Week of 25 February 2008
Update: Saturday, 1 March 2008 09:48 -0500
- Insurance Fears Lead Many to Shun DNA Tests. And they're right to be afraid. Insurance is, or is supposed to be, about spreading the economic consequences of risks.
entire concept of insurance is based on the idea of a pool, the members
of which are fungible insofar as the level of risk. For example,
actuaries can state with high accuracy how many of a pool of 100,000
60-year-old men will die in the coming 12 months or how many of a pool
of 30-year-old women will become pregnant in the coming 12 months or
how many 17-year-old boys will be involved in car accidents.
risk can be further quantified according to significant characteristics
of the group in question. For example, actuaries know that more of the
60-year-old men will die among the subset of that pool who smoke
cigarettes than among the non-smoking members of that pool, and they
know with a high degree of certainty how many more. That allow them to
set life insurance premiums that take into account the differing
degrees of risk. Similarly, among the 30-year-old women, the actuaries
know that a higher percentage of those who are married will become
pregnant, which allows them to set health insurance premiums to cover
those differing degrees of risk. And among the 17-year-old boys, they
know that that subset of boys who have gotten speeding tickets are much
more likely to be involved in an accident, which allows them to set car
insurance premiums to cover those differing degrees of risk.
what if there were no need to depend on the law of large numbers? What
if, like Robert A. Heinlein's Doctor Pinero in Life-Line, there was a
way to determine exactly which of those 60-year old men would die, or
exactly which of those 30-year-old women would become pregnant, or
exactly which of those 17-year-old boys would be involved in a car
If that were true, the whole concept of insurance
collapses. There's no point to distributing the risk if it's known
ahead of time exactly which members of the pool will suffer a loss. Why
should (or would) the vast majority of 60-year-old men who are not
going to die in the coming 12 months pay higher life-insurance premium
(or any premiums at all...), which would simply be a subsidy to the
families of the unfortunate few 60-year-old men who are already known
to be doomed in the next 12 months? Why should (or would) the vast
majority of 30-year-old women who are not going to become pregnant in
the next 12 months pay higher health insurance premiums, which
amounts to a simple subsidy for the women who are going to become
pregnant? And why would anyone pay higher car insurance premiums, or
any premiums at all, if he knew he wasn't destined to be in a car
These DNA tests are essentially such foreknowledge,
and the question becomes how insurance companies and the
government will deal with such foreknowledge. It's pointless to pretend
that it's insurance. It's not, or at least not in the way insurance has
historically been defined. Insurance companies are, or should be,
entitled to use the best information available to set rates.
Unfortunately, that means they'll refuse to insure people who are
destined to suffer expensive illnesses, or at least write exclusions
into the policies.
So, someone who has a DNA test that
establishes that he's certain to suffer a particular type of cancer,
say, will find that he cannot obtain health insurance that covers that
condition. His neighbor, who is not destined to suffer cancer, could
easily get cancer coverage although that would obviously be useless to
him, but he won't be able to get coverage to cover the cardiac care
that will be needed when he inevitably suffers a heart attack. In
effect, we go from the historical situation where "we're all in this
together" to an utterly different situation, where it's "every man for
Now, DNA tests are not 100% certain, but 100%
certainty is not required. If a DNA test establishes that you're ten
times more likely than the general population to suffer from a
particular condition, or even only twice as likely, you're not going to
be able to buy "insurance" against that condition, at least not at a price anyone can afford. Why would any
insurance company sell you such a policy, knowing ahead of time that
they'll have to pay out on it? Or, if they did sell you such a policy,
it would really just amount to a prepayment of the costs they know
as such DNA tests become more refined, the whole concept of health
insurance will go away. But that's only one of the impacts such tests
will have. I can envision more profound effects. For example, in the
interest of reducing future medical costs, the government may require
that a couple be tested for genetic compatibility before they're
permitted to marry or have children. People who carry bad genes may not
be permitted to have children at all. For that matter, individuals may
decide to make genetic testing for their prospective spouses a part of
the prenuptial process.
All in all, that may or may not be a
good thing. What concerns me is what won't be tested for. In avoiding
pairings that pass down known bad genes, we may also be avoiding
pairings that produce the next Leonardo da Vinci or Isaac Newton or
Johann Sebastian Bach. Not because we're trying to avoid such
combinations, but because we just don't know entirely what we're doing.
thing is certain. DNA testing is here now, and will only continue to
expand. Pandora's Box is open, and there's no way to turn back the
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
I'm still working on clean-up stuff for the home chemistry book. I
wanted to include a periodic table of the elements, and it looks like
we're going to do that as a full-color foldout on either the front or
back cover. The periodic table will occupy one entire side of the
two-page spread. The front or back cover will occupy half of the other
side. That leaves me with a half side unused, so I have to come up with
something useful to fill it.
I've also started ordering
reference material, supplies, and equipment for the home forensics lab
book. I already have quite a lot of the reference material, most of
which is from the period 1890 to 1960 or so, when most forensics work
was done using standard laboratory equipment. Nowadays, of course, a
lot of forensics work is instrumental, but that doesn't mean the older
"wet" techniques are no longer useful.
In fact, the majority
of forensics tests involve wet chemistry even today, and even in
wealthy countries. In poorer countries, where the expensive instruments
used in modern forensics labs are unaffordable, forensics procedures
haven't changed much from those used several decades ago. Even if you
can't afford a mass spectrometer, for example, the Marsh Test is still
as good as ever at detecting microgram levels of arsenic.
fact, there are still situations where wet chemistry tests are
preferred to instrumental analysis, particularly for toxins that are
lethal in very small doses. Instrumentally, it can be very difficult to
discriminate such toxins at the very low levels typically present in
body fluids because the signal from the toxin is lost in the noise of
everything else present. But forensic chemists in the last half of the
19th century and the first half of the 20th worked very hard to invent
tests for many such toxins. These tests are in many cases extremely
specific to a particular toxin and can detect it at very low levels.
We'll be exploring some of that in the forensics book, although of
course not with real toxins. Well, not many real toxins, anyway.
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
I read a strange article in the newspaper this morning. It was talking
about the increasing use of ethanol for fuel and the implications for
fire fighters. According to the article, standard firefighting
foam is useless for ethanol fires because the ethanol just eats through
the foam and keeps burning. Special foam is needed, which costs a lot
more than standard foam. Okay, I can believe that.
What I don't
understand is the comment that water is useless for fighting ethanol
fires. According to the article, burning 80% to 95% ethanol can't be
extinguished with water, which seems very strange. Ethanol is miscible
with water, and ethanol/water mixtures with less than 40% to 50%
ethanol (depending on conditions) don't burn. So why shouldn't plain
water extinguish an ethanol fire? I may have to test this to satisfy my
Thursday, 28 February
The end of this week is also the end of this month. I'm not where I'd
hoped to be, but at least I'm making good progress on all fronts. Much
remains to be done to get ready for the home chem lab book arriving in
the stores, but all of that is well in progress. The forums are set up
and configured, although not yet active, and I've at least gotten a
start on the support web site. I just sent the first draft of the
teacher's guide to Mary Chervenak and Paul Jones to get their comments
on it. Mary is coming over the weekend of 7 March to shoot the
first in the series of homechemlab.com videos.
My editor at
O'Reilly sent me the contract for the home forensics lab book
yesterday, which I looked over, printed out, signed, and returned. I'm
still in the early stages of that book, accumulating the equipment and
reference sources I'll need. As usual, everything is a disorganized
mess in terms of how the new book will come together. With my early
books, that always worried me, but I'm used to it now. It's kind
of like a sculptor starting with a block of stone. In the early stages,
it doesn't look like much of anything, but eventually it all comes
The milestone dates in the contract are quite
generous. For example, the first-two-chapters milestone is something
like 15 May. I intend to beat those dates, and by quite a lot. I intend
to finish two more DIY Science books this year, the home forensics lab
book and one other that's not yet determined.
- I see that now some people are trying to claim that McCain is not eligible to serve as president
because he was born in Panama. I don't particularly like McCain, but
that's simply outrageous. McCain was born a natural US citizen, of
parents who were both US citizens. Here is the relevant text:
person, except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United
States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be
eligible to the office of President;"
definitive to me. You'll note that the text doesn't say that one must
be born within the borders of the United States, but merely that one
must be a "natural born citizen". McCain qualifies on that basis. He
was born a US citizen, not naturalized.
- Leap Day falls on February 29th this week.
I invited Mary Chervenak to join us in our traditional Leap Day
celebration, dancing naked around our large pine tree. She said she'd
join us if the weather forecast was favorable. She didn't define
"favorable". Barbara says she plans to stay indoors this evening.
Women are such wimps.
I'm working now on one of the labs from the home forensics lab book.
Laboratory 12.1: Analyze Ethanol Content in Exhaled Air
Which is basically a reproduction of the original 1954 Breathalyzer
test. The redox reaction between ethanol and potassium dichromate in
acidic solution converts the yellow-orange chromium(VI) ion to the
blue-green chromium(III) ion. The solution starts out yellow-orange.
When air containing ethanol passes through the solution, some or all of
the yellow-orange chromium(VI) ions react to form blue-green
chromium(III) ions. The greener the solution becomes, the more ethanol
was in the sample. The original Breathalyzer machine used photometry to
detect the amount of change. My readers won't have access to a
photometer, so we'll use visual photometry, with several samples of
known ethanol concentrations for comparison.
machines, original and current, use breath alcohol content as a proxy
for blood alcohol content, which in turn serves as a proxy for degree
of impairment. There are two obvious problems with those assumptions.
breath alcohol content does not necessarily correspond to actual blood
alcohol content. You can, for example, reduce the value displayed by
the Breathalyzer by as much as 50% simply by hyperventilating for 30
seconds or so before the test. Alternatively, by holding your breath
for 30 seconds, you can produce a false reading that's 50% or more
higher than actual.
Second, even actual blood alcohol content
correlates only very loosely with the actual degree of impairment,
which differs dramatically between individuals. I remember 10 or 15
years ago when MADD or some such organization decided to demonstrate
the actual degree of impairment with increasing BAC. They made an event
of it, with local TV news cameras present. They set up a slalom course
with traffic cones and got NASCAR racer Kyle Petty to volunteer as the
driver. Over the course of several hours, they had Petty drinking shots
of bourbon, doing Breathalyzer tests after each shot, and then having
Petty try to drive as fast as possible through the course without
knocking over any traffic cones.
The problem was, their
demonstration showed exactly the opposite of what they intended. The
drunker Petty got, the faster he made it through the course, and the
fewer traffic cones he knocked over. By the time Petty was well over
the legal limit, he was making it through the course in record time
without knocking over any cones. If they'd used me as their test
subject, the results would have been different. After one beer, I'd
have been knocking over cones, and after two beers I'd probably have
just plowed right through all of them. But then I typically drink only
a few beers a year, and I have no tolerance built up for alcohol.
I've mentioned my standard backup procedure before, but as I was doing
it this morning I thought some might be interested in the details. My
Linux guru friends no doubt think my method is incredibly convoluted
and clumsy. More than one has pointed out that it could easily be
automated, but I'm more comfortable doing it myself manually every
morning. It takes only 10 minutes, and that's 10 minutes I'm willing to
spend to make sure my backups are available and readable when I need
them. Here in detail is what I do:
All of that takes about two minutes, literally. I then head for my office, where I:
- Take one of my Kingston
USB sticks back to Barbara's office. (I could obviously back up
Barbara's system over the network, but doing it this way forces me to
sit down at her machine once a day, where I can check for updates and
- Fire up Konqueror on Barbara's machine, which displays her home directory.
the top item (.adobe) and press Ctrl-A to select the contents of the
entire directory. Right-click on one of the highlighted items and
choose compress to a tar.gz archive.
- Plug in the USB stick,
which automatically pops up another Konqueror window.
Cut archive.tar.gz from Barbara's home directory and paste it to
the USB stick.
- Pop a console window and press up-arrow to
insert the most recent command, which is always "sudo sync". Press
Enter and wait until the data is synced to the USB stick. Repeat "sudo
sync" just to make sure.
- Close both Konqueror windows and the console window.
click on the Kingston USB icon and choose Remove Safely (yes, I know
the sync command did that, but why not be extra safe?)
- Remove USB stick and carry it to my office.
do that every day, Monday through Sunday. On Sundays, I also burn a
copy of /home/thompson/data/working to a DVD+R disc, as well as
whatever happens to be awaiting archiving in /home/thompson/data/holding
- Double-click the Working icon on my desktop to fire up an instance of Konqueror that displays /home/thompson/data/working
- Double-click on /home/thompson/data/working/backup-barbara to display that directory.
the USB stick, which automatically fires up another instance of
Konqueror. Copy/paste archive.tar.gz from the USB stick to the
- Fire up a console window and up-arrow to run "sudo sync" twice.
- Close the USB stick Konqueror window, right-click on the KIngston USB icon, choose "Remove Safely", and remove USB stick.
- Double-click the Thompson icon on my desktop to fire up an instance of Konqueror that displays /home/thompson
- Highlight the top item in that directory, and press Ctrl-A to select all items in that directory.
- Scroll down and use Ctrl-click to deselect the directories .wine, data, and junk.
- Right click on one of the selected items and choose compress to a tar.gz archive.
- Change the Konqueror instance from /home/thompson/data/working/backup-barbara to /home/thompson/data/working/backup-robert
- Cut archive.tar.gz from /home/thompson and paste it to /home/thompson/data/working
- In the console window, up-arrow to run "sudo sync" twice, and close Konqueror window with /home/thompson
the Backup icon on my desktop to fire up an instance of Konqueror that
displays /backup (which is on a second physical hard drive).
into the usrback directory, which contains one subdirectory for each
day. Create a new directory in the format /backup/usrback/20080301
Saturday. Change into that directory.
- Copy the /home/thompson/data/working directory and paste it to the daily directory on /backup
- In the console window, up-arrow to run "sudo sync" twice.
- Change up one directory and select the daily directory
up one of my external hard drives. When it mounts, it automatically
fires up a Konqueror instance that displays its contents.
- Change into the usrback directory.
- Copy /backup/usrback/<today's-directory> and paste it to usrback on the external drive
- In the console window, up-arrow to run "sudo sync" twice.
- Close the Konqueror window for the external hard drive.
- Highlight the icon for that drive and choose "Remove Safely"
- Power down the external hard drive.
- Repeat steps 18 through 24 for the second external hard drive.
that all sounds incredibly complicated and time-consuming, it's not. I
can do it almost without having to think about it, and it takes 10
minutes or less per day. Again, that's 10 minutes I'm willing to spend
to ensure the safety of my data. The two external hard drives are in
external enclosures with the covers off. If I'm leaving the house for
anything longer than walking the dogs to the corner and back, at least
one and usually both of those hard drives go with me. It takes about
five seconds to pull one of the hard drives from the enclosure, stick
it in one of the clear plastic cases that Seagate uses to package hard
drives, and put it into my Lands' End attache.
periodically dupe the entire primary hard drive of my main desktop
system to another hard drive, which also goes along with me. If worse
came to horrible, all I need is any PC with a couple of SATA
connectors, and I can be back up and running in the same state I was
that morning in literally five minutes.
Oh, and during the work
day I routinely copy whatever document(s) I happen to be working on up
to the server that runs this site, so the most I can ever lose is
perhaps one hour of work.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert