Friday, July 20, 2007

Education Wins Again

Some interesting research into what effect marriage has on peoples feelings of happiness has just appeared. Apparently married men are much happier than single men, not exactly a shock I guess, as are married women, though not by the same amount. The discrepancy seems to have something to do with women being happier in general.

Possibly the most interesting finding however is that men with more highly educated wives are happier:

A married man's chances of achieving a high level of happiness - above a score of seven - are improved by 8 per cent for every extra year of education his wife has. But married women's happiness level is unaffected by their husband's years of schooling.

Women do not care how dumb their husbands are - but they feel happier if the men are smarter than they are, the study shows.

So the 8 years of University I have is not doing anything. Dammit. I wonder if the place of education, or the type of study of their spouse has any effect on mens feelings?

Monday, July 16, 2007

On Health Care - Why The State Wins

A couple of things in the last few days have motivated me to post these musings. The first is that last Tuesday a slight eye infection forced me to visit a GP for the first time in about 6 years, the second is that there seems to be a lot of flap in the States at present over the release of Michael Moore's new film, SiCKO, all about the health care system in the US.

First off I'll admit I'm totally biased, I don't know how any civilized industrial nation thinks they can get by without universal state sponsored health care, the fact that only one such country does so probably indicates that most of the rest of the western world agrees with me here. My perception is also coloured by the fact that whenever I, or anyone I have known has needed the NHS it has been very efficient, this clearly isn't always the case, but its good when as happened to me I walked in off the street and had seen a Doctor within 30mins, no appointment, no problem. It was also reassuring to know that the most I would have to pay would be about £6.90 for any drugs, were they to cost £10 or £10,000.

Now the NHS clearly isn't perfect, it clearly isn't even the best health care system around, but I think it is considerably better than a system which is run for profit. Whats more I would argue that if run efficiently any public health care system is clearly better than any private one. For one simple reason, economics, in a public system you remove several layers which are required to add a profit margin to everything they do. For example, in a system like in the US where health care is paid for by purchasing insurance, you have system where if you are ill, you visit the doctor, he does his job, then marks up the cost by ~20% or more to cover the profit margin of his medical group, he then calls your insurer who may or may not decide to pay for any treatment, in any case your premium includes a ~20% markup to cover their profit margin, you then get moved along to a hospital if you require surgery, they also add their own ~20% markup, so you have three layers where you end up paying more for private health care, just so a bunch of rich shareholders get to get richer.

Now people argue that a private health care system is more efficient so you don't notice these markups, because overall the service costs less than the supposedly inefficient state system. This can easily be shown to be nonsense, the US spends %15 of GDP on health care, to provide them a ranking of #37 in the world for health care, France spends %11 of GDP to be #1. Hmm how is that extra efficiency working out for you. It looks even worse when you realise everyone in France gets anything they need, whereas in the States an appreciable fraction of the population has no insurance, so get little or no treatment. So to take the stats at face value, the private health care systems costs you more to provide a worse service, good job. If your a stat fan, in the UK we currently spend around 8% of GDP, to be placed #18. Which anyway you slice it means that the NHS is both more efficient and provides a better service on average to boot. Its important to note that this is of course on average, I'm sure if you have the money in the States you get a good service, the problem is that most people either don't have the money, or are very close to losing their coverage.

There is of course one other major area that nationalised systems can outperform the private sector, in collective bargaining, it always strikes me as amazing that people that support the idea of capitilism (like me) seem happy to allow large companies, Walmart or Tesco for example, to drive down prices by buying in bulk (like me), however when in the States the idea of a similar approach to buying drugs is mooted you hear howls of disapproval (not like me). Apparently cheaper toilet paper is fine, but more affordable life saving drugs, oh no, you have to pay whatever the drug company feels like. If one buying system exists, as does here in the UK, it is much easier for them to say to the pharmaceutical companies, we are going to pay this much, and we'll take 10 million doses. When you have a series of medical groups all competing and serving (comparitively) small numbers of customers, its much more difficult to drive a hard bargain, the drug companies would rather not sell to you then have to cut the prices across the board.

Anyway musings over for the week. Back to work.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday Galaxy - 2 - NGC 720

This is a real hot off the press Friday Galaxy, the data for this was only taken last night, in Chile, by those very helpful people at the Gemini-South telescope. I'm using the 12 images they took (4 each of g',r' and i', that's blue, green and red to you and me) to pick out Globular Clusters for spectroscopic follow up.

The image below shows the image produced, there are a couple of odd things about this image. The first is that the galaxy itself is very blue, for an elliptical galaxy this is odd, these are usually known as being red and dead, because they don't form stars. At first I thought I had mixed up the blue and red channels, however in the top left corner you can see a very pretty background edge on spiral and this appears to be just the right colour for a spiral, hmm.

If we assume that the colours are correct and that we are seeing a blue elliptical galaxy, then their are two possibilities: Either some fraction of the galaxy is made up of hot young blue stars, which can't have been formed more than a few Gyrs ago (not that common for ellipticals), or else the galaxy must be very old and lacking in metals. This is one of the major drawbacks of using the colours of astronomical objects like galaxies to tell you about them, there is a degeneracy between the age of stellar populations and the amount of elements heavier than Helium that they contain (their metallicity). Basically things can appear blue for one of two reasons, they are either young, or they have a low metallicity (and are old).

To solve this conundrum will require spectroscopy, which hopefully we will be getting in the next few months. One other interesting thing that appears in this image can be seen in the top left, when you look at the spiral galaxy (shown enlarged below) you can just about make out what appears to be a stream of material trailing to the bottom right. This trail, if real, could be a trail of stars produced by a minor merger event, if I get the chance and have the space when I make up the mask for the spectroscopy I may well try and get a sly spectrum of this just to see whats going on.

That just shows you one of the cool things about astronomy, serendipity means you can find all sorts of interesting things in the unlikliest of places. There are loads of interesting things in the background of deep images like this one, if anyone finds anything interesting in the large version of the image, let me know, you never know I may try and get a spectrum of anything you find that looks interesting enough.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Friday Galaxy - 1 - NGC 524

I've decided to institute a new tradition of posting images of a favourite galaxy on a friday. For the first example I have decided to choose NGC 524, this galaxy is an S0 galaxy that I am working on at the moment.

The images I'm going to show are from archival HST images taken using WFPC2 (PI Brodie project 6554), I have produced a colour image of the galaxy, though I have cheated somewhat, as I only had access to two filters the F555W and the F814W, which I am going to treat as blue and red respectively, I'm then going to use an average of the two as the green channel. The downside is you're pretty much guaranteed to get something that looks red or blue, still this is interesting in itself, as blue galaxies tend to be young and red ones old. So here is the image.

You can see the centre of the galaxy is located towards the top left of the image, the diffuse glow around this is the halo of NGC 524, many foreground stars and background galaxies are also obvious. In this image the galaxy looks fairly boring, a very smooth looking ellipical galaxy, however I had seen some hints of something odd going on in the inner regions in some data I had from the Gemini telescopes and decided to investigate it. What I did was to average the images from the blue and red exposures, as this tends to pick out structures and dust in galaxies, this is because dust tends to absorb different amounts of the two wavebands. What I found was this:

First of all you can see that many objects disappear, this is just because they have similar amounts of flux in the blue and red, the centre of the galaxy however doesn't. You can see that some very pretty spiral structure emerges, so you can see that on closer inspection NGC 524 is being observed face-on, the Milky Way would probably look very similar if you stopped forming stars and then looked at it from above the disc after a few Billion years.