Monday, July 28, 2008

Kudos to Senator Coburn (R-OK)

I don't agree with certain of his positions, but I must say, kudos to Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) for holding up $10 billion in unneeded spending.
"If we pass a new program, we either ought to get rid of the old program or we ought to make it to where it blends with this other one so it's effective," Coburn said in an interview last week. "Almost everything that they've offered has a duplicate program out there that they're not either eliminating or changing." He said the Senate was shirking its duty by failing to give closer review to the hundreds of bills that slide through by unanimous consent. And he said Congress should not be clearing the way for billions of dollars in potential new spending — even on meritorious projects — without making reductions elsewhere. Fearful of the public debt piling up, he said he wanted the opportunity to at least propose those cuts.

"We ought not be borrowing and expanding the federal government unless we get rid of stuff that is not working," he said.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

More on inflation

As a followup on my previous comments about inflation, consider Dow Chemical's announcement today that it will raise prices by up to 25% next month, following on a 20% price increase last month. For those whose math skills are shaky, that's 50% in three months (don't forget to compound!), which comes to 400% annually! Consumers won't see these price increases immediately, but rest assured that this will eventually work its way through the supply chain; manufacturers are not going to just absorb this price increase.

"Misery Index" - the real numbers

The unemployment rate and the annual inflation rate are sometimes added together to create what is called the "misery index". A number of news outlets have recently speculated as to why things seems so bad for most people, but the misery index, based on the "official" government numbers, is a relatively low 9.6.
The problem is that, for decades, the federal government has been gimicking both indices. For example, since the mid-1990s, the unemployment rate excludes "discouraged workers" who are no longer even looking for work. As another example of a change made in the 1990s (from
The Boskin/Greenspan argument was that when steak got too expensive, the consumer would substitute hamburger for the steak, and that the inflation measure should reflect the costs tied to buying hamburger versus steak, instead of steak versus steak. Of course, replacing hamburger for steak in the calculations would reduce the inflation rate, but it represented the rate of inflation in terms of maintaining a declining standard of living. Cost of living was being replaced by the cost of survival. The old system told you how much you had to increase your income in order to keep buying steak. The new system promised you hamburger, and then dog food, perhaps, after that.
If we use more traditional measures, unemployment is nearing 14%, inflation is nearly 12%, the misery index is 26% (far worse than the previous post-World War II record of 20.76 in 1980), and we're almost 4 years into a recession!
Making matters even worse (pointed out here), whereas in the 1970s, raises generally kept up with inflation, raises today (usually in the 2% to 4% range) clearly have not and will not.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How often does a 100-year flood occur?

"We have had two almost 100-year floods and two almost 500-year floods in a 35-year period," said Nicholas Pinter, a professor who specializes in flood hydrology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. "Flood levels all along this stretch of the Mississippi have climbed upward, not just by inches but by 8, 10, 12 feet — up to 18 feet over historical 100-year flood conditions. So the simple answer is that floods are higher and more frequent.

"But the underlying theme to everything that's going on," Dr. Pinter added, "is that the current estimates for flood frequency and intensity appear to be grossly underestimated."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Unmodified screenshot

The marketing of consumerism

Here's a fascinating article on how the culture of consumerism beat back the prospect of a shorter work week and more free time.
...If as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day—or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Clinton, you invoked a political nightmare" by Keith Olberman

Clinton, you invoked a political nightmare
By Keith Olbermann

Asked if her continuing fight for the nomination against Senator Obama hurts the Democratic party, Sen. Hillary Clinton replied, "I don't. Because again, I've been around long enough. You know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I just don't understand it. You know, there's lots of speculation about why it is. "

The comments were recorded and we showed them to you earlier and they are online as we speak.

She actually said those words.

Those words, Senator?

You actually invoked the nightmare of political assassination.

You actually invoked the specter of an inspirational leader, at the seeming moment of triumph, for himself and a battered nation yearning to breathe free, silenced forever.

You actually used the word "assassination" in the middle of a campaign with a loud undertone of racial hatred  -  and  gender  hatred  - and political hatred.

You actually used the word "assassination" in a time when there is a fear, unspoken but vivid and terrible, that our again-troubled land and fractured political landscape might target a black man running for president.

Or a white man.

Or a white woman!

You actually used those words, in this America, Senator, while running against an African-American against whom the death threats started the moment he declared his campaign?

You actually used those words, in this America, Senator, while running to break your "greatest glass ceiling" and claiming there are people who would do anything to stop you?


Senator -  never mind the implications of using the word "assassination" in any connection to Senator Obama...

What about you?

You cannot say this!

The references, said her spokesperson, were not, in any way, weighted.

The allusions, said Mo Uh-leathee, are, "...historical examples of the nominating process going well into the summer and any reading into it beyond that would be inaccurate and outrageous."

I'm sorry.

There is no inaccuracy.

Not for a moment does any rational person believe Senator Clinton is actually hoping for the worst of all political calamities.

Yet the outrage belongs, not to Senator Clinton or her supporters, but to every other American.

Firstly, she has previously bordered on the remarks she made today...

Then swerved back from them and the awful skid they represented.

She said, in an off-camera interview with Time on March 6, "Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn't wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June, also in California. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual. We will see how it unfolds as we go forward over the next three to four months."

In retrospect, we failed her when we did not call her out, for that remark, dry and only disturbing, in a magazine's pages. But somebody obviously warned her of the danger of that rhetoric:

After the Indiana primary, on May 7, she told supporters at a Washington hotel:

"Sometimes you gotta calm people down a little bit. But if you look at successful presidential campaigns, my husband did not get the nomination until June of 1992. I remember tragically when Senator Kennedy won California near the end of that process."

And at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on the same day, she referenced it again:

"You know, I remember very well what happened in the California primary in 1968 as, you know, Senator Kennedy won that primary."

On March 6th she had said "assassinated."

By May 7 she had avoided it. Today... she went back to an awful well. There is no good time to recall the awful events of June 5th, 1968, of Senator Bobby Kennedy, happy and alive - perhaps, for the first time since his own brother's death in Dallas in 1963... Galvanized to try to lead this nation back from one of its darkest eras... Only to fall victim to the same surge that took that brother, and Martin Luther King... There is no good time to recall this. But certainly to invoke it, two weeks before the exact 40th anniversary of the assassination, is an insensitive and heartless thing.

And certainly to invoke it, three days after the awful diagnosis, and heart-breaking prognosis, for Senator Ted Kennedy, is just as insensitive, and just as heartless. And both actions, open a door wide into the soul of somebody who seeks the highest office in this country, and through that door shows something not merely troubling, but frightening. And politically inexplicable.

What, Senator, do you suppose would happen if you withdrew from the campaign, and Senator Obama formally became the presumptive nominee, and then suddenly left the scene? It doesn't even have to be the "dark curse upon the land" you mentioned today, Senator. Nor even an issue of health. He could simply change his mind... Or there could unfold that perfect-storm scandal your people have often referenced, even predicted. Maybe he could get a better offer from some other, wiser, country. What happens then, Senator? You are not allowed back into the race? Your delegates and your support vanish? The Democrats don't run anybody for President?

What happens, of course, is what happened when the Democrats' vice presidential choice, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, had to withdraw from the ticket, in 1972 after it proved he had not been forthcoming about previous mental health treatments. George McGovern simply got another vice president.

Senator, as late as the late summer of 1864 the Republicans were talking about having a second convention, to withdraw Abraham Lincoln's re-nomination and choose somebody else because until Sherman took Atlanta in September it looked like Lincoln was going to lose to George McClellan.

You could theoretically suspend your campaign, Senator.

There's plenty of time and plenty of historical precedent, Senator, in case you want to come back in, if something bad should happen to Senator Obama. Nothing serious, mind you.

It's just like you said, "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."

Since those awful words in Sioux Falls, and after the condescending, buck-passing statement from her spokesperson, Senator Clinton has made something akin to an apology, without any evident recognition of the true trauma she has inflicted.

"I was discussing the Democratic primary history, and in the course of that discussion mentioned the campaigns both my husband and Senator Kennedy waged California in June in 1992 and 1968," she said in Brandon, South Dakota. "I was referencing those to make the point that we have had nomination primary contests that go into June. That's a historic fact.

"The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Senator Kennedy.  I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive, I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever."

"My view is that we have to look to the past and to our leaders who have inspired us and give us a lot to live up to and I'm honored to hold Senator Kennedy's seat in the United States Senate in the state of New York and have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family.  Thanks. Not a word about the inappropriateness of referencing assassination.

Not a word about the inappropriateness of implying - whether it was intended or not - that she was hanging around waiting for somebody to try something terrible.

Not a word about Senator Obama.

Not a word about Senator McCain.

Not: I'm sorry...

Not: I apologize...

Not: I blew it...

Not: please forgive me.

God knows, Senator, in this campaign, this nation has had to forgive you, early and often...

And despite your now traditional position of the offended victim, the nation has forgiven you.

We have forgiven you your insistence that there have been widespread calls for you to end your campaign, when such calls had been few. We have forgiven you your misspeaking about Martin Luther King's relative importance to the Civil Rights movement.

We have forgiven you your misspeaking about your under-fire landing in Bosnia.

We have forgiven you insisting Michigan's vote wouldn't count and then claiming those who would not count it were Un-Democratic.

We have forgiven you pledging to not campaign in Florida and thus disenfranchise voters there, and then claim those who stuck to those rules were as wrong as those who defended slavery or denied women the vote.

We have forgiven you the photos of Osama Bin Laden in an anti-Obama ad...

We have forgiven you fawning over the fairness of Fox News while they were still calling you a murderer.

We have forgiven you accepting Richard Mellon Scaife's endorsement and then laughing as you described his "deathbed conversion."

We have forgiven you quoting the electoral predictions of Boss Karl Rove.

We have forgiven you the 3 a.m. Phone Call commercial.

We have forgiven you President Clinton's disparaging comparison of the Obama candidacy to Jesse Jackson's.

We have forgiven you Geraldine Ferraro's national radio interview suggesting Obama would not still be in the race had he been a white man.

We have forgiven you the dozen changing metrics and the endless self-contradictions of your insistence that your nomination is mathematically probable rather than a statistical impossibility.

We have forgiven you your declaration of some primary states as counting and some as not.

We have forgiven you exploiting Jeremiah Wright in front of the editorial board of the lunatic-fringe Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

We have forgiven you exploiting William Ayers in front of the debate on ABC.

We have forgiven you for boasting of your "support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans"...

We have even forgiven you repeatedly praising Senator McCain at Senator Obama's expense, and your own expense, and the Democratic ticket's expense.

But Senator, we cannot forgive you this.

"You know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."

We cannot forgive you this -- not because it is crass and low and unfeeling and brutal.

This is unforgivable, because this nation's deepest shame, its most enduring horror, its most terrifying legacy, is political assassination.





Martin Luther King.

Robert Kennedy.

And, but for the grace of the universe or the luck of the draw, Reagan, Ford, Truman, Nixon, Andrew Jackson, both Roosevelts, even George Wallace.

The politics of this nation is steeped enough in blood, Senator Clinton, you cannot and must not invoke that imagery! Anywhere! At any time!

And to not appreciate, immediately - to still not appreciate tonight - just what you have done... is to reveal an incomprehension of the America you seek to lead.

This, Senator, is too much.

Because a senator - a politician - a person -  who can let hang in mid-air the prospect that she might just be sticking around in part, just in case the other guy gets shot - has no business being, and no capacity to be, the President of the United States.

Good night and good luck.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Did you feel the earthquake this morning? I actually did; I woke up just about 5:40, and when I heard the dishes rattling a little, I though the cats were playing. Then I saw the blinds shaking and decided it was probably an earthquake. It didn't do much here, just enough to barely rattle dishes that were stacked on the drying rack. If things hadn't been completely quiet -- if it had come 30 minutes later -- I propably wouldn't have noticed it at all.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Comcast v. the FCC

A couple weeks ago I commented on the Comcast - BitTorrent kerfuffle.
The two companies now appear to have settled their differences. In a joint press conference last Thursday, they announced that they are now working together to insure that Comcast's efforts to manage its network did not unfairly single out any applications. Comcast promised that by the end of 2008 they will only restrict bandwidth for individual users, and then only during peak usage periods when not to do so would cause service disruptions for others. BitTorrent said it was revamping its software to improve efficiency, and that it would work with Comcast to make the software and network function better together.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who had threatened Comcast with penalties over the BitTorrent restrictions, was much less charitable. While he said that he was "pleased that Comcast has reversed course" he also said it is not reasonable to "arbitrarily block certain applications," and went on to complain about the pace of Comcast's announced changes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hillary versus the US Constitution

Following the announcement of Admiral Fallon's early "retirement" after he repeatedly and publicly disagreed with the Bush Administration over Middle-East policy, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged her colleagues to back a bill requiring Bush to get congressional approval before taking any military action against Iran.
This is one of the most absurd political maneuvers in a long line of such moves. While I think that any military action against Iran would be a terrible mistake, for many reasons, this bill is patently unconstitutional, and, should Sen. Clinton be elected, I'm sure she would ignore it, citing the president's role as Commander in Chief.
This is a strong hint that Sen. Clinton may have just as little regard for the Constitution as the current president. The real loser in this showdown will be the American people.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Comcast, TimeWarner, BitTorrent, and network neutrality

As the FCC proceeds with its investigation into Comcast's blocking of BitTorrent uploads by broadband subscribers, it's interesting to note the different approach that Time Warner Cable has selected to deal with the same issue.
Comcast, intent on alienating both its customers and the FCC, argues that a "very small number of broadband users employ certain (peer-to-peer) protocols that utilize immense amounts of bandwidth in ways that are unpredictable and inconsistent and that can threaten to overwhelm network capacity and harm the online experience of other users. That is why, even with continuous upgrades and constant investment, the fact remains that network capacity is not - and never will be - unlimited."
Time Warner Cable, while supporting Comcast's arguments regarding network management, does not engage in any blocking or slowing down of traffic itself, instead announcing that it may start charging higher fees to heavy bandwidth users later this year.
Ashwin Navin, president and co-founder of BitTorrent, said that in an average month, over 40 million people use its software, a fact he said refutes Comcast's argument that the issue is about a small number of people using software applications like it.
The most insightful comments came from Marvin Ammori, general counsel at the public interest group Free Press, who suggested that network operators like Comcast are facing the reality that the Internet hasn't developed how they thought it would. He observed that when Comcast was building the bulk of its network, it bet on the fact that most of the traffic would be downstream, or into customers' households. As file-sharing applications grow in popularity, Internet service providers are having to fall back on network management as a way to ensure their networks don't collapse under the weight of customer-generated content.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The problem with Amazon Recommendations

Actually there are a lot of problems with Amazon Recommendations, but I want to mention a few that really annoy me. If you're too impatient to read the whole thing, the brief summary is that Amazon has ruined any credibility their recommendations might have by seizing on any connection, however insignificant, to something I've bought/rated/wishlisted, and by failing to consider correllations with items I've rated low. Their credibility would be better if they recommended fewer items with greater accuracy, but Amazon's strategy seems instead to be to recommend as many items as possible.
1. The only things I have ever ordered from Amazon are books, music (on CD), and movies (on DVD). Nothing else. I have never ordered any games or game consoles, I have not ordered any Blu-Ray or HD-DVD movies or players, and I do not have any of those items on a wishlist. So why on earth does Amazon keep recommending those things for me? I don't own an XBox (or XBox 360), a Playstation (or PS2, or PS3, or PSP), a Wii, a Blu-Ray player, or an HD-DVD player, so even if I really did want a copy of Bioshock (recommended for me because I added brown men's dress shoes to my wishlist?!) it wouldn't do me much good. RECOMMENDED FOR AMAZON: Give users simple checkboxes to select formats they are interested in. If you notice a user buying something in a different format, suggest that the user might want to add that format.
2. One rated item or wishlist addition spawns dozens or scores of recommendations. I added a Green Bay Packers Cheesehead hat to my wishlist, and got recommendations for "cheese can cooler", "Green Bay Packers #1 Fan Foam Finger", "Cheese Erasers - 10 pack", "Cheese earrings" (I've never bought earrings from Amazon, my ears aren't pierced, these are women's earrings, and my wife isn't a Packers fan), "Cheesehead (Youth size)", etc. Similarly, a positive rating for one Steven King novel ( The Eyes of the Dragon) led to recommendations for dozens of King's novels. RECOMMENDED FOR AMAZON: Be realistic and cautious. If you have recommendations for me that are only based on a single item that I rated, bought, or wishlisted, just give me the one recommendation with the strongest correllation.
3. I don't have a child, and I don't generally like "children's films" or "family films". I do like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, however, and I told Amazon when I bought Charlie and the Chocolate Factory . All of a sudden I started getting recommendations for all manner of children's films. These ranged from Cinderella (despite this film's status as a "classic", I have little interest in Disney's bowdlerized version of this story) to Barbie as the Island Princess. By the time I mark that I'm not interested in five or six such movies, Amazon should geet the clue and stop recommending them. RECOMMENDED FOR AMAZON: Don't just consider correllations among highly rated items, consider correllations among items I've rated low or told you I'm not interested in.
4. Telling Amazon that you own a movie leads them to recommend other versions (wide-screen, special edition, etc.) of the same movie. Some collectors might want every possible version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but I'm satisfied with just one. Similarly, if I tell Amazon that I don't want the wide-sceen edition of The Santa Claus 3, I also have to tell them I don't want it in full-screen, Blu-Ray, HD-DVD, PSP, etc. (see also #1, above). RECOMMENDED FOR AMAZON: Have some sense. Don't make me rate movies more than once, and don't recommend another version of a movie that I've told you I own. If you want to really get things right, you might consider integrating the ratings I've put in the Internet Movie Database (which you own) into the Amazon recommendations.