Saturday, October 10, 2009

Flu vaccine game theory

One of the things people don't know about me is that, in college, I minored in Humanities -- which, if you don't understand, roughly translates into me minoring in being a dilettante. To complete the minor, I had to complete a certain number of units in a certain number of disciplines. Since it's been 15 years, I can only remember four of them -- Art History, Theater, Spanish (Yes, I can translate Spanish poetry -- or in my case, lyrics to pop songs), and Economics.

(Cue "One of these things is not like the other.")

Yes, Economics. Which mostly means that I was the only hippie in a class full of libertarians studying Law and Economics. But which also means that I have a slightly better-than-average understanding of concepts like game theory.

Last night, I was thinking about this in the context of the flu vaccine. You see, I was out with a friend and mentioned that I got my flu shot, and she, in turn, noted that she did not plan on getting a flu shot this year because she never gets the flu. My mind started racing with the implications.

Ideally, the flu vaccine works best when large populations are vaccinated. But it bears a cost -- money, time, pain. Moreover, people can't really prove that the flu shot works -- if they get the flu shot and don't get the flu, they can't just assume that it worked. They may have a natural immunity or may not have been exposed to the virus. But if they get the vaccine and it doesn't work, they know.

So what is the vaccine other than a way of hedging your bet? If you decide not to get the flu vaccine, aren't you really just counting on the probability that the people you come in contact with are not contagious, i.e. got their vaccine?

Clearly some economist or public policy grad student out there needs to contemplate this more fully.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


I've been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately. It all started when I stumbled across a quote that changed how I've been trying to deal with people over the past few weeks. To paraphrase, the quote is: "Stop having expectations of others and just be kind."

Don't let it fool you: It's not that easy -- especially the first part. But I'm working on it.

And while I'm not necessarily ready to give up on my personal version of Judaism just yet, there's a lot of little Buddhist nuggets of wisdom that appeal to me. Like the idea that we don't need to improve. Or how we can't control the uncontrollable. And how we should stop dwelling on the past or the future but live in the present.

I'm going to take these and blend them in to my personal life philosophy. And as I've been reading, I've found more and more of these little nuggets that I want to keep -- or at least try on and see if they work. So every time something jumps out at me, I add it to the list I've been keeping next to my bed, in a little Strawberry Shortcake notebook.

I wonder if this is how cult religions start.