Medicine’s Uncomfortable Relationship with Math


Today is my 52nd birthday, an unpleasant reminder that at some point in the (nearer) future I can expect to become more reliant on the medical profession.

If we consider doctors as information processing systems (data in, diagnosis out), how are they improving compared to other information processing systems? “Medicine’s Uncomfortable Relationship With Math,” a 2014 paper from JAMA Internal Medicine shows no improvement over the past 30 years. 75 percent of the docs surveyed couldn’t figure out how to use data from a test for a rare condition: “Of 61 respondents, 14 provided the correct answer of 2% [likelihood that a patient was actually suffering from the condition, based on having tested positive]. The most common answer was 95%, provided by 27 of 61 respondents. The median answer was 66%, which is 33 times larger than the true answer.”


Less competition in the jet fuel market


“BBA Aviation Buys U.S. Rival Landmark for $2 Billion” (WSJ) explains that if you want jet fuel at the busiest airports you’ll now have one source, Signature, instead of two (Signature and Landmark). Why wouldn’t the antitrust regulators whose salaries and benefits are funded by our tax dollars object to this reduction in competition? “Mr. Pryce said the market remains highly fragmented and that he didn’t expect regulatory hurdles.”

Is the market truly fragmented? Well… if you’re going from Boston to New York City and you want to stop for fuel in rural Pennsylvania you can get a great deal on jet fuel from an independently owned and/or municipal supplier. If you want to land and fuel at, for example, Westchester, however, you’ll see that there are currently just three choices: Landmark, Million Air, and Signature. Due to current vibrant competition, the listed price on Airnav is about $7.40 per gallon at Landmark and Signature. Compare to nearby Danbury, where the runway is a little too short for Landmark and Signature to be interested: $3.50/gallon. In other words, they’re already able to command insane profits at Westchester.

This merger makes as much sense to me as letting Comcast and Time-Warner join forces… (previous posting) Why is it that so few Americans are interested in the “competition” requirement that makes the rest of Econ 101 potentially relevant? Typical Americans don’t own Gulfstreams, of course, but Americans who own shares in public companies or who buy insurance from mutually owned insurance companies do pay for jet fuel to go into Gulfstreams.

[Separately, Signature is owned by a foreign company. So this means that the profits that Signature obtains by limiting competition will be sent over to England.]

Immigrants will boost our economy…


… because for every immigrant a job at the FBI will be created.

See “The Imam’s Curse,” a New Yorker magazine article about a family of Pakistani immigrants who have generated FBI jobs at a 1:1 ratio.

[Note that these folks would not have been able to emigrate to Australia or New Zealand under those countries’ “point” systems. Their lack of education and, in the Imam’s case, old age, would have eliminated them from consideration.]

Patent Trial and Appeal Board: Covered Business Method Review example


One relatively new feature of the American intellectual property system is the “covered business method review” procedure run by the USPTO. Pretty much everything that happens in front of the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB) is public and available from A case in which I became involved as an expert witness in April 2014 was recently decided. I thought that readers might be interested to learn about the process. If you type in Case No. “CBM2014-00125″ (or 126, 127, 128 to see the dockets for the related patents) at the ptabtrials site you can find everything (about 140 documents per case, many duplicated and/or with duplicated sections).

The dispute began in December 2013 when Paid, Inc. sued eBay for infringing four patents on calculating shipping costs (example patentamended complaint). In parallel with defending the lawsuit in federal court, eBay in May 2014 filed four petitions for covered business method review (example; each CBM review has its own parallel set of paperwork). Each included a declaration from me (example).  Paid, Inc. responded in August 2014 (example). In September 2014 the PTAB decided to institute review of the four patents (example). Paid, Inc. responded to that in January 2015 (example) with a single declaration from its own expert (link) and one from an inventor (link). eBay’s attorneys deposed the expert (transcript) and inventor (transcript) and filed a reply in April 2015, with a supplemental declaration from me.  An oral hearing at which attorneys argued was held in June 2015 (transcript). A final decision was issued in September 2015.

Note that this is not necessarily the end of the legal road. Decisions of the PTAB that are adverse to patent owners can be appealed to a Federal Circuit Court.

[Sidenote/Opportunities Missed Department: In 1995 I was working for a large publisher and had the following conversation with management:

  • Me: “You guys own newspapers all around the country with classified ad sections. How about giving classified ad buyers a free web listing and having a server aggregating classified ads from all around the nation?”
  • Them: “How would that work?”
  • Me: “Classified ads are pretty much free to display on the Web so you might want to look at the readers as giving us valuable content alongside which we can sell display ads. Once the ad is on the web we can let people offer the item at a fixed price or let the server run an auction for them. Because people won’t always be buying locally we can have a system that lets buyers and sellers report on or review each other.”
  • Them: “That doesn’t sound very interesting.”
  • Me: “I actually already built a working prototype. Do you want to see a demo?”
  • Them: “Sure.”
  • *** Demo ensued ***
  • Them: “Still not something we’re interested in doing.”
  • Me: “Do you mind if I take the code and run it on my site?”
  • Them: “We don’t care. You can do whatever you want with it.”

Thus was born the classifieds, described in this chapter of Database-backed Web Sites. (You might ask why I built a complete functional system before getting the green light from management. This was before the era of CSS and JavaScript and thus I was able to build the whole system in three days.)]

Norwegian offshore helicopter flying job salary and working conditions


Our flight school went through a period of hiring Norwegian citizens as helicopter instructors. These guys went through a rigorous training program here in the U.S. and then had the right to work for 12-18 months as “practical training.” After that, the U.S. immigration bureaucracy worked aggressively to push these skilled English-fluent workers out of our country in favor of more folks such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his family.

I caught up with one of these alumni recently and found out that he was flying the magnificent Sikorsky S-92 helicopter out to offshore oil rigs. At the current exchange rate, which is much less favorable for Norwegians than previously, a first officer earns about $100,000 per year and a captain $150,000 per year. They work 14 days on, 14 days off. The “on” days consist of flying 6-8 hours while the off days can be spent in Oslo or anywhere else in the world. Housing near the base costs about $750 per month and is the responsibility of the pilot. Commercial 45-minute flights to or from Oslo cost about $100 (another $200 per month).

I learned that finding the offshore rig is not the idiot-proof process that one would imagine. Instead of a GPS-guided approach down to the helipad the pilots look for the rigs using the S-92’s weather radar. If they can’t identify the rig visually within 0.75 nautical miles then it is time for a missed approach. Many offshore rigs have a similar appearance and are clustered together. Therefore it is not uncommon for a helicopter to land on the wrong rig.



Will Greece be rich soon?


“Europe Should See Refugees as a Boon, Not a Burden” is a New York Times editorial that is typical of a view espoused by politicians eager to preside over a larger population. Young hard-working immigrants will make a country rich and enable Ponzi schemes such as Social Security and Medicare to keep going (a better ratio of workers to government-dependents). At the same time we hear that roughly 3000 migrants arrive on the shores of Greece every day. “Greece’s Dismal Demographics” is a 2013 New York Times article on the aging/shrinking Greek population:

The most frightening figure is a Eurostat projection which estimates that, in 2050, 32.1 percent of the Greek population will be over 65, compared with 16.6 percent in 2000. And this projection was made in 2007, before the crisis hit Greece’s population. We were still living high, before widespread unemployment, hasty retirement and the emigration of those with the skills to succeed abroad. New projections will most likely be much worse.

If the Times is correct, won’t Greece benefit hugely from the waves of migrants arriving on her shores? If Greece can hold onto most of these new arrivals, and not let Germany lure them farther north, shouldn’t it be the case that Greece will soon be much richer than Germany?

Separately, if immigrants lead to wealth, why are European Union officials having to force EU members to accept immigrants? (WSJ: “EU Move to Force Relocation of Migrants Deepens Divisions in Europe”)

Does drug use result in confusion?


Burning Man attendees answer the question of whether or not drug use leads to confusion: SF Weekly article on Missed Connections following Burning Man.

Separately, “Drug Dogs Sniffing the U.S. Mail at Burning Man, and Armed BLM Agents Becoming Impromptu Mailmen” says that drug-sniffing dogs had a high false-positive rate at Burning Man. Or maybe they just wanted to be gifted some pickles…

MIT Professsor Al Drake and Pope Francis


“Popemobiles Through Time” (nytimes):

To the chagrin of security personnel, [Pope] Francis prefers to communicate with the people without a bulletproof barrier, which he described as being inside a “sardine can.”

“It’s true that anything could happen,” he told a Barcelona newspaper. “But let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose.”

One of my most rewarding experiences as MIT was teaching a section (“recitation”) of a math course for Al Drake (superb textbook: Fundamentals of Applied Probability Theory). Professor Drake lived his subject as well as taught it. When diagnosed with leukemia he purchased a motorcycle, reasoning that the conditional probability of him dying in a motorcycle accident had been reduced.


Longfellow Bridge repairs will now take about as long as the original construction


In August 2013 I wrote a posting about how Boston’s Longfellow Bridge would cost at least 4X to renovate, in constant dollars, what it cost to build with circa 1900 construction techniques. In January 2015 I added a posting about a rumor that the project was a year behind schedule. I found this August 2015 WBUR article saying that the project has been delayed for an additional two years and that the projected budget was substantially higher than I quoted in my original posting. Thus it seems that, if there are no additional setbacks, the renovation will take roughly as long as the original construction and cost about 6X as much, after adjustments for inflation.

I’m thinking that even if Bernie Sanders gets elected and Congress gives him the $18 trillion that he wants to spend (WSJ), the country won’t look substantially different in terms of infrastructure.


Self-driving RV


About ten years ago I wrote about immigrant-driven Chinese-made motorhomes (RVs) that could alleviate the pain of sitting in American traffic jams and paying American labor rates for RV construction.

My recent trip to Burning Man (slides), at the intersection of RVs and high-tech, got me thinking about the potentially revolutionary consequences of a self-driving RV. If Google can make us a self-driving car, why not a self-driving 40′ Class A motorhome? Now the RV becomes like a cruise ship. You spend the day in a National Park, tuck everyone into bed, and then let Google drive you to the next National Park overnight. You wake up to find that Larry and Sergei have selected a campsite for you, extended the awning, and put out the lawn chairs and table for breakfast.

How awesome will this be for aging Gen Xers? (let’s assume that the Baby Boomers will die off before Google can leap through all of the regulatory hurdles)

What about the potential for increased fuel consumption? When television was invented people thought that Ivy League lectures and Shakespeare plays would be popular. In the 1970s nobody would have predicted that improvements in engine efficiency would result in suburban Americans buying pavement-melting SUVs. Right now we have prototype Google self-driving cars that are the apex of environmental responsibility. Could it be that self-driving technology, by eliminating the main problem with 40′ RVs (ungainly to drive and park), will result in a renewed arms race among Americans for who can have the biggest most gas-guzzling vehicle on the road?

What else changes if an RV can drive itself? Would it be reasonable to revive my idea of using an RV as a defense against urban gridlock?


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