Life expectancy as a priority

I will get to the subject eventually, but first I want to continue my exploration of a walking route to a shopping location I normally would drive to. The earlier post described my attempts to find a route that mostly followed a network of bike paths through parks that border streams. This was a workable route even though it was long. I feel that the length alone would discourage me from using it as often as I would like.

There were other disadvantages. The principle was that the bike paths are actually bike roads. The paths are supposedly mixed use, but it is clear the bikes own the road especially with the growing numbers of electric bikes. Walking along a bike path is like walking along a regular road that has no sidewalks and it is a single lane with two way traffic. One needs to continually pay attention to approaching traffic from either direction, and be willing to get out of the way.

Another disadvantage of a park path is that I intend to actually shop at my destination, so I will be carrying a bag or two on my way back. It was socially awkward enough to be walking along the path in my shopping clothes instead of something more appropriate for using a park. It would be even worse, if my hands were burdened with shopping bags.

Yesterday, I tried a different route that followed the sidewalks but along neighborhood side streets as much as possible. This route was much better. I was still following legitimate pedestrian paths and yet avoided even having to hear of passing traffic most of the way. It also turned out to be much closer to a direct path between home and the location. One the way back, I realized I could improve the route even more.

The realization came because I was sheltering under a tree to escape an unexpected downpour. The point where I was sheltering was right at the point were there was the fork for the alternative path. While standing and waiting for the hardest rain to stop, I figured out that that would be a better path. The reason was that at the point of my shelter, the road had steady traffic of cars that wanted to speed up because the long stretch for the highway overpass. This is not a major street, in fact it was so minor that it is surprising it deserved its own overpass, but the route is obviously popular enough as a connector between two arterial roads. My preference was to not even hear of cars approaching.

It is always useful to take a stop at an unexpected location and just contemplate what that may mean. In this case, the point just happened to be at the junction where I could have taken a different route that had passes the highway but only for non-motor vehicles, excepting electric bicycles. It was accidental because that is just where the heavy rain started on my trek home.

Before I started my walk, I checked the online sources for weather forecasts. If it warned of rain, I probably would not have started, or at least I would have carried an umbrella. Instead it promised a warm dry weather, with wet weather coming the next day. I may have misread it, but all I can say is that I dressed for warm and dry, but got cold and wet.

As I walked with this confidence that it will get warmer and stay dry, I distinctly remember concluding that the sky looked like it was about to rain. I have seen similar clouds before that just pass over head, threatening to rain but never actually raining. I figured that this must have been the case for this day, because I trusted the forecast.

The further I walked the sky looked more likely to start raining. I reached the store dry and proceeded to shop normally under the usual hazmat gear now required for such activities. I mostly browsed for future project ideas, but I did end up buying a few small things. When I stepped out, I noticed the ground was wet but the sidewalks in that strip were still crowded with people and they were not carrying umbrellas. I figured it would be a safe bet to reach home without getting wet.

In a similar circumstance occurring a couple years earlier, I would have chosen to go into one of the cafes, buy something and then sit at a table for about 30 minutes to wait for the darker sky to pass. I can see brighter skies in all directions, it was just darker directly overhead. This was not a thunderstorm kind of dark, but just a thicker version of an overcast. The rain would not amount to much. It actually did not amount to much, but when it came it came down hard.

The rain started about 10 minutes into my route home and the worst of it lasted just under 10 minutes. A 30 minute stay at an indoor café would have been perfect. Even if I were willing to put up with the new COVID etiquette, given the circumstances, the place probably would have exceeded its capacity restrictions, and people would end up much closer than 6 feet apart. I miss that kind of opportunity, a bunch of people huddled together making small talk while waiting for the rain to stop. All brought together by the accident of being in the same place at the same time when the unexpected rain started. That is not going to happen any more, at least not for me.

I really do not mind that the forecast was wrong, and I admit I probably misinterpreted or forgot the day of the week. I was not even bothered at being chilled by temperatures at least 10 degrees colder than I expected. I didn’t mind having to wait out the heavier rain under a leaky shelter. I was heading home where I could change my clothes. But even if I were heading in the other direction, I would have just turned back and tried again later. I’m flexible that way, but I also had the luxury of not having a travel partner to argue with.

The rain itself occurred unexpected, and it definitely affected my plans for the day. I adapted. I would not get as much done as I had planned, but in the end of the day I still managed to accomplish enough to make a full day.

Sometimes it rains. This is a known hazard of pursuing a pedestrian lifestyle. One advantage of cars is that they are weather proof, for the most part. You can keep appointments because you have a moving shelter to get between places at the appointed times.

Pedestrians do have portable shelter options such as rain proof jackets or umbrellas but these are a nuisance if it does not rain. This nuisance of carrying around a shelter never occurs when driving, the car just automatically is a shelter. I rarely carry an umbrella. Even if the forecast had said there was a good chance for a brief shower, I probably still would not have carried an umbrella, but I probably would have worn warmer clothing.

The broader point is about the separation between expectation and reality. The expectation was for a day that was warm and dry, although cloudy. I expected to accomplish several things that day. Instead, the day was interrupted with a rain shower that left me soaked. I had to change my clothes and my plans. I managed to salvage the day, but it was not what I originally expected.

The key point of this description is that the unexpected weather confronted me with having to make a choice of what to do next. In each time, I did not follow some contingency plan or consult some rule book about what to do when it looks like it is going to rain. Instead, I made decisions at each moment. It was a fresh decision that considered the current situation plus my deeper priorities or desires. The current situation was that I needed to contend with the possibility of rain, something that eventually became a reality, and left me soaked. The deeper priority or desire was that I wanted to walk the full round trip. There was really only one opportunity to escape the rain. As I mentioned above, I could have gave some business to one of the cafes, ordered a coffee or a sandwich and just sit it out. I would have done so before there were signs demanding social distancing protocols. I decided I would rather just take my chances with the rain. I also fully accepted the consequences of that decision.

A big part of my working career had to do with some form of cost-benefit analysis or a return on investment analysis. These were always in the context of a future decision. Sometimes it was a choice between two options that have different mix of costs and benefits. Sometimes it is a decision whether the return would be greater than the investment.

These analyses bothered me in multiple ways. While the costs were often very explicit. We had to buy something, or we had to do things like retrain people. The benefit side of the calculation had much less confidence. It is not clear that the projected benefit would actually be realized. Over time, my observing of past decisions proved to me that the earlier promises fell short. Even if there was a benefit, there are a multitude of different factors that could contribute to that success. It is hard to attribute a proportion of the profit to a particular decision. Instead every decision took full credit for the success, thus proving their individual return on investment. Combining all of these claims of returns would far exceed the actual return involved.

No one seemed to be too concerned about actual attribution of return to a particular decision. The decision has already been made. What happens after the decision is more of an operational question than a decision making one. The actual return or benefit would be more properly fully attributable to the operational aspects of the system or organization. The investments were just fashion choices that the operations side had to accept.

The decision making often appears to be no different than choosing to follow the current fashion. Like fashion, sometimes the options are impractical or impede one’s life, but the options rarely ever actually improve ones life. The improving of a life is completely up to the individual’s efforts. I see most cost-benefit analyses to be similar. The costs are associated with buying into the fashion, the benefits are up to the individual to achieve in spite of the fashion.

I have worked long enough where a decision is needed to upgrade some prior decision. Often this is the result of a vendor that first won the argument that adopting their product would return benefits. The new question is always to justify the added cost of the upgrade with new benefits. Often this added cost is indirect costs of retraining or revising old practices because the upgrade is not backward compatible. The promised cost is that the new product has a more modern foundation that will allow the vendor to support us better in the future. The cost versus benefit analysis is between these perspectives.

I was disappointed about the questions that never come up in these upgrade or overhaul decisions. It was not clear to me that the original choice actually delivered the promises in the first place. It is not clear that it will continue to deliver the promises even if it had done so in the past. The unspoken third choice is whether we should continue to use the product or service at all.

A specific example I have in mind concerns the Microsoft office applications. Every few years, we are confronted with the need to adapt to new products or new ways the product is delivered. The choices are how to adapt, or when to adapt. We never seriously considered the alternative to abandon the product line entirely, but clearly that is an option.

For many organizations, particularly large established ones, the costs for completely replacing the product line would be huge. There would be a substantive emotional reaction of people not wanting to change their work practices or learn a different system. Besides that there would be the actual costs of retraining, and productivity dip as things migrate to a different platform. There would be costs in converting existing processes to use the different system.

All of these costs are easily computed at least to the point of appearing unaffordable. The problem is that the benefits are not so easily computed. We knew there were substantial problems that never really gets solved. This was particularly the case for the communication elements such as Exchange or Skype. We can understand that it is possible to get these to work properly, but that would require the organization to change in ways that are simply not possible.

In my mind, there long since came a point where it was clear that our operations were incompatible with Microsoft’s presumption of how businesses should operate. This should have been the death stroke for the product. It is not the right product for this organization. There are more compatible products. My prediction is that the organization will continue to use Microsoft products for the next couple decades. For the alternatives, the costs are too easy to calculate and the benefits are too hard to calculate. Alternatively, there is more confidence in the costs than there is in the benefits. The result is to continue to use a clearly incompatible product line.

I do not mean to be so harsh on Microsoft, but I think what I said is true. There might have been a time in the past when it was very compatible with corporate environments. I recall this being especially true in the early years with just MS-DOS on individual computers with no networking other than exchanging floppy disks. I also can see how a fresh organization can build from scratch on top of the current product line, but I would question whether such a business would choose Microsoft over the alternatives. Large organizations are treating Microsoft products as something like a law of nature. it has always been this way, so it must always be this way.

This reminds me of what I mentioned in my last post about stop signs. Road designers put in stop signs because there always were stop signs. They immediately reject the idea that they can design roads without stop signs and those roads would operate safer and most efficiently. They know how to design such roads, but they conclude the costs far exceed the benefits. That is primarily because the costs are much easier to calculate than the benefits. Meanwhile roads based on yields instead of stops perform very well in other places. Designers dismiss that as being a cultural difference, without recognizing that the culture difference is a consequence of the design. Put up a stop sign, and people’s attention will be on the sign. Put up a yield sign, and people’s attention will be on the traffic and the rules of priority.

One of the problems of aging in corporations or other organizations is the preference for preserving the past, or adapting in ways that least disrupt the standards of the past. They understand there are modern alternatives, but when they do the calculations, the costs always outweigh the benefits. This is a fault of the benefits being much harder to calculate and are less convincing than the costs.

All of this discussion is related to the current pandemic situation. I will suppose that the initial pandemic response was justified. A large number of people were dying from the same condition that was spreading. This needed a response to stop or at least slow this result. There was also a need to find better treatments or preventions.

Now it is over a year later and we are still in the same mode of having to stop this pandemic. With news of new variants and limited effectiveness of vaccines, I am confident that this problem will persist for another year if not the rest of this decade.

The classic definition of a pandemic is a high infectious disease spreading over multiple continents where the disease has high probability of requiring medical care that itself has a low probability of saving the patient. A consequence of the pandemic is that there will be an excess death rate. More people are dying per year than in a year without the pandemic.

I think the pandemic’s impact on all-cause mortality rates is very important. A mild pandemic would not affect the all-cause mortality very much. If the change is very slight, the disease no longer qualifies as a pandemic unless it is a particularly high threat to our youngest generation.

The definition of the pandemic is missing a stopping definition. The only stopping conditions we accept is the complete eradication of the virus and that is what we are pursuing with the vaccines. There are other stopping conditions that could apply and are less drastic. There are ways we can learn to accept this disease as part of the normal collection of threats on people’s health.

If the disease is actually increasing the annual mortality rate, we should debate what is the level of increase that we can accept. In other words, there is a return on investment question facing the continuation of pandemic policies of enforced social distancing and mandatory vaccinations. The return is clearly the number of lives lost, where all the costs are worth the saving of just one life. Those costs include the loss of life from lockdowns and vaccinations.

An alternative metric for impact is to replace total mortality with lost of life-years. Older people dying lose fewer life years than younger people dying. The current pandemic is not as deadly as the 1918 pandemic, but it is even much less of an impact when measured at lost life years. The 1918 pandemic had a huge impact on young people.

Another alternative would be the overall life expectancy. I assume we cannot stop this disease, and the vaccines are not making matters worse. The continued presence of this disease will have the effect of reducing the life expectancy of the population. The life expectancy for men may drop from 78 to 76 or lower. We should be able to debate about whether this is unacceptable.

We can have this debate even if the disease is so bad that it reduces the life expectancy all the way down to 58. To get from the current 78 to 58 will necessarily result in a huge number of lives lost. The question for analysis is whether we, as a modern society, can survive or even thrive under that reality.

Historically, societies can survive with a much lower life expectancy than we have now. This life expectancy is a population average. Such societies still had sizable populations of old people and many of them being elder statesmen. There were just fewer than we have now. Also, earlier low life expectancy was biased by childhood deaths because their ages were so low. Because we are much better equipped to prevent early childhood deaths, I don’t expect a pandemic would affect life expectancy a lot unless the pandemic was particularly a threat to those children.

I think we can survive as a civilization with a lower life expectancy, even one that is much lower than we had before the pandemic.

Over my lifetime I have observed the increasing attention on the life expectancy numbers. We were seeing the numbers improve over the 20th century. As a result, we set this as goal. The life expectancy should only increase and never decrease. I do not recall there ever being a debate about whether we should strive to high life expectancy. There were some objections about extreme goals like living for multiple centuries, but never for why we need to strive to increase 78 to 79, and we should panic if 78 slides to 77.

The fact that we have achieved a population life expectation that is at this number provides proof that this is the right number, or a least a lower limit to what the right number should be. I wonder whether it might have been just an accident of history. The high life expectation was a deviation from the normal value. Perhaps it will be inevitable that we will revert to a much lower norm.

Getting a lower life expectancy involves a sizable die off. This is a terrifying prospect. This may be inevitable if the recent benchmark values were anomalies of what can be sustained over the long term. The next pandemic could be much worse than the current one. I think it probably will come from a lab with the deliberate design to be much worse. When that happens, we should face the question of how do we respond. That question needs to include the cost versus benefit or return on investment analysis. The benefits or returns for letting the virus take its course are harder to compute and the consequences are harder to accept.

Whatever our choice will be, the survivors will judge the wisdom of the choice. Letting a pandemic reduce life expectancy to a lower number would be initially painful but the survivor will very likely enjoy a more prosperous life even though it is somewhat shorter. Taking drastic action to preserve the highly desired high life expectancy may result is a much more resentful and impoverished population: impoverished both economically and in terms of their hopes for a future.

In this site I frequently describe a government that redirects the democratic participation. Instead of having the population choose representatives who will set policy, the population would vote on what their priorities are and then allow computer algorithms to compute the best temporary policies that optimize those policies. The ideas is to have these debates outside of a current crisis so that the priorities can be available when the next crisis hits.

In such a hypothetical government, one of the priorities is the targeted goal for life expectancy. We would note that we enjoy many contributions from older people. We would also note that some of the contributions are actually older people taking credit of younger people who worked for them. Some of the contributions would have come from a younger person eventually. Other contributions can capture a market for an inferior product compared to what a younger person may later come up with. Debating the issue at this level will allow us to be more reasonable about setting the priority for longer life expectancies. Longer life expectancy is clearly desirable, but it likely is not among our higher priorities as a society. Society can live with a lower life expectancy.

Society can survive without pandemic responses.


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