Gun control and reality

With the advent of guns that can be made of stock parts and a 3D printer the question should be asked: “What can be done to prevent anyone that wants one from getting a gun?”

The answer is simply put, nothing. This does not mean that I am a supporter of gun rights as they currently exist, but at the same time, I recognize a reality in which guns are plentiful and easy to acquire  currently, and with the ability to print key parts of guns, this will only get easier.

There is no way to conceivably restrict either 3D printing technology (it is too useful, easy to recreate, and multi-purposed) nor the files that can be given to the printer to create the pieces given the raw materials. The MPAA has been fighting a similar battle for years, and their problem is comparably well defined. They know exactly what content they are looking for. With the state of technology today, there are many many distinct ways to create designs for these parts, they can be hosted in many formats, in ways that would be difficult to determine that they were all the same blueprint algorithmically (if the language that is used to create the blueprints for the printer is sufficiently complex, it could easily be impossible (this would be the case if the language was c++ for example)).

Since the technology side cannot be conceivably regulated, another thought would be to regulate the raw materials that would go into the gun pieces. Unfortunately, this too is impossible, as all it takes is plastic, and some simple metal pieces available at many hardware stores.

The question then becomes, “How can we prevent murder from being commonplace?” I believe that the answer lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of how guns kill people. According to the CDC, 31,672 people were killed by firearms in 2010. While this number may seem high, for a sense of perspective, more people were killed in car accidents. Additionally, more than half of the people that are killed by firearms pulled the trigger themselves. While this is very sad, this is not going to influence the incidence of murder by firearm. So we are really more concerned about the other 50% of people that were the victim of a shooting, accident, and the like.

Considering that in 2010 2,468,435 people died of all causes, one has to wonder whether our priorities are in order. Deaths by firearm excluding suicide accounted for approximately .64% of all deaths, and while these deaths are sad, in the scheme of things, this is not a large impact on society.

As terrible as it may sound, the same thing can be said of mass shootings. While they are tragic, the fact that a few tens of people were killed by a lone individual on the same day is not significant in terms of the death rates. It may make for many consecutive news broadcasts, but they don’t kill many people as a percentage of pretty much any other cause of death.

The government is attempting to regulate something that in the near future (or even today) will be impossible. While I appreciate the effort to solve the problem of mass shootings (and regular homicides by gun), the country has far far bigger problems. Perhaps we should stop worrying so much about gun control and focus on those.

While it might not be possible to prevent people from getting guns, it has been proposed by the NRA and others that a possible solution would be to have guards everywhere, this is both impractical and useless. The vast majority of homicides take place between people that know each other well. Unless someone is proposing that guards should be placed everywhere (20% of the homicides are between family members) there is nothing that can be done. Additionally, having guards brings with it its own problems (can a guard shoot in time, or will it only be reactive, in which case in most scenarios it is too late anyway, or considering the accuracy of the NYPD what if the guards kill more people than the murderer ever would).

The elderly as teachers

There are at least two large problems in this country regarding education:

  1. Lack of good teachers
  2. Lack of jobs for the elderly

Given that people are working longer than ever, and retirement savings are very low, it would make sense to have jobs that have short working days (the average public school day is less than 7 hours long), low amounts of physical labor required (a given for almost all teachers), and breaks. Furthermore, if the demands that re made on a regular teacher are too demanding, it is relatively simple to lower the workload of an individual by having them teach less. As far as the elderly making better teachers, this is probably will not be true in high school as the material there is much harder to teach and remember for long periods of time, than the material for say, 5th grade english. The question is not whether they know the material (at least as well as the younger teachers), but whether they can teach it. While research on this point is lacking, something that bears mention is that teachers in the US apparently work far longer hours than their peers in other countries, with rather dismal results.

While it is possible that the elderly could be far worse teachers than the current teachers, I would tend to doubt it given that older people are stereotypically (research is lacking unfortunately) more patient than their younger peers, more caring, and have less conflicting priorities (generally speaking, their lives are more settled and less hectic). It is also worth noting that “and non-education majors performed just as well in the classroom as education majors” and so the lack of specific training is likely not to be severe.

Additionally, since their average workload will be lower (or even much lower) than that of regular teachers, Illness and death, and similar conditions are a legitimate concern, the odds of a teacher dying (assuming that they are of average health, and they will probably be of better than average health when they start) are relatively low (less than a 3% chance a year). Considering that teacher attrition is currently about 8.4% (not counting teacher turnover due to mobility), this risk is insignificant.

Since older people do not have the same career aspirations as their younger peers, they need less job security, less union protections, and the like. Because of this, they can be used as a more flexible workforce than regular teachers, and can therefore be more fully utilized.

Lest people accuse me of trying to take jobs away from career teachers, I would simply say that the only reason to allow people to be career teachers is if they get better with time. If they don’t, then there is no logical reason to give them raises, tenure, seniority, or any of the other perks that come with being a teacher for a long time. According to some research detailed here and here while teachers get better during their first 3 years, it is not that large (.04 standard deviations). While it might be statistically significant, its not significant in its impact on kids. Most tellingly, any sources that I could find that seemed to put a positive spin on the effect of experience failed to quantify the effect.

In light of this information, and given how much of teacher’s salary is based on experience, I am proposing that there is no reason to defend career teaching as a good  in and of itself. In light of the data, teachers get an average 3% raise year over year (mean: 3.08%, median: 2.92%) and this is for at best, a .04 standard deviation increase in performance. There is no good economic reason to pay for this kind of performance. If a drastically cheaper, similarly efficient labor supply can be found, as a society, we have a duty to use it.

To those who say that children deserve the best education at any cost, I have just two things to say:

  1. Throwing Money at Education Isn’t Working is a paper that distills the facts about the rise of education spending in this country, and how it largely has had no impact, so saving that money so that it can be used for better things (or not raised at all) would make sense
  2. At any cost is a funny thing. That means that in principle, if there was a way to raise student achievement by a few tenths (or hundredths) of a standard deviation at the cost of hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, it should be done, no matter what the tradeoff is (trillions for a 1% gain? sure!). This kind of thinking is simply not rational. There is clearly a tradeoff in terms of what is acceptable, and a better metric to determining the value is perhaps the increase in salary later in life. While research has shown significant an ability of teachers to make a dent in student earnings (to the tune of $9285 over a lifetime in present day dollars, when comparing a teacher in the bottom 5% to an average one) this is not a majorly significant number (remember that these are lifetime totals, not yearly losses). Additionally, while a bad teacher has this kind of impact, it is not symmetric (one cannot achieve the same gains again by replacing an average teacher with one in the top 5%).

For all these reasons, encouraging the elderly to enter the teaching profession is a good idea for society, though perhaps not for current teachers.

Why programming is so great and rote education is terrible

As a programmer, I am slightly biased on this issue, but the more I try to learn about different subjects (history, politics, the sciences, etc) the more it becomes clear to me that  programming is a very useful skill to have.

The first thing that it does is force me to think in a logical way, and express myself clearly and unambiguously. This is a quality that easily transfers to other domains, and makes working in those domains simpler.

Secondly, it is useful for doing some cursory research. Most of the time when I find a document or documents that contain some statistics that I am looking for, they are in some kind of annoying format, with lots of extraneous information and much of the information that I am looking for needs to be calculated. The standard way that most people solve these problems is lots of manual copy and pasting. This works, but it quickly becomes tiresome.

This is a classic example of when a little programming can come in handy. There is no need (in most cases) to go to a fully fledged language like C++, as macros in Word, regexes in Notepad++, and Excel formulae go a long way (Google Refine is also very cool, and is actually designed for this, but its not as common a product). Also a useful thing is the ability to take many files, and turn them into one file, and IDM or DownThemAll (firefox add-on) to download many files all from the same page.

Combining all of these tools makes it simple to compile large amounts of data and do useful things with them (summing, averaging, getting statistical variations, and the like), and allows me to come up with bespoke data to research claims.

The problem is that it is hard to teach this kind of thinking with rote education, as it is all about what data sources you happen to come across on a particular day. Additionally, while rote learning may make some people great a task in isolation, it often makes it harder to abstract away parts of that task and combine those ideas with another task that was learned in a rote fashion.

Additionally, while the rote learning makes sense in some cases (vocabulary words, anatomy, etc) in those cases, the internet is greatly supplanting the need for memory. If you don’t remember the definition of a word, all you have to do is google it (or use any one of many free services online). While there is some small amount of vocabulary that is needed to get by, past a certain threshold, it no longer makes sense to make an active effort to memorize complex words.

As technology becomes more pervasive, this threshold will only get lower. Consider that in the past, one needed to find a dictionary (takes minutes). This was made easier by being at a computer (electronic dictionary), and even easier with mobile phones with web access (many people carry it around all the time). If augmented reality ever catches on, it will be instantly able to do translation (Google Glass can already do this) and I imaging that word lookups are even easier. There will be little need to memorize words then. The question becomes, what makes you better than wikipedia+google+ half a dozen other websites that are littered with knowledge.

I think that the answer is that people still do a lot better an analysis than machines. We can determine what is important, connections between data, causation, and many other tasks easily where the same problems have been giving natural language researchers headaches (like sentiment analysis). To turn people into things that machines can easily replace is not something should be desirable. We should strive to excel where they cannot, and leave the things that computers are good at to computers.

A more meaningful way to vote

Strange things have been shown to correlate with the odds getting elected, that ideally should have nothing to do with being a good leader/politician (unless being tall makes someone a better leader/politician).

Given that the US is a democracy and that is a good way to pick a government (that may be the topic of a later post), it would be better if these irrational biases are eliminated.

Here are a few ways to eliminate the biases:

  1. Don’t put any names on the ballot. Instead, create lists of positions on the issues for all the candidates, and then display all of the candidates on some of the issues (requires a computer screen). Have it display a random selection of the issues to every person that votes, with the option to display more. This would prevent people from voting for a candidate that they know nothing about. As a downside, this will make voting take longer, but considering the impact of voting, it would be worth it to extend the voting period to a few days or even a week (this would also raise voter turnout)
  2. Allow people to split their vote into number of candidates+1 parts. This would allow people to better express the way that they feel in more elections, and to allow third party candidates more of a chance to get a vote.
  3. Prevent candidates (or people promoting them) from lying, or being deliberately misleading, or assess some kind of penalty. The problem with this idea is that it is most probably unconstitutional, and if the penalty is meaningful enough, it may be worth it for the opposition to promote lies about a candidate.
  4. Throw bogus candidates onto the ballot (mixed with number 1) to make it a roster of lets say 8 (the number is arbitrary) total candidates. This will a number of things:
    1. Encourage more non-mainstream candidates. This will happen as if slots are not taken, then bogus candidates will appear, and so getting votes for minority parties will be easier.
    2. If people vote for a candidate that does not exist (i.e. randomly picking a person) then they are not really making a choice anyway, and discarding their vote is the right thing to do.
    3. Encourage people to learn more about the candidates. If they only know one point of difference between the candidates, there is now a risk that they will pick the wrong thing on the ballot. In order to make sure that their vote will go towards the person that they want, which will lead to a better educated electorate
  5. Use something like STV, though in general that works better when there are more candidates. This will also encourage more centrist candidates, as there is no downside to picking as a first choice a candidate that can’t win.

These ideas are not mutually exclusive, and some of these ideas are implemented in other places, but I think all of them would make the voting process more meaningful.

The end of full employment

In the past, as technology has come around, society’s response has been to make people more educated, get them into the workforce later, and then get them a higher skilled job.

This works when the level of education that is required for a productive life has grown to the point where is it hard for many people to reach that level. It is clear that the unemployment rate for high school dropouts and people with just a high school diploma is much higher than those with a college degree (2 to 4 times higher in fact). What goes unstated is that the educational attainment of the average high school graduate is not at a 12th grade level, or even close. To give a sense of scale, on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) an advanced 4th grader knows more than a basic 12th grader. Additionally, the average score on the NAEP is less than proficiency by a hefty margin for 12th graders.

It seems that, at least under the current educational system, there is a limit on the maximum that people can really learn, for whatever reason. It seems unreasonable to expect that people will be able to actually read, write and do math at a 12th grade level. That means that there is a limit to the jobs that many people can get. As automation moves forward, the number of jobs that people who cannot read, write and do math at a 12th grade level can do will shrink. At a certain point, the number of jobs that these people can do is will be significantly exceeded by the number of people.

As far as room for growth, I don’t think that this will become a real problem in the short term, but I don’t think that this is a problem that can be solved in the long term. While the educational situation may get somewhat better, I don’t believe that people can be educated  to successively higher levels. At some point, people will not be able to be educated enough, and will be unable to get jobs.

The day is coming, the question is, what happens then?

The right to make bad choices is not absolute

The primary problem that most people have with Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas (and the ACA for that matter) is that it turns the state into a “nanny.” The problem with that argument is primarily that the state already does that.

Common examples include things like seat belts for the driver. Most people agree that this is a good idea, but at its core, the goal is simply protect a person from themselves. There is no “public” interest that has to be protected, just the people from themselves.

The problem is that people have a terrible idea of what is good for them, and more specifically they have consistent problems thinking for the long term. When this manifests itself in the savings rate, credit card debt, and seat belts for that matter, the state steps in (as much as legislators are comfortable with anyway) and they protect people from themselves.

The case of health insurance and the soda ban is even more clear than the above examples. In these cases, the government the government is not only protecting people from themselves (people in the aggregate, not necessarily every individual) but people from other people. Assuming that soda really does make people obese (which seems to be well documented (cited by 1670)) it has real costs to society. Since many people that are obese are concentrated in the lower economic strata, Medicaid, and Social Security disproportionately have to pay for the additional treatment that is required.

The money does not come out of the ether. It comes from people’s pockets that are not obese, as well as those that are (and disproportionately those that are not). To claim that the state should both pay for treatment for a large number of self-inflicted ailments (again, in the aggregate) at the same time as tying its hands for fixing the root cause is absurd (a legitimate point of view is to say that the government should do neither of these things, but that view gets much less popular support).

To the claim that the government could pass a law that says that people have to eat an apple a day, I have one response: Don’t elect such people

Unethical human experimentation

In order for researchers to do human experimentation, they (in almost all cases) the research proposal must pass an ERB (ethical review board). This seems like a good idea, to prevent abuses.

More important than the ERB review is the consent form that all participants of the study get. In theory, it explains all of the risks, rewards, side effects, etc so that the person knows exactly what they are getting into when they agree to be part of the study. Problems can arise when people are willing to consent to something, but the ERB feels it is unethical. The first case of informed consent was with Yellow Fever. Healthy people were willing to get themselves infected with a disease was lethal about 30% of the time so that the disease could be better understood and fought. Such a thing would most probably not be possible today because of an ERB. Similar experiments that would be useful are things that would determine is possible carcinogens are actually carcinogenic, faster turnaround for drug development, and any disease about which not that much is known (or usually comes with complications).

If people are willing to participate in these kinds of studies, why should we stop them?