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Interesting Questions

Just a Little Longer… The Cost of COVID Lockdowns

Skip to the Costs of Lockdowns

Just a little longer now…

A few more weeks of lockdown, then we will all be able to go back to our normal lives. We will be able to see our friends and family again, play sports, and shop without worrying about the person who is going the wrong way down the new one-way isles in the grocery store. If we just commit to the lockdown a few more weeks, we can get rid of the masks and feel the sweet air against our faces. Just a little longer!

How long have we been told that?

At what point did we become sheep, aimlessly following the heard without any one of us knowing where we are headed or why?

We need to examine our current position and trajectory and at least have a discussion about whether the costs we are paying are worth it.

The Initial Reasoning for Lockdowns

I understand the reasoning behind the initial lockdown — or at least I believe so — which goes something like this:

  • We’re encountering a new virus that we don’t understand well.
  • It seems as though it is more dangerous than the “normal” viruses.
  • Due to the points above, we are anticipating that the spread of the virus will lead to a shortage of hospital beds for people who need to hospitalized upon contracting the virus.
  • We recognize the damage caused by a lockdown, but in order to not overwhelm the hospitals and thus have to turn away people who will depend on medical care, we will initiate a lockdown to flatten the curve (the concept is explained here).
    • NOTE: The purpose of the lockdown is not to eradicate COVID, but to curb the demand for hospital beds so as to not exceed the supply.

The above seems like a reasonable approach which, importantly, recognized that lockdowns do not come without costs. In the face of the potentially devastating costs of letting the pandemic run rampant, this is a cost I am willing to pay.

But somewhere along the way we forgot that the lockdowns are not the status quo, they are not the endgame, and they are not free. And I am not talking about the monetary costs, though the lockdowns are certainly not free in that regard either.

What happened to simply flattening the curve? Most hospitals have plenty of free capacity; too much free capacity in fact. I know several people in the healthcare sector who say they are no where near full.

The Cost of Lockdowns

At some point, other factors than COVID-deaths need to be considered when making decisions about our collective path forward. We need to re-examine the cost of the new status quo to determine if it is still worth it.

Here are the few factors I have come up with, but this is hardly and exhaustive list:

  • Additional cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis and treatment.
  • Lost years of life, as I would propose this past year should at the very least be discounted.
  • Social and psychological costs, particularly for (but not limited to) children.
  • Other Consequences.

Additional Cancer Deaths

Even before COVID came into the world, people died (*gasps*). Cancer was and is one of the causes of quite a few of these deaths and though treatment has gotten better over the years, a key to defeating many cancers is early detection.

According to an article in the medical journal The Lancet, it is “estimated that across the four major tumour types, breast, colorectal, lung, and oesophageal, 3291 to 3621 avoidable deaths and an additional 59 204 to 63 229 YLLs will be attributable to delays in cancer diagnosis alone as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.” Other estimates put the number of additional cancer deaths as high as 35,000, and this is only in the UK.

Make of it what you may, the upshot is this: COVID lockdowns will certainly cause some non-trivial amount of additional cancer deaths due to delays.

Lost Years of Life

Besides deaths, we can measure the cost of the lockdowns by using the metric of years of life lost (YLL). One benefit of using this metric is that it captures costs incurred by the whole population; whereas deaths are incurred by a small subset. Let’s run through some simple calculations.

The YLL Cost of Lockdowns

Clearly, the past year of lockdowns has not come with all the opportunities for enjoyment, fulfillment, and experiences one expects from a year. Safe to say, then, that we should discount the value of this year due to all the restrictions. Let us be very generous and say the past year was worth 90% of a normal year. In other words, each person lost the equivalent of 10% of the value of a year of life.

We need some frame of reference to understand what this means, so we’ll use the USA (most people are somewhat familiar with the country) with its roughly 330 million inhabitants. Not all citizens will feel the negative effect of the lockdowns — babies, for instance, probably don’t notice much of a difference — so it is not fair to use the full population. Again, let’s be on the safe side and use a low number, such as 200 million.

From here on out, the math is pretty simple:
200 million people * 10% of a year per person = 20 million years of life lost.

Keep in mind, this is just in the US.

The YLL Cost of a COVID Death

As a comparative, we need to look at the years of life lost due to COVID deaths. I’ll use numbers from Alberta, Canada, as they are easily available. Here in Alberta, the average age at death due to COVID is 82; the life expectancy in Alberta is also 82*. As there is no difference between these numbers, one could almost conclude that COVID is not responsible for any years of life lost whatsoever.

This does not seem right, as the very fact that people are of dying from COVID means, by its definition, that it is robbing people of some time on this Earth. Instead of the 0 YLL suggested by age at COVID death being equal to life expectancy, let’s assume that one death results in an average of 4 YLL. Once again, I believe this is a generous estimate.

Comparing the Two

Using the estimates from above, the lockdowns have been responsible for the YLL cost equal to the equivalent of 5 million deaths (20 million YLL / 4 YLL per death). As the US is currently sitting at around 500,000 COVID deaths, this 10x the amount caused by the virus. That is a staggering cost to pay!

Granted, the numbers for COVID deaths would likely be higher if there had been no lockdowns, but that much higher? Keep in mind that all of the estimates used in the calculations were very generous to the other side of this issue (by this, I mean that they all contribute to a smaller cost estimate for the lockdowns). For example, some might say that the value of the past year should be set at 80%, which would double the YLL cost of lockdowns. COVID deaths leading to an average of 4 years of life lost also seems high, as people affected are primarily at an age where death not far away. Yet, even with all of these safety margins and buffers included, the cost paid is disproportionate to what we get out of these measures.

This is a thought experiment — please don’t take it the wrong way — it is simply one way of comparing costs. Lockdowns are not free.

*The life expectancy in Alberta, Canada, as of 2019 was actually 81.6, but I’ve rounded up to 82 for sake of simplicity and to add a cushion to the estimates.

Social and Psychological Costs

In addition to the abovementioned costs, which are more tangible and easy to evaluate, there are social and psychological costs that are far harder to estimate. Nevertheless, the lockdowns have, unquestionably, had a negative impact on mental health. Even in the best of cases, the lack of face-to-face interactions with friends, loved ones, and even coworkers is a very unpleasant experience for most of us (being social animals and all) — particularly for children. There is a reason why solitary confinement is an additional punishment used in prisons.

I don’t think I need to say more on this topic; most will intuitively understand this one.

Other Consequences

Of course, there are consequences of the lockdowns too, which I have not covered. What about the lack of physical activity due to gyms and sports being closed, for instance? There’s the potential for increased rates of cardiovascular disease and other ailments resulting from this.

What about all the small businesses (and larger businesses too) that have been forced to shut down? Will there be long-term consequences, such as decreased entrepreneurial activity, or will we bounce right back?

The list of potential negative consequences goes on as far as your imagination will take it.

Conclusions

As is so often the case, there are no black and white answers — I don’t know, definitely, what I would do if I were in charge.

We need to consider more than one factor, though. Imagine judging the value of modern, high-speed vehicles only by the number of fatal accidents. Caring only about the deaths, the clear choice would be to remove all high-speed vehicles from the world. But what about all the benefits of being able to travel and transport goods rapidly? We all understand that the one factor is not enough to gauge the true value in this case, so why not for COVID measures too?

Human beings are intelligent, but it is impossible for one person to think of all the factors that should be considered to get a clear picture. Thus, we need to be able to have discussions with people — particularly those who hold opinions differing from our own — in order to be more well informed and make the best decisions. Generally, we make better decisions as a well-informed group.

This is what I believe, at least. Disagreement is welcome though, so if you disagree with anything I have said, please let me know.

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful rest of your day!

Categories
Interesting Questions Models Things Explained

Viruses and Vaccines: How They Work

You certainly hear enough about both viruses and vaccines these days, but how much do you actually know about them?

When I asked myself this question, answer was: “surprisingly little.”

This world is wonderfully complex; it is impossible to have a working knowledge of all of it’s complexities. That’s simply too much for any brain to handle. But having a basic understanding of a diverse range of topics is, in my opion, both desireable and possible. The secret is to keep it simple and focus only on the most generalizable and basic concepts within each domain. Being able to represent the information graphically certainly does not hurt either.

So, here is what I have learned over the past few weeks (or maybe months, it’s hard to tell sometimes). I hope you find it useful and enjoyable.

What is a virus and how does it work?

First, let’s start with the anatomy of a virus. There are, of course, various viruses (each with its own specific traits), but certain elements are common for most viruses:
1. a core with DNA or RNA,
2. a body with protein spikes, and
3. various enzymes.

As with most creatures, the “goal” of the virus is to multiply and spread. To this aim, the DNA/RNA can be thought of as the blueprints of the virus, containing all the necessary information for replicating the virus. However, the virus itself does not contain the necessary production facilities to perform the replication. This is where the protein spikes come in to play.

Utilizing the protein spikes, the virus binds to, then enters the cell of a host — for instance, when you get infected with a virus, you are the host. Since your cells contain all the necessary production capacities required to replicate the virus — these are the same production capacities used in the daily operations of healthy cells — the virus hijacks the production line and uses it, in conjunction with its own DNA/RNA, to replicate itself. From there, the new copies of the virus exit the cell and go on to look for new factories to break into and use to replicate themselves further.

How does your body protect itself from a virus?

Naturally, your body does not like that this unwelcomed guest is using its resources for malicious purposes. When the virus is detected, your body launches a defensive effort to kill the virus and stop it from spreading. Part of this effort consists of making antibodies that stop the virus from entering your cells.

Antibodies work by binding to the protein spikes, thus neutralizing the virus’s ability to bind to and enter cells. In fact, antibodies cannot enter cells either and can only neutralize viruses that are intercellular (between cells).

As you can see in the depiction on the right, the antibody fits perfectly to the protein spike in the virus. Since most viruses have differently shaped protein spikes, your body needs to develop new antibodies when it encounters novel viruses. Once a particular virus has been encountered, however, your body will keep the information about how to create the antibodies to protect itself from that virus in the future. This ability is often called immunological memory and is how you gain immunity against antigens you have encountered previously — which brings us to the next topic, vaccines.

How do vaccines work?

Vaccines are hardly a new concept to most people alive today; vaccines against COVID-19 are being rolled out across the world, with tons of publicity. But how do they work?

This is where it gets interesting. Your immune system does not have to encounter the pathogen (the whole virus) to learn how to create antibodies to defend against it; it is enough to introduce the antigen (the protein spikes). This is the part of the virus the immune system reacts to and what antibodies attach to.

Put simply, then, the idea behind a vaccine is to isolate the protein spikes of a virus, then introduce these spikes to the immune system. By doing so, there is no chance of the virus replicating in the vaccinated person’s body, as there is no DNA/RNA to orchestrate the replication process. That’s how vaccines are both safe and effective.

Now that we know the basic goal of a vaccine, let’s explore the different strategies we can use to get there.

Traditional Vaccines vs. mRNA Vaccines

Traditional Vaccines

Let’s start with traditional vaccines, which follow the most straight forward path.

Their production looks something like this:

1. Get ahold of a sample of the virus.

2. Grow more of the virus. The amount of virus to be grown is determined by the demand for vaccine doses. A lot of virus has to be grown in order to vaccinate a lot of people. Typically, the virus is injected into eggs, where it has all the stuff necessary to replicate. The US government actually keeps a lot of chickens — on farms all around the country — dedicated to laying eggs for making vaccines (if you are interested, check out this short podcast on the subject).

3. Inactivate the virus, so it won’t replicate any further from this point on.

4. Isolate the antigen.

5. Introduce the antigen to the immune system of people through a vaccine.

mRNA Vaccines

The mRNA vaccine pursues a different route which requires a bit more sophisticated methods, but ultimately simplifies the production and logistics of the vaccine.

An mRNA vaccine is produced as such:

1. Get ahold of a sample of the virus — it’s hard to get by without this step.

2. Sequence the virus genome and isolate the part of the “blueprint” that encodes the information about how to create the protein spikes.

3. Use the information from the previous step to copy that portion of the genome as many times as necessary (depending on demand) and introduce it to the immune system of people through a vaccine.

Key differences

There are some key differences between the two. Obviously, traditional vaccines require far more eggs, but there is more to take away than that:

  • You can distribute mRNA vaccines faster and further than the traditional variety. Think of sending a physical package (traditional) vs. sending an email (mRNA).
    • Once a traditional vaccine is formulated, samples of the virus have to be transported (by plane, train, boat, etc) to production facilities across the globe. Then, you have to grow more of it. All of this takes time.
    • One of the coolest traits of an mRNA vaccine is that once the genome has been sequenced and the recipe for the protein spike (the antigen) has been determined, the recipe can be sent to labs across the globe instantaneously. From there, the labs can replicate the antigen as many times as needed, using ingredients they already have available.
  • For traditional vaccines, the virus needs to be kept alive and is even actively grown; for mRNA vaccines, the virus itself is only necessary until you have sequenced it. Traditional vaccines are still produced in a very safe manner, but when you don’t need to keep the virus alive for production purposes, there is even less risk of accidental contamination or loss of control.
  • Finally, there is the potential of damaging the protein spikes through traditional vaccines. As we neutralize and take apart the virus to isolate the spikes, there is a chance that some of them get damaged, rendering the resulting vaccine less effective. The mRNA vaccines simply provide the blueprint for constructing the spikes — relying on your cells to do the rest. Thus, the spikes are made brand new every time and bear the closest resemblance to the spikes on the virus you might encounter later on. The result: a more effective immune response (a.k.a. a better vaccine).

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Interesting Questions

Should there be a cap on personal wealth?

Should there be a cap on personal wealth?

Over the past few weeks, I have run into this question in multiple conversations. Apparently, this is something that many people are considering these days, so let’s look into it a bit.

What are the reasons to cap personal wealth?

– “No person should have that much money; it’s not fair.”

The most common reason I have heard is: “No person should have that much money.” Well, why not? The crux of the argument seems to lie in fairness; it’s not fair that some people have more than others. Particularly that much more.

When I’ve heard the argument, however, it has been coming from fairly well-to-do North Americans who are among the wealthiest 10% of people in the world (or can reasonably expect to be once they start working). So it seems to be more of an “it’s not fair that some people have more than I can expect to have” issue.

– “They become wealthy by not paying their employees properly.”

Another mindset is to limit wealth by making business owners pay employees more. I have to say it appeals to me to have more of the population better off and if this can be accomplished in a productive manner, I am all for it. There are some problems with this mindset though.

Businesses do not thrive by spending more money on non-growth expenses, such as unskilled labor. For this reason, a minimum wage or similar solution is likely to lead business owners to become more focused on efficiencies. Maybe they can pay two unskilled laborers $10/h each to get a job done instead of paying one trained/educated employee $23/h, but if minimum wage rises to $15/h the other option is clearly more financially sound. Now one person is taking the job of two and we are net-negative for jobs. Even more jobs could become obsolete if investing in automation becomes the cheapest option. What do we do then?

Further, it may limit the options for what could be a viable business and would likely lead to higher prices. If labor expenses increase, profit margins decrease. This means that businesses would have to raise prices, to recover the margin; eat the decrease, which would limit the money available to investment in growth; or even shut their doors. Any of these options are bad for us all.

What are the reasons to not cap personal wealth?

– Innovation benefits us all.

Generally speaking, the wealthy get to where they are financially by innovating in some way. These innovations lead to benefits for all people, eventually if not right away.

Henry Ford initially made it possible for the wealthy to utilize new methods of transportation and no most people in the western world own a car or utilize public transportation (buses are essentially large cars).

Sam Walton (founder of Walmart) revolutionized the supermarket, playing a large role in making goods cheaper for the average consumer. Walmart also increased the selection of goods available to many consumers.

Jeff Bezos built on these concepts with Amazon, making an enormous selection of items affordable and conveniently available to consumers in the countries it operates in.

And that is just a few of the countless people who got rich by innovating and propelling the human race forward… Almost everything in your world was invented by someone who became rich off the invention; it’s worse, really, when people don’t get rewarded for their contributions to progress.

Money is not everything in life, but it is useful in many ways. It can be used as a yardstick to keep track of success, where comparisons might be hard otherwise. Not all innovators are motivated in this way, but it is likely that many of them are.

Money is also essential for making ideas and visions become reality and shape our world. Thus, investors play a crucial role when funding start-ups, one they might not be willing to play if their financial future were not quite as secure. When you have a vast fortune, you can afford to make big bets without jeopardizing the well-being of your family. At the end of the day, the winning bets end up benefiting all of humanity, as new innovations eventually become available to all of us.

– Most wealth is not cash.

Most of the hyper-wealthy do not have anywhere near their net worth in cash; it is typically made up of ownership in their companies. In many cases, such as for Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, the control of their companies allows them to make decisions and take risks that others would not be comfortable with. These decisions play no small part in making Amazon, Tesla, or SpaceX what they are today – to all of our benefits.

If we cap wealth, these mavericks would lose control of their companies and the innovation would be cut short. And who would take the ownership stake? The government? How would that benefit people?

– Philanthropy is contingent on financial security and having the brightest minds eventually turn their attention to the big problems does more to solve them than their money would on its own.

As mentioned earlier, people need financial security before they can make big bets with their money. Therefore, philanthropy is contingent on the philanthropist having excess resources – a nest egg. Thus, the argument goes, we should allow people to build up their assets, as they will often benefit people who need them later. So why not make the wealthy give the money away now if they are going to give it away later anyway?

My answer to this question is this: We need bright minds, not just money to solve the biggest problems we face on the world stage. Thus, when the wealthy become interested in philanthropy and they have the financial security for their families’ futures, we get not only their financial capital but also their intellect, networks, and drive working toward solving the largest problems. Instead of wasting money on ineffective and poorly run charities or government (which isn’t known for being efficient in investing resources), these people can make a huge difference by bringing their skills and drive to a new arena. As far as I can tell, this is more than worth the wait.

– They create jobs.

Yes, not all jobs that are created pay well; and yes, some jobs are also lost when innovation leads to obsolescence; but overall and over time more jobs are created than lost. Imagine if they were not and we maxed out in the year 1800. At that time, the world population was 1 billion and it has increased by more than 7 fold since. The world would be in chaos. Yet, the opposite is true and the world is more peaceful than ever – (see Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker).

If we were to implement a cap on personal wealth, at what amount should it be set?

Take a few minutes to think about it. What number did you settle on?

To me, it seems like people always want to cap those who have more money than themselves. As such, I imagine you set the limit somewhere north of your own wealth, but not too far north. In other words, I’d expect someone who makes $50K a year and rents an apartment to set it lower than someone who makes $400K a year and owns a house. *Assuming, of course, that they both want the cap on wealth.

Now, this is just my hypothesis. It would be interesting to look into this further.

What are we willing to trade for more outcome equality?

Let’s say, we decide to cap wealth at $1 billion – a staggering sum of money.

Let’s also assume that money is both an important motivator and a vital tool for people who drive innovations. This does not only include the innovators themselves. If they don’t have the resources to fund their vision, they cannot implement it. Thus, investors play an important role too, and need money to do so.

Knowing that money plays an important role in innovation, what innovations are we willing to give up in order to limit wealth?

Examples

Bill Gates became a billionaire in 1987. Since then, he has done an enormous amount of good through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and influenced many other high-net-worth individuals to focus on philanthropy too. Together with Warren Buffet, Melinda and Bill founded The Giving Pledge – “a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back.” As of October 2020, the Gate family has given away roughly $50 billion dollars to charitable causes. Needless to say, this would not be possible if the cap were set at $1 billion.

Jeff Bezos became a billionaire in 1999. Though he is not known to be particularly charitable, Bezos recently (in early 2020) pledged $10 billion to combat climate change and has given smaller amounts (still millions) to other causes throughout his lifetime. Hopefully, he too will eventually become more focused on giving back as he gets older. However, even at this stage of his life, he has created tons of value for humanity and has revolutionized how we shop. His bold, long-term focus and willingness to take apparent short-terms risks has undoubtedly blazed a path for future companies and leaders who – at least in part influenced by Bezos – will go on to create more value for people all over the world.

We can add Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Larry Ellison, the late Sam Walton, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and many more to the list of people who – at least in part due to their accumulation of wealth – have propelled humanity to new heights.

One thing is certain: Limiting wealth will costs something

It is tough to say exactly what we would lose if a wealth cap were put in place; the important fact to consider is that it would cost something. Nothing is free. Are we willing to pay the price to have limit the wealth people could amass? I, for one, would be cautious, as we are notoriously poor at predicting the outcomes of our actions and policies.

It is important to keep the desired outcome in mind and act accordingly. What I think we all would like, is to have everyone in the world better off; it is unclear how a wealth cap would achieve this – it would simply bring the super well-to-do down, which does not seem like an outcome to be desired. We need to bring people up, not down, in order for the largest possible amount of people to enjoy a better life. I don’t think a wealth cap would achieve that.

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Recipes

Fresh Homemade Pasta

This fresh homemade pasta is surprisingly easy and quick to make and tastes amazing. It certainly brings back memories of Italy for me.

Fresh homemade pasta. Kai Hesthammer.

Fresh Homemade Pasta

A simple recipe for delicious, fresh pasta.
Prep Time 40 mins
Cook Time 2 mins
Resting Time 30 mins
Total Time 1 hr 12 mins
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Servings 4 people
Calories 484 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • 2 ½ cups Semolina, "00" flour, or a mix
  • 4 Eggs
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp fine salt

Instructions
 

  • Mix the flour and salt and pour most of it on the countertop. Make sure to leave some of it out, as you might not need it all.
    Semolina flour for homemade pasta
  • Make a divot in the middle of the pile of flour large enough for the eggs and oil.
    Semolina flour with divot for homemade pasta
  • Crack the eggs and pour the oil into the divot and whisk them together with a fork.
    Semolina flour and eggs for homemade pasta
  • Mix in the flour. Make sure to keep the "walls" of the pile intact as you go so you don't spill the wet dough onto the counter. Keep pushing flour underneath the dough to prevent it from sticking. If it does, just scrape it up at the end and knead it into the dough.
  • Knead the dough until it is even and add the remaining flour until it is slightly sticky. You will likely have some left over.
  • Shape the dough into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap. Let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature. You can also refrigerate it for up to a day.
    Ball of fresh pasta dough
  • Roll the dough out to a thin sheet. Keep covering both sides with a thin layer of flour to avoid it from sticking to the counter or rolling pin.
    Rolled out fresh pasta dough.
  • Once the dough is thin enough, cover both sides of the dough in flour one last time then fold it over several times. This will make the cutting far easier and faster. The flour is important to ensure the dough doesn't stick together when folded and cut.
    Folded fresh pasta dough.
  • Cut the folded dough into thin strips.
    Cut fresh pasta dough.
  • Unfurl the folded pasta strips before cooking. If it is lumped together when placing it in the water, it will likely lump together when cooked.
    Unfurled pile of fresh homemade pasta.
  • Boil in water for 1-2 minutes.
  • Strain and enjoy with whatever toppings you like!
    My favorite is pesto or butter and freshly groud parmesan.
Keyword Pasta
Categories
Shared Treasures

Keeping the Goal in Mind: The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman

Click here to skip straight to the parable about the Mexican fisherman.

It is all too easy to get caught up in day-to-day tasks and worries and forget what you are aiming to achieve, in the big picture.

Like an explorer aiming to get to a specific mountain, the goal may be clear at one point. But once you are in the forest of daily living, you cannot see the mountain. Difficult terrain can distract you and set you off course. To get to where you want to go you need to make an effort to regularly ensure that you’re heading in the right direction; lest you get lost in the forest and end up in the wrong place.

Therefore, on a regular basis, I review my life and ask myself:
– What is by big-picture goal?
– What am I achieving by doing what I am currently doing?
– Am I headed in the right direction?
– Even if I am, could I be doing something else with my time to get there through a better route?

There is a parable that embodies this point of view and which I try to read often. I hope you find as insightful as I do.

The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman

An American businessman was on a vacation from his busy life in a Mexican coastal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.

The American complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.

“Not very long,” answered the Mexican.

“But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American.

The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.

The American asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs… I have a busy and full life.”

The American interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?” asked the Mexican.

“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers.

Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant.

You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.

“Twenty, perhaps 25 years,” replied the American.

“And after that?” the Mexican asked.

“Afterwards? That’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the American, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?”

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife, and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”

Source: Some say the author is unknown; others that it was written by the German writer Heinrich Böll. Whoever wrote it, it was not me. Note: This is one of the many versions I have found on the internet.

Clearly the businessman has something to learn from the fisherman, as what he is suggesting will add a tremendous amount of work, only to end up where the fisherman already is. And I suspect he’s not the only one.

Oh, how easy it is to lose track of where we want to be and where we are headed. Ultimately, I think it is impossible to always keep the big-picture goal in mind. The day-to-day is simply too full of distractions. This, however, is why it is so important to remember to make a self-assessment a regular part of our routine. For me, the story above helps me remember to check my heading and realign my

Categories
Shared Treasures Uncategorized

A Pale Blue Dot: Our World In Less Than a Pixel

I recently happened upon this picture our Pale Blue Dot (i.e. Earth) and its accompanying passage from Carl Sagan’s eponymous book. On Sagan’s request, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned around as it was leaving our solar system, taking one final look at the planet from whence it came – the planet we all call home.

From 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away our entire world is but a mere dot. Earth is barely visible in the rightmost ray of sunlight. Yes, that’s it — all you’ve ever known.

Pale Blue Dot of Earth.
The Pale Blue Dot of Earth. Taken February 14, 1990 by Voyager 1. NASA / JPL

From Sagan’s Book:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Categories
Interesting Questions

Why are we denying the wealthy the joy of giving?

Why are we denying the wealthy the joy of giving? Is it time we stop demanding the wealthy pay for everything and finally let them be generous?

It’s a Friday night and everyone in the house has had a long week. The carnage from dinner is all over the kitchen and of course, no one really feels like doing them. My wife is pretty awesome though, so I decide I’ll get up off the couch and be the one to clean up. God knows, my wife deserves it!

I’ve made up my mind and I’m starting to feel good about it. As is often the case when doing something nice for someone else, I feel myself gettig energized. But as I get up and head toward the kitchen, my wife says:

“Hey sweetie, I’m so tired. Do you mind doing the dishes today? Please?”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that request. She asked nicely. She has had a long week. It’s really the least I could do. Besides, I had already made up my mind to go do them. Yet, all of a sudden, I feel strongly opposed to the notion of doing the dishes.

Surely you have had similar experiences yourself?

So it should be no stretch for you to imagine how this would be the case for other humans too — even the wealthy.

Giving and Gratitude

It feels good to give things to others; having things taken from you does not.

Let me start by saying that I support a progressive tax system. It seems right that people who can afford to pay more for the societal benefits we all enjoy. What I do not agree with is the incessant escalation of the demands we place on high-earners. When they have paid more than most in taxes, how can we still be unsatisfied?

In my personal life, I always find it easier to be generous to those who are grateful. I don’t think it is unreasonable to assume that most people feel the same way. If you are thinking that we won’t get anything from the wealthy if we don’t demand it, take a look here. The US is atop of the list of giving as a percentage of GDP — your worries are unwarranted!

The Joy of Giving

In addition to increasing the resistance to giving — through our lack of gratitude — we are also denying the wealthy the joy of giving. In a society where our biggest holidays revolve around giving gifts, this seems utterly insane. When someone else is opening a present from you on Christmas, is it not a wonderful feeling? Does it not make you want to give more?

What This Means in Practice

So what does this mean in practice? What do I propose?

Gratitude

I think gratitude is a recipe for a better, more fulfilling life in general. In this case, I believe it is also the option that creates the most amount of joy in the world and the most amount of benefit to both sides. The wealthy get more joy; the rest of society gets more money for necessities. We all win.

So maybe it is time to stop complaining and start being grateful. I think that will lead to the best outcomes for all of us — and so much less stress and contention.

Categories
Models Things Explained

How healthcare insurance works

For those in a rush: Skip to the pictures to learn how healthcare insurance works

A while back, I heard a story about someone in the US that ended up in a car crash and had to spend some time in the hospital – let’s call her Jane. To add insult to injury, Jane did not have healthcare insurance. When she got the bill, she quickly realized she could not afford it. Jane talked to the hospital administrators about her lack of coverage, which resulted in a far lower bill. The bill still was not cheap, but it was at least feasible for Jane to pay for it. Relieved, she left the hospital. She didn’t start contemplating how easily the hospital administrators had lowered the bill until later.

At first, she thought they had just felt bad for her and made an exception. But it had been so easy for them. Would it not have been more complicated to get the authority to lower the bill if it was a rare exception?

When Jane asked around, she found out that other people in her position (no healthcare insurance) had had the same experience. Maybe they were all just very lucky? Or maybe it was standard for hospitals to reduce the bills of people with no healthcare insurance?

The first seems unlikely; there are too many people who have had the same experience. The second begs the question: If prices can be lower, why would insurance companies – who notorious for avoiding payouts at almost any cost – pay more? And so much more too.

That is the question that I could not get out of my head: Why do healthcare insurance companies get far higher bills for the same treatments? And perhaps more importantly: Why should you care?

Why do healthcare insurance companies pay more?

The answer to this question is baked into the very regulations that govern how healthcare insurance companies can make money. These regulations limit the annual profit a healthcare insurance company can make to 20% of the payouts made during the year. The idea is to avoid a scenario where healthcare insurers hike the premiums to increase their profits. Super high premiums would be bad for the people who need insurance, so this seems like a good measure.

However, insurance companies are profit-seeking enterprises and as the adage goes: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

It requires some creative thinking, but it is not hard to increase profits under these conditions. All you have to do is increase payouts:

Healthcare insurance companies benefit from increased payouts, since profits are limited to a percentage of payouts.
By doubling the payouts, profits double too. Thus, payouts are good for the healthcare insurance provider.

Typically, companies want to limit their expenses in order to increase profits. But this is not a typical scenario. Since the profits are dependent on expenses, increasing payouts (expenses) is, in fact, the only way healthcare insurers can increase their profits.

Thus, insurance companies are happy to pay more than necessary for medical treatment. Hospitals and other medical facilities are, of course, more than happy to oblige, as it puts more money in their pockets too.

Why should you care that healthcare providers pay more?

So we have established that more expenses mean more profit for the healthcare insurance providers and the medical facilities, but why should you care?

Well, at the end of the day, the insurance companies need to bring in more money to afford the increased payouts while still having revenues that are higher than expenses. Where do they get the money from? You, the insured.

Though the goal of limiting the profits to 20% of payouts was supposed to ensure lower premiums, it has not. As often is the case, there are unforeseen consequences to new regulations. In this case, healthcare insurance premiums are simply increased to accommodate higher expenses (and profits). At the end of the day, you are still paying more than you should for medical care. It is just hard to tell, as it is paid indirectly through insurers.

That is why Jane and others like her were able to get cheaper medical care from the hospitals: The price paid by healthcare insurance companies – the default price for treatment – is artificially high.

Summed up in a couple of pictures:

Costs of medical treatment without healthcare insurance vs. without.
Why higher profits for healthcare insurers are dependent on higher payouts and higher premiums: Map of logic.

NOTE: If you found this topic interesting, I recommend listening to Peter Attia’s podcast with Marty Makary on how the healthcare system works and how it might get fixed.

Categories
Recipes

Overnight Oats

Super simple; super delicious. These overnight oats are perfect for bringing to work or for a relaxing weekend breakfast.

Note: The optional ingredients are the ones I use, but it is very easy to substitute these for whatever flavors you enjoy the most.

Overnight Oats

These overnight oats are really easy to make and taste amazing. The single recipe results in one decent sized serving for one person.
Prep Time 10 mins
Cook Time 0 mins
Total Time 10 mins
Course Breakfast
Cuisine Non-Specific
Servings 1 – 2 people
Calories 452 kcal

Equipment

  • Container with lid

Ingredients
  

  • cup Plain Greek yogurt
  • ½ (heaping) cup Steel-cut or rolled oats
  • cup Milk
  • ½ tsp Vanilla extract
  • 1 pinch Salt
  • 1 tbsp Chia or flax seeds *(optional)
  • 2 tbsp Shredded coconut *(optional)

Instructions
 

  • Mix all the ingredients in a container with a lid.
  • Put in the fridge overnight. (They are also good made the same day, but the steel-cut oats tend to be on the firm side).
  • Enjoy!

Notes

*The optional ingredients are what I use in mine, but once the plain recipe has been followed you can add whatever you think tastes good.
You can also add sugar, syrup, honey, or other sweeteners if you want it to be a bit sweeter.
Keyword Easy, Overnight Oats, Quick
Categories
Recipes

Pizza Crust

Homemade pizza crus, Kai Hesthammer.

Pizza Crust

This simple pizza crust recipe makes enough for one large, delicious pizza.
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 17 mins
Total Time 32 mins
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Servings 1 large pizza
Calories 970 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • 2 cups Flour
  • 1 tbsp Quick rising yeast
  • ½ tbsp Oregano
  • ½ tbsp Garlic powder
  • ½ cup Milk
  • ½ cup Water lukewarm

Instructions
 

  • Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl, then add the milk. Add water until the dough is just slightly sticky.
  • Add pizza sauce and whatever toppings your heart desires.
  • Top it off with some cheese.
  • Bake at 450 °F for 15-17 minutes.
  • Enjoy!
Keyword Pizza