A tip on debating healthcare

The debate over repealing Obamacare is not so simple as free markets vs. human lives.

The market principles here are simply fact. Health care is a scarce good – this is why we have a problem in the first place. People can’t get as much as they want. We need a balanced economic solution, not mere demands that “healthcare is a right or people will die.” That gets us nowhere. It does nothing to solve the problem of scarcity, cost and sustainable rationing.

The health care debate ought to be about tradeoffs and maximizing utility beneath an equitable regulatory framework. Not a discussion of moral absolutes (i.e., “By repealing the ACA, you just voted to kill people!”). That’s unhelpful and immature and, frankly, exhibits a gross misunderstanding of how almost anything in life works.

Health care is a scarce good. The laws of economics should confine our thinking about moral absolutes with regard to who “deserves” health care. It’s simply unhelpful to demand healthcare for all without first deciding exactly how that is going to be possible.

How to auto-generate unique Typeform links

I faced a challenge with Google Sheets last week. Took me two hours to resolve and ended up being the simplest solution I could imagine. Thought I’d share here to save other people some time.

The problem

I’m trying to append values to a URL. This is for a client who wants to automatically generate unique links to use in marketing emails to his customers. On the other side of these links is a Typeform survey, and he’d like to be able to match survey responses to names and email addresses while keeping the whole operation in MailChimp (versus, for example, using SurveyGizmo’s built-in mailer). This is possible with Typeform by using Hidden Values.

The solution

To accomplish this, I’m using Zapier to push all new MailChimp subscribers to a Google Sheet (Sheet 1). That’s STEP ONE.

STEP TWO is to push the first four columns (A through D) on Sheet 1 to another Sheet (Sheet 2). I did this by placing the following formula in cell A1:


Easy enough.

STEP THREE is to write a formula in the first blank column on Sheet 2 (column E) that appends values from Sheet 2’s four columns (A through D) onto the end of the Typeform survey URL.

Now, I didn’t want to have to manually drag whatever formula I wrote for one row down to all other rows in that column. In fact, I wanted the appending to be both automatic and to only run if there was data in column A. If column A was empty, then that entire row was empty (just a feature of my particular dataset) and I didn’t want any output into column D. I have particular reasons as to why, but this is a good general rule for keeping spreadsheets clean—especially if you are pushing that data to another application.

To accomplish what I just described, I used the arrayformula function. This function, also explained well here, expands whatever formula follows to all cells in the same column below where you enter the arrayformula operator. For example:


…placed in cell D2 will put B2+C2 in D2, B3+C3 in D3, and so on. This essentially automates the process of clicking-and-dragging cell D2 down to the bottom of your sheets, which just isn’t a smart way to set up such a process on a dynamic sheet.

That’s arrayformula, and it’s easy enough. But I ran into issues when trying to combine arrayformula with with concatenate. And I (thought I) needed to use concatenate to append values to the end of my Typeform URL.

I tried this at first, which did not work:


The catch

The problem here was that mixing concatenate with arrayformula placed all cells in column A2:A into E2 (the cell where I entered this formula). The text in the cell looked  like this:


The same exact text populated in cell E3. I think you can see the problem: It was taking all values in column A, from every filled row, and putting them all into my URL and repeating that same exact URL onto every row in column E.

That’s not what I wanted. I wanted one URL per row that contained information only for the email subscriber in that row. I wanted this:


Anything else would not help me connect survey responses to the relevant email subscriber.

Ultimately, I discovered that concatenate just doesn’t work with arrayformula like I’d expect it to work. Some bug, maybe. Anyways, I Googled for two hours and discovered by accident that the ampersand (&) operator works like a charm! I’d always thought ampersand was just a longwinded way to do what concatenate does, but in Google Sheets, at least, ampersand is slightly more flexible than concatenate.

The formula that finally worked:


With the unique links being created automatically, I now use Zapier to push data from Sheet 2 back to MailChimp, where it automatically updates all records with the new appended URL.


Mises on the limits of science

Two selections from Human Action:

Both principles of cognition—causality and teleology—are, owing to the limitations of human reason, imperfect and do not convey ultimate knowledge. Causality leads to a regressus in infinitum which reason can never exhaust. Teleology is found wanting as soon as the question is raised of what moves the prime mover. Either method stops short at an ultimate given which cannot be analyzed and interpreted. Reasoning and scientific inquiry can never bring full ease of mind, apodictic certainty, and perfect cognition of all things. He who seeks this must apply to faith and try to quiet his conscience by embracing a creed or metaphysical doctrine.

Science does not give us absolute and final certainty. It only gives us assurance within the limits of our mental abilities and the prevailing state of scientific thought. A scientific system is but one station in an endlessly progressing search for knowledge. It is necessarily affected by the insufficiency inherent in every human effort.


Anxiety, peace, zen: RIP Robert Pirsig.

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancedied yesterday. He was 88.

The most formative class I took in college was Civilization and Literature, where I spent half the semester writing a paper on Zen. In it, I described Pirsig via Hamlet:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty
(Since nature cannot choose his origin)
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason
Or by some habit that too much o’erleavens
the form of plausive manners—that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.

I don’t believe Pirsig was “defected,” but his book—a narrator’s cross-country journey to find peace in a world wherein he felt misplaced, forever to wander—is almost certainly autobiographical. Pirsig was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1960s and, like his narrator, was crippled by existential anxiety despite his deep desire to be, foremost, a loving father.

What I’m trying to do here is pull it all together. It’s so big. That’s why I seem to wander sometimes.

This book spoke to me, even saved me, years ago. And it speaks louder now than it did—of anxiety, of peace, of “zen.”

But Pirsig scolds me now, I’m sure. His book wasn’t about anxiety. It was about “quality”—the unutterable center of all things.

Any philosophic explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophic explanation. The process of philosophic explanation is an analytic process, a process of breaking something down into subjects and predicates. What I mean (and everybody else means) by the word ‘quality’ cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct.

Quality, he argues, was once inseparable from Truth—arete (Greek). Dichotomizing these concepts, he says, is a source of unhappiness and our general and grave misunderstanding of our role as romantics vs. mechanics. Can we find objective truths in our creativity and intuitional outbursts? Can we find zen in the mechanical inner-workings of technology?

We must, he says. At the least, we are better off for trying, as Pirsig tried against circumstances more brutal and anxious, probably, than ours.

You’ve got to live right, too. It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidance, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together … The real cycle you’re working in is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things.

RIP Pirsig.

On wisdom

The state of wisdom is when man has no longer any concern about understanding truths and goods, but about willing and living them; for this is to be wise. — Emanuel Swedenborg

He that getteth wisdom loveth his own soul: he that keepeth understanding shall find good. — Solomon

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. — Aristotle



Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

-Calvin Coolidge

Daniels on bogus illnesses

Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) on “bogus illnesses” and their relationship to tort law.

Miracles are usually taken to mean that saints or relics cause miraculous improvements, but the tort law system causes miraculous deterioration in people. According to this law, if a person does you wrong by act, omission or negligence, and you suffer from it, you are entitled to compensation. And this sounds like a natural justice, but as we know – anything that can be corrupted by perverse incentives will be corrupted by perverse incentives.

It is in the power of any man to exaggerate what he has suffered, and continues to suffer. And in this case, the alleged injury – namely, whiplash – exists only in those countries in which the sufferer of it can be legally compensated for it. It does not exist in those jurisdictions where it is not recognized as an injury that can be compensated.

Apart from a slight soreness of the neck for a day or two, in other jurisdictions people get better straight away. But not in England or America.

Are you as busy as you think?

Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.

– Laura Vanderkam, Are you as busy as you think?

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

– Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

The convenient “whitelash” thesis

From Mark Lilla in the New York Times:

Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.