UNFPA

It has been estimated that at a cost of about $1.7 billion a year, modern contraceptive use prevents 105 million induced abortions and another 3.6 million infant and mother deaths (in 2004) per year, with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) being a main provider of contraceptives in developing countries where access would otherwise be limited. If you believe that life begins at conception, than the UNFPA has almost certainly prevented more deaths than any other organization on earth, and with more efficiency (between $7 and $177 per death prevented) than any other organization as well. The tragic irony is that funding cuts to the program in this decade have largely been driven by pro-life organizations, the very ones that hold this view of life (due to misconceptions that the UNFPA advocates abortion, which continues). This isn’t intended to be a slant against the well-meaning intentions of these organizations, but a lesson that to honestly pursue a cause, we must humbly learn from empirical feedback what are effective solutions rather than simply pushing forward with our ideological assumptions.

You can give to UNFPA here.

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Capitalism is a Tool

Free market capitalism is awesome. But capitalism is a tool. Arguing about whether it is universally better than some other tool (socialism, communism, restricted capitalism, etc.) is as foolish as arguing about whether a hammer is a universally better than a screwdriver. The more relevant question is when it is appropriate (or in what form). Capitalism works fantastically well with a few conditions that create incentives that drive all parties to make decisions that benefit everyone:
1. Consumers have the ability to make a rational choice about what to consume.
2. Consumers have the freedom to choose between different products or services, creating competition that drives producers towards better value.
3. Demand drives producers to increase supply, benefiting consumers.
4. Consumers inability to afford a product/service does not represent an ethical violation.

When these conditions are present, capitalism generally contributes to a flourishing and just economies. For example with cars, consumers can easily research and test drive car to make a rational choice, they can choose between different makers and models, the demand pushes auto makers towards building more cars and increasing availability, and in general their is no basic inviolable human right to having a vehicle. This is a win-win situation, incentives benefit both producers and consumers in an relatively fair and accurate way that generally generates high and robust growth and production. Capitalism was integral in the industrial revolution were many growing sectors matched these conditions and showcased the benefits of capitalism in spectacular fashion.

However, if any of these conditions are missing, the effects can be negative. When a condition is missing, an otherwise free market may actually create perverse incentives rather than beneficial incentives. For example, when a monopoly occurs, consumers no longer have freedom, thus anti-competition laws are enforced. While many economic sectors fulfill these conditions, it is naive to assume that all do.

Education is sector where there is general consensus that it is ethically unacceptable to deny some children education due to economic circumstances (especially since such circumstances are usually beyond the control of the children). While a free market still exists with private education, allowing consumers to choose potentially superior services, this sector is supplemented with a public social structure because the ethical condition of capitalism is not fully realized. It is not appropriate to apply it as the only tool, thereby denying some children access to education.

Health care is a sector where consumers intrinsically fall short of rational and free choice. Some services are rendered in distress or emergency where there is little opportunity for research or alternatives. Other choices are made by specialists where the buyer isn’t involved (there isn’t a budget/value force towards low-price) or doesn’t understand the options enough to participate. Decisions also involved short-term vs long-term benefits where humans are notoriously poor at make rational decisions (we tend to choose short-term gains with little concern for long-term). Also insurance plays a buffering role further removing the consumer from direct value-based decisions. With these conditions for capitalism missing, perverse incentives are present, motivating increasing health care costs rather than reduction in costs. Predominantly privatized health care has struggled to produce good value (compared to government provided universal health care), not because capitalism doesn’t work, but because the conditions for capitalism simply do not exist (and it’s unlikely that they can be forced to exist) in health care. This is blatantly evident with the US health care system, one of the few developed countries still languishing with a privatized model. The US spends vastly more than any other country on health care, costs are rapidly increasing (since incentives are driving prices up instead of down), to the point where statisticians use it as an example of statistical outlier. In fact the US government spends more on our privatized health care (where the majority of expenditures are private), than do countries with universal health care (where the goverment covers the majority of costs), all while we have shorter life spans and higher mortality rates than most other developed countries. Finally, the health care also fails to meet the ethical condition. Denying basic health services due economic circumstances is a moral failure, even if the system was working efficiently.

Computers and the Internet are also creating situations where the demand-driven supply condition is started to evaporate in certain sectors. An example of this is the music industry. Duplication of music (and other products like software) has effectively reached zero-effort. This means that supply can be almost infinite as soon as music is recorded, as it can be distributed with no virtually effort from the producer. Consequently, perverse incentives are present, leading the music industry to create arbitrary constraints (DRM). With the absence of this condition for capitalism, the music industry is incentivized to create demand by reducing/constraining supply (a negative utility to society), rather than working to increase supply (benefitting society). The solution probably is not socialize the music industry, but we should acknowledge the suboptimal efficiency, and recognize that alternate post-capitalistic models may need to be exercised (and perhaps are already being used, many artists have opted for more of a gift economic approach ).

Of course there will be legitimate disagreements on the degree and type of different economic models needed in different sectors, but we should at a least start with the right question. We must start with a proper perspective of economic models as tools, not sacred institutions, that can be applied in differing degrees in different situations, rather than falling for simplistic overarching false dichotomies. Rather than leaning on our assumptions, the question of what tool to use should be driven by pragmatic look at works for the situation.

Gratefulness and Gas

A gallon of gas contains 130 million Joules of energy, equivalent to the energy of lifting a man from sea level to the top of Mt Everest about 15 times, or 31,000 Calories, and equivalent to about two weeks worth of food. Being able to purchase something with this much energy for less than $30 is incredible and something that we should be extremely grateful for, and we may not always enjoy.

The price of gas is based on simple global supply and demand. Gas comes from oil, which is a fungible resource readily interchangeable on the global market. Supply is dominated by OPEC. The US portion of the supply is very small, it currently produces around 8% of global oil, and holds only 1.5-2% of global reserves (there are some debates on extents of provable reserves, so it is possible we have up to a percentage point higher). On the otherhand, the US provides a significant part of the demand (25% of global demand), thus the US’s primary influence on prices is in demand. Economic recession decreases activity thus decreasing demand and prices, economic growth increases prices. If you don’t like prices, just like any other commodity, the recourse is it to not buy. If you are a buyer you are a participant in demand.

There are a few other contributions to gas prices that either small, regional, short-term. One is the gas tax. George H.W. Bush raised the federal gas tax to 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993, and it has remained at the level ever since. This tax represented about 14% of the price of gas under (the first) Bush. With current gas prices, this federal tax now only constitutes about 5% of the price of gas. The gas tax under the Obama administration is also at the lowest amount in constant dollars in over two decades. This is also one of the smartest taxes that we have since it not only improves roads, but incentivizes lower consumption better than any MPG mandates can (I would love to see it increased). Oil futures and trading affects price, but this too has minimal long-term impacts, and can help cope with supply fluctuations. Like other global products, inflation and exchange rates affect the current price, but the last few years have seen lower than average inflation and a general strengthening of the dollar against other currencies. Finally, there are different state and local taxes, and different regional requirements on the quality gas, and different transportation costs due to proximity to refineries and sources of production, and these are the primary drivers of the differences in gas prices in different locales, but this isn’t related to the overall country gas price trends. For each of these factors the federal government has little control or avoided any price increasing policy changes.

To grumble about prices and make it political is generally either ignorant (the principle way the US reduces prices is through economic recession), or manipulative. Drilling or pipelining more has a negligible affect on global supply. And the US is depleting it’s proven reserves at least 4-5 faster than most countries in the world, drilling faster now as way to avoid foreign dependence on oil just shifts even greatere dependence to our next generation. As one concerned for children’s future, I don’t want to dump them further them into the dead end of oil addiction.

Specifically the supposed benefits of the Keystone pipeline towards lowering prices are particularly vacuous, pipeline don’t produce oil, they just move it around, and as many have pointed out, it will move oil to the gulf for easier export, making it likely to actually slightly increase gas prices in the midwest. The real question in regards to Keystone is simply the ethics of increasing efficiency of tar sand based oil transportation versus the ecological impact.

In reality, increased gas prices are basically due to increased economic activity and recovery (the dominant supply factors are mostly out of our control), increased spring/summer driving, and supply concerns with possible conflict in Iran. The primary effect America has had is in economic recovery (and possibly we’ve played a part in some short-term supply concerns by threatening military action against Iran). You can’t eat your recovery and have your cheap oil too.

When it comes to amazing amount of convenient energy in we can buy in a gallon gas, gratefulness is a better attitude than complaining and reduced usage is a better response than political manipulation.

Kony 2012

A few thoughts from watching Kony 2012: This is an awesome and inspirational video and awesome cause worth fighting for. It is fantastic to see attention brought to tragic foreign issues that affect humanity beyond what just impacts our own self-interests. I know there have been criticisms of Invisible Children, but from what I have seen they have done a great job of responding to critiques and disclosing financial and operational information. They are definitely in it to end this injustice.

However, hopefully we don’t end with Kony. Kony and the LRA are just the tip of the iceberg of global injustices. What Invisible Children has courageously demonstrated is a willingness to learn and expose injustices that have been hidden, and speak out about them. We are not truly following in their footsteps if all we do is share or watch a viral video. And it is shallow pursuit of justice if we only react when there is a clear villian we can point our finger at. One of the criticisms of the film is that it oversimplifies the issue, but in reality this should be a criticism of us, and the fact that we often won’t respond to any issue that is more complicated than what a five year old can digest, even for injustices they have claimed far more lives than Kony. Simplification is just what IC had to do to connect with us (and obviously it worked).

Anyway, let’s follow Invisible Children’s lead. Let’s stop Kony. Our voices do indeed matter, and make a real difference. And let’s not stop there, let’s follow their lead in truly learning about other injustices and making our voices heard. And we can indeed reshape human history, both in Uganda and in the rest of the world.

“Where you live should not determine whether you live… At the end of my life I want to say that the world we left behind is one [my child] can be proud of… A place where children no matter where they live, have a childhood free from fear.” – Jason Russell (cofounder of IC)

A Broken Heart for Valentine’s Day

I wrote a little overview of our Valentine’s day gala we put on for Love146, to fight human trafficking, and submitted it to our local paper (hence the faux journalistic style, and Utah specific comments). They never published it, so here it is:

This last Tuesday, a unique Valentine’s party took place. While couples across America were packing restaurants to celebrate their relationships, about 30 couples gathered in a small church in east Sandy, with a little different focus. They also came together because of love, and also enjoyed a catered dinner and live music, but the gathering was not the typical Valentine’s evening of romance. It was focused on the heart breaking realities of human trafficking. This was an awareness and fund-raising effort for an organization called Love146, to defend, protect, and restore children caught in the tragedy of the sex slavery industry.

The reality of modern day slavery is indeed heart-breaking, even shocking. We learned that approximately 27 million people are enslaved today, generating $32 billion annually (second most lucrative crime activity). The majority of female victims are in the sex industry. An estimated two children are sold every minute. We heard a story of the torturous life of a girl caught in sex slavery, left disfigured from beatings.

This Valentine’s day, attendees also learned how Love146 was started in response to this tragedy. The founders went overseas on an investigative trip to a brothel, to see trafficking first hand. Young girls were contained behind a window, despondently waiting for their next customer, each girl reduced to a number on a menu. However, one girl stood out to them. One girl stared intently back, she still had fight left in her. That girl was #146, and from that encounter the organization was born.

While these stories left many in tears, there was also reason for hope. This fund-raising effort had a substantial impact. In fact the final presentation of the night showed the restoration homes that has been built to protect and nurture children that have been rescued out of slavery.

But surely this doesn’t happen here in America, right? Sadly, about 100,000 US children are forcefully engaged in prostitution or pornography, the average age a female enters prostitution is 12-14. And even here in Utah, there are have been hundreds of cases of trafficking, and some of the highest pornography usage in the US, fueling demand.

Dinner attendees aren’t the only modern abolitionists, you too can be a part of this movement, and make a important impact even with a small amount of time and money. Again, international exchange rates mean donations to groups like Love146 go a long way to tangible prevention and rescue efforts. You can join the local effort in Utah by supporting the local organization Operation61 (they host an annual race in Liberty Park called STOP TRAFFIC). Even without money, you can make a difference. Learn more. Make others aware. Call your US senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch, and your representatives to urge them to keep US supply chains slavery-free, use diplomatic efforts to protect victims, and fund the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking. This office is a tiny expense (we spend roughly 333 times as much to fight drugs as we do to fight trafficking), and non-partisan issues, so even moderate pressure can have an tremendous impact.

I was proud to be a part of this evening, and I wanted to commend the generous sponsors that made the evening possible, including SitePen, GSBS Architects, PurCo, SDI, USANA, the Point Christian Church, Chick-fil-A and caterers, Good Day Catering. I am also grateful for being part of a faith community, Sandy Ridge Community Church, that supports putting faith into action, pursing the Biblical call to fight injustices.

Sometimes a broken heart on Valentine’s day is a good thing!

Next Mobile Features

I wanted to suggest a few features that I believe could be significant in the mobile (web) space:
* Adding “force” and/or “radius” support to touch events. I believe this was already in the W3C specification at one point. Being able to detect the intensity or force of a touch event opens up entirely new possibilities of touch interaction. Developers could explore many new paradigms for user interaction with this extra information. Let’s not abandon this.
* An web/JavaScript interface for triggering and controlling haptic feedback. Android (and maybe others?) have made some effort to provide haptic feedback in the form of vibrations in response to button/key presses (and have native APIs for this). However, there is a lot of improvements and innovations that could be made if (web) applications could trigger the feedback themselves, providing their own possibilities for feedback based on application specific conditions. I would also love to be able to dictate something more natural and brief than an vibration that lasts for a couple hundred milliseconds. A single oscillation might be more appropriate for button or keyboard press, and longer vibrations might be more appropriate for other actions.
* Touch hover events. Yes, hovering my finger over the touch screen should trigger hover events. I know you are thinking that a touch screen that can’t detect your finger until you touch it. But come on, capacitance can be detected in objects without actual contact by simply moving to a sufficiently high frequency. Inductance at distance is a pretty basic electrical principle. Surely a touch screen could be engineered to detect finger hovering.
* Apps should be able to register as a MIME type handler with the browser so the browser can negotiate MIME types and trigger an application directly in response to links that an application can handle. For example, my Twitter application should register application/vnd.tweet. The browser should then add application/vnd.tweet to the Accept header, and if a server returns an application/vnd.tweet response (as twitter.com should do if application/vnd.tweet is in the Accept header), it should be handled by my Twitter application.
* Detachable/replaceable camera lens (not actually about web technology, just mobile devices). I want to be able to detach my phone’s camera lens and attach a real camera lens. I don’t need an SLR level lens, just one of the low-end lenses like on a typical $100-$200 camera. The 8PM CCD one my phone is more than capable of capturing a good image if it had a decent lens on it, something bigger than you can fit on a phone. I just want to be able to carry an replacement lens if I am know I am going to take picture, and be able to snap it on as needed. It is fine if I have to manually focus it.

JSON Hyper Schema

August 18th, 2009
I recently wrote a new draft for an extension to JSON schema called JSON Hyper Schema, that defines a mechanism for describing referencing and linking elements with a JSON structure. JSON Hyper Schema allows schemas to define which properties can link information and how they should be interpreted, with thorough integration into the RESTful architecture of the web. As the abstract for draft states:

This proposal defines a format for describing the structure of hypertext
linking and metadata information in JSON-based media types with JSON
Schema (suggested to be application/json+schema). The mechanism for
defining links and metadata can be applied to any JSON media type, and
enables hypertext navigation through data structures that are
represented by JSON. This proposal does not require target JSON media
types (those being described by the hyper-schemas) to follow any
specific structure.

This is intended to superset and supersede JSON referencing, with a much more flexible mechanism that can support user defined properties for references, and clear declaration of the referencing used in a document. JSON referencing defined two specific properties as a convention for references, but JSON hyper schema allows for any property to have link information. One of the important benefits of this meta-descriptive approach to references is that allows JSON hyper schema to be applied to any JSON structure unobtrusively. One could easily use JSON hyper schema to define the relationships that a JSON object created a serialized row from a database has to other rows through foreign keys. As the design considerations state:

This media type does not attempt to dictate the structure of JSON
representations that contain data, but rather provides a separate format
for flexibly communicating how a JSON representation should be
interpreted, such that user agents can extrapolate hyperlink information
with the JSON document. This specification does not define a protocol.
The underlying protocol (such as HTTP) should sufficiently define the
semantics of the client server interaction and the retrieval of resource
represenations linked to by JSON representations. The goal of this
format is to sufficiently describe JSON structures such that one can
utilize latent identification information available in existing JSON
representations from a large variety of services that leverage a REST
architecture using existing protocols.

The most crucial attribute introduced by JSON hyper schema is the “links” attribute, which defines relations that should be interpreted from the instance document. A simple hyper schema example (this is the schema):

{
“properties”: {
“id”: {
“link”: “self”
},
links: [
{
“href”: “{parent_id}”,
“rel”: “parent”
}
]
}
}
Now if an instance of this hyper schema was retrieved from “http://somesite.com/data/a” :

Content-Type: application/json; definedby=/schema/my-schema
{
“id”:”a”,
“parent_id”:”b”
}
A client or user agent could then use the schema to interpret this instance data to mean that the given JSON representation is authoritatively located at the URI referenced by “a”, which is “http://somesite.com/data/a” (the full URI is determined from the context, usually the URI used to request the object), and that the “parent” resource is located at the URI referenced by “b”, which is “http://somesite.com/data/b”.

JSON Hyper Schema is complementary extension to JSON Schema. In order to truly fulfill the self-descriptive property with JSON schema, the meta-schema (the schema for schemas) requires the ability to define circular structures. Previously, this had required a dependence on the JSON referencing convention, but now JSON schema itself can be used to describe the referencing mechanism, making the JSON schema/hyper schema pair self dependent and self-descriptive.

With JSON Hyper Schema, JSON referencing is simply one type of linking structure can be mechanically defined by hyper schema. To make it easier there is actually a schema that can be referenced to declare that a JSON structure utilizes the JSON referencing convention:

Content-Type: application/json; definedby=http://json-schema.org/json-ref

JSON hyper schemas themselves are defined to use the JSON referencing convention (partly to preserve backwards compatibility), but the structures the schemas describe can have any linking structure.

The addition of JSON hyper schema provides an important step forward towards full JSON schema specification that comprehensively provides metadata in the context of the RESTful world of the web.

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