and friends, but the world doesn’t work that way. You can either have democracy OR governments you like. You can’t always have both. It’s the rules of the game and the US government is trying to break them. If you want to democratize the world, you’ll need to put up with some unfriendly governments – if it’s the will of the people.

It leaves many wondering whether the US is truly committed to spreading democracy or not. This isn’t the “good old days” when the US could waltz into a country, take out its government, and install a new, friendlier version. The whole world is watching and their opinion matters. If it doesn’t, then why don’t we just go back to the “good old days” and save ourselves the hypocrisy?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Captain's Book Review: "Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About"

"Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You To Know About" by Kevin Trudeau

From reading other reviews (over 2200 on Amazon.com alone), it seems to me that people either really like the book or really hate it. I fall somewhere in between.

At first, I started reading the book very carefully, word by word. After the first few chapters, though, the information seemed repetetive. I enjoyed reading this book, but it wasn't the greatest book in the world, as some would claim. As a skeptical medical student, I believe that I have the science background to give a decent review of the pros and cons of this book. There is a lot more I could add to this review, but I would need to write a book just to cover everything. Feel free to comment on my thoughts about this book.

What I Like About the Book
There are several things I liked about this book. It helps explain the motivations of big companies - greed. There is no doubt that big companies cut corners to make more money. And I also have no doubt that pharmacutical companies spend millions to protect their own interest at the expense of our health. I knew things were screwed up at the FDA, but I did not realize how bad things were. After reading the book, it made me more skeptical of almost everything. Skepticism is usually a good thing, but you have to be careful not to let it escalate to paranoia and depression.

I agree with the idea that if you take care of your health, you will almost never get sick again. I also agree with most of his reasons for sickness: that nutritional deficiency, toxins, and stress cause health problems. I am not too sure about electromagnetic chaos - though I suppose it's possible. I completely agree that we should work to eliminate these disease causing agents from our system and our environment. I like the fact that he admits we can't get rid of them all, but we can try.

I like that fact that he presents a whole-body approach to disease, instead of what I am going to be trained to do as a medical student. The human body is very complicated and our interactions with our enviornment and disease is very complex. People looking for a quick answer to a problem will not find one in this book. Most of the author's advice is sound and is frankly common sense. But reading this book reminds us to think about health issues from all angles.

I share Mr. Trudeau's philosophy that drugs, prescription or not, cause disease. I believe that drugs have their place and can be useful sometimes, but should not be used over the long term. This is blasphemy coming from a medical student - it's akin to a Catholic who doesn't believe in Jesus. But that's what I have always believed and as more and more evidence is being uncovered about the side-effects of even everyday drugs like asprin, it just convinces me even more. I believe it is almost always possible to treat somebody either without drugs completely, or starting with drugs and then phasing in a natural change - more exercise, supplements, rehabilitation, etc.

What I Do Not Like About the Book
My objections to this book fall in two categories: A)material presented in the book; B) the author. For the sake of time, I will only go into a few.

When it comes to the material, there are several issues I have. First, I find some of his assumptions to be incorrect. For example, he assumes that if eat a diet that nature intended us to, then we would never get sick. That is just not true - look at people who lived even a few decades ago. The population of the Earth only exceeded a billion people in the last 2 hundred years or so - now we are over 6 billion. This growth rate is unheard of for one simple reason: advances in medicine such as antibiotics and vaccines. People used to die of infectious diseases we don't even think about any more - malaria, cholera, influenza, etc... The life expectancy of most of our "natural" living ancestors was no greater than 40 years. Today, if you're 40, you're still young and vital.

Second, the author's attacks on vaccine are misleading. It is true that vaccines contain materials known to be toxic, such as mercury. Vaccine makers claim that these materials help stabalize the vaccine and make it more effective. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. The fact is that thanks to vaccines, we have eliminated small poxs - a previously deadly disease. We have almost totally eliminated polio - the only parts of the world that suffer outbreaks are parts that do not have strong vaccination programs. Thanks to vaccines, infant mortality rates have plummeted in the last 100 years or so. The author only presents as an alternative to "eat natural" - well it didn't protect our ancestors from getting sick and dying young. Vaccines need to be improves, not eliminated. Maybe vaccines do make us a little less healthy in the long run - at least we are alive to talk about it!

Third, the author blasts our current water treatment facilities. It may be the case that tap water affects our health, but if you look back at the way people used to live "naturally", getting fresh water took a big chunk of their day - and there was no guarantee it was healthy or safe. There are a lot of diseases that can come from untreated water from river and lakes. The author presents absoultely no alternative way to treat water for so many people. The only thing he says is that every household should have some kind of filtration system - which would cost thousands of dollars to purchase and a lot of money to maintain in addition to the rising cost of tap water. The expense who be prohibitive to a vast majority of the world's populaton.

The author also blasts the fluoridation of water. It is not some government conspiracy to make us all sick. If you read the history of fluoridation, you will see that it was stared with the best of intentions. In the early 1909, Dr. Frederick McKay noticed that children in an area of Colorado named Pikes Peak had stained, but otherwise healthier teeth than normal. They found that the area's water supply had naturally accuring fluoride. They scientifically tested adding fuoride to water supplies and it worked - people got fewer cavities. Now we need to find out scientifically if it is causing health problems and reevaluate accordingly.

Fifth, he blasts milk pasteurization and homogenization. Let me start with homogenization - Mr. Trudeau might have a case against it. It could be causing health problems. From what I read, however, the jury is still out. His attacks on pasteurization, on the other hand, do not make sense. The idea of pasteurization is to kill most of the harmful bacteria found in natural cow's milk. The process does not involve "irradiating" the milk. Instead, the milk is heated up quickly, usually with pipes of hot water, and cooled quickly. The author seems to think it changes the natural energy of the milk and makes it poisonous. Granted, the process might destroy some of the enzymes that are naturally occuring in the milk, which may have health benefits - but at least you won't get a terrible disease from drinking milk. Besides, how is this any different than warming milk up on your stove or cooking with it??? And is it really practical for us get our milk hand-delivered?

Lastly, some of his information is conflicting. The author tells us not to trust any professional organization, yet he recommends several alternative health providers. Who is to say that they are not in it for the money? Also, he claims to be banned from mentioning specific products by name, yet he seems to do so where it is convenient for him. His "specific" cures are not at all and have made many, many people angry.

Final Thoughts
Although my cons outnumbered my pros about this book, overall I would recommend this book. Though, as with any health advice (yes, even from your doctor), it is up to every individual to ask questions and do research. This book should not be used as an "ultimate" health guide, but one tool out of many.

It may or may not be true that "they" are suppressing natural cures. But if there were such things, why aren't "they" using the cures themselves and living to be hundreds of years old??

The author claims to be doing this for the sake of our health. And I suppose his intentions could be genuine. Although with all his anti-greed and anti-corruption rhetoric, it leaves me wondering whether or not Mr. Trudeau is "all about the money".

In Mr. Trudeau's defense, his website that is supposed to have all the missing information does have a free trial period. I intend to take advantage of that and do my own investigations. As soon as I am finished with my review of the information on his site, I will blog about it here.

Friday, May 05, 2006

They Stole My Car!!! But I Got It Back.

I am leaving to attend classes on Friday, April 28 – one week ago. I go to where my car was parked the night before – in front of my neighbor’s house. It’s not there!

I walked up and down the block; I even drove around the block with my other car (which I am selling, btw). I still couldn’t find it. I rush in house and call the police. An officer arrives and I start telling him about my car. It was a black 1999 Plymouth Breeze. I had just bought it less than a week earlier. There was an alarm installed on the car when I bought it, but I didn’t have a remote so I had it disabled – planning to get it replaced April 29 or 30. I had bought a Club-like device, but since my father drove and parked the car that day, he didn’t put the Club on, and I was planning to drive it later that day but didn’t.

The police officer was very polite and friendly – one of the perks of living in a suburb. A major city is right across the street. The officer told me that 90% of car thefts in our suburb happen within a few blocks of the city-suburb border – lucky me.

Not two minutes after the office leaves, I get a call on my cell phone: “Hi, was your car stolen last night?” I was stunned, how did he know??? It turns out that this man, Bill, works at a shipping business in the city, only a few miles from my house. Bill came to work in the morning to find two cars sitting on blocks outside the main gate – my car, and another car that was also stolen not too far from where I live and also near the city-suburb border.

According to Bill, only my tires and rims had been taken. He also advised that I came soon before the car was vandalized. So now I had to go claim my car back. I called AAA for towing service, but they told me that I needed at least two tires for them to tow it.

So now I gotta get tires. I call my uncle, who is a mechanic and who I bought the car from. He felt so bad. He managed to find a set of tires I could borrow from a junk yard guy he knows. Before picking up the tires, I decided to check out my car first. I found where my car was supposed to be – but it wasn’t there!

All that was there were a set of cement blocks thrown on the grass and a bunch of tire nuts. Where could it have gone? Was it really possible that the crooks got to it? Or was it the legendarily slow police?

I tried to call Bill, but he could not be reached. So I stopped a truck driver who had just left the Bill’s business. He said there was a police car and then a tow truck, but had not further information. I was relieved – at least there was hope that my car was in the hands of the law. I spent the next hour or two trying to find out where they took my car, but the city police department was clueless. They kept referring me to some number where I was put on hold forever.

I got frustrated and headed home. I figured that some impound yard somewhere has my car. I looked up a few on the internet. I called the first one. They didn’t have my car, but the lady gave me a list of other towing companies that might have it. One by one, I called – one by one, they didn’t have my car. I was down to the last number – running out of hope. I called the last number and success! – they have my car!

It was not going to be cheap. They wanted $80 in impound fees. And they wanted $30 to install a set of tires that I am providing. So I pick up the tires from the junk yard, take it to the impound yard, and have them install it. Now, how to get it out of there? They guy at the impound yard told me that I should be able to just drive it out. I find a screwdriver, turn the ignition and viola! It starts – it’s alive, alive!

I drove it right to my uncle’s mechanic shop. The initial assessment: $200 for a new ignition column and over $300 for a set of tires and rims. I had only bought the car for $3000. I was bummed.

Things started to look up, however, when I found the ignition column on the floor. My uncle was able to reinstall it in less than a day. And the tires? One of the mechanics at the shop had a car that didn’t run anymore and would sell me tires and rims for $150 – not bad.

So far, this was all on done on Friday. On Saturday, I got my car back, picked up and installed the new set of tires, and returned the borrowed set. I bought a new Club-like device then drove my car directly to a car accessory store to get a car alarm installed (I paid a little extra for keyless entry and remote start).

Even if I had insurance coverage for theft (I only have one-way liability), the cost to repair would have been less than the deductible – another reason why I really hate insurance. Oh, and they would have raised my premiums.

All in all, it was a bad weekend, but it could have been much, much worst.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Captain’s Book Review: “Culture and Prosperity”

“Culture and Prosperity: The Truth About Markets - Why Some Nations Are Rich but Most Remain Poor” by John Kay

I learned about this book through an interview with the author on NPR’s Diane Rehm show. A few points the author made caught my attention and I wanted to learn more.

In his interview, Dr. Kay talked about some basic ideas of why some nations are rich but many are still poor (just like the title of his). I wanted to know what the reasons were. Is it because rich nations keep poor nations poor on purpose? Is it because the rich nations suck all the wealth out of poor countries? Or is it because poor countries just don’t have what it takes to become prosperous?

I wanted to know the answers because I was hoping to get an insight into what was in store for the financial future of Iraq – the country where I was born. I also wanted to know whether or not (as an American) to feel terribly guilty when I see people starving to death in Africa and other areas. Whether guilty or not, I wanted to know what can be done to raise these people up to at least decent standards of living.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the answers Dr. Kay gave. According to him, rich states are not rich because they suck the world dry. Nor are poor states poor because of oppression by rich states. Instead, it is a complex interaction between culture and economic systems that determine a nation’s status. In fact, through trade, rich states help poor states become a little less poor.

I was also disappointed to read that there is really nothing that a country can do to pick itself up from out of poverty. Prosperity must evolve over time and a system that works in one country does not usually work in another. Dr. Kay argues that a country must develop the social scaffolding of prosperity before it becomes rich. Changing an entire nation’s attitudes and morals is very difficult, if not impossible. Government corruption is a viscous cycle that seems to never end. Countries with excellent natural resources, like much of Africa, seem to be magnets for corrupt government officials – though I am not sure which causes which.

It’s too bad, though. It would be nice if a country could just follow a certain set of rules and regulations and become prosperous. I often fantasize about being ruler of a fictitious state and how I would run the state wisely and open-minded, learning from the mistakes of others. I guess that’s why I like games like SimCity and Caesar.

It was also disheartening to read that even the most well thought-out course of action can end up being wrong – or worst, disastrous. Dr. Kay give several examples of both governments and companies that tried their best to lead their nation/company in the right direction but failed. It makes you think of your own life. Right now, you might think that going into engineering (for example) is the best career choice later to find out that it was a terrible mistake. And if it does work out, then it was just luck – or so Dr. Kay made it sound in his book.

Overall Impression
I thought the first few chapters and the last few chapters are definitely worth reading. They contained the information that I was looking for when I checked the book out. The middle chapters of the book were not very interesting to me. It seemed that Dr. Kay went into “economic geek” mode. For a while, I felt like I was reading an economics textbook. If I were an economist, then I might have understood and even liked reading those middle chapters.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Health Insurance Stifles Career Creativity

This posting is a continuation of another posting titled “Young and Uninsured: Living Without Health Coverage

Deciding on a career can be tough. It’s something you literally need to live with for the rest of your life. Sure you can change your career, but it’s not as easy as buying a new pair of pants.

Factors for choosing a career might include salary, work hours and conditions, societal influence, location, and more. One factor that seems to be gaining girth is whether a person can get health insurance by pursuing a certain career or not.

As health insurance costs skyrocket higher and higher, fewer and fewer companies will be able to afford to offer it to their employees as a benefit. Or the companies try to find ways around the cost – offering the coverage to some, but not all. So the list of careers a person can go into and get good coverage as a benefit is shrinking.

In the IT industry, companies seem to be relying more and more on contract workers – you work for a company but you don’t really work for them. Many in the IT field start out as contractors and pray for a chance to work directly for the company. As contractors, they get almost no benefits so when they do get hired, they want to hang on as tightly as they can. That person might be better off, both financially and physically, at a different type of job such as consulting. But consultants do not usually get health insurance.

Buying health insurance just isn’t the same as having it as a benefit. People I know have chosen to take lower-paying jobs just because the benefits (mainly health insurance) were better. My brother-in-law works as a civil engineer with the county. He could easily make more money at a private company but chooses not to because he wants to keep his job stability and health insurance.

I am sure my brother-in-law is not alone. There are probably millions of people in this country that would rather do something else but feel they can’t afford to lose their health coverage and other benefits. I am sure there are many people who would be much better off to reduce their work hours to 20 or 30 a week instead of 40+ but are afraid of loosing health coverage. It’s ironic that by working more hours to keep coverage they are risking their health by stressing themselves out so they can get health coverage to make them better – it defeats the whole purpose.

America is the land of opportunity. We are entrepreneurial in spirit and should be free to pursue whatever course we see fit for ourselves. But if we must worry so much about health coverage that it affects our choice of career, then it also diminishes our spirit and our pride.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Young and Uninsured: Living Without Health Coverage

Healthcare is extremely expensive in the United States. Some say it’s because we have the best healthcare in the world and we use the most advanced technology. True, we do use advanced technology, but we are far from the healthiest country in the world. With the money we spend on healthcare, you’d think we were!

Health insurance is extremely expensive. If I wanted good health insurance – one that actually covers doctor’s visits and drug benefits – I would need to pay about $250 per month. At that price, it just is not economically feasible. Let’s say I do get sick and need to see a doctor – I’ll pay the $50 for the visit (insurance has a $10-30 copay anyway) or the $100 for the blood tests. To get my money’s worth, I would need to go see the doctor once a week or have some kind of medical testing every month.

Of my dozen or so close friends my age (around 25 years old), almost none of them have health insurance. It’s okay for now, but when we get married (which I already am), we’re going to need health insurance for our wives and our children. Do you have any idea how much pregnancy and delivery costs? Or how much medical attention babies need???

One of my friends had his appendix burst. It was a life-threatening problem which ended him up in the hospital for weeks. The bill was enormous. He couldn’t afford it, so he was forced to file for bankruptcy.

Our options are limited:
A) pray that the government gives us good Medicaid (not likely)
B) fork out the $700+ per month for family medical insurance
C) get a job with a company that offers health insurance and a benefit

Option A
Not a very appealing option. Aside from the fact that accepting government assistance is distasteful to some, Medicaid is just not a good program. Unless you have kids, you get almost no coverage unless there is an emergency. I suppose it’s better than nothing, but it is not a good idea for the long run since some people usually end up going to hospital when they really need to – far too late for cheaper interventions that a simple doctor’s visit might have taken care of. This is all, of course, assuming that the government will give somebody Medicaid. It seems these days that they are very strict on who gets coverage.

Option B
An option that more and more of us are forced to face. In fact in Massachusetts, they want to force everybody to get health insurance (read my posting on that here). The insurance companies want way too much money for health coverage – it’s ridiculous. The premiums are almost as much as a house payment. Imagine needing to pay for 2 houses but only living in one. What about car payments, car insurance, gas, food, bills, bills, and more bills?! Unless a man is making $100K+ per year, there is almost no way he can afford to get health insurance for his family.

Option C
An option that is slipping away day by day as companies find ways to cut costs. And we are expected to contribute more and more for a supposed “benefit”. Even if a company is making loads of money, they get stingy on the health benefits because it’s the competitive thing to do.

The exclusiveness of our health care system causes a dilemma among America’s work force – especially young adults. In my next blog posting, I argue that Health Insurance Stifles Career Creativity .

Friday, April 21, 2006

Iran: Can You Blame Them for Wanting Nukes?

My parents came to the United States in the mid-‘70s as students. They had every intention to return to Iraq, but the Iraq-Iran war broke out in late 1980 and they stayed in the US after being threatened by Saddam’s regime.

Iran: A Brief History
In 1979, after years of political unrest, Iranians stood up against their government and overthrew Western-installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Apparently, the U.S. was not impressed that their guy had been removed from power and Iran has since been hated by the West. To try to destabilize the new government, Saddam’s Iraq was encouraged to invade Iran with the help of some neighboring Arab countries and Western allies. So began the Iraq-Iran War in September 22, 1980.

The war lasted a long time – too long. It cost a million lives on both sides and over USD$1 trillion. Having underestimating Iran’s military might and afraid of loosing, Saddam offered to cease hostilities after two years of war. Iran, however, insisted that Saddam was an evil dictator and must be removed from power – dragging the war on for another six years.

Iraq WMD: We have the receipts
Desperate for a way to win, Saddam resorted to using his infamous Weapons of Mass Destructions or WMDs – killing thousands of Iranians (and sometimes his own troops). Where he got those WMDs is still not 100% clear, but it is reasonable to assume that it was his allies – the ones who pushed him to invade Iran to begin with and had much to loose if Iran succeeded in overtaking Saddam. Shortly after the 2003 Coalition invasion of Iraq, there was a sour joke in the U.S.:

"Of course we know the Iraqis have weapons of mass destruction. We have the receipts."

Missle Envy
Everywhere Iran looks, it sees other countries with nuclear weapons. To the east, you have Pakistan and India – neither of which have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And to the west, you have Israel.

Iran hates Israel because it views the Jewish state as an unjust one. Iranians do not hate Jews – quite the contrary, Jews in Iran are treated with respect and enjoy living in Iran. When it comes to Israel, however, Iranians believe that Israelis stole land from the Palestinians – leaving them landless, helpless, and oppressed. Iranians feel that they must stand up against Zionism because of Palestinian suffering and because it threatens to destroy one of Islam’s holiest mosques in Jerusalem. I am sure there are other reasons.

Defend Whom Against Whom
Israel is a major nuclear power - yet has refused to sign the NPT. The West is worried that Iran will be a threat to Israel if it attains nukes. From an Iranian standpoint, however, it is Israel that has a history of aggression and land-grabbing – and they even have nuclear weapons. Where it stands right now, Israel is a much bigger threat to Iran than vice-versa.

Nukes are BAD – Period!
Nuclear weapons are evil by their very nature – they can do nothing but mass destruction. Ideally, nobody should have them. Reality is far from ideal, however, and as long as opposing countries each have nukes, we can only hope that it will keep either side from using them.

Iran is still struggling to improve its status as a world power. The current generation of Iranian leaders has strayed from the original vision of the Revolution and have started alienating its own people. They believe that achieving nuclear status will improve their influence and power.

Captain's Thoughts
Iran should concentrate on improving conditions in its own country - Western hostilities are not helping much (maybe that's the point). I say Iran should abandon their nuclear ambitions and prove its prestige by some other means – something less controversial - maybe a space program.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

PHEV: Never Visit the Gas Pump Again (Almost)

The front page of a major newspaper yesterday reported “By next week: $3 gas!”. And hurricane season doesn’t even start until June 1. After reading that headline, I rushed home after class and filled up at the cheapest gas station I could find - $2.799. To fill up my ’95 Stratus cost me almost $35!!!

Most guys my age (24) dream of sports cars with turbo-charges engines that go 0-60 in 5 seconds. I dream of a car that will go 0-60 miles without using a single drop of gasoline.

I used to believe strongly in Fuel Cell powered cars – they’re very cool. There are several problems, though, which I plan to discuss in a future posting.

In the meantime, we have technology available now that can allow people to break their weekly ritual of praying to the gas pump god. It’s known as Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles or PHEVs.

What are PHEVs?
PHEVs are really nothing more than a standard hybrid-electric vehicle – the most famous is the Toyota Prius – with an extra-large battery, a voltage inverter, and a standard 110V plug. Basically, you plug your car in at night and it charges the extra-large battery for several hours. The battery provides enough juice to keep your car going for an estimated 60 miles or so without having to turn the gasoline engine on. If you run out of battery or forget to plug in, no problem, your gasoline engine is there as backup – same goes for trips longer than 60 miles (how many of those does the average person take in a year - 5, 10, 20?)

There are a few issues that arise when switching to PHEVs:
1) What are cost savings and conversion costs
2) switching one dirty fuel (gasoline) for another (electricity from coal)
3) batteries issues
4) extra load on the electric grid

Cost savings and Cost of Conversion
As reported by major news organizations, the price of gasoline is not going down anytime soon. Once it goes above $3/gallon, it’s bound to stay there, if not higher – don’t hold your breath waiting for it to come back down again. PHEVs are estimated to cost an equivalent of under $1 per gallon. We haven’t seen $1/gal gas for what seems like forever. Even if this estimate is off by a factor of two ($2/gal equivalent instead of $1), that is still going to about half of the estimated cost of gasoline.

Initially, conversion is going to be rather costly. According to EDrive Sytems the first wave of installations will cost about $10,000-$12,000 in addition to the cost of a Toyota Prius ($21,000). That’s a lot of money – but I have seen guys my age and younger easily spending thousands of dollars to “pimp their ride” with decorations, LCD screens, rims, stereo systems, you name it!

The way I figure, you’ll probably save about $1000 per year for small cars to $2000 per year for SUVs by driving a PHEV, depending on price of gas, your current car’s mph, and price of electricity. Being optimistic, it will take about 5-10 years to make up the price of the conversion kit – about the lifetime of the car. Of course, gas prices could get much more expensive in a short time (how quickly we forget Katrina). Dare we forget the hidden cost of using gasoline – defense of oil, global warming, air pollution and health problems. It may not be the best investment in the world, but at least the money is being spent on technological advancement and is not going into the hands of greedy corporations and questionable governments.

If you think of it, though, $31,000 is not that expensive for a car. It’s a little above average, but it is by no means near the top. A quick search on AutoBytel will reveal that there are 49 passenger cars, 36 sports cars, and 58 SUVs that are within the $30,000-$35,000 range. People do buy cars in this price range, so why not buy a car for a good reason instead of just looks?

Switching one dirty fuel for another
The idea of PHEVs is to plug the car into an electrical socket at night and have it charge for about 10 hours (assuming fully depleted). Well, that electricity is coming from somewhere. Currently, about 60% of our electricity comes from dirty coal (btw, “clean coal” is an oxymoron if I ever heard one). It varies by region and more and more regions are looking at switching to renewables (hurray!).

The obvious answer would be to install a renewable energy system in your home – solar or wind. Add a little extra capacity to make up for your PHEV’s usage. With state and federal incentives, you could potentially have the best of both worlds – cheap, clean electricity and very low gasoline costs.

Let’s assume for a moment that renewables are not a significant source of electricity and coal remains dominant. Here is what EDrive says on their website:

“One thing that is often overlooked when electric power plant pollution is discussed, is the upstream pollution required to extract oil, transport it, refine it, distribute the gasoline then refuel a vehicle (vapor emissions). Comparing the national electrical grid to the average gallon of refined gasoline shows that the upstream pollution for gasoline production on average is much higher than that of the average electricity source.”

Look at the graph from a presentation given by EPRI. The reduction in Greenhouse Gas emission is huge – 50% across the board.

If you don’t have the resources for a renewable energy system (or it just isn’t practical), the next best thing is to buy renewable energy in the form of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) or Green Tags. Green Tags represent the “environmental benefits” of producing renewable energy. When you buy a Green Tag, it is a promise from that company to produce the equivalent electricity using renewable energy – solar, wind, or biomass. They are inexpensive and make a big difference. You can buy them from many organizations, even your local utility, but be careful! Some organizations play tricks and try to sell you renewable energy that has already been generated. I suggest Krystal Planet since their Green Tags go directly into building new wind farm. There are other reputable companies out there as well.

Battery Issues
Batteries still remain a major hurdle. However, the technology is constantly improving and prices are constantly falling. New technologies, such as lithium , nanotechnology and even viruses, are significantly improving the price-performance of batteries.

Extra load on the electric grid
If everybody were to switch to PHEVs and got their power from the electric grid, chances are the grid won’t take it. The reality is that it will be a slow roll-out and will probably not stress the grid too much. Even if PHEVs became a significant part of America’s fleet and a load on the grid, it would be during the night when utility companies rev down or even turn off some power stations. In fact, utility companies would love to be able to sell more electricity during off-peak – it increases their return-on-investment because otherwise the power plants would be just sitting their idle.

There is even talk of integrating PHEVs into the power grid to help store energy during the night and feeding it back into the grid during peak hours to help stabilize the grid. This is another topic for another post.

For now, PHEVs remain a novel technology for the bold and environmentally conscience. I think they can seriously put a dent in our “oil addiction”. There is always room for improvements. Car makers should seize the opportunity and offer PHEVs as an option – much like they do leather or navigation systems. Car makers have a way of reducing the costs like nobody else, making the technology all the more attractive

It will be a few years until I can afford to get a new car. Hopefully by then, PHEVs will be a proven technology and ready for prime-time. Personally, I want to get one to do my part to save the environment and so I don’t need to stop at the pump and watch my hard-earned money go into lining unscrupulous pockets.

If gas prices get too high, I think I’ll take my bike to the University.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Anti-Christ: A Machine?

In both Christianity and Islam, there is an idea of the Antichrist – Muslims refer to him as the dajjal or the “The Deceiver”. Both religions characterize him similarly as well. He is portrayed as a person that everyone will love. He will be incredibly intelligent, handsome, eloquent – a perfect politician. He will claim to have the answer to all the world’s problems and will bring about a false peace and prosperity – until everything goes south and he unleashes his evil. He will also have control over everybody and force people to pledge allegiance to him.

Of course, his reign of evil will be short-lived. Many Christians believe in the return of Jesus. Muslims believe that a man known as Mahdi (roughly translated as the Messiah) will rise up alongside Jesus. One or both will stand up against the Antichrist, defeat him, and begin a new age of prosperity and peace.

What if the Antichrist is not a man? What if “he” is a machine?

As computers become more and more sophisticated and able, we rely on them more and more. There will most likely come a day when a computer will be as capable as a human being – known as strong Artificial Intelligence (AI). Once that happens, it will quickly become smarter than any human and more capable. We may turn to it to solve all of our problems. Equipped with all human knowledge, and able to quickly make new knowledge, it will be able to perform what seems to be miracles. Since we rely on computers so much, it will be able to take control of all of our information and daily activities – we will gladly give it this ability since it will seem to be more capable.

What if this machine developed a super-ego? What if it became so arrogant of its abilities that it claims to be a god? What if it forces all of humanity to wear tracking devices? What if it was able to take control of the world’s military?

This is only hypothetical. Armageddon may never happen. Maybe by discussing the idea of the Antichrist, we are taking steps to make sure he/it never happens. It’s a shame, though – life after the Antichrist is supposed to be very good (for those of us who are still alive to see it).

The inspiration for this posting came while I was watching a 2-hour documentary on the History Channel called “The Antichrist”. It talked about the history of the Antichrist and the different beliefs. I tied in the ideas with the science news I read and books from Ray Kurzweil.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Irony of Insurance

How many times have you heard:
"Don't worry, it's insured"

The idea of having insurance is to make sure that you are protected in the case of an accident or disaster, or in case you are sued.

Here are some unintended side-effects of insurance based on my observations:
1) people tend to be less careful
2) the number of lawsuits increase

People tend to be less careful
The prime example - car insurance. Full coverage pays for, well - everything - repair, theft, property damage, injury. If a person knows that they will not pay for repairing a car (not directly anyway), they might be more inclined to get into an accident. I am not suggesting that this is intentional - no sane person would intentionally get into an accident. However, the "peace of mind" that insurance companies like to tout about may actual work to their detriment. The attitude of an insured person might change ever so slightly - from a very cautious driver who is left to fend for himself to a driver that thinks he is being looked after. I would even go as far as saying that there is a sense of entitlement by the insured. They have paid to be looked after and may be lulled into a false sense of security.

The same can be said about health insurance. A person may not look after him/herself as much as they should if they know that insurance is there to pay to make them better. Somebody with property insurance may not feel the need for the extra door locks or the stronger glass or the installation of a fire suppression system - insurance will take care of anything that might happen.

The number of lawsuits increase
Our country is plagued with an outrageous amount of lawsuits. Maybe we have too many lawyers that don't have anything else to do, maybe we just feel entitled to be compensated for everything, or maybe it reflects our frustrations with life. Whatever the case, insurance companies don't help very much.

What I mean is that because insurance companies offer liability coverage, the person suing may have the attitude that the money is coming from the insurance companies and not the individual/organization they are suing. Since insurance have deep pockets, the suing party knows they can get more than from the individual - it makes it more worth their wile. Let's face it, a lawsuit can ruin a person. But if the suing party knows the insurance company will take care of it then they don't feel as bad (in fact may get a sense of revenge against the giant insurance companies).

Insurance can be a wonderful thing - a safety net against the unforeseen. We must not let it influence our life, however. By being aware of the possible side-effects of having insurance, we can avoid being influenced by it. If we all lived like we didn't have insurance, the world might be a little better.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Captain's Book Review: "Freakonomics"

"Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

I checked this book out after listening to an interview with one of the authors on NPR's Diane Rehm show.

Just like the title says, the authors try to uncover the truth about important issues - like crime, education, racism (ok, so its not everything). The authors' premise is that things are not always as they seem - meaning that sometimes we think we have the answers, but they turn out to be wrong.

What I like...
The authors' approach to asking the right questions - which is key to cutting through all the politics and moral baggage attached with many important issues. I love reading the kinds of books that expose how people really behave - not how we would want them to - and this book is a great example. It makes you be more diligent when dealing with people. For example, when dealing with a realtor to buy or sell a house, always ask if they own property in the area and what they bought and sold it for and why. It turns out that realtors, like many other "information" professionals (those who have a big informational advantage over the average person), try to take advantage of that gap in information. If you ask the right questions, and do the right research, that gap can be eliminated - hurray for the Internet.

This is one of those books where I constantly found myself wanting to share with my friends and family. After reading a chapter, I would go home and say "I read in Freakonomics that..." and my friends and family would be surprised with the outcome. The single biggest "wowwer" is that legalized abortion was the main reason for a drop in crime in the 1990's - but not a single news story reported on that.

What I Didn't Like...
Actually, I liked the entire book. I wish it were longer and included more topics.

If you're going to read this book, you need to be open-minded. I've learned from this book not to believe everything I heard (well I didn't really do that anyway, but this reinforced it) - especially from so-called experts.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Captain's Book Review: "Radical Evolution"

"Radical Evolution : The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human" by Joel Garreau

I wanted to read this book for two main reasons:
1) I have read a lot about the book on the internet when I was also looking for information on the first book I read - "The Singularity is Near" (reviewed here)
2) I heard an interview with the author on the Diane Rehm show on NPR

The author, Joel Garreau, writes this book from the view point of a report - which he really is, for the Washington Post. He present three views on the future of the human race and focuses on three individuals who seem to best represent each view - the "champions" of each scenario.

The Three Scenarios of the Future are:
1) Heaven - championed by Ray Kurzweil
2) Hell - championed by Bill Joy
3) Prevail - championed by Jaron Lanier

Heaven Scenario
It's the scenario where the technological Curve that has been driving our economy for the past several decades will continue its exponential expansion. We will see technology so wonderful that it will solve all the world's problems and propell humanity into a new era that we cannot possible begin to imagine.
Ray Kurzweil, famous inventor and author of many articles and books (2 of which I have read and reviewed), is the most vocal advocate of this scenario. He seems qualified to make predictions because he helps make them happen - he's the inventor of speech regonition, optical character recognition, the flatbed scanner, and a bunch of other technologies that have changed the way technology interacts with our lives.
Kurzweil belives that humans will overcome any challenge and is extremely optimistic.

Hell Scenario
It's the complete opposite of the Heaven Scenario (no surprises there). Technology will bring about powers so awsome that it will either completely destroy us (either with a "super-bug" or with nanobots run-a-muck turning everything into "gray goo") or it will completely enslave us (ala the Matrix). Either way, it will make our lives uterly miserable.
Bill Joy, cofounder and former Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, is the most popular advocate of this scenario. He agrees that technology will continue on an exponential Curve - but will lead us right off a cliff. He is scared to death, it seems, and is trying to raise the alarm. He hasn't been able to write a book yet, but he got his message out in a 2004 article for Wired magazine.

Prevail Scenario
This scenario is a sorta compromise between Heaven and Hell. It acknolewdges that technology is increasing exponentially, but human culture is not. This means that we may reach a point on the Curve where all of humanity says "slow down so we can catch up". Prevail also means that humans will shape technology, not vice-versa.
Jaron Lanier is probably best known for coining the term 'virtual reality'. He has also written some books, given lectures and interviews, and is an artist and musician.

Captain's Thoughts
From what I have read, it seems that the Heaven Scenario is the most feasible. I think the Hell Scenario is possible, but given the fact that people are actively discussing it and are taking measures to help prevent it, I am pretty confident that we will avoid total disaster. Even if disaster does strike, humans will emerge stronger and will be able to jump right back onto the Curve and ride it towards the Heaven Scenario.
As for the Prevail Scenario - I think that it does not really qualify for being a real future scenario. Prevail sorta just keeps the human race in limbo - it says that humans will use technology to increase the intensity of links between people. But it does not take that to its logical end - which is the Heaven Scenario. It seems that the Prevail people acuse Kurzweil and the Heaven people of relying too much on computers and artificial intelligence. I think the Prevail camp is either not able to see very far in the future or they completely underestimate humanity's potential (or just don't want to see it). Prevail is Heaven, but on a much simpler and limited scale.

One thing I did not like about the book is the seemingly endless pages of description and details Garreau uses to introduce each "champion" - I felt like I was reading a novel (which why I don't read novels).

"Radical Evolution" is a good book to read. It presents all sides of the story on the future of humanity. Though I don't agree with the Hell Scenario, I think it is important to have people like Bill Joy to bring up these alarming issues so that we can do something about it. Read the book for yourselves and see which camp you feel you belong to.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Massachusetts Health Reform: Medical Student Perspective

We are the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide health care for its citizens – yet we are the richest and most powerful.

Lawmakers in Mass. are taking the lead in getting our country up to speed with the rest of the industrialized world – and it’s about time. The goal: get the state’s uninsured covered.

- Get the story
- Official Mass. Summary and Fact Sheet

Before I get to my thoughts about what Mass. is doing, let me share my own experience. The medical school I attend used to offer an optional health insurance plan at a reasonable cost with good coverage. The result: only the students needing medical treatment took the insurance – healthy students didn’t see the need (I don’t blame them, I’d do the same). After a few years, the insurer was loosing money and pulled out. Then they required some sort of health insurance – so healthy students like me got the most basic, emergency-only coverage; leaving the students who needed better coverage to pay through the nose for good coverage.

This past year, they required all students who were not covered under their parents’ insurance to purchase comprehensive coverage. A copy of the parents’ benefits plan and card were required to waive the school coverage. The coverage is good, but costs a little over $3,000 a year! And it doesn’t cover dental and optical! You would think that a medical school that supposedly is dedicated to providing coverage to all would start with their students (I will blog about Medical School Hypocrisy soon).

My general impression with the Mass. health plan is that it’s a step in the right direction.

What I Like…
It’s the closest thing to universal coverage that we’ve come up with – though it is still a ways away from being called a victory. Everyone deserves to be healthy and deserves access to healthcare – but somebody’s gotta pay for it. This law forces everybody to chip in.

It’s a great compromise between liberal ideas of “government knows best” with conservative ideas of “privatization”. The government tells you that you need health insurance but leaves it up to private insurers to provide it for you.

The law recognizes the need to exempt those who the government deems not able to pay insurance premiums and gives them a free ride – at or below 100% poverty level (I think it’s at about $13,000 a year for 2 person household). It also subsidizes premiums for those between 100%and 300% poverty level.

The law forces companies with more than 10 employees to chip in to the system. Until now, if a company wanted to cut costs it usually resorted to cutting health insurance (or just never offered it to begin with). This was a huge competitive advantage for these companies – which means they are kinda cheating. The law requires companies not offering health insurance to pay about $300 per year per full time employee. It is not nearly enough to make up for the difference, though – but it might be enough to convince employers to start offering health insurance.

What I Do Not Like…
I don’t like insurance companies very much (I will blog about this another time). I read a report somewhere that insurance companies add an extra 30% to the medical costs due to overhead and administrative costs. Compare that to only 3% for government-run Medicare.

I know I know - the government does not make the best administrator – but at least they have a handle on their costs – at least when it comes to Medicare.

Health insurance is still darn expensive. The bill predicts that insurance premiums will be lowered by 25% or so, but – as anybody who has walked into an expensive store during a “sale” can profess – 25% off an expensive item is makes it only slightly less expensive. Also, 300% above the poverty level is only about $35,000 a year for 2 people. Last time I checked, that was barely enough to live on after taxes – especially in an area like Boston.

What about quality of service? You get what you pay for – low cost insurance is usually junk – you end up getting stuck with medical bills anyway because they don’t cover much or they have such high co-pays. So what’s the point of even having such insurance if you’re going to pay for most of your medical bill anyway?

At first it looked like a great idea. But as I kept learning more and more, it seemed like Mass. was throwing a huge bone to the insurance companies. I suppose, though, that it was the only way they could simulate universal health care without facing huge opposition from insurance companies and conservatives.

Maybe one day we Americans will unite to do what we do best – come up with genius ideas for problems - and find a way to cover everyone in a way that benefits all.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Captain’s Book Review: “The Paradox of Choice”

Captain’s Book Review: “The Paradox of Choice”

“The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz

I learned about this book (like many of the books I have read so far) by listening to an interview with the author on the Diane Rehm show on NPR.

As I listened to the author, I was actually surprised by what he had to say. At the same time, though, I found that I completely related to ideas.

The main idea of his book is that, in our Capitalistic society where Freedom of Choice is King, there is a point where too many choices results in a dissatisfaction and even depression. This is counter-intuitive. You would think that the freedom to choose would set us free. He argues and proves that too many choices can imprison us.

The best thing I like about the book is that Schwartz offers solutions to his problem – and it’s not Communism or Socialism.

Quite the contrary – it is not the abundance of choice that makes us depressed, it is the way we spend our time thinking about making the choice and then double-guessing what we choose. It gets to the point where many people just give up altogether and choose not to choose.

An example Schwartz uses in his book deals with 401K retirement plans offered by a company. In a study Schwartz sites, a company tries to increase participation by increasing the number of mutual funds offered by the 401K plan – from 4 to 50. It backfired, horribly. It was hard enough to choose wisely from 4 plans, but 50 was too many and people just avoided making the choice altogether.

My favorite example is the one about buying a pair of jeans – something I personally dread. Like me, Schwartz likes to go into a store, find his size from a pile of jeans and buy it. When Schwartz went into a Gap store, he was bombarded with options – relaxed fit, baggy, tight, tapered leg, etc. He spent much more time then he was expecting to trying to find the right fit. Sure he found a better fitting pair of jeans, but he ended up feeling horrible about it because of all the time and money he spent and the “what if” thinking – “if I had spent a little more time, I would have found a better fitting pair”.

Moral of the story – just buy a pair of jeans that fit, be happy and stop dwelling on it.

Schwartz splits people into two categories: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers spend a lot of time trying to find the absolute best deal and when they finally make a choice, they are still on the lookout for an even better deal – they are never happy. Satisficers, on the other hand, spend time looking at their options, but once they make their choice, they stop worrying about it. Schwartz argues that we are all a mix of both types – but some are more maximizers then satisficers.

Schwartz argues that satisficers are happier with their life and their choices than maximizers. And that is his advice to his readers – learn to make a choice and stop thinking about it. Otherwise, the constant “what if” thinking will drive you crazy and make you miserable.

This was a great book. I really enjoyed reading it. It helped me understand how to make better choices and to appreciate the choices that I have already made. It also allows me to give advice to those who suffer from “maximization” to help them feel better about their choices and themselves. This book is a definite on anybody’s “Must Read” list.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Milosevic: Dead; Saddam, Taylor: Next?

Conspiracy theorists rejoice!

Imprisoned war criminal and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic died on March 11, 2006. According to the official report , there was no foul play – he died naturally by a heart attack.

Some don’t buy it. No matter what the official report says, there will always be a group of people – the conspiracy theorists – who believe there was in fact foul play. According to some, Milosevic was killed because the UN did not have a strong case against him and wanted to get the trail over with. Others say that his own supports killed him to keep him from talking. Yet others believe he was murdered to keep him from blowing the whistle on the “New World Order”.

Now that Milosevic is out of the way, we can all turn our attention to two more high-profile war criminals: Charles Taylor of Liberia, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Charles Taylor was recently arrested in Nigeria while trying to flee to Cameroon. Who knows why anybody would want to assassinate him. With such an evil man, there must be a thousand reasons. When he was arrested, I heard on the radio that he begged to be taken better care of then Milosevic so he too would not end up dead. What a coward.

And of course, who can forget the “War Criminal of the Decade” – Saddam Hussein? Almost every Iraqi I talk to believes that he will be killed any day now. He was the puppet of the United States, they say – and if he talks, the US is in big trouble. Don’t forget about his former Arab allies – if Saddam goes down, they might be next. This is especially apparent by the attempts to muck up the court system through intimidation and the murder of defense team members.

Iraqis are trying desperately to keep Saddam’s trial in Iraq. They fear that if Saddam were allowed to leave the country, he may never be seen or heard from again. Though the vast majority of Iraqis want to see Saddam dead, they also realize that dragging him through a trial is the best way to expose his evilness and injustices. I personally like the idea of putting Saddam in a zoo of sorts and have Iraqis pay to throw their slippers at him until he dies (it’s an Iraqi thing) – the government would make enough money through this to rebuild Iraq.

Of course, like many Iraqi, I wait patiently while the trial drags on. If Saddam and other war criminals do die, it will be a great loss for justice in this world.

Whatever happens, we must not forget that it is God that will serve the Ultimate justice – either in this life or the next.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Captain’s Book Review – “Your Best Life Now”

“Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential” by Joel Osteen

I saw this book on the New York Time’s Best Sellers list. It was a self-improvement book and we could all use improvement. So I decided to check it out from the library (after a 2 month hold time – a popular book).

I didn’t realize the author was a televangelist until I started reading it – my first hint was the frequent use of “God”.

As a Muslim, there are a lot of things I agree with Mr. Osteen, but there are also some things that I disagree with and yet other things that are missing. Many Muslims believe that Islam is an extension of Christianity and Judaism and, except for some differences, our religions are basically the same.

Mr. Osteen uses personal stories and Biblical stories to get his points across. I will attempt to use verses of the Holy Quran when I can to make my point –either in agreement or disagreement.

I agree with…
I agree with Mr. Osteen’s positive attitude of life – the idea that you always need to dream big and make big expectations for yourself. I also agree that God will not change a person unless a person is ready for change. The Quran says:

“surely Allah[God] does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition” 13.11
Mr. Osteen makes a good point that God always has a plan for you – meaning that just because things don’t work out the way you want, doesn’t mean that God is punishing you. On the contrary, God may be doing something positive for you, but you just don’t see it that way at the time.

Sometimes misfortune is a test from God. Sometimes He wants to test your faith and resolve. Though Mr. Osteen does not talk about it, but one area of difference between Islam and Christianity is that bad Muslims can go to Hell, while some Christian denominations believe only in Heaven. In fact, this life is a test and our reward is the Heaven if we do well and Hell if we do not do so well. To quote a famous German philosopher:

“What does not destroy me makes me stronger.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche

I disagree with…
The biggest thing I disagree with Mr. Osteen is that he claims that God is on his side. This can be a dangerous and arrogant stance. To claim to have God on your side means that there is no need to seek knowledge and truth. A great man once said:

“I am not concerned whether God is on my side or not, but I am concerned whether I am on God's side.”
-Abraham Lincoln
Mr. Osteen’s idea that you should expect God to do favors for you. God does not owe anybody favors – favors are blessings from God and need to be earned through worship and adherence to God’s religion:

“Those are they on whom are blessings and mercy from their Lord, and those are the followers of the right course” 2.157
I also disagree with the statement that God has a fixed value for a person. A person’s value, I believe, is determined by a person’s actions and strength of faith. God says in the Quran:

“surely the most honorable of you with Allah[God] is the one among you most careful (of his duty)” 49.13

What is missing…
The main thing missing is the idea of forgiveness. This should have been the first chapter in Mr. Osteen’s book. A person cannot be an adulterous, porn-crazed, alcoholic and expect to be in God’s favor. The first step should be to ask God for forgiveness. One of the worst sins a person can perform is thinking that God will not forgive them – its right up there with not believing in God. Forgiveness must be sincere with an intention not to commit the same sin again. God says in the Quran:

“And you that ask forgiveness of your Lord, then turn to Him; He will provide you with a goodly provision to an appointed term and bestow His grace on every one endowed with grace, and if you turn back, then surely I fear for you the chastisement of a great day.” 11.3

Another big thing missing is the afterlife. His focus is entirely on this world, this life. Not once did I see even a reference to the afterlife. As a Muslim, I believe that this life is only a test. What happens to you here – good or bad – is not all that important because this life is temporary. Be careful not to get too caught up in the afterlife, however. Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, an early Muslim leader, says:

"Work for this life as if you will live forever, and work for your next life as if you will die tomorrow."

Overall, the book was okay. Mr. Osteen provides a lot of good advice, though I think there are a few things needed to be changed and added. This books seems to focus to much on material wealth - if that's what you are looking for, this a great book. His personal stories are not typical – individual results may vary.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Motorcycles - What a Senseless Way to Die

I just found out that another young man – a 20 year old Iraqi-American college student – was killed in a motorcycle accident a few days ago.

His story seems typical and reads like a news headline - "Twenty-Something Male Dies Performing Motorcycle Stunts". In this case, he did a "pop-a-wheelie", fell off and broke his neck. He died on the way to the hospital.

As a 24-year old guy, I cannot understand why other young guys would even waste their money – and sometimes life – to buy a death trap. Not a single year goes by that some young guy (never a girl it seems) in my area gives up their life “to be cool”.

First of all, where I live motorcycles are not even practical. It rains or snows most of the year or is just plain unseasonable. Second, motorcycles are expensive to buy, maintain, and insure. Plus, how many people who drive a motorcycle bought one used?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2001 there were 3,181 motorcycle deaths – a number that trends upwards year after year. And guess who the greatest offenders are? Yup – males ages 20-29. Click on the graph to visit the NHTSA Motorcycle Safety Program.

This might seem cold, but at least a guy who dies from a motorcycle accident can’t hurt anybody else with his stupidity.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Captain’s Book Review: “Anti-Aging Prescriptions”

“The Green Pharmacy Anti-Aging Prescriptions: Herbs, Foods, and Natural Formulas to Keep You Young” by James A. Duke and Michael Castleman

The author, Dr. Duke, spent his life working as a botanist with the USDA - much of it spent as chief of the Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory. So Dr. Duke, PhD, knows about his plants.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. I found the information very useful.

But let me start with a few things I did not like about the book. The book is big – over 500 pages. The book can be repetitive since it is broken up into chapters based on health concerns which people can flip to in no particular order. Dr. Duke is advocating for his way of life (more on this later) – which is impractical for several reasons. First, he is 72 and retired – probably with a comfortable retirement package, not to mention the money he gets for the books he writes and products he endorses. Second, his “Garden of Youth” takes a lot of space, resources, and know-how to build and maintain. Third, many of the plants he grows in his garden are brought from all over the world. Last time I checked, that is a dangerous recipe for invasive species and is illegal. Lastly, eating all the uncommon types of food can be very expensive and sometimes untasty.

Okay, now to the things I like about the book. I like his natural, yet realistic, approach to diseases. He always recommends seeing a doctor for any serious health problems or when there might be a concern with using a natural remedy. I also like all the research he quotes when making his case for his “treatments”. There are times, though, when acknowledges a lack of research – and I agree that sometimes these treatments are not taken seriously and are not researched. He also criticizes that the health industry does not compare alternative treatments (like herbs) with conventional ones (drugs) and that the studies are not as rigorous. Dr. Duke categorizes his book by health conditions – arthritis, impotence, kidney health, menopause, etc… This makes it easy to flip right to the concern of your choice instead of reading the entire book. Like I mentioned above, he repeats a lot of his material so if you do turn to a particular section, you won’t really miss anything.

Here are the three most-mentioned supplements he recommends over and over:
1. Garlic
Dr. Duke seems to think it can treat or prevent almost any disease – it’s listed in almost every section. It lowers cholesterol, is antimicrobial, boosts immune system, and more.
2. Turmeric
It’s an antioxidant, a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory, and a whole bunch of others.
3. Ginger
A close relative to turmeric – enough said.

It’s a great reference book which I will soon add to my library (I originally checked it out from the library). His remedies are worth a try – considering that they usually cost much less than regular meds and have much fewer side effects (does the recent Vioxx scandal ring a bell?).

I plan to blog about health and supplements as a sort of financial investment – stay tuned.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ibrahim al-Jaafari - Right Person, Wrong Time

I had the honor of meeting Dr. Ibahim al-Jaafari during his first days with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) back in late 2003. He was very friendly, knowledgeable, and religious – he is even a medical doctor. He was extremely popular with Iraqis.

Things have changed – his popularity is waning. By all measures Dr. al-Jaafari is a good man and would probably make a great leader. But he is not what Iraq needs – at least not now. It was a mistake for him and his party to take the lead in a situation that they could not handle.

See this NY Times article about the subject.

You see, since the situation in Iraq started heading south about 6 months after the invasion, Iraq needed a strong leader to get a handle on the situation. Unfortunately, the candidates were few. During Saddam’s “Reign of Terror”, he insured that there were no strong leaders left to oppose him. Saddam even went as far as having arranged assassinations for Iraqis living in other countries. This went on for decades.

The other obstacle is that the majority of Iraqis left standing are branded with the Baath Party stigmata. Case in point – Ayad Alawi. He was considered to be a strong leader. But his ties to the Baath Party caused a great deal of problems for Iraq. Many fault him for allowing former Baathists to sneak back into the government – wreaking havoc on an already unstable government. And they are still there!

Getting back to the current Iraqi government: One major criticism from Iraqis is that criminals and terrorists are being captured and then set free a short while later. The government claims that it does not have the ability to persecute these criminals. I say they better come up with one – and fast. It doesn’t need to be an American-style judge and jury system. It only needs to be adequate to give the criminals a reasonably fair trial. Iraq is a war zone, and as with any war zone, it is not practical to have justice served both completely fairly and swiftly (heck, in America we take our sweet old time and we still screw up more often than we’d like).

Start with the confessed criminals – the hundreds who have gone on Al-Iraqia TV station and confessed their guilt to the entire world. You could argue that they let the smaller fish go so they could catch the bigger fish – but that aint happening either. Then they could move on to those who are caught in the act – an easy way to serve justice.

Iraqi needs a heavy-handed, yet fair, leader to get it through its current crisis. Dr. Ibahim al-Jaafari may be fair, but he just does not have what it takes to get Iraq back in shape.

Sorry al-Jaafari, we love you, but now is not your time.

UPDATE April 21, 2006:
Al-Jaafari has decided not to for another term as Prime Minister. Instead, the main Shiite bloc has chosen Jawad Al-Maliki to be the new Prime Minister.

Though it ends months of deadlock between political parties, it is a sad day for Iraq. The minority Sunni and Kurds have proven that they are not reliable partners and have no respect for majority rule.

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