Why I haven't posted in a while

It's been several months since my last post, which is sad, but it's because I've been working on building a new blog that provides better support for publishing photos. The good news is that the new blog is just about ready, after putting several weeks of work into it.

I've been frustrated by not being able to easily publish photos using LiveJournal or any other blogging service out there, so after a bit of research, I decided to flex my perl hacking skills and add the feature to MovableType.

Not only does my new blog display photos, it's easy to upload photos (via a plugin to iPhoto) and they're displayed in a right-aligned column right next to my text posts for convenient viewing. The photos are also integrated into the RSS feed, so even if you only read my blog via a feed reader, you can still see the full albums of photos that I publish. It also features inline commenting and other nifty javascript tricks.

Check it out at nikhil.superfacts.org.

This is officially my last post to this blog, and I'm planning to start migrating my livejournal posts to my new blog soon.

Let me know what you think about the new design! Note that it does have some bugs: commenting is very slow, the "Next Set" feature doesn't work, and there are some visual snafus here and there.

2 Degrees of Self-Reference - Talking about talking about talking

One thing I've noticed lately is that people can generally handle up to two degrees of self-reference on a specific topic:

No self-reference: The topic on its own (e.g. "Talking")
1st-degree self-reference: Reference the topic (e.g. Talk about "talking")
2nd-degree self-reference: Reference to the reference (e.g. We can talk about how people behave when they talk about "talking")

That's enough to make the head spin, eh?

Most human brains seem to have little difficulty understanding a single self-reference, also known as the "meta-level" (e.g. thinking about thinking). They have quite a bit more difficulty grasping a second self-reference (e.g. thinking about thinking about thinking), though it is possible after some thought (pun intentional). However, any more levels of self-reference leave the mind twisting in it's own twists.

The question is, why is that? Why can most human minds only handle a maximum of 2 levels of self-reference? Could it have something to do with human consciousness? If we're able to dive deeper into self-reference, does the truth about existence and reality become clearer? I don't have any good answers to these questions.

A similar pattern of 2nd-degree self-reference occurs in computer science, though anything of greater self-reference is very uncommon:
1) The object (e.g. a data structure)
2) A pointer to the object
3) A pointer to the pointer to the object (also known as a handle)

In a way, though, this discussion is a 3rd-degree of self-reference (a discussion that discusses discussing discussing), and the cycle can continue infinitely. I guess the real question is whether each additional level of self-reference introduces new information. No new information seems to exist when discussing self-references beyond the 2nd-degree.
  • Current Mood
    thoughtful thoughtful

Eli Lilly

UPDATE: According to a statement by El Lilly, the papers that BMJ received regarding Prozac's negative effects were given to federal regulators in the 80s and 90s. So unless further news surfaces, it appears that Eli Lilly is cleared from charge #1. Issue #2 below (buying a court verdict) still remains, which is despicable but not as damning as both issues together.

I just read an article about how Eli Lilly, the company that makes Prozac, did two extremely unethical things:

1) Eli Lilly hid evidence in 1994 that Prozac causes increased levels of agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, and aggressiveness. SSRIs like Prozac have recently come under scrutiny as potentially increasing the risks of suicide in young adults. It seems that Eli Lilly knew that Prozac could cause similar behavior in all patients, including adults. They knew this at least 10 years ago, and told no one. A report describing this was sent anonymously to the British Medical Journal recently.

2) Eli Lilly nearly got away with buying a court verdict in a related case in 1994, and would have if not for the vigilant judge on the case. Eli Lilly was sued by the family of a man named Wesbecker who shot and killed 8 co-workers and wounded 12 before killing himself in 1989. The man had started taking fluoxetine (Prozac) one month before the shooting.
The plaintiffs in the Wesbecker product liability sought to show that Eli Lilly withheld negative study data from the FDA and that fluoxetine tipped Wesbecker over into a homicidal rage. Lilly won a 9 to 3 jury verdict in late 1994 and subsequently claimed that it was "proven in a court of law... that Prozac is safe and effective."

The trial judge, Justice John Potter, suspecting that a secret deal had been struck, pursued Lilly and the plaintiffs, eventually forcing Lilly in 1997 to admit that it had made a secret settlement with the plaintiffs during the trial. Infuriated by Lilly's actions, Judge Potter ordered the finding changed from a verdict in Lilly's favour to one of "dismissed as settled with prejudice," saying, "Lilly sought to buy not just the verdict but the court's judgment as well."
(Full article from the British Medical Journal)

If you're taking any of Eli Lilly's other popular drugs, it may be worthwhile to (a) talk to your doctor about them and (b) research and consider alternatives that provide similar effect.
  • Alimta, a chemotherapy regimen to treat patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma who are not candidates for surgery
  • Symbyax, for bipolar depression
  • Cialis, for erectile dysfunction
  • Stratterra, a nonstimulant, noncontrolled medication for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, adolescents, and adults
  • Forteo, for osteoporosis patients that stimulates new bone formation
  • Xigris, for adult severe-sepsis patients at a high risk of death
  • Evista, for the prevention and treatment of postmenopausal osteoporosis
  • Zyprexa, for schizophrenia and acute mania associated with bipolar disorder
  • Humalog, an insulin product
  • Gemzar, for pancreatic and non-small-cell lung cancer
  • Humatrope, therapy for growth hormone deficiency
  • Prozac
  • Humulin, human insulin
  • Ceclor, an oral antibiotic
  • Iletin, an insulin product, available since 1923
(from Eli Lilly's website)

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Book Notes: Mohammad Yunus' Banker to the Poor

Muhammad Yunus - Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

I borrowed this book from my friend (thanks Sumit!), so I couldn't underline the book (like I normally do). Instead, I've written up these book notes.

This is an excellent book that I highly recommend. It's a quick read and it's the first book I've read that sounds confident about eradicating world poverty in the next 25 years.

- "There are many ways for people to die, but somehow dying of starvation is the most unacceptable of all. It happens in slow motion. Second by second, the distance between life and death becomes smaller and smaller, until the two are in such close proximity that one can hardly tell the difference. Like sleep, death by starvation happens so quietly, so inexorably, one does not even sense it happening. And all for lack of a handful of rice at each meal. In this world of plenty, a tiny baby, who does not yet understand the mystery of the world, is allowed to cry and cry and finally fall asleep without the milk she needs to survive. The next day she may not have the strength to continue living." (vii)

- Yunus started the Grameen Bank, a bank in Bangladesh that pioneered the use of micro-lending to improve the lives of the poor. Micro-lending is a type of lending where very small amounts of money are lent at reasonable interest rates (low double-digits annually). Borrowers are extremely poor and often use the money to buy materials that they use to create a product to sell, such as using bamboo to make stools. Without micro-lending, the borrower would often borrow from moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates (as high as 10%/week), which allows the borrower to make enough money to survive but nothing more. In this way, micro-lending allows borrowers to break out of their work slavery to improve the lives of themselves and their families.

- "Grameen" means "rural", as the Grameen bank is devoted to helping the rural, landless poor

- The Grameen Bank serves 2.5M people in Bangladesh

- Yunus, an economics professor, started focusing on poverty after thousands of the poor moved to urban areas looking for food during a famine in 1974

- "Analyses of the causes of poverty focus largely on why some countries are poor rather than on why certain segments of the population live below the poverty line. Socially conscious economists stress the absence of 'entitlements' of the poor. What I did not know yet about hunger, but would find out over the next twenty-two years, was that brilliant theorists of economics do not find it worthwhile to spend time discussing issues of poverty and hunger. They believe that these will be resolved when general economic prosperity increases. These economists spend all their talents detailing the processes of development and prosperity, but rarely reflect on the origin and development of poverty and hunger. As a result, poverty continues." (35)

- Definition by the Consultive Group to Assist the Poorest (CGAP) and the Microcredit Summit Campaign Committee: a "poor" person is someone who lives below the poverty line, and the "poorest" is someone in the bottom half of those below the poverty line.

- In the Grameen microcredit scheme, the bank will not lend to you until you're part of a group of 5 borrowers. If you fail to repay the loan, the entire group suffers because they won't receive future loans. This social pressure is in part responsible for the high level of repayment.

- Also, prospective borrowers must be trained in the rules of the bank for seven days and then pass a test. Only after this ordeal are they given a loan.

- Under Grameen I, borrowers are required to deposit 5% of their loans into a group fund which any member can borrow from interest-free. In 1998, the group fund exceeded $100M, more than the net worth of all but a few Bangladeshi companies.

Grameen repayment system:
- Loans last 1 year
- Installments are paid weekly to bank workers who come to the village of the borrower
- Repayment starts 1 week after the loan
- Interest rate is low (20% for income-generating, 8% for housing, and 5% for higher education)
- Repayment amounts to 2% of the loan amount per week for 50 weeks
- Interest payments amount to 2 taka / week for every 1000 taka of the loan amount

- They've found that lending to women does more to improve a family's well-being than lending to men (73)

- Bank managers are hired straight from college and are tasked to set up a new bank in a village and run that bank (highly entrepreneurial)

- Bangladesh has a 120M people in an area the size of Florida. Instead of telling poor countries to limit population growth, Yunus thinks that international agencies and governments should focus on improving the economy in general and the condition of the poor in particular.

Grameen's 16 Decisions (135):
1) We shall follow and advance the 4 principles of the Grameen Bank - discipline, unity, courage, and hard work - in all walks of our lives.
2) Prosperity we shall bring to our families
3) We shall not live in a dilapidated house. We shall repair our houses and work toward constructing new houses at the earliest opportunity.
4) We shall grow vegetables all year round. We shall eat plenty of them and sell the surplus.
5) During the plantation season, we shall plant as many seedlings as possible
6) We shall plan to keep our families small. We shall minimize expenditures. We shall look after our health.
7) We shall educate our children and ensure that they can earn to pay for their education.
8) We shall always keep our children and the environment clean
9) We shall build and use pit latrines
10) We shall drink water from tube wells. If they are not available, we shall boil water or use alum to purify it.
11) We shall not take any dowry at our sons' weddings; neither shall we give any dowry at our daughter's wedding. We shall keep the center free from the curse of the dowry. We shall not practice child marriage.
12) We shall not commit any injustice, and we will oppose anyone who tries to do so.
13) We shall collectively undertake larger investments for higher incomes
14) We shall always be ready to help each other. If anyone is in difficulty, we shall all help him or her.
15) If we come to know of any breach of discipline in any center, we shall all go there and help restore discipline
16) We shall introduce physical exercises in all our centers. We shall take part in all social activities collectively.

- Most hand-outs endeavor to train the recipients; Grameen bank hands out cash without any attempt to provide skills training.

- According to Yunus, "the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate but because they cannot retain the returns of their labor. They have no control over capital, and it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty." (141)

- Yunus believes that credit should be considered a basic human right

- Aid workers, such as those from the World Bank, are usually promoted based on how much money they disburse, not the impact of the disbursement on the quality of life. Because of this, they often spend a lot of money that doesn't even make it to the country's poor. According to a research institution in Bangladesh, of the $30B Bangladesh has received in foreign aid over the past 26 years, 75% was NOT spent in Bangladesh (it was spent on equipment, commodities, and consultants from the donor country).

- $50-55B / year is given in international aid to countries, and only 25% is actually spent in the country

- Rather than base success on changes in GNP (gross national product), international aid's success should be based on positive measurable change in per capita income of the bottom 50% of the population

- To improve the World Bank, Yunus would move the HQ from Washington DC to Dhaka, so that 1) improvements would happen faster given the close proximity to poverty, 2) people who aren't 100% devoted to fighting poverty would leave, and 3) it would reduce costs

- Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (Grameen replication program in Malaysia) services 42,000 families, half of all Malaysians living below the poverty line

Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD), a Grameen replication in the Philipines:
- 70% of borrowers are landless and own houses worth less than $550
- 97% of borrowed money is used in income-generating activities
- Borrowers' average rate of return is 117% (144% for people who borrowed 5 or more times)
- Loans generated 163 days of employment for borrowers each year and 84 additional days for family members
- Labor productivity is 36% higher than the prevailing wage rate

- There are 65 Grameen replication projects in 27 countries, which have disbursed $444M in loans to 1.14M poor people

- Goal to reach 10M borrowers through replication programs by 2005, for which the Grameen Trust will need $2.2B

- The Grameen People's Fund - raising $100M for the Grameen Trust, which lends to replication programs, by getting 1M people to donate $100 ($142,000 raised so far)

- Welfare laws in the US create disincentives for welfare recipients to work. If they earn a dollar, it must be reported to the welfare authority and a dollar will be deducted from their next welfare check. Welfare recipients are also not allowed to borrow money from an institution (thought this law has changed in Illinois). This holds back microcredit, because borrowers are afraid after they calculate the amount of welfare money and insurance coverage they would lose if they became self-employed. Additionally, if a poor person receives benefits from a charity program, the charity program may not allow the person to be self-employed.

- In 1996, Grameen borrowers were elected to 6% of all elected government positions, which proved that once they grew in self-esteem they would readily express their opinions

- Grameen Bank Bangladesh has 2.6M borrowers and loaned $3.9B since it was started. $3.6B has been repaid, with a recovery rate of 98%. 95% of the borrowers are women. It has 1,181 branches, works in 42,127 villages, and has a staff of 11,777. The Bank no longer borrows money, as it's fully self-sufficient. The bank has made a profit every year except 1983, 1991, and 1992

- Some borrowers' capacity to borrow, invest, and repay had increased 50x in 10 years

- Grameen's goal is to make their villages "poverty-free", which means that each family has to
1) have a house with a tin roof
2) have beds or cots for all members of the family
3) have access to safe drinking water
4) have access to a sanitary latrine
5) have all school-age children attending school
6) have sufficient warm clothing for the winter
7) have mosquito nets
8) have a home vegetable garden
9) have no food shortages, even during the most difficult time of a very difficult year
10) have sufficient income-earning opportunities for all adult members of the family

- "There is little doubt that the free market, as now organized, does not provide solutions to all social ills. It provides neither economic opportunities nor access to health and education for the poor or elderly. Even so, I believe that government, as we now know it, should pull out of most things except for law enforcement, the justice system, national defense, and foreign policy, and let the private sector, a "Grameenized private sector". a social-consciousness-driven private sector, take over its other functions." (204)
- I'm not sure I agree with Yunus on this point. He received most of his initial funding from government sources, so I would certainly add "credit" to the list of services the government should provide. Additionally, it's not clear to me that social services like public education, museums, and social security, while not in the best shape by far, will be in better shape if the government backed out entirely. Yunus later argues that the government should control policies that incent entrepreneurs to get involved, but they should not actually provide the services. This seems like it could work.

- Yunus believes that hand-outs only "increases their misery, robs them of incentive and, more important, of self-respect."

- "Somehow we have persuaded ourselves that the capitalist economy must be fueled only by greed. This has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Only the profit maximizers get to play in the marketplace and try their luck. People who are not motivated by profit making stay away from it, condemn it, and search for alternatives. We can condemn the private sector for all its mistakes, but we cannot justify why we ourselves are not trying to change things, not trying to make things better by participating in the economy. The private sector, unlike the government, is open to everyone, even those not interested in making a profit." (205)

- Yunus proposes 2 changes to capitalism:
1) View every single human being as a potential entrepreneur, so that every person has the choice to be an entrepreneur or a wage earner. Today we view most people as wage earners, which affects the incentives and services that we offer them.
2) An entrepreneur maximizes two things: a) profit and b) social returns, subject to the condition that profit cannot be negative (often called the "double bottom-line"). Today, corporate law in the US requires maximization of profits and nothing more.

- Grameen Generalised System (GGS, or Grameen II) offers a basic loan and a flexible loan, if the borrower undergoes hardship and needs a different repayment schedule, etc. Loans can also now be for any duration, as designed by the staff member. It also includes a pension plan that the borrower must pay into if they take a large enough loan, and from which they get disbursements after 10 years. There is also a loan insurance program in case the borrower dies.

- 70% of all outstanding loans are from borrowers' savings deposits.

Branches can now receive stars, with the goal of having all branches becoming Five Star branches:
- Green stars for 100% repayment
- Blue stars for earning a profit
- Violet stars for generating a surplus of deposits over loans
- Brown stars for ensuring 100% of Grameen children are being educated
- Red stars for taking 100% of their families over the poverty line

- The goal of the Microcredit Summit of 1997 is to touch 100M families with microcredit by 2005 (26.8M people living on less than $1/day received microcredit from 1996-2001)

- Every day, 35,000 children die from hunger-related diseases

- 20% of the world's people live in extreme poverty

- Yunus' final message is that we need to encourage social entrepreneurs to eradicate poverty in the first several decades of the 21st century. This is feasible, just as slavery, apartheid, and smallpox have been eradicated. Poverty will be something that one only sees in museums.

Book Notes - Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People

Dale Carnegie - How to Win Friends & Influence People

I highly recommend this book to everyone. It's one of the top 5 books I've read in the past year. I've already used his advice numerous times in my dealings with people, and found that I'm already more effective at encouraging people to get things done (though I still have a long way to go). Below are the basic principles, though it's the example stories that he gives in the book that are most convincing. Numerous times I found myself smiling after reading one of his anecdotes, thinking, "Damn, that was clever and brilliant."

Part 1: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People
1) Don't criticize
2) Praise
3) Arouse desire

Part 2: Six Ways to Make People Like You
1) Be genuinely interested in people
2) Smile
3) Remember names
4) Listen intently
5) Talk to your audience's interests
6) Make them feel important

Part 3: How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking
1) Avoid argument
2) Never say "you're wrong"
3) When you're wrong, admit it
4) Begin in a friendly way
5) Get the person saying "yes, yes"
6) Let the other person do the talking
7) Let the other person think the idea is hers
8) See things from the other person's point-of-view
9) Be sympathetic to the other person's ideas & desires
10) Appeal to nobler motives
11) Dramatize your ideas
12) Throw down a challenge / encourage competition

Part 4: Be a Leader
1) Begin with praise and honest appreciation
2) Provide negative feedback indirectly
3) Talk about your mistakes before criticizing
4) Ask questions instead of giving direct orders
5) Let the other person save face
6) Be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise"
7) Give the other person a reputation to live up to
8) Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct
9) Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest

Santa Claus and God

I think the myth of Santa Claus can be seen as training for children to believe in the Christian God. There are numerous similarities:

1) They both instill morals by using fear and gifts. Santa knows "if you've been naughty or nice" and will get you more gifts if you've been good. God knows all of your sins, and if you don't do good and believe in Jesus, you're damned.

2) They both do the impossible. Santa rides on a sleigh through the sky and pushes his way down the chimneys of chimney-less houses. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. In this way, Santa is like a god, able to do the impossible.

12/4/2004 Weekly Report

Last 2 weeks:
* Worked on Google Desktop Search
* Started reading Dale Carnegie - How to Win Friends and Influence People (great so far)
* Went home to L.A. for Thanksgiving
* Went to Sierra Madre Congregation Church with Becca and Lindy
* Donated CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to in-store Barnes and Noble "Buy a book for a child" program

This week:
* Work on Google Desktop Search
* Finish How to Win Friends...
* Start Joseph Stiglitz - Globalization and Its Discontents
* Find out about acting classes
* Bike 20 miles around Lake Merritt

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11/20/04 Weekly Report

Last 2 weeks:
* Worked on Google Desktop Search
* Got my car back and put some great new tires on it (BDGoodrich Traction T/A) - I highly recommend them, very sticky and made me feel much safer in my car.
* Identified 3 web-based data input sources for Super Facts
* Finished reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven - OK, though a bit long and not as good as Into the Wild
* Went to church at Bethany United Methodist

Next week:
* Work on Google Desktop Search
* Read Manufacturing Consent and The Nature of International Society
* Respond to an email about parecon, an alternative economic system
* Thanksgiving!

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11/7/04 Weekly Report

Last week:
* Worked on Google Desktop Search
* Finished reading Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone - Excellent book. Best book I've read in the past 6 months. Highly recommend it.
* Continued reading Manning's The Nature of International Society
* Continued work on Super Facts - researched sources and improved metrics

This week:
* Work on Google Desktop Search
* Continue work on Super Facts - identify data sources
* Continue reading The Nature of International Society
* Do sit-ups and push-ups and run everyday
* Get car back from shop

Book Notes - Mark Juergensmeyer's Gandhi's Way

Mark Juergensmeyer - Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution

* When resolving a conflicy, we should imagine a solution that includes the best features of both sides of an argument so that we create a "win-win" situation
    - each side has some portion of truch in its possession

* We should incorporate the solution into the struggle itself - the way you fight and the goal for which you are fighting are the same

* Redirect the focus of a fight from persons to principles

* Ways of resolving a conflict:
1) Forced victory - removes the person but the underlying conflict between principles remains
2) Accomodation & compromise - let each side win a little, but each side loses a little as well
3) Arbitration & law - judge which side is right, but often neglect the truth in the loser's position
4) Satyagraha (*best*) - attempts to find a new position, more inclusive than the old ones, and moves into it

* No doubt in Gandhi's mind that one could find the right way to act in any situation

* Truth is those things that defend life, enhance life, allow life to flourish, and bring lives together in harmony

* "Violence" includes any coercion, be it physical, verbal, or emotional, and violence should not be used to solve a problem. If you try to use violence to win a peaceful end, you will fail, Gandhi argued.

* "No action which is not voluntary can be called moral."

* Noncooperation is a potent force for breaking the structures of authority

* 10 basic principles:
1) Do not avoid confrontation
2) Stay open to communication and self-criticism
3) Find a resolution and hold fast to it
4) Regard your opponent as a potential ally
5) Make your tactics consistent with the goal
6) Be flexible
7) Be temperate
8) Be proportionate
9) Be disciplined
10) Know when to quit

* Necessary prerequisites to a Gandhian solutoin:
1) The eagerness for a harmonious outcome
2) The determination of both sides to stand by the truth
3) The ability of both to imagine other options

* Double advocacy - the idea that one should attempt to argue for the truth of both sides of a dispute

* Create counter-structures to those you seek to abolish