Friday, March 21, 2008

Factoid: The prevalence of Alzheimer's is about 1% at 65 years of age, and doubles every five years after that

Source: Guy Brown, "Death special: The bitter end" New Scientist 13 October 2007

It's not a pretty picture. The Big Hope used to be that we'd live longer, but that disease and disability would be compressed into short period at the end of life. Well-being would be a step function that dropped off quickly just before we dropped dead. Unfortunately, increasing lifespan is combining with an increase in degenerative disease to create "expanded morbidity," a long and painful decline towards our demise.

The factoid in context:
The prevalence of most degenerative diseases, such as cancer, and vascular and neurodegenerative disease, increases roughly exponentially with age. For example, the prevalence of Alzheimer's is about 1 per cent at 65 years of age and approximately doubles every five years after that, to around 25 per cent for 85-year-olds. In the US, 46 per cent of people over 85 years of age are thought to have Alzheimer's. There are an estimated 5 million people with Alzheimer's in the US today, and as people live longer this number is projected to rise to 12.5 million by 2050 (Journal of Psychiatric Research, vol 36, p 281).

. . .

Of Americans older than 80 years, 74 per cent have a disability. They are also more likely to be forgetful, confused or depressed. Almost a quarter of non-institutionalised Americans over 85 are thought to be severely depressed.
A friend who teaches geriatric nursing tells me that the Boomer Generation is particularly unprepared for this fate: they have always rejected the prospect of growing old.

Guy Brown argues that we need to put "death, dying and dementia" on the political agenda. He advances the need for more research and hospice funding - and for a new attitude to death.

The hard part is teaching our hearts what our heads (in their more sober moments) already know: death is a part of life. It's hard enough accepting the small inconveniences of life; learning to accept death seems almost impossible. At least longer life spans means we have a little more time to practice than our forebears.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tools make the solution

In an example of how tools shape thinking, New Scientist reports on a study where using Mathematica led students to focus on the computational aspects of a problem, rather than trying to understand the underlying physics. (Mark Buchanan, "Physics tool makes students miss the point" 8 January 2008; source paper by Bing & Redish)

Mathematica frees scientists from the drudgery of solving equations by hand - but first you have to devise a solution strategy. Apparently this is a broader problem: automated thinking tools prevent people from thinking about the broader context of the problem they face.

I have to wonder whether the quants on Wall Street (and their bosses) were so wrapped up in their computer models that they didn't think about the underlying risks of sub-prime derivatives, or the moral hazard of decoupling the mortgage reseller from the consequences of a loan going bad.

In a version of "you get what you measure", here "the solution is determined by the tool."

Factoid: A quarter of users who wanted to use Google couldn't do so

Jakob Nielsen says that in their current round of usability research, only 76% of users who expressed a desire to run a Google search were successful - and these were "above-average" users. Instead, Nielsen reports, they either completely failed to get to any search engine or ended up running their query on a different search engine — usually whatever type-in field happened to be at hand.

That's a good reality check for the digerati...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Another step in reducing world-wide poverty

Senators staying up all night to vote on budget resolutions doesn’t make the pulse race, unless you’re a C-SPAN junkie or a devoted listener to NPR News. But late last Thursday night both Washington State's senators cast important votes that will reduce poverty, and bring hope to millions of hungry people around the world.

The planet becomes daily more interconnected. America needs wise and active partners in every country to build a safe and prosperous world. Healthy and flourishing people in Africa will not only use our software, ride in our planes, and buy wheat from the Palouse; they will also help us write software, produce goods we need, and enrich our intertwined cultures. Alleviating hunger and poverty in the developing world is part of building a better America.

Malnutrition during the first two years of life affects a child's development by reducing IQ, slowing motor skills, and increasing learning disabilities. Chronic hunger increases people's susceptibility to disease. It leaves children listless and unable to concentrate in school, and adults lacking the energy to think and work productively. Approximately 800 million people in the developing world are chronically undernourished. Hungry people cannot be our partners in building a safe and prosperous future.

Ending hunger and poverty is also a moral issue. All religions and ethical traditions teach that the path to salvation leads through compassion. Each of us becomes a better person when we relieve the suffering of others. We can do this individually and collectively: through direct, personal action, and through discharging our obligation as the world’s wealthiest nation to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

No one disagrees that ending huger and poverty is a worthy goal, but it might seem utopian. In the face of so much suffering, entrenched for so long, can anyone really make a difference? The governments of the United States and 188 other nations believe so: in September 2000, they pledged to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty by 2015, less than a decade from now. The financial cost of ending hunger is relatively slight. The United Nations estimates that the basic health and nutrition needs of the world's poorest people could be met for an additional $13 billion a year. Animal lovers in the United States and Europe spend more than that on pet food each year.

The President and Congress doubled poverty-focused overseas assistance between 2001 and 2008. This has helped poor people in many ways, for example by providing wells near homes and fields. The resulting easier irrigation means more food, and more time for children to do their homework rather than spending hours every day carrying water from a far-away river.

But the work has just started; doubling poverty assistance is easy if one starts from a small base. Currently, less than one-half of 1 percent of the Federal budget goes to programs that help lift people out of hunger and poverty. A stronger International Affairs budget is essential to create partners for America in building a better world.

The Senate had actually been on track to cut this budget well below the President’s request. Fortunately, both Senators Murray and Cantwell understand the vital importance of building a hunger-free world, and they supported the passage of the Biden-Lugar Amendment on Thursday night. This brought the International Affairs budget back to the level of the President’s request. Both senators are also co-sponsors of the Global Poverty Act, which would make cutting hunger and extreme poverty in half by 2015 an official goal of U.S. policy.

To learn more about poverty-focused development assistance, see the Bread for the World web site

Monday, March 03, 2008

Free Software = Greed?

One expects purveyors of proprietary software to be avaricious; that’s what being in business is all about. But Richard Stallman & Co?

Proprietary software companies want to give you their product – in exchange for money, to be sure. But Free Software advocates don’t want to let go.* They cling to their intellectual offspring, always retaining visitation rights, never letting it grow up and live its own life. Free software licenses want to ensure that the writer of the code can always see it in future, that it remains available to them forever. (IANAL: take this definition with a bag of salt. See wikipedia and its references for the true scoop.) They resist alienation, in the legal sense of the transfer or conveyance of property or some other right to another (from the Latin alienatus, from alius, “other”).

Now, wasn’t there this angry 19th century guy with a bushy beard who got worked up about all the ways in which workers lost control of their lives through being alienated from the products of their labor...? And wasn’t there this geeky 20th century American guy with glasses who riled people up by associating open source with communism? Ah, it all makes sense now.

* Actually, companies don’t want to give away their software, either – you get a license to use the software, not title to it. But heck, they’re greedy capitalists, so that shouldn’t be a surprise.