Friday, February 26, 2010

Super Freakonomics

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner continue right where they left off in Freakonomics. This book is a very quick read that tackles a number of unconventional economics topics. It does quite well when it focuses on the data. However, at times it ventures off in to the realm of pet projects that don't really have the data.
It presents a great chapter on car seats. The data shows that a child above the age of two is no more likely to die in a car crash when wearing a seatbelt than when in a car seat. Yet we have increasing mandates for carseats. Why is this? Car seat manufacturers have a vested interest in selling more car seats. They often support this interest by showing car seats make children much more safer than leaving them unrestrained. There is also a possibility that they may be less likely to suffer a serious injury. However, the safety would be much greater if we just had child-sized seat-belts. This would also be a much cheaper alternative. (Since the majority of the people riding in the back are children, why not optimize for them? Adjustable seat belts would also be beneficial for smaller sized people. Unfortunately, there is little lobbying effort for this, while there is plenty for car seats. Even adjustable seatbelt makers can be ambivalent. (They could sell the belts with or without a carseat mandate.)

Parents can also be irrational when it comes to safety measures. They would be adamant that they do the "safe thing" for their kid and keep them in the car seat, even if that $50 could help the child's safety in many other ways. (Flame retardant regulations also come to mind. Children's pajamas and furniture are required to be filled with carcinogens to help provide a small delay in the remote chance that they catch on fire. A significant amount of "sure harm" is exchange for a remote possibility of reduced harm. Eliminating cigarettes in the house has proven much more effective. However, flame retardent chemicals let both the chemical industry and the tobacco industry increase sales - while providing a further revenue stream for the health care industry down the road.)

Other sections, however, are much less convincing. A discussion on global warming is especially poor. At the start of the chapter the authors discuss the "dangers of global cooling" that had worried scientists 40 years ago. Today, of course, the worry has turned to global warming. They present a little data to say that "its happening, but its not the end of the world." Then they proceed to speak in favor of piping chemicals to the stratosphere to induce global cooling.

From that discussion, it would seem to follow that we'd want a couple of pipes, one to spew out greenhouse gases and the other cooling gases. Then we could regulate the earth's temperatures. Only, we don't even have models that can accurately predict the weather for one location a week in advance. How do we expect to predict and manage the world for years? The "solution", unfortunately, could become a big part of the problem. (And could lead to many geopolitical issues, depending on who controls it.)

Agriculture discussions are also somewhat week. Ammonium Nitrate is praised as allowing great population booms. However, the externalities are not mentioned. The localvore movement is criticized because the small scale. However, no data is given to back this up or discuss other differences. (You could easily critique inappropriate local food as being wasteful [corn in the desert]. However, moving beyond commodities, local produce will likely be differet, and could even be grown on a greater scale than the industrial produce.)

The pitty of these shortcomings is that the book acknowledges the same shortcomings in other sections. The problems of "unintended consequences", externalities and detailed data analysis are all given ample discussion in the book. Unfortunately, many of the cases fail to take these in to account. This leaves the book bouncing around from rigourous pieces to fluff, and even investigative journalism. It's all entertaining, just not entirely convincing.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Misc. Books

Sue Hubbell - Waiting for Aphrodite: Journey into the Time Before Bones. This is part nature book, part narrative of life changes. She has intriguing account of a number of 'less-studied bugs' (such as rolly pollies and centipedes.) Parts of the book get a little slow. However, it does open up interesting questions about the interrelations in the ecosystem and the presence of 'superfluous' living things that are not needed for the survival of other species. She guesses that there may be very few of these, with perhaps man being the most notable. I would think otherwise - man's absence would surely have a negative impact on many of the domesticated plants and animals that would not be able to survive without his intervention. (Not to mention the many microorganisms and bugs that depend upon him.)

Louis Rekeyser - Karl Marx: Das Kapital. This purports to be a brief summary of Marx's key work. However, it is more a critique of Marx himself and the shortcomings of his economic philosophy.

Douglas Adams - The Salmon of Doubt. The intro states that this book is essentially a posthumous dump of Douglas Adams' hard drive. The contents span a couple decades and include many great short essays. Most memorable are ones detailing the absurdity of driving law enforcement and critique of the multitude of "little dongly things (power supplies)". About half the book is devoted to the actual incomplete "Salmon of Doubt" book. This is easily the weakest part of the whole collection. Though it has funny parts, it is obviously not in a complete state and doesn't stand up to the great essays.

Voltaire - Candide. Life is a Journey, not a destination. Everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong, yet Candide remains an optimist. He even gives up on the city of gold and peace to try to find and marry the girl of his dreams. Through it all, he keeps on a face of naieve optimism. Alas, even that starts to go wrong, but he remains happy until he finally sinks in to a dull life on the farm. Finally the "lack of something bad" becomes the one thing that makes him question the "best of all possible worlds". It turns out that bad things actually kept life interesting. It is monotony that is the true bad.
Voltaire takes hilarious jabs at royalty, church hierarchy, society, and just about everybody. Its amazing that it survived all these years. As I was going through it, I kept hearing Bernstein's Candide overture in my head. So, I listened to the CD and ... well, I still don't have anything more than the overture going through my head.

Stephen E. Ambrose - Undaunted Courage. This is primarily a biography of Merriweather Lewis, with extensive coverage of the Lewis and Clark exploration. The superlatives and endless complements of Lewis get tiring. It reads more like a family tale, attempting to place the family member in the most positive light, with his adventures being the most important in the world. The laudatory prose gets very tiring.

Orson Scott Card - Speaker For the Dead
This is much better than Ender's Game. The story telling is much more "together" and riveting. It presents some interesting questions. Humans secure intergalatic peace, and in doing so bring their technological and social evolution to a veritable 3000 year stand still. When they do encounter other intelligent life, they look at it through there own condescending eyes. They don't realize that the others may have many abilities that they don't recognize. Furthermore, they also expose the futility of an "observe, not disturb" mantra in science. Any observation will lead to some change in the observed, even if the observer does not notice them.
Then there is the human interaction aspect. A quest to eliminate potential harm may bring about many external damages - while still letting the undesired harm take place.

Tom Stoppard - Arcadia
This funny play is filled with mathematical references, while at the same time taking jabs at literary critics and biographers. History is storytelling through the eyes of the historian. Their biases and time period can have a significant impact on the story that they tell. I think I'll be exploring other Stoppard plays.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Great Tales from English History

The great English king Richard, immortalized in a statue at Parliament, spoke French, not English. "Robin Hood" was originally a lowly bail dodger, who's name gradually came to mean any one who disappeared after committing a crime.
These and other tidbits are present in Robert Lacey's Great Tales from English History.
The book primarily covers the middle ages in England (with a bit of available "early" history. However, it is not a history book per se, but more of a story book. It has a rough chronology of interesting stories of English characters. Some of the stories concern events and characters that shaped history at the time. Others are stories that were less significant (or even never happened), but later become part of the social fabric through myth and exaggeration.
History is, after all, is made to be applicable for the time it is written. Minor events from hundreds of years prior, suddenly become historically important because they fit a modern need or sensibility. Thus, looking at the "mythological" history from a given time period can probably tell you as much (if not more) about the time than the actual "facts" can tell. This book does a fairly good job of presenting interesting stories from the perspective of "our time" as well as other times in the not so distant pass. Now I want to dig up even more Medieval history.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ender's Game

Ender's Game has a great ending, which almost makes up for the rest of the book. I struggled to get through the start of this book. The writing seemed fairly vulgar and juvenile - almost as if it were written by the young children it was about. The general theme also seems overdone today. I was thinking Harry Potter as I read about the initial "trials" of Ender. He was a kid that adults expected to lead the military. However, he still wanted to find a way to make it through his youth. (To give credit, Ender's Game was written a decade before Harry Potter. Maybe it took a decade for authors to develop a more readable style.)
The part that I found most interesting was the story of Ender's two siblings. Their characters were much more richly developed. I found their subplot of attempting to take over the world through the "nets" more intriguing than the main plot of Ender's adventures in school. (The use of the internet makes this book seem like it was written more recently than 1986. However, the Soviet-American rivalry puts it squarely back in the cold war era.)
It is not until the end of the book that Ender finally starts to develop as a character. However, he suddenly seems to jump from being a young child to being an adult. (Though, I'm sure many children would love the opportunity to save the world by playing video games.)
The book does have some interesting ideas, however, those ideas may have been better off in the original short story.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Pac-10 Expansion Scenarios

The Pac-10 has mentioned that it is joining the Big-10 in being 'open' to conference expansion. The decisions made could lead to a spiral effect in all the conferences.

Big 10: Add Pitt (They have a good market, so they'll go for another big Pennsylvania school to balance with Penn State.)
Pac-10: Add Utah and Colorado. (They'll go for entering new TV markets with major research schools.)

In this secenario, the Big East, Big-12 and Mountain West would have to scramble for new teams. The Big East may go for Memphis to replace Pitt. They may not have many choices. With a large basketball-only portion of the conference, the Big East would have a tough time adding any additional schools.
The Mountain West would quickly add Boise State. Teams like Fresno and Nevada may be next on the list. With the loss of Utah, the Mountain West may have a tougher sell for a BCS inclusion. However, the formation of 5 'mega-conferences' may be beneficial. The Big East and Mountain West could form their own lose 'mega-conference', with the winner of each conference playing for an automatic BCS birth. (This would also provide a nice little bit of additional revenue, and help forestall demotion of the Big East.)
The Big-12 would have bigger conundrum. TCU would be an easy choice. However, with Texas Tech, Texas, and Texas A&M, the Dallas/Ft. Worth market is already covered. Thus TCU would not add any new markets. It would also create a mess with the south division. Another alternative would be to add TCU, SMU and Houston. This would revive the old Southwest Conference (minus Rice). This would allow for an all-Texas south division. Or alternatively, they could try to get Memphis (or even BYU.)

What should be the criteria for picking schools for a conference?
Some useful stats could be:
1) Home football and basketball stadium size and attendance. These are the big money earners for a conference. It would be best to have a team that could hold their own here.
2) Director's Cup Standings. This is an indication of the breadth of the overall athletic program. The Pac-10, always ranks high here. Having a team that fields teams in a large number of sports helps to keep all things viable.
3) Football and basketball rankings. A team that has good postseason runs to add the the conference coffers would be ideal.
4) Us News Ranking. Though there are a million gripes about these rankings, it does put an easy number on the quality of academics at a school. Most of the Pac-10 schools rank high here, so a similar academic heavyweight would be desired.
5) Non-overlapping TV Market size. This is a little more tricky. You can look at the local area and assume that a lot of the locals would be fans of the team. However, you also have to look at where the aluni and other fans are. For example, there are probably more Texas grads in Ft. Worth than TCU grads, thus there is little new market added with Texas and TCU in the same conference.
6) Culture, Synergies, rivalries and other intangibles. TCU could probably sell a lot more tickets to games vs. A&M and Texas than New Mexico and UNLV. BYU's conservative culture may clash with the liberal Pac-10 culture. The Pac-10 has schools in twos, thus adding BYU and Utah may be a logical fit.

Data: Singular or Plural

The data indicates we have a problem. The data are bad.
What is it? Is data singular or plural?
Going strictly by the latin roots, data is the plural of datum.
However, roots only get you so far. After all, "peas" is supposed to be the singular. However, since peas just sounded like a plural, a singular "pea" was manufactured.
Similarly, to non-scientist types, "the data is bad" sounds better than "the data are bad."
To a scientist, however, data really are a collection of individual data points. A single "datum" could be identified and checked for accuracy.
For a lay-person, however, the individual datum is long since lost in a layer of abstraction. The "data" is now a collection of abstract information, similar to the atmosphere. Sure, the atmosphere is a collection of individual molecules; but, it is a noun referring to the collection, not to individual molecules. Similarly, in common usage "data" has become an abstract collective. Thus, "the data is" becomes a correct way of referring to the abstract collective. The "data are" will slowly find itself limited to the area of scientific jargon.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Bait and Switch

While reading Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch, my immediate thoughts were "wow this sounds like something fun to do." She creates a new persona and tries to land a new career with this new "person". Then she goes on to really botch things up and pontificate on her beliefs. Her methods of searching for jobs seems to be to pay people money and fly all over the country.
I guess if that seems fun, go for it.
In this world, however, there seem to be a lot of depressed people, and not much in the order of real jobs. But, hey, she wasn't really looking for a job. She was looking for a way to "infiltrate" the white color world and report on how evil it is.
Unfortunately, her failure to actually land a job make it more of an exposé of the "job transitions" industry. (Perhaps people really were able to pick up that she was only doing this "artificially", and become more willing to take her money without bringing results.)
The further attacks on the corporate world, alas, seem very forced. Instead of going in to the 'experiment' with an open mind, she seems to start with notions of how corporations are destroying America, and then proceeds to interpret her failings as support of that view. These arguments distract from would otherwise be a funny story of somebody bumbling through an artificial high-cost, low-result "job hunt."

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Last night, I had a hankering for coffee cake that used sour cream, nutmeg and pecans. So I googled the ingredients and started filtering through a bunch of junk to find a good recipe.
"Wouldn't it be nice to have a site where you could just enter some ingredients and get some good recipes?" Sometimes I just have some things I want to cook, and really want to try some new way of putting them together. Other times, its a particular flavor that I'm in the mood for.
Well, it turns out, in the search results, I found a list from Group Recipes. The URL listed a bunch of different spices, so my curiosity was piqued. Either this was a spam site, or it might be what I'm interested in. I went to the site and found it really was the real deal.
The search engine lets you type in a list of ingredients you want to use, or a list of flavors, and shoots back with recipes. Its great for cases of "What do I do with this?"

And some more books

Barbara Ehrenreich - Nickel and Dimed: A well-off, highly educated writer attempts to 'live with the lower classes' to see how things really are. However, her effort comes across as somewhat half-hearted. Her insights seem to show more of the middle-class snobbery than anything else. While attempting to live the life of a lower-class service worker she looks down at the "wealthy" people she is working for, while also looking down at the "poor" people she is working with. One interesting is the disparity in drug policy. In her 'upper middle class' life, her Marijuana usage is no big deal, and doesn't impact her ability to work. However, in her 'lower class' life, the fear of marijuana detection cause her to turn down 'good' jobs.

David McCullough - The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge : I listened to an abridged audiobook that, rather unfortunately, turned this book in to a biography of the Roeblings. The audiobook was 'nice enough' to provide brief summaries of the missing chapters, so I knew I was missing what sounded like good discussion of the actual building of the bridge.

Golding - Lord of the Flies: When boys are alone, things start out alright, but then gradually drift in to savagery. Would somebody be tried for murder when they returned to civilization? Or would there be a big civil law suit? There would probably be plenty of rationale for just acting out in the harsh conditions. However, how would you rationalize other people not being "as bad"? What would have happened if they were not "rescued" at just the right time?

Patterson, et. al. - Crucial Conversations: Turn brain on at the precise moments when brain wants to go off to "fight". Remember the big goals, not short term "win" in a conversation.

Russell Shorto - Descartes' Bones: The odd history of Descartes' bones show some of the prejudices of the "religion" of rational thought. This is filled with irony. Descartes was religious, yet is treated as the father of a (primarily atheist) rationalism. His bones become a "relic" for those against the church. He sought to find the means to overcome death, yet died in middle age. This book contains plenty of interesting tidbits on the philosopher and his followers and philosophy. However, the main point is the trail of his bones and how they relate to societal sentiments.

Stephen Mitchell - Gilgamesh, a new English version: This is really graphic. It does have similarities to the "Joseph" and "Noah" stories from the Bible. Are they both referring to the same previous event?

Barbara Kingsolver - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: local eating. Properly raised domestic animals do have a place in the food chain. (They can convert non-human-edible plants in to human food. They have also been adapted to live with humans, and wouldn't do very well in the wild.) This provides a very balanced approach to environmentally sustainable food habits, with an emphasis on local and organic to decrease energy consumption, and even eat with a lower cost. The narrative provides an example of "mostly" local eating for a year. It does require hard work in the yard. However, good food plus hard work is exactly what the doctor ordered...

Thomas Aquinas: Interesting rational religious philosophy

Thursday, February 04, 2010

iPod touch Part II

Apple released a new version of iTunes that supposedly had fixes to a Smart Playlist problem. Unfortunately, this still seems to be an issue with my Smart Playlists on the iPod touch.

Luckily, I discovered a few additional "tricks"
1) The audiobook display keeps the tracks in the proper order, and indicates which track has been 'partially listened'. As long as you let a couple seconds of a track play, it is easy to find.

2) After hitting the home button on the ipod touch, you can hit it again twice to keep a pause, forward, backward and volume control to appear. (Unfortunately, no "back up 30 seconds.)

Now if they could just have an easy way to sync PDFs and run Flash...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


A San Francisco Chronicle blog has a post about a family without a TV. They seem somewhat similar to us. Yes, we still watch some DVDs and occasionally stream videos. However, not having a large device pushing content does make a big difference. You don't pass a big screen in the living room and suddenly have the urge to push the remote through 100 channels of shows you don't want to watch. Tivo might let you record programs - but even there, you plan a bunch of things to watch and end up being drawn in to them when you are by a TV.
Yes, we do find ourselves drawn to the laptop, mindlessly checking email, news or sports scores. In some ways this can be worse, since it is individual rather than group. However, the individual nature also makes it short lived. Others beg attention, and then you are off.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Time Dimensional Maps

Maps are very good at showing a given place at a given time. Modern interactive maps allow easy exploration of two or three dimensions of the "snapshot". However, they don't do a very good job of showing time.

I would like to be able to visualize my ancestors and how they interacted and participated in historical events. A few issues come up with this:
1) How do you find the places?
Modern map companies do a great job of geocoding almost any address to its appropriate latitude and longitude. Past addresses are much more of a challenge. Using a database of modern names can probably get a lot of places (Boston is still Boston.) However, other place names have changed (where is Prussia?) Or even more confusing, some names may refer to something different today.
Some of this is somewhat mitigated by lack of detailed data as you travel back in history. (You may just have a county or even just a country.)
Some other data exists with Township/Section/Range descriptions. This could theoretically be converted to map locations, but takes a little work.
2) How do you represent time on a map?
You could color code different points to represent different time periods (years, decades, centuries or whatever is appropriate.) This allows for visualizing 'neighbors' in time, and associating them with events. (The person living in Boston in the 17th century probably didn't participate in the American Revolution...)
Another possibility is tracks. You could display the movement of individual people across time. With ancestry, there is also a clear linkage. This could provide a picture of migration.
With all of these approaches, the data representation could change as zoom level is changed, thus giving it an uncluttered approach.

With any approach, an important part is ease of use. Importing gedcom files would be a bare minimum approach. It could also be interesting to parse census data to show specific household migration (though this would be much more involved.) Getting township/section/range data on the map should also be automatic. A public location repository would also be useful. (Once you figure out where a location is in 1650, others should be able to use it.)

California Paid Family Leave and the IRS

A few years ago, the IRS ruled that California paid Family Leave was taxable. They reasoned that it was some form of unemployment compensation, and thus should be taxed.
For the 2009 tax year, the first $2400 of unemployment compensation is tax free. Does this mean that the first $2400 of paid family leave is also tax free?
Haha! That would be wishful thinking. Nice loopholes only apply in the land of the big bucks. I'm sure there will be a nifty IRS ruling saying something like "well, the law exempting the first $2400 was strictly written, and since this is not real unemployment compensation, it doesn't count."
This is somewhat similar to the logic differentiating State Disability Insurance (SDI) from Voluntary Disability Insurance (VDI). The state administers SDI and requires everyone to pay. However, some employers use VDI instead. The benefits of VDI must be equal to SDI and both must take in enough revenue to cover expenses. The main difference is that VDI is locally administrated, and thus can be better correlated with the employer's system.
Oh, and you can deduct SDI from your taxes.
Even though both are substantially identical, VDI cannot be deducted from your federal taxes, while SDI can.