Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

decision trees and swine flu

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I have a masters in public policy degree, and people sometimes ask me what exactly do you learn in a public policy program.  The answer is a little bit of lots of things — some economics, some statistics, some political science, how to write a 2 page memo, a fair amount on whatever topic you specialize in.  But probably the core skill they try to teach is about decision making with imperfect information.  And when I was in grad school, the main example they used to illustrate this issue is the 1976 swine flu vaccination decision.

The short version of it is that in February 1976 two soldiers at Fort Dix died from a swine flu, with a significant number of soldiers infected, and no exposure to pigs involved.  This was known to be related to the flu that had caused the 1918 pandemic, most people didn't have immunity to it, there was a theory of cyclical pandemics that suggested that we were overdue for one, and this strain had proven itself to have the ability to kill otherwise healthy young men.  The government asked the vaccine manufacturers to produce a vaccine, and in the fall, they swung into action with a full-fledged immunization drive.
As it turns out, swine flu did not reemerge in the fall, and the vaccination campaign was suspended (after about 40 million people had been vaccinated) when some of the vaccinated individuals came down with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

With hindsight, it's clear that the vaccination drive was unnecessary.   But with the information available, was it the wrong thing to do?   The people who made the decision still think it was the right call, writing: "When lives are at stake, it is better to err on the side of overreaction
than underreaction. Because of the unpredictability of influenza, responsible
public health leaders must be willing to take risks on behalf of the public."  My public policy classmates were less convinced, generally concluding that it made sense to produce the vaccine, but that they should have held off on immunizing people until there was some evidence that the swine flu had returned in the fall.  We felt the president had been pushed by politics to overreact to a low-probability but high risk event, fearing the headlines if tens of thousands died and the government had done nothing. 

Which brings us to today, and the headlines that half of Americans could be infected by the swine flu this year.  So, I'm glad that they're making vaccines.  But I'm not sure whether I want to line up — or line my kids up — to be immunized.  If you've got some time to spend thinking about what the vaccine strategy should be, the CDC is holding two web-based public forums to collect input and is looking for participants.

For us, a complicating factor is that D has a history of mild asthma.  And viral infections are his primary trigger.  He's been doing so well that we've had him off of the inhaled steroid, but I emailed his pediatrician to ask if she thought we should start him again with the start of the school year.  She responded that the risks of the inhaled steroid were very low, while the flu was an unknown, so she'd advise going ahead with the steroid.  So we're going to do that, and otherwise we're waiting and seeing.

What are you doing?  Will you get vaccinated if offered it?  Do you think your local school system is overreacting, underreacting, or getting it right?  Do you have a plan for what you'll do if schools are closed?

bye bye bank

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

This morning, we were woken at 8.15 am by the phone ringing.  It was an automated message from T's credit card company, reminding him that he had a payment due, and offering him the opportunity to make the payment by phone.  Since they charge for the phone payments, he declined, but he did turn the computer on right away to make a payment before it was overdue.

He clicked onto our bank's site, only to discovered that it had been closed yesterday by the Office of Thrift Supervision, just like in the This American Life episode about what happens when the FDIC takes over a bank.  He was still able to make the electronic payment, but it definitely made us pay attention.  Last fall, when lots of banks were failing, I did wonder about the security of this bank — which was essentially entirely online, with just one actual branch — but after double checking that it was covered by the FDIC, I chose not to worry about it.  I'm sort of surprised that it failed now — isn't the banking crisis supposed to be over?

Our account is now part of Stearns Bank, whose website indicates that they've taken over no less than four failed banks.  I'll wait and see what terms they offer us — what I most liked about ebank was that I could use any ATM, and they would reimburse us for the fees charged by the bank. Otherwise, I'm not sure what bank I'll move to.  Probably Schwab, since we already have a brokerage account with them.

here’s the plan

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

I appreciated the kind responses to Thursday's post.  Here's the plan:

  • I'm paid up for TypePad through nearly the end of the year.  So there's no need to do anything immediately.
  • I'm going to give myself permission to blog when I feel like it and not to blog when I don't, and not to feel guilty about it.  We'll see if it works.
  • Before my TypePad account expires, my plan is to move the blog over to WordPress.  While the import function ino is quite impressive, there's not a way to preserve the current URL structure.  (In other words, all of the hyperlinks would be broken, even if I had pointed toward the new blog.)  However, it appears that I can do this if I run WordPress off my own site.  (Or to be fair, it appears that it can theoretically be done, and I have confident that T will be able to do it in practice.  On my own, probably not.) Since T is already paying for web hosting that can accomodate multiple domains, we should be able to do this at no or minimal extra cost.
  • Once I'm on WordPress, I'll have the option of adding extra authors (Typepad only allows this at its most expensive tier).  Extra authors might help preserve this commenting/reading community even when I'm posting less.

the beginning of the end (perhaps)

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

I think it's a sign of a blog that is seriously ill, if not on life support, when most of your posts are apologies for not blogging more often.  I'm thinking about pulling the plug.

  • Next month, I'll have been blogging for five years.  According to Typepad, this is my 1,013th post.  It's not that I have nothing left to say, but I'm not spilling over with ideas the way I used to.
  • When I started this blog, I was at a job where I was frustrated with the policies, was not allowed to speak my mind, and had a fair amount of time to kill.  That's not the case these days.  I've done three presentations already this month, and have four more scheduled.  I'm loving it, but I'm exhausted by the time I get home.
  • My kids are getting older, and are staying up later, especially in the summer.  The window of time between when they go to bed and when I collapse myself is shrinking.  And I'm somewhat less willing to post about them as they get older.
  • It's not just me.  Laura at 11d had a post recently about how the blogosphere has changed, and I think she's on the mark.  I used to love the big kerfluffles (remember the Perfect Madness posts?) where we'd all read and post and link and then post some more to respond to the points that someone else had made.  It had the wonderful heady feeling of being in college and staying up until two in the morning because you were discussing the meaning of life and solving all the problems of the world.  I haven't had that feeling in a while.

So why keep it?  Because I'll miss you, my readers and commenters. The level of civility and thoughtfulness that has always characterized the discussions here is really quite remarkable, and not that common.  And (to be honest) because I still mumble about wanting to write a book someday, and having a built in "platform" might help me sell it.  On the other hand, I might be more likely to stop mumbling and start writing without the blog.

Even if I stopped posting, I do think I'd like to keep my archives alive somewhere.  Not sure I'm willing to pay Typepad for that.  Is there a simple way to migrate from Typepad onto one of the free services?

in the mail

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Between online banking and email, I rarely send old fashioned mail any more.  But today I found myself with a stack of envelopes (and one package) to send.  They included:

  • our property tax payment (which I might be able to make online, but for a twice a year payment, I haven't bothered to spend the time required to figure it out)
  • several checks for deposit (the flip side of going to an entirely online bank is that I need to mail in deposits, not including my paycheck, which is direct deposited; however, the bank gives us prepaid envelopes)
  • a RSVP card for a wedding
  • two condolence cards (both to former colleagues who lost a parent recently)
  • one Netflix envelope
  • two DVDs that Amazon sent to me by mistake along with some books that I did order (I asked them what they wanted me to do, and they sent me a prepaid label and asked me to mail them back).

What do you still mail?

back from vacation

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Hey, I'm back from vacation, so semi-regular posting may resume soon.  (I still have a business trip coming up, and a generally hectic schedule at work, so I'm not promising regular.  I know I still owe you all another health care reform post.)

We had a nice trip, which included visits to both sets of grandparents, my high school reunion, and visits to some friends.  The weather was absolutely awful for a while in the middle which led us to a sudden trip to Toys R Us for more board games, but then was nice on either end.  Did you know Monopoly now comes with an extra die that speeds things up?  It still is a long game, but doesn't take forever the way it used to.

Vacation for me means reading.  I read Blood Lure, by Nevada Barr, the Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell, and Netherland by Joseph O'Neill.  Blood Lure was mindless fun.  Esme Lennox was a choice of my sister-in-law's book club, which she passed on to me. It's the intertwining stories of a girl growing up in colonial India and Scotland and her great-niece today.  I liked it, although it left me somewhat unsatisfied, with the contemporary story being much weaker than the historical one.  Netherland was a disappointment, given the great reviews it's received.  It reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan's Saturday, which I found similarly frustrating — lovely writing, but I didn't give a darn about any of the characters.

I’m fine

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

I feel silly and dramatic even saying this, but since I got some worried notes on Facebook, I figured I should check in.  (And for those of you not in the US — there was a major accident on the DC metro this evening — the local news is reporting 9 dead.)   I'm not a red line rider, so it didn't even mess up my commute. 

I'm crazy busy at work getting ready for my vacation, and then I'll be on vacation, so don't worry about me if I don't post for a week or so.

Kids restaurant week

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

You've probably heard of the "Restaurant Week" promos that happen once a year in a lot of cities — a bunch of restaurants all agree to offer a limited fixed price menu at the same bargain price for one week a year.  It's a nice way to get to try restaurants that are usually out of your price range, and gets the restaurants more customers during a generally slow time of year and lots of publicity and goodwill.

Well, this year Cookie magazine helped organize "Kids Restaurant Week" in three cities, including DC.  Adults pay $29, kids pay their age, special early seatings.  We generally have given up on going out with the boys to any restaurant fancier than Applebees, because it's just not worth the money to buy food that they won't eat, and it takes too much of our energy to keep them sitting nicely.  (Although we've discovered that a pair of bubble teas will buy us a good 45 minutes sitting at the local dim sum joint.)  But we decided to give Wasabi a try, since N likes the takeout sushi from Trader Joe's, and I hoped the food on a conveyor belt would distract D even if there was nothing he was willing to eat.  And it's right near my office.

We got there a little late, due to some parking issues.  (We discovered that our minivan no longer fits in the parking structures downtown since we installed a bike rack.  And most metered spots are off limits between 4 and 6.30.)  But they were very welcoming when we got there.

It turned out to be far more of a success than I had anticipated.  They had a kids meal planned out, with chicken karage, avocado rolls, sweet potato tempura and strawberries with ginger.  Somewhat to my surprise, D adored the chicken.  And adults could just eat of the conveyor belt or the menu.  The boys were thrilled by how the staff turned the standard wooden disposible chopsticks into kids chopsticks with the clever use of a rubberband and the rolled up paper wrapper.

At the end of the meal, the manager (or owner?) stopped by and was very welcoming.  He asked where we lived, and when we said Virginia, he told us they were opening a new branch in Tyson's in the fall.  He said that would be a more kid-friendly set-up, with more room, and the chefs working on display in the middle. 

I wouldn't have imagined taking the boys to Wasabi without the incentive of kids restaurant week, but at the end, they asked if they could go back.  And we probably will.


Monday, May 25th, 2009

We had a really nice weekend camping.  We went with several other families, so there were a total of five kids, with ours the youngest at five and eight, and the oldest being twelve.  We went out to Wolf Gap, which is right on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.

I was impressed at how well the boys did hiking, since last year they were pretty whiny on a much shorter hike.  There was one section where you really needed to climb up some rocks, and both boys made it with only a few helping hands.  (They needed a bit more assistance on the downhill there.)  D whined a fair bit on the way up, but then raced down ahead of us trying to keep up on the way down.  N was a trooper for most of the time, but was clearly wiped by the end.

Other than the hike, the boys mostly spent the time obsessively poking the fire.  There were enough adults there that we were able to take turns supervising them, and no one got set on fire.  The kids all thought we should have a fire going at all times, so we told them they were responsible for collecting enough firewood to make that happen, and the older kids even each took a turn with the saw.  The adults were able to actually have some conversations, as well as reading, and staring into the fire.  We all ate far too many roasted marshmallows.

This was car camping [e.g. we could drive right to the campsite, but we slept in tents, not the car] so we were able to bring a ridiculous amount of supplies.  We had folding chairs and tables, a two burner stove, big tents, beer and soda, barbecued chicken, watermelon, coffee w/ cream, you name it.  This is the sort of camping that I did with my family when I was growing up, but as an adult I somewhere along the way decided that I only wanted to do backcountry camping, where you only have what you're willing to carry.  That's obviously not going to happen with the boys until they're old enough to carry their own gear, but this weekend made me realize that it's some sort of stupid snobbery to think that car camping isn't worth doing.

The two burner stove that my friends brought is pretty much identical to the one my parents bought at Sears 40 years ago, and a quick online search shows that Coleman still makes pretty much the identical model.  I remembered that when I was little we were able to buy the fuel for the stove at gas stations, which makes me think that car camping must have been far more popular then than it is now.* We hypothesized that it's been driven out by the combination of:

  • Camping as a cheap way to travel has been driven out by cheap motels and low-fare air travel.
  • Those who do travel and camp mostly use RVs.  (When did RVs get popular?)
  • Now that air conditioning is so ubiquitous, not to mention television and the internet, not so many people are interested in sitting in the woods and getting eaten by mosquitoes.  (My boys did complain about our not letting them bring their DSs.)
  • Those who do still camp are more likely to be the hard core folks who want to backpack and not car camp.

*I'm not entirely sure that's true — it looks like white gas was used for things other than just camping stoves and lanterns.

What do you think — has car camping declined?  Will it make a comeback in the recession?  Do you do it?  What's the one piece of gear that you couldn't live without?

Ok, I found some statistics from the outdoor industry foundation.  I think this is the trade group of the people who sell gear.  It's a little hard to read, but I think they're saying that 49 million Americans went car camping at least once in 2004, down 18 percent from 1998, and 13 million Americans went backpacking at least once in 2004, down 23 percent from 1998.  If anyone can find longer-term trends, I'd love to see them.


Thursday, April 16th, 2009

I've been making a lot of the NY Times Recipes for Health lately.  They're healthy (although not always low-calorie), usually reasonably easy to make and almost always tasty.  This week I made the Royal Quinoa Salad with Tofu and Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette.  I thought it needed more broccoli than the recipe called for, but otherwise it was pretty good.

Tofu isn't kosher for Passover by traditional Ashkenazi standards, because it's made from beans, which are "kitniyot" — not really leaven, but sort of guilty by association.  (Either because you can make bread-like foods out of them, or because they were grown in adjacent fields, not clear.)  A couple of years ago, I decided that worrying about kitniyot wasn't particularly meaningful to me — I won't eat cornbread, but I'm not going to worry about corn syrup, or tofu.

Quinoa's a different issue.  Although it sure looks like a grain, biologically, it's a member of a different family.  More to the point, it's a new world plant, and was totally unknown to the rabbis who wrote the laws about Passover.  So it's kosher for Passover, even for those observe the prohibition on kitniyot.

Passover ended tonight, so we had the traditional pizza for dinner.