Monthly Archive for May, 2019

Thursday Puzzle/Science Lesson

nickelEvery day, a man comes to my door with a United States nickel in his hand. He asks me whether I’d prefer to examine the heads side (which is always painted either black or white) or the tails side (which is always painted either red or green). I choose each day according to my whims.

And the same thing happens to my sister. Different man, different coin, but each day he’s there with a painted nickel, offering to let her examine either the heads side or the tails side.

Sometimes we call each other to compare notes on the colors we’ve seen. Here’s what we’ve concluded:

The Rules

  1. Our heads sides are never both white.
  2. Whenever one of our tail sides is green, the other one’s heads side is white.

We have thousands of observations to support these conclusions: On days when we both examine our heads sides, we never both see white. On days when we examine opposite sides and one sees a green tail, the other always sees a white head.

The Brain Teaser: Today we both chose Tails and both saw green. What colors were on our Heads sides?

Solution: By point 2) above, they were both white. But by point 1) above, that can’t happen. So….?

So what now?

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Oxycontin: Yea or Nay

Should oxycontin be legal? Here’s what the back of my envelope says:

oxycontinIn the U.S., there are about 50 million prescriptions a year for oxycontin, most of them legitimate and for the purpose of alleviating severe pain. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that the average prescription is for a two-week supply.

There are also (at least if you believe what’s on the Internet) about 20,000 deaths a year in the U.S. related to oxycontin abuse. If we value a life at $10,000,000 (which is a standard estimate based on observed willingness-to-pay for life-preserving safety measures), that’s a cost of 200 billion dollars a year, or $4000 per prescription.

If those were all the costs and benefits, the conclusion would be that oxycontin should be legal if (and only if) the average American is willing to pay $4000 to avoid two weeks of severe pain. I’m guessing that might be true in some cases (particularly when the pain is excruciating) but not on average. So by that (incomplete) reckoning, oxycontin should either be off the market entirely or regulated in some entirely new way that will dramatically reduce those overdose deaths.

But of course what this overlooks on the benefit side is all the “abusers” whose lives have been enriched by oxycontin. This includes the vast majority who use and live to tell the tale, and also some of the OD’ers, for whom a few years of oxycontin highs might well have been preferable to a longer lifetime with no highs at all. Relatedly, what this overlooks on the cost side is that the average “abuser” is likely to value his life at considerably less than the typical $10 million — as evidenced by the fact that he’s electing to take these risks in the first place. Also relatedly, it overlooks the likelihood that many of those who overdose on oxycontin would, in its absence, be killing themselves some other way.

If the back of your envelope is larger than mine and you make those corrections, I’m reasonably confident that your bottom line will come out pro-oxycontin. (Please share that bottom line!) I am however, mildly surprised (and — both as a blogger who prefers slam-dunk arguments and as a libertarian who prefers to come down on the side of freedom — mildly disappointed) that the first quick-and-dirty calculation comes out the other way.