Links o’ Interest

Is God a Taoist?

Learn a little about how experimental design and statistics work. As Darell Huff said, “it is easy to lie with statistics,” but as Frederick Mosteller said, “it is easier to lie without them.”

Insensitivity Training

If fire was made of water

A incisive essay on liberalism. I disagree with a lot of it, but I’m not sure why, which usually means I need to re-examine my beliefs. That’s a good essay.

The best baseball pitch I’ve ever seen.

Incredibly funny intro to the new AquaTeenHungerForce movie. Be sure to watch it all.

I Like People

I rushed out of work today because there was a sudden downpour and I thought I had left my sunroof open. (I hadn’t). The elevator stopped on the way down, and a woman got on with a basket. I mumbled heyhowsitgoin at her. She brightly replied, “It’s going great, would you like some candy?” and offered me the basket. I selected an orange Starburst. The whole incident kept me happy for a good twenty minutes.

In Which the MSM Needs a Mirror

The New York Times has a priceless editorial today. Using Michael Bloomberg as a springboard, they let loose with ripsotes like these:

For a couple of days, at least, he changed the subject from who has raised the most money and focused attention on some of the nonwedge but really important issues that he and a few other mayors and governors have been trying to push to the front of the national agenda…
Mr. Bloomberg was right when he said Americans care “about who’s going to pay their Social Security; they care about who’s going to pay their medical care; they care about immigration, about our reputation overseas.” And, unlike politicians in both parties, he talked about America’s out-of-control gun problem.

I have news for you. The “subject” is not some vague force of nature that just happens. It’s an artifact of how the mass media spends time and inches. And guess what New York Times, that’s you. You’re writing the articles, they don’t just magically appear. You’re the one publishing stupid articles about every triviality there is instead of writing about positions and policy. You’re the reason why our electorate is so incredibly uninformed about anything important. The candidates do talk about medical care, they do talk about Social Security, they do talk about our reputation overseas. You just don’t report it. Look in the mirror.

Book Recommendations

In no particular order, here’s some books I’ve read recently that I recommend.

  • Sweet and Low (Rich Cohen): Rich Cohen’s grandfather started the Sweet & Low company. He lifted the family from relative poverty to generating hundreds of millions of dollars of income every year. Along the way, Rich’s branch of the family was cut out. This is the story of his family history, the company, sugar, New York, the Jews, the FBI, the FDA, World War II… it has something for everyone.
  • Now I Can Die in Peace: How ESPN’s Sports Guy Found Salvation, with a Little Help from Nomar, Pedro, Shawshank, and the 2004 Red Sox (Bill Simmons aka Sports Guy): I have been reading Sports Guy religiously since 1999 or so, back when he was the Boston Sports Guy. I am a bit too proud to have two of my letters to him published. If you want to get a taste of one of the best and funniest sportswriters around, check out some of his columns here.
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl): This was one of the New York Times books of the year. I read it based on that recommendation, and I’m glad I did. Incredible use of language that wraps you up in every sentence. The plot is interesting, then a little less interesting, then when you least expect it, it gets fantastic. This is a long dense book, but it’s worth the payout.
  • My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk): Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Obstensibly a murder mystery set in historical Istanbul, this book is more a meditation on the meaning of art. The language is beautiful. Full of stories within stories, and layers of meaning that are present without being overt. Everything about this book feels like ti comes from another time and place, in a good way.
  • A Solider of the Great War (Mark Helperin): A long recounting of the events in and around World War I that made the narrator into the character he is. Just a good read.
  • The Blind Side (Michael Lewis): It’s either a great football book, or a great upbringing book, or a book about racism, or a book about a idiot savant… whatever it is, it’s a great book. Michael Oher was a huge kid barely living in the deep South, without a home, without a family, hardly ever speaking a word. First, he randomly gets adopted by one of the wealthiest, whitest families in town. Then, it turns out he is an incredible football player. He was born to play left tackle (the second highest paying position in pro football). A prodigy, he is enormous and fast and athletic and wide in all the right ways. If this story was fiction, you wouldn’t believe a word of it. (Michael Lewis is also the author of Moneyball and Liars Poker.)
  • Pound for Pound (F.X. Toole):(FX Toole also wrote the story that would become Million Dollar Baby.) Boxing fiction is it’s own little subgenre, filled with violence and betrayal and heartache. This is easily the best book I’ve ever read around boxing. The author had been around boxing his whole life, and it shows. It’s a story about people and loss and forgiveness and drugs and children and I don’t know what else. Wonderful writing, like Ed McBain, only with something to say.
  • Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi):A wonderful graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the 70s and 80s. Very simple artwork, very powerful story. If you loved Maus, you’ll like this.

Nationalizing Local Elections – Part Two

Apart from the democratic morality and constitutationality of nationalizing local elections, another more pragmatic question remains: Is it smart? Does it work? Look at this email I got today from Moveon.org:

It’s absurd—Joe Lieberman is throwing a fundraiser this week to protect Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the key pro-war votes and one of the most vulnerable Republican senators.

Lieberman is still sort of a Democrat, and Collins has always been sort of a Republican, so it makes sense that one would work for the other.

Interestingly, Collins is also one of the Senators that Kerry targeted. It is because she is a moderate Republican that she is vunerable. The GOP does not support, does not even like her. And New England is getting bluer and bluer. So let’s say that Collins does feel pressure from a Kerry-funded opponent, how will she react?

a) Move further left. This is the point of the campaign, to get her to vote with the Democrats on key issues like Iraq.
b) Move further right. Differentiate herself from her opponent, appeal to the GOP base, and use the advantages of incumbency to retain her seat.

So here you have someone who already votes with the Democrats frequently. By working against her, there’s a good chance that you may force her further right. You also further diminish the centrist part of the Senate, already whittled down beyond belief.

(Sid: In Kerry’s letter, he calls out how he is going after four vunerable Senators, and Mitch McConnell. As he says, “McConnell is the top ranking Republican in the Senate. Where our other targets are weak links at the fringes of their party, going after McConnell is getting to the heart of the matter. McConnell has been a bulwark of the GOP leadership and if we can distract, or even defeat him, with a tough electoral challenge in 2008, we’ll send a clear message that no Senator is safe if they insist on trying to stop the Democratic Senate from enacting the will of the American people. Polls in his own state show him to be vulnerable to a strong challenge; let’s make sure we give him one.” I’m not sure I agree with Kerry, but he is not deluding himself that is an easy task.)

Question to my suddenly voluble commenters: Are Kerry’s tactics good ones? Is it an effective to spend money? Will it help or hurt the Democrats?

Useless Sports Introductions

It’s the off-season for football and basketball, so what more relevant time to bring up one of my pet peeves about them? Muttroxia, it’s always topical!

It’s not about the sports themselves, it’s about the sports broadcasting. Players are introduced with their name, position, and their college. Their college? Who cares!? If they are a rookie I suppose it’s relevant. But there ought to be a statute of limitations after five years or so. It just doesn’t flippin’ matter. C’mon, maybe once it mattered that Shaq went to LSU, but that was 15 years ago! Does that somehow mark him for life so that he always needs to be identified that way? It’s worse when they add in the majors. I appreciate that the NCAA still vainly tries to pretend it’s actually promoting academics, but the networks shouldn’t play along with this obvious lie. I don’t need to know that the linebacker majored in criminal justice. Unless he can somehow apply this on the field, shut up about it.

Can you imagine the equivalent in the business world? Imagine business cards like:

Edward Rothman
Chemical Engineer
University of Virgina
a respectable 3.2 GPA

Sounds pretty stupid, right? What’s the difference!?

Nationalizing Local Elections

John Kerry is raising money to target four GOP Senators. The added pressure may get them out of office in 2008, but the short term goal is that the threat of not being re-elected will convince them to break with Bush, and support the Democratic position on Iraq and war funding.

As the email says, “This is an extraordinary campaign; to my knowledge, nothing quite like this has ever been done.”

To me, the interesting thing about it is that it continue a trend of nationalizing Congressional races. There is a growing perception that the job of your representatives is not so much to look after your local interests, as to represent your views on national issues. More and more, citizens and politicians are stepping in to other states, to influence the outcomes of their elections. This is because my senator can’t represent my interests if some other senator blocks them. For example, Ted Kennedy frustrates the right to no end, and Jesse Helms drove me crazy for decades. They weild(ed) disproptionate power, and their opponents logically enough wanted to get rid of them.

Now maybe it’s just because I’ve become more active since Bush came around, but it seems like more and more, both sides are doing something about it. Not just talking on the radio, not just setting them up as scapegoats for their own failures to enact legislation, but taking action. For example:
* Talking Point Memo integrates local coverage and polls congressman individually, exposing them to national scrutiny. They’ve taken the lead on exposing Social Security bamboozlement and secret holds on bills.
* Increased focus funding for DSSC and RNC, both of which take national money and apply it to local races.
* Getting rid of Tom Daschle, a giant pile on by enormous amounts of national Republican resources.
* I was part of a moveon.org event, where fellow Georgia residents called a particular Pennsylvania district to try and get Lois Murphy elected. (We failed.)
* An Alaskan representative inserting earmarks targeted for Florida. Why? Because he got generous donations to do so. (This shows the market at work – if your own rep won’t sling some pork for you, go to another rep who will!)

If you accept this is happening, is it good? Is there something vaguely unconstitutional about interfering in another state’s elections? Or is it fine because we’re all fellow citizens of the USA? I’m honestly conflicted. What do you think?

Links o’ Interest

Meet Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jews during the Holocaust. Tortured by the Nazis, she never said word one, and turned 97 this week.

An object lesson in “we will never ask for your username or password”. The last line is priceless.

A great cartoon
– Bush’s Justice Department, based on their testimony.

Approval ratings of Presidents since 1945. Very interesting graph, though it’s odd they cut the top one off before Bush’s plummet.

How Racist are you? Find out here. (I am low to moderate.)

Not the greatest work of my favorite online comic, but it’s just so relevant to me. Xkcd is great.

Those wacky southerners! Hilarious.

Someone finally wins Simon Cowell over. Update: He won!

What’s being poor like? “Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.” This list has stuck with me for days. Things like this is what makes me liberal.

An interesting essay on how we experience politics, from a psychological viewpoint. I took his Psych 101 course long ago. He was a great lecturer, single-handedly convincing many of my classmates to become psych majors, where we stats majors had to help them graduate. Good times.

If only they could show this on TV.

Muttrox’s Vote

Sid asked a fair question:

So are you officially a Hillary fanboy? Haven’t kept up here for some time, but I believe you were of the “She can’t win, so why bother” persuasion when last we talked. I still don’t think she can win the general election; Obama, Edwards and Gore all have a shot. Hillary would do more to excite the GOP base than any of their own candidates.

I like all three Democratic candidates. (If there is a fourth, it’s Richardson, who is also good. Give up on Gore already. It’s not going to happen. It’s isn’t. Move on.) I think they’re all more or less in line with what I believe. I’d take any of them in a heartbeat. And they are all vastly superior to any of the pathetic Republican candidates. Obviously, I’m very anti-Bush, and all three of them are basically Bushies. McCain used to be a different breed, but that’s changed. Guliani is literally certifiable. Romney is an extremely polished liar.

So I’m not supporting any particular Democrat yet. Whoever wins the primary I will gladly support.

All that said, I’ve fallen in with John Edwards. I’m basically a progressive, and his policies are essentially progressive. Every time he announces a policy, it’s one I agree with. Every time there’s a difference between him and Obama or Hilary, I agree with him.

John Edwards for President.

That’s how they get you: Gas Stations

I stopped off for gas on the way back from the not-very-famous Marengo Caves in Indiana. Out here on ol’ Route 64, the technology is not particularly modern. It’s the first gas station I’ve seen in years that I couldn’t swipe my credit card. I had to prepay.

I am clearly soft, because I was overly annoyed by this. You mean I have to wait in line? And I can’t just say “fill ‘er up”, I have to guess? Fine, let’s go with $20.

The pump didn’t stop at $20, it kept going to $25. So I had to go back in to pay the difference. I had to wait in line again. (The woman in front of me was buying groceries and cigarettes. At gas station prices. Over $100 for a few days worth of food). The cashier couldn’t understand why the pump had kept going, and told me all the details of the troubles they were having with the pump. Finally I nodded politley, dropped my fiver on the desk and walked out.

So how did they get me? They had arranged the choices in reverse order. I automatically punched the button on the left, which is always the 87 octane. Here it was not. They tricked me into buying premium gas.

Well done, Shell station of Route 64 in Indiana, conveniently located a few miles south of Marengo Caves. Now, with twice the flies!

The More Things Change

A bit of corruption in Congress? Say it Ain’t So!

Democrats, like the GOP before them, refuse to give any real teeth to an Ethics Committee. Teeth means that you give an oustide group the power to investigate and penalize. As long as the fox guards the henhouse, nothing happens. Several members of Congress have been convicted of crimes without ever being reprimanded, not the best statistic for an ethics committee.

The Democrats have made strides in cleaning up some of the more obvious, but trivial, ethics issues in Congress, but have stopped short of true reform. And they are generally running things in a much more bi-partisan manner than the GOP did. The best you can say is that they’ve restored Congress to however dysfunctional is was before the Bushies came in and completely broke it.

Let’s look at energy policy: Ever since Opec in the 1970s, it has been a top priority of every Administration to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Everyone with two functioning neurons knows the future of the country, and quite possible the species, rests with renewable energy sources like sun, wind, and water.

After a disasterous war in Iraq, and gas prices going to $4/gallon (still a good price), what has our government chosent to do? Invest in coal. We’ve decided to go back 100 years or so. Richard Gephardt and “a powerful roster of Democrats and Republicans” are giving away our futures.

An editorial on the subject.

Investing in Real Estate: A Little Math

I was reading yet another book about real estate investing and landlording, before yet again wussing out of the whole idea. Here’s the opening anecdote, labeled “Upside”:

Twenty-five years ago, my neighbor’s dad took a real estate seminar, and got into real estate buying. On the weekend he would buy properties, while keeping his full-time job. Instead of working only 40 hours a week, he began working 70 hours. Meanwhile, ever day at the dinner table his wife would say, “Get rid of those properties! They are driving you crazy and stressing you out. I just don’t know why you do it! Last month you made no money…”

Over a period of 20 years, this man bought houses, duplexes, and a small apartment building that had 80 units — all the while, he endured his wife’s criticism. He has since passed away and his widow now lives in a $2 million beach house in Florida in the winter and in her other property up north in the summer. Her net worth is about $8 million, all because of what she called her husband’s “headachy” rental property. Ironically, from his regular job, he received a pension worth only $400,000.

1) If this anecdote is actually true, his wife is clearly a total bitch.
2) This man gave up 20 years of the prime of his life working 30 hours a week on real estate, besides a full-time day job. He may not have known his children’s names. It quite possibly drove him to an early grave. So maybe his wife isn’t a total bitch, maybe she had a good point. He could have passed up some of those houses and duplexes and spent some time with his family.
3) How much was that labor worth? We don’t know how much his regular job paid, but according to this, the average US income is about $50,000. He worked an extra 30 hours, so that’s $37,500 worth of labor he put into this. If you invested $37,500 a year for 20 years with (for example) a 9% return, how much would you end up with? Over $2 million. Hm. Actually, that’s pretty convincing! That’s only a quarter of what he got through the real estate!
4) But of course we don’t know if it was unusually good market timing. Or much of anything to figure out if this is representative. I’ve read hundreds of stories about these great successes, but never any about the poor schmucks who blew their life savings in real estate.
5) And we don’t know how much of that $8 million was due to these properties. Probably most of it, but hopefully he was contributing to a 401(k), his residence was appreciating, his wife may have worked, etc.
6) (To be fair, I used 2005 income, 9% may be optimistic, I ignored inflation and taxes, so there’s some counter-arguments also.)
7) Why didn’t this guy quit his job after 10 years? By then, he must have been generating enough income from these properties.

The next section is titled “The Downside”. Here’s the only downside he can think of. “But like any other business in any part of the world, landlording has its rewards and it takes work.”

Okay, So I’m Addicted!

I’m addicted to Mrs. Freshley’s cupcakes, the cheap Hostess knockoff in the vending machines at work. They have become scarce for this last few months. I asked the guy who loads the machine if he could make sure to get them, which is pretty demeaning right there.

They put in a bunch over the weekend. My question is: Exactly how pathetic is it to buy all of them and then hoard them at my desk?

Mrs. Freshley Cupcakes

Update: I gave in. I took my change jar over and started feeding the machine. Unfortunately, it seems to accept only enough for the most expensive item, and then it stopped recording the money. I didn’t notice, and lost a good two bucks in there. Darn it! Strangely enough, when I got back to my desk forty-five seconds later, someone had left fifty cents for me they owed me, and then someone else stopped by with another fifty cents. Awesome karma!

Links o’ Interest

The worst everything in movies. Hilarious.

Animated Calvin & Hobbes.

Mr. Rogers is even nicer than you thought. Follow the links at the bottom also.

Ever wonder what happens to all those Mario’s who didn’t make it?

The US Government doesn’t follow standard accounting rules. Half of the dispute over whether Social Security is doomed or just fine comes from the fact that it’s revenues aren’t kept separate from other revenues, so the government spends the money it has promised future beneficiaries. (That’s what Gore meant by a “lockbox”, fixing that problem.) See my excellent Social Security treatises (1 and 2) for more details.

Bottom line: Taxpayers are now on the hook for a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, a 2.3% increase from 2006. That amount is equal to $516,348 for every U.S. household.

See a convincing rebuttal from Dean Baker:

It tells readers that the debt comes to $516,348 per household. That number would sound somewhat less scary if the article pointed out that by the same methodology, future income comes to more than $6 million per household.

Is This a Hillary Hit Piece?

Today’s cover piece in the New York Times Magazine is “Hillary’s War”. Let’s take a look at it, shall we? We’ll start with the cover and lead before moving to the content.

The cover image: Unfortunately, the online version of the image doesn’t show up well, so I can’t show it to you. It has the words “Hillary’s War” in an enormouse font. The coloring of the letters goes from red to blue, a timeline is printed below and there is a key showing that the red indicates “Support war authorization” and blue represents “Supports war deauthorization”. Cleverly done, especially the red (GOP) and blue (Democrat) color choices, just in case it was unclear which party was on which side. The central message is unavoidable. She was for the war, then against it. She was with the Republicans, then the Democrats. Hillary is a flip-flopper. She changes with the wind. The whole image is constructed to transmit this one thought as clearly as possible.

Well, that’s not true, there’s another thought even more clear. “Hillary’s War”. It’s her war. That’s right, not Bush’s war, but Hillary’s. Not Roves, or Powells, or Blairs, or Tenets, or Rices, or Kristol or Kagan or Krauthammer or Safires, or Hasert or DeLay or Frist or McCains, but Hillary.

Subheads: The first subhead, “An examination of the senator’s voting, thinking and maneuvering on Iraq.” is not too bad, though the use of the word “maneuvering” is already painting the picture. The online lede is “Hillary Rodham Clinton’s decisions on Iraq may point to what sort of president she would be,” and inside the article the lead is, “Her support for the Seante resolution giving President Bush the authority to use force against Iraq remains a problem for the Democratic Party’s base. The way she arrived at that decision – and at subsequent decisions on Iraq – may point to what sort of president she would be.”

Only a little of that is true. There’s not one word in the article that points to what sort of president she would be. There isn’t an even an attempt to show how her thinking on Iraq points to what sort of president she would be. It simply raises the question. And by raising the question, it answers it – There’s something funny there. No, we’re not going to tell you what, but something stinks.

Before we even get to the meat of the article, the framing is clear. Hillary is a manipulative flip-flopper and she’ll do anything to be president. How many people see the cover of the New York Times Magazine? (Sunday circulation is 1.6 million.) How many of those ever read the first word of the article, much less read it all the way through? Much less.

The content: The content isn’t bad. It is highly factual, and avoids most of the poisoned phrasing that’s been laid out already. Still, it suffers from some serious problems, so let’s go through some of the main points.

1) Why didn’t she read the entirety of the National Intelligence Estimate, the definitive intelligence assessment of the Iraq situation? That’s a good point, she should have. On the other hand, only six senators did. So why single out Hillary?
2) She voted for the war. So did 77 other Senators, including all the leadership of the Democratic party.
3) She hasn’t apologized for her vote. I just find this weird. She has explained her vote, several times, and it hasn’t been reported. I’m glad Edwards did his mea culpa, but I don’t require it of every candidate. Again, why aren’t the asking the same question of other Senators? Oh, because she’s running for president, so she has to get on her knees and beg the public for forgiveness first. Grow up America.
4) She still voted for the war, even when some protesters asker her not to! One whole section is devoted to this incident. I have no idea why. The description of the group is that they “intended to ridicule the Bush administrations color-coded terrorism security alerts.” Anytime the word “ridicule” pops up in a groups mission, you can safely ignore it.
5) She voted against an amendment that would force diplomacy before invasion. Again, a good question, but 75 other senators voted against it also. Why single out Hillary? Amendments votes often don’t make sense unless you know what other amendments are out there and the context of the legislative rules. We aren’t given any of that information.
6) She’s a manipulative shrew, joining in the anti-war movement is dishonest ways. The strongest facts are against her here, putting her name on a measure at the last second when it looked good, and a couple other incidents like that. Still, it doesn’t add up to much.

Look, Hillary has always been more hawkish than the Democratic base. She bought into the administration line for too easily. That doesn’t mean she was the only one. Except for Russ Feingold, this article could have been written about any major senator. Like many others Hilary never foresaw what Bush would do with the authorization, she has since come out clearly against her previous stance, and there is just no reason to keep raking her over the coals like this. This was Bush’s war, plain and simple.

So, is this a hit piece? It’s a split decision. The article has a double-standard, but it is certainly fair to examine Hillary’s history with the war. Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr do a good job of laying out lots of facts, and there are many positive bits that I didn’t comment on. However, the editors who wrote the ledes and approved the cover unquestionably transformed this into yet another smear job by the New York Times on a Clinton. What else is new.

Terrible Testimonials

The other day I got some junk mail. It was from Foundation Capital, the usual junk. Pay off your house equity, then refinance it with as an option ARM with incredibly low monthly payments that can be made in four different ways. Nothing interesting there, I get these terrible offers all the time. This one stood out because of the testimonials.

I get a lot of mortgage company letters, but the letter from Foudnation Captial clearly showed me how I could get out of debt and regain control of my life. I spend the same amount monthly, but now a large sum goes towardsmy retirement!
James I..Certified Public Accountant

We do well financially, but we waste too much money. We explained this to our Foundation Captial loan consultant and he put togther a plan for us that paid all our debt and gave us one 15 year, fixed rate loan. That really put us back in control of our financial affairs.
David H…Financial Planner

1) So these financial professionals were both in serious debt.
2) Neither of them could figure out how to get out of debt on their own.
3) Both of them chose this method to get out of debt, which, by the way, is an excruciatingly stupid method and will leave them in worst debt than ever.

That’s a CPA and Financial Planner I never want to go to.