Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When Information Isn't Informative: Plus Some Notes on Demographics

Does anybody see a problem with the graph on the left?

Here is another graph of the same information (with a few extra years tacked on at the end and the US population added as reference). Do they look at all similar?

The first graph is terribly misleading because the abscissa/x-axis is nonuniformly scaled. I'm not sure more than two consecutive tick marks have the same scale. I've redone this graph using a uniformly scaled abscissa to show true trend. China for some reason cuts their graph off just before their population is projected to begin shrinking. Maybe its just that I'm an engineer, but this sort of wacky scaling drives me up the wall. The benefit of a graph is that it can convey alot of information intuitively. For that reason, if people aren't careful, uneven scaling can be very misleading. This above graph almost makes it look like China had a lull in population growth that has started to pick up again at a rather dramatic pace. This is not the case at all, as the second figure shows. It doesn't take very long to look this information up and create one's own graph. You would think that a reporter would be educated enough to do something like this, especially when they are working for the BBC and not merely some local rag.

Update/Supplementary Material
The question came up as to why there is such a lag between when fertility rates drop below replacement levels and when population begins declining. Because population growth is the sum of fertility rates and death rates, there is a lag due to the human lifespan. However, this lag is exacerbated because factors associated with more rapidly declining fertility rates are also associated with increased lifespans, namely increased urbanization and development.

The typical age/sex population distribution for an undeveloped country looks like a pyramid. There are lots of children and relatively few adults. However, as fertility rates decline and lifespans increase, the pyramid begins to morph into a rectangle. Zimbabwe, like most underdeveloped countries has recently begun to reduce its population quite dramatically. One can see that 25 years ago, population was still growing exponentially, but great reductions in fertility rates have come since then. One thing that has surprised demographers over the last 25 years is the rapid pace at which fertility rates have declined in the developing world. They have declined much more quickly than they did in the developed world. Now, the population distribution histograms of even underdeveloped countries like Zimbabwe are starting to morph into the rectangle shape indicative of stable population.

Italy is an example of a country that has experienced the transition from increasing population to decreasing population. Instead of transitioning to a rectangle, they are in the process of transitioning to an inverted pyramid. Not only is population growth an exponential function, but population decline is exponential as well. Unless they can reverse this trend in fertility rates or increase their immigration rates, their population will decrease exponentially to a fraction of what it is today.

The US and China are both countries that are in between the pyramid and rectangle stages. The difference between the US and China is that China has experienced more drastic fertility rate reductions and is beginning to transition into the inverted pyramid stage like Italy. However, the US is beginning to look more like the rectangle with a relatively stable population distribution by age and sex. These plots are also interesting, because they can highlight the sex ratio disparities in countries like China and India.

These plots become even more fascinating when one compares one country today to the same country +/-50 years. I think a short course in demograhics should be required for policy makers dealing with plans like social security and medicare, that take from today's worker to pay for today's retirees benefits instead of investing the money.

One last note because the figures ended up being rather small. The horizontal axis is population with zero in the middle and female population in blue increasing to the left and male population in red increasing to the right. Each horizontal red and blue line represents a histogram of the population for a specific age category. The age categories are 5 year age spans proceeding from 0-5 years old on up to 95-100 years old. I'm sure there's a much simpler way to explain this, but I'm tired and it escapes me right now.





Source for my Population Graphs: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision,, Wednesday, September 26, 2007;

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

May the Souls of the Faithfully Departed, Through the Mercy of God, Rest in Peace. Amen.

But when are they departed? What is death? Is it simply when one is brain dead, as indicated by "fixed and dilated pupils, lack of eye movement and the absence of respiratory reflexes." Can a pregnant woman be dead. When should the harvesting of organs begin? Would knowing that 1 in 1000 "dead" people survives after life support has been switched off affect your decision to harvest the organs? Interesting questions about death and its diagnosis are raised by Dr. Kellehear in this BBC article.

I remember being in middle school and reading similar questions being raised by Dr. C. Everett Koop. It all seemed like science fiction at the time, especially when I later read an article in the paper about a guy in a body bag waking up and giving a fright to the mortician who promptly got him to the doctor. I'm not sure what the answers to the questions above are, but it isn't reassuring that doctors seem to have have their own debates without (for the most part) informing patients of them.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

New Holiday: Day of Conception

Get a free vacation day September 12 to tango with your spouse and be entered in a contest to win thousands of dollars in cash or even a car if you are successful!! When will this idea catch on in the US? I'd sign up. :-) Perhaps, it would take similar cultural circumstances being replicated in the US; circumstances like our abortion rate topping 50%, and our population being predicted to potentially decline by 25-30% over the next 50 years instead of the predicted 50%+ increase. In the US, that would be the equivalent of our population decreasing from the current 300 million to 210/225 million over the next 50 years instead of increasing to over 400 million. Talk about a social security/medicare nightmare. On the other hand, think of all the great deals on real estate that could be had in such a climate! I think I'd have more confidence in my children being able to afford a house in 20 years than I do now. The hitch is, I have this very strong suspicion that population decline of that magnitude indicates a fundamental lack of hope in society and an unchecked march toward cultural suicide.

I guess I don't need a vacation day that badly. My wife and I just might be able to pull of procreating without a government holiday complete with bribes (oops, prizes).

Random thought for the day (only tangentially related). Conception Day and Russia Day are 9 months apart on the calendar. The only other holidays that I can think of that are specifically 9 months apart are Christmas and the Feast of the Annunciation. Can anybody else think of another pair of holidays/holy days with specific 9 month spacing? The valuable prize being offered for winning this contest to to lay claim to the esteemed title of "calendar wonk."


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

It's the End of the World as We Know It, and I Don't Care

Actually, it's not the end of the world. Just Anglicanism... and we don't know it's the end of Anglicanism as we know it, it's just a distinct possibility. And, come to think of it, I do care. So to heck with the title.

Anglicanism has some tough days ahead. Will they stay together or fracture into little pieces? Anybody care to prophesy about this one? I sure won't, but I do hope they can pull this off and stay together.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Forward/disclaimer: I don’t currently have internet access at home, so I am writing this from work, and it will have a pronounced lack of documentation. I’m sure others have done more research on this and can add some sources at their leisure. As a result, this will also have a more personal flair than I would prefer for something medical in nature.

To give some history, someone inquired about me starting a discussion on vaccines, so I thought I’d jot down some thoughts off the cuff. Much thought has gone into this, but I’m time limits me here to summarizing my opinions and experiences. I had thought this was discussed previously on this blog or my old one, but couldn’t find anywhere.

First, are vaccines good for society and our children? Though others would disagree, the answer seems to me to be a resounding, “Yes!” They have helped eliminate or nearly eliminate several formerly common deadly diseases. There are still risks with this medical procedure, as with any. I know my grandparents both got terribly ill from the flu shot a decade or so ago. However, undoubtedly, on the whole the flu shot and other vaccines save many lives each year.

That said, are there any concerns regarding vaccines? This is where the discussion gets more nuanced and much more interesting.

Several people (I know one family in particular) blame vaccinations on their child’s development of autism. Personally, I don’t think the evidence supports this, but I’m not ready to completely rule it out. Even without the autism link, it just makes sense to me to avoid putting a known toxin such as mercury into a young infants system. My family avoids vaccines with thimerisol and pharmaceutical companies have realized that they can sell lots more vaccines without it so alternatives are readily available.

Is the Schedule Healthy?
Studies years ago showed that people quit taking their kids to the doctor for regular checkups after they got past their toddler years (sometimes before). This left a very large percentage of the population unvaccinated. Part of the solution, doctors decided, was to vaccinate kids earlier while they were still receiving regular checkups in order to inoculate as much of the population as possible. However, is it really in the best interest of the child to vaccinate for say Hepititus B at so early an age? Many doctors will readily admit that they don’t really need this vaccine at a young age and if made to choose between Hep B and other vaccines will recommend that it be delayed until the cycles (including boosters) for other more important vaccines are completed.

Are all the vaccines the best way to acquire immunity?
Personally, I’d rather have my young kids get chickenpox than get vaccinated, and we’ve done that. The median age for chickenpox has risen dramatically in recent years, since the original decision to only give one shot has left numerous vaccinated people with insufficient immunity to resist the disease. They are vaccinated, but not inoculated. It’s a personal decision, but given the ethical considerations later posted, this is a rather easy decision for me. More immunity and no ethical issues. We’ll take the real disease, thank you very much. Comparing my kids experience with chickenpox (even when covered and at their itchiest) with my friends’ experience with an extremely upset infant who was sick and couldn’t sleep the day after being vaccinated (on our shared vacation at a cabin in Colorado), I’ll take chickenpox any day.

Are all vaccines ethically produced?
Sadly, no. Some are produced using cell lines from aborted fetuses. This is a very contentious issue and most doctors will tell you it isn’t true. EVERY single doctor we’ve ever visited has told us it isn’t true. My wife and I have been told that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet (even on the CDC’s website?), that they know so and so who lectures around the world about vaccines and this isn’t true, they are grown in chicken embryos (true for some, not all vaccines) and many other things. The reaction has been quite varied when we have stuck to our story and brought in proof. Some Doctors have accepted the evidence without bluster. Others have been offended. This always amazes me, since in my profession as an engineer, people are much more open to being given new information by a customer. In fact, it is most often greatly appreciated. After this, we’ve been told that alternatives to chickenpox and MMR are unavailable (only partly true, since measles and mumps are available separately from Rubella and alternatives to Rubella using ethical production methods are only available in Europe and Japan). The latest response has been that we will need to pay for a whole shitload of the stuff, since they buy it in bulk and insurance won’t pay for an order of only one or two dosages. We’re currently waiting out our pediatrician on this one and seeing if how much would need to be ordered. After giving us an original response that only one was available, she was very vague on the actual cost and number of dosages (hundreds of dollars, I think was all she said). We’ll see if we can get more specific information out of her. We know a few other people in our shoes and might be able to pull together enough folks to make a bulk order and get the measles and mumps vaccines separately.

Is there a moral obligation to avoid vaccines with manufactured with aborted fetus tissue?
Would there be a moral obligation to avoid vaccines manufactured using martyred Christians or Jewish victims of the holocaust? I don’t think there necessarily would, though to ignore the problem and not seek ethical alternatives would surely be an ethical problem to a pro-life person. The reasoning of my wife and I has run something along these lines. A) Our medical system is run entirely by profits. The pharmaceutical companies will only change if there is a large enough market to make it such change profitable. Ethical alternatives exist. All we need is a large enough market to make pushing them through the FDA approval process profitable. B) Because most people are completely ignorant on the issue as it stands, the pharmaceutical companies have figured that they can get away with this at will and are developing new vaccines using aborted cell lines. This type of research will continue, unless the companies realize that they won’t be able to sell to a significant enough portion of the population to make taking other tracks profitable. C) There is so much ignorance on the issue this is the most effective means of education I know of for informing people about the problem, especially doctors. In my experience, doctors don’t listen to engineers unless that person is their patient and their patient’s care is affected by this idea. It’s the only way I know of to educate doctors, honestly. The pharmaceutical companies certainly haven’t been doing too great a job with this issue.

Resources for vaccines using cell lines from aborted fetuses.

Coriell Cell Repository. Are you a member of a research institution/related commercial company and want to buy your own aborted fetus cell lines? Step right up and give them the cash.

Children of God for Life. I think their response is too strident, but I’ve yet to find a mistake in their documentation. Best summary out there of *which* vaccines use aborted fetus tissue in their production. Using this website and the sources they reference, I’ve figured out in 5 minutes what my doctor’s staff couldn’t figure out after “much research.”