Sunday, May 31, 2009

He wasn't good, but he had good intentions.

(With apologies to Lyle Lovett for stealing a line from one of his songs, only changing the personal pronoun.)

You may not remember much about Charles Keating. The shorthand account of his story is that he ran a savings and loan into the ground, he bribed five senators to get the federal regulators off his back, he was tried and went to jail. There's actually a lot more to his story.

Charles Keating was prominent in the social conservative movement, faithfully following his devout Roman Catholic beliefs. His main focus was as an anti-pornography crusader, but he had other interests as well. His main business interest was Lincoln Savings and Loan. He wanted the government to change the rules on what investments savings and loans could make. For many generations, S&Ls were in the local real estate loan business. It was nice, steady money, but in the 1980s it looked like a boringly low return on investment. They could make a lot more profit if they would be allowed to invest in so-called "junk bonds". Keating argued that the name "junk bonds" made the investments sound more risky than they actually were. He paid a private sector economist named Alan Greenspan to make this argument in print. The Reagan administration changed those rules in the early 1980s, but by 1985, the chickens were coming home to roost. Junk bonds were living up to their name, and a lot of S&Ls were starting to show huge losses. Keating lobbied the Reagan administration to appoint regulators who wouldn't go after the S&Ls, and in 1985, Reagan made a recess appointment to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board who did just that.

Even with lax regulation, it was hard to hide just how badly Lincoln Savings and Loan was being run, and in 1987, Keating began giving "campaign contributions" to senators in exchange for those senators brow beating the regulators to look the other way. While Keating's political career tended towards the conservative side, he was an equal opportunity briber. Four of the Keating Five were Democrats, and the scandal crushed all the careers of the Democrats. The one Republican exception was John McCain, who admitted he did wrong and promised never to do it again, scout's honor.

Lincoln Savings and Loan failed big time. The federal deposit insurance had to pay $3 billion to the people who had small enough investments at Lincoln. Keating was tried and convicted of defrauding larger investors when he sold them junk bonds. A California judge named Lance Ito sentenced him to ten years in jail. He served five before the convictions were overturned based on faulty jury instructions. The feds decided to re-try him, and he plead guilty to a deal that limited the punishment to time served.

A question arises from the story of Charles Keating. If a man steals, but then gives those proceeds to worthy causes, is he still a thief? When he was convicted, another person to whom Keating had sent bribes (or is it donations?) wrote a letter to Judge Ito pleading for leniency. That person was Mother Teresa. The judge decided that a thief who gives to charity is still a thief, which may be the best legal decision Ito ever made.

I bring this up now because President Bush, never a brilliant legal scholar, says that the information we obtained from torture saved lives. In other words, the fruits of an illegal act lead to a positive result.

Let's assume what Bush says is true. Given the nature of secret documents, the public will never have the full record to prove or disprove his statement. Even if he is right, committing a crime and doing something good with the proceeds does not make the original crime suddenly legal.

I quoted law professor Jonathan Turley a few months back, and what he said then is still true. We don't need a truth and reconciliation committee. We have a criminal code, and those who broke the law need to reconcile themselves with the law. While Mr. Undisclosed Location himself Dick Cheney is the biggest blabber to the press right now, we have plenty of comments from others who were in the loop of criminal wrongdoing, including Alberto Gonzalez and George W. Bush. If they are so eager to get their side of the story out, let them explain themselves in a court of law under oath.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A one man team

Half of the NBA Finals match-up is now decided, and I think the league and the advertisers are much happier with the prospect of the Los Angeles Lakers on the big stage than the Denver Nuggets. The directors love to cut into the stands to show all the celebrities in the crowd. They don't even have to take special shots sometimes, because the front row in L.A., which is naturally in the background when the action on the court is being shown, has been a star-studded affair for many years, most notably with Jack Nicholson in his seat behind the visiting team's bench.

In Denver, the stars in the crowd are John Elway and Chauncey Billups' mom.

On the court, the Lakers have just one star, Kobe Bryant, and a bunch of role players around him. Can a basketball team that is essentially one star win an NBA championship? It's common wisdom that even a superstar like Michael Jordan needed another strong star on his team like Scottie Pippen. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a teammate, Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish, even Julius Erving had Moses Malone. The teams that are far enough in the past that their best players are in the Hall of Fame almost always have more than one Hall of Famer.

Here's the last exception to that rule. In the 1975 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors upset the Washington Bullets, sweeping the series 4-0. Over 30 years later, two of the Bullets' line-up are in the Hall of Fame, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, but the only Warrior with that distinction is Rick Barry, who was also the Finals MVP. Barry was an unstoppable scorer in his day, best remembered now for shooting free throws underhanded in what was called "the Granny shot". It's hard to look cool shooting free throws this way, but it should also be mentioned that only three people in NBA history have a better percentage of free throws than Barry's 89.3% lifetime mark.

If the Cleveland Cavaliers make it to the Finals, and they have to win two straight games to make that happen, it will be one star vs. one star. If the Orlando Magic are the standard bearers, it's more like a no star team, though people are taking more notice of defensive standout Dwight Howard. The most recent incarnation of the Detroit Pistons to win championships could be called a no-star team, strong on defense and team play. If Kobe Bryant can join Rick Barry as the one big gun on a championship team, it will give him some vindication, because the press portrayed the break-up of the Lakers championship teams from earlier this decade as Kobe Vs. Shaq, and Shaq went on to win a championship in Miami, while the Lakers have languished since the big center went away.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Random 10, 5/29

Be Still Los Lobos
Strange Elvis Costello
No Thugs In Our House XTC
Sad Souvenirs The Four Tops
(I'm Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica Tom Lehrer
Flyswatter/Ice Water Blues Lyle Lovett
Be My Wife David Bowie
Alice Tom Waits
Po' Lazarus James Carter & The Prisoners
Jesus Gonna Be Here The Blind Boys Of Alabama

The You Tubes left me hanging this week, with only five out of ten. There are some pretty well known artists on the list, but they are singing obscure songs. The One True Living Elvis is covering Screaming Jay Hawkins, The Blind Boys are singing a Tom Waits tune. There's plenty of Los Lobos and Four Tops songs on The You Tubes, just not these particular ones. But the popular website does have the novelty tune by Tom Lehrer. Go figure.

XTC stopped playing live gigs back in the 80's but it wasn't because they couldn't play. They do an excellent job of No Thugs In Our House live, and it's not an easy song. We also have Tom Waits going back to his jazzier style in the title song of his musical version of the Alice In Wonderland story. There's a chain gang song from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and David Bowie from the album Low.

If one of the no show songs could be shared, I wish it was Sad Souvenirs. The beat is a slow eight, but it is split up one-two-three one-two-three one-two, so it sounds like a broken waltz. A great example of taking a completely normal object and turning it inside out, which is a fair description of some of my favorite art.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

The slow accumulation of wisdom

I grew up blissfully unaware of Nostradamus. I had heard of Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon, but no one had told me about Mr. Fancy Frenchy Future Guy. I first heard of him when I was watching cable TV back in the 1980's, probably HBO, and I saw the documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, starring Orson Welles as the on-camera narrator. It kind of freaked me out.

I wasn't a big believer in prophecy, but this cheesy little film was fascinating. A lot of the credit for this thing not being a complete joke is Orson Welles himself. He may have fallen farther than any movie star in history, from the director of Citizen Kane to regular on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, but even old and fat and willing to do anything for a buck, Orson Welles knew something about how to deliver a line to a movie camera. He took the position of a skeptical person occasionally in the film, but then he would deliver a line in a tone of voice that said, "Okay. I thought this was cheese when I started out, but now I believe it." And when the movie talked about the Third Anti-Christ attacking America in 1999, I was buying into this stuff, too.

Then I bought the Quatrains of Nostradamus.

Whether you read it in French or English or Esperanto, this is completely vague nonsense that people can decide after the fact means whatever they want it to mean.

I saw predictions come and go after this without buying into much of it, and I was usually blissfully unaware until I ran into a nest of believers. Remember Harold Camping? He said Jesus was coming September 6, 1994. Or maybe it's May 21, 2011 for the Rapture with the end of the world coming five months later. Those are the numbers he's currently hawking.

Mark your calendars. Or don't. I'll leave that up to you.

Right now, the big popular scary date is December 21, 2012. (Sorry, Harold. Cry wolf once and your flock tends to scatter.) The Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012, and we all know what good mathematicians they were. (Actually, as astronomers, they were pretty strong.) On that date, the sun will rise with the galactic center directly in the background of the sunrise. Ominous!

Or... not.

The galactic center is about 50,000 light years away from us. The effect it will have on the sun and the earth on that special day is about the same as the effect it has on us today, which is to say effectively zero.

So I watched a few minutes of Nostradamus: 2012 on The History Channel last week, and I have to say, my respect for The History Channel plummeted like a stone for putting this nonsense on the air. They sure could use an actor as good as Orson Welles to sell this stinky cheese.

Or maybe what they need is a much younger and more gullible Matty Boy. But like Orson Welles, that guy isn't around any more.

Remiss with no excuse.

Tuesday was my father's 80th birthday, and as a blogger, I somehow thought I had more important things to write about.

Sometimes, I'm a real dunce. Happy birthday, papa, and many happy returns.

The family is getting together over at his place this Friday to celebrate, and we are having a potluck of foods from our childhood. The only childhood meal I still cook is Dr. Martin's Mix, a casserole of sausage, bell pepper, celery and rice, so I'm bringing that. Besides the siblings who live locally, my sister Jenny, pictured here, is coming in from out of state, so it will be nice to see her as well.

This week, I've got a bunch of get togethers planned, including a lunch yesterday with Padre Mickey and The Lovely Mona, who are in town for a brief stay. It's was very nice catching up with them. I swear, when I get a couple of nickels to rub together, I've got to get me a digital camera so I can capture those rare moments in my life when I'm not obsessing about math or this blog or both.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The "re-imagined" 2009 version of Dan Vs. Dave

In 1992, Reebok had under contract the two best American decathletes, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson. It was assumed that one of them was going to win the gold medal in Barcelona, and the other might well get the silver. Reebok started running Dan Vs. Dave ads, trying to pump up some fan interest in their competition.

Unfortunately for Reebok, this ad campaign ran into the harsh reality of sports. At the national Olympic trials, O'Brien ran into a disaster. He failed to make a single pole vault, got zero points in that event and failed to make the team. Johnson made the team and won the bronze medal in Barcelona, but by American sports standards, winning the bronze does not make you the third best competitor in the world, it makes you the second best loser.

O'Brien redeemed himself four years later winning the gold medal in Atlanta, but that was far too late to save the Reebok ad campaign. Jeff Merron of ESPN lists Dan Vs. Dave as one of the biggest busts in sports history, rivaled by fiascoes like the XFL and Disco Demolition Night.

Fast forward 17 years to 2009. There are two separate ad campaigns running right now asking a single question: Who is the better basketball player, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant? Vitamin Water has actors portraying fans giving their opinions, while Nike has decided the controversy is best explained by making muppets out of the two sports stars, as shown here.

Unfortunately for both campaigns, they have run into that famous truism: Prediction is very hard, especially about the future.

LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, not losing a single game to the Detroit Pistons or Atlanta Hawks. As the top seed, they were expected to continue dominating their next opponent, the Orlando Magic, who struggled through difficult series against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics. But instead, it's the Magic that look like the better team so far, leading three games to one in a race to four wins. LeBron can't be faulted; he hit one of the most spectacular shots in basketball history to give the Cavs their only win. His team was down by two points with the clock stopped with one second remaining in the game when LeBron caught the inbounds pass, turned and shot a three-point shot from very far behind the line which went in and the game was over. If he missed that miracle shot, the series would already be decided in Orlando's favor. As it stands, the Cavs have to win three straight games now or they are done.

Kobe's Los Angeles Lakers aren't in quite as tough a spot as the Cavs are, but their series against the Denver Nuggets is now tied 2-2. After making short work of the Utah Jazz in the first round, the Lakers struggled mightily against the Houston Rockets, who were without their best playmaker Tracy McGrady for the entire series and lost their dominant center Yao Ming in the third game, but still managed to extend the Lakers to seven. The Lakers have been completely unpredictable over the past few weeks, except in the predictability of looking sluggish and weak in every game that immediately followed a dominant win.

Like most modern "re-imagined" versions of old cheesy stuff, there's a little more quality in the updated story. Nike and Vitamin Water do not have to invent an interest in the question of which of these two players is currently the best in the league. Some might say Dwayne Wade or Carmelo Anthony should be in the conversation, but neither is as spectacular as Kobe or LeBron at their absolute best. Because Los Angeles and Cleveland were the top seeds in their respective conferences, the odds of a Kobe vs. LeBron NBA Final looked very good, and the advertising hype was pushed into high gear. The big problem is that it's very hard for a single star team to make it all the way, and it's more likely to win the championship with a team with no superstars but a solid team concept than it is to win with one superstar. Right now, it's very likely one of the two best players in the league will be watching the championship from the comfort of his lavish home, and the marketing nightmare of the NBA Finals pitting the Denver Nuggets against the Orlando Magic is a distinct possibility.

Somewhere, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson are watching these games and thinking, "Boy, this story looks so familiar. Where have I seen it before?"

Wednesday Math, Vol. 73: Math vs. Stats

Last week, blog buddy Namaste Nancy provided a link to a New York Times science blog, usually written by an evolutionary biologist, but for a few weeks guest written by Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz. His topic was Zipf's Law, which says that if you list the cities of a nation in order from largest to smallest, the second biggest city will be about half the size of the largest, the third largest will be one third the size of the largest, the fourth largest one fourth the size, and so on. The general statement would be that if you divide the population of the n-th largest city in the land by the population of the largest city, the fraction should be about 1/n.

I had never heard of Zipf's Law before. I thought it was kind of cool. Any formula that can be stated so simply is compelling. There's only one problem with Zipf's Law. It isn't actually true.

The first three countries I decided to check were the United States, China and Canada. I didn't pick them "at random". My thought process was as follows. First, I'm an American. Second, I knew China was about the size of the continental U.S., but much more populous. Similarly, Canada has about the land mass of the Lower 48, but with a much smaller population. I then decided to check some countries with a lot less land mass, but ones that still had enough cities to test, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.

I don't know how well Zipf's Law fit the United States demographics when he stated it back in the 1930's, but right now the American cities fit the rule pretty well. On the other hand, China doesn't fit Zipf's Law at all. (Bad fits are marked in yellow.) The second biggest city in China is about three fourths the size of the largest, and the tenth biggest city is well over one third the size of the largest. The Netherlands, the smallest country on this limited list, follows China's lead and doesn't follow Zipf's Law very well. Canada and Japan have large cities that aren't quite the right size, and the eighth, ninth and tenth cities on the German list are noticeably larger than the Zipf's Law projections.

Rules and definitions in math are very strict, but they are also completely reliable. When we state that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees, we don't mean "more or less for most triangles". It's always. That's how mathematicians roll. There might be some exceptions to a rule, but even those exceptions are exceptions 100% of the time, like you can't divide by zero. There can be multiple ways to solve a problem, but all the methods come up with the same answers.

Statistics is much sloppier. There are several jokes about a mathematician, a physicist and a statistician. When a mathematician tells these jokes, the math guy knows what he's doing, the physicist kind of knows what he's doing and the statistician is a dunce. When a statistician tells these jokes, the statistician is a very practical person, the physicist somewhat less so and the mathematician is completely divorced from reality.

In the sciences, there is a phenomenon known as physics envy. For centuries, physics has been the best customer for mathematics, and some of the math formulas in physics are as reliable as the math that describes the abstract world of plane geometry. As physics has dealt with more complex objects and the odd world of what happens at sizes smaller than atoms, some physical laws have become more statistical in nature rather than mathematical. Einstein famously hated this, and when faced with the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics is quoted as saying "God does not play dice with the universe." Allegedly, either Enrico Fermi or Niels Bohr answered "Albert! Stop telling God what to do with his dice!" (My money's on Bohr. He has plenty of other quotes that display the same sense of humor.)

I did some research into statistics textbooks this year, and the disagreements on how to define simple concepts that students in elementary classes should be taught is appalling. While some of the topics in statistics are compelling, I've also gained a greater appreciation for the jokes whose punchlines portray statisticians as people who can't find their own ass with both hands and a flashlight.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A new Highlight Reel™ question: The Reel™ Role

The vote on Emma Thompson's career comes to a close, and the answer I consider the correct answer, she's Always Good, so no Highlight Reel™, garnered the most votes, not a majority but more than the next four vote getters added up. If we remove the people who said she always sucks, people who are either trolls or insane, she would have had the Always Good vote as the majority.

On to another topic! This time, instead of considering our opinion on an actor's career, we will consider a set of actors who have portrayed the same character. We will start with one of the most filmed characters in history, Sherlock Holmes.

There are a lot of actors who played the role, and chopping the list down is very subjective. I chose these four actors who played the role either multiple times or in big budget productions. From left to right we have Christopher Plummer (Murder By Decree), Nicol Williamson (The Seven Percent Solution), Peter Cushing (British TV in the 1960s) and Ian Richardson (early 1980's British TV).

And then there are the top two seeds in this tournament. I chose pictures of them without the pipe or the deerstalker hat, because most people will look at them and think, "Egads! It's Holmes!" These are, of course, Jeremy Brett, who sadly passed away just before the series could complete filming every Conan Doyle story featuring Holmes, and Basil Rathbone, who played the greatest detective numerous times in movies in the 1930's and 1940's.

The polling is open until next Tuesday night. You can vote for more than one choice if so desired. Let your voice be heard, for now the game is afoot.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The people have spoken?

There hasn't been any movement on the Emma Thompson Highlight Reel™ for many days, so I'm going to close the voting on this tomorrow and start a new poll if no one has any objections.

I'm not surprised that Too Good For A Highlight Reel™ has a large plurality. I'm a little disappointed that Always Sucks, no Highlight Reel is in second place, albeit a distant second. It takes all kinds, I suppose.

Frailty and Fraud.

With the possible exception of Oprah Winfrey, no celebrity has had a longer or more difficult battle with weight than Kirstie Alley. While her very first role in front of the camera was in one of the good Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan in 1982, it was five years later when she got the role as Rebecca Howe on Cheers that she achieved fame. During her seven year stint on the show, she started having her first problems staying thin. She has been a spokesperson for diet plans, but she admits from the cover of People magazine that she has gained over eighty pounds recently. These before and after pictures are from 2005 and 2009, respectively.

Jeff Conaway has also struggled with his weight, but more recently he became a reality TV show star due to his problems with painkillers and alcohol. VH-1, a serious contender for most disgusting network on cable, first exploited Conaway on Celebrity Fit Club, where he had a major confrontation with the people running the show and checked into rehab in 2006. Of course, this means he was eligible for Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, another half-hour dose of human misery packaged as entertainment on VH-1. He failed to maintain sobriety in both 2007 and 2008, but after leaving the show, he claims success with the help of John Travolta, Conaway's co-star in Grease.

Conaway had a back operation late last year, which he says helps, but he still takes drugs and drinks. He says that everything in moderation is his answer now. Listening to him speak on the radio recently, his voice isn't as bad as it was before, but he still slurs his words. He says his problems with sobriety go back at least twenty five years. His current "success" sets a very low bar for that concept.

What Alley and Conaway have in common is their mutual supposed savior, Dianetics and Scientology. Conaway took Travolta's advice last year after the reality TV show version of rehab didn't work for him. He says he has not become a Scientologist, but credits Dianetics for the improvement in his dealing with drugs. Kirstie Alley has been a member of the cultish scam for many years. She is active in the anti-psychiatry front of the pseudo-scientific theft machine.

I do not write this to mock human frailty. I've had back pain in my life, and I'm very glad that it has been a long time since it was a problem. I know what it is to struggle with weight gain. My problem in all of this is with the frauds who promise cures. While I have my disagreements with many belief systems, no religion or philosophy disgusts me more than of the scams of L. Ron Hubbard. He is to hucksterism what Babe Ruth is to home run hitting. Everyone who came before him should be a distant memory. P.T. Barnum was an amateur and Charles Ponzi a piker compared to L. Ron Hubbard. He made a fake science and a religion who central tenets read like what they are, bad science fiction. He knew how important celebrity is in the modern world, and so his religion's main spokespeople are actors. All future scams will have to pay homage to Scientology. If their lawyers are any good, the Scientologists will find a way to make the scammers in the future pay royalties.

Biology promises frailty. We are all mortal, but modern humans are clever enough to create methods that effectively banish pain, though in some cases only temporarily. For most creatures, getting enough to eat is a constant struggle, and that struggle extends to much of the human race. But in industrialized societies, a vast majority of the population not only can get enough to eat, but much more than enough. All this cleverness, solving previously intractable problems only to replace them with new and equally difficult problems, is the result of human consciousness, the sharpest double edged sword in all of creation. We are the creatures clever enough to understand much of the mechanism of the universe, but that incomplete knowledge makes us naturally long for more. There is never a shortage of hucksters willing to defraud people with promises of answers to the questions whose solutions still elude us all.

For anyone who thinks they might find the answers to life's questions in Scientology or Dianetics, know this. If the answers were there, Kirstie Alley would be thin and Jeff Conaway would be healthy. Neither of those things is true.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Social networking for cyber-hermits.

Twitter finally let me quit my account. Hurrah! I was a sort of early adopter of Twitter and a super early abandoner. I'm not saying I'll start a trend; after all, I still hate creepy-ass blue tooth phones, and my disdain has done nothing to slow the sales of those monstrosities.

I got an e-mail message from Facebook this weekend and decided to go back on that site to see what was happening. I was rewarded with an old fambly photo on my sister Karlacita's page. Karla is not in this photo; she would have been just a baby when this was taken. We have, from left to right, my big sister Kim, big brother Michael holding his dog Fang, and small, swarthy and symmetrical me. It kind of looks like Kim is keeping the sun out of Michael's eyes, but she's actually trying to pet Fang. It's hard to make out Fang's head against the background, but she's looking over at me. You can clearly make out the puppy's floppy right ear, and that white speck to the right of her ear is a little light colored fur near her nose.

I don't know when or where the photo is taken for sure, but this should be when we lived in Redding, so I would have been four or five. I still had the big round head that people commented on in my baby picture with my dad. I eventually grew up so my noggin no longer looks so massive. Alas, none of the adjectives small, swarthy or symmetrical are very apropos anymore.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Looking forward.

We are getting a lot of "looking forward" these days from the Obama administration. This, of course, is code for "we don't believe in the rule of law". Conservatives say when the laws are not enforced or only selectively enforced, the public loses respect for the rule of law, and I agree with them on this. Rules on insider trading have been selectively enforced by the SEC and the Justice Department, which means Martha Stewart did time, while George W. Bush and manic-depressive TV clown Jim Cramer were not even charged. This does grievous harm to the idea that justice applies to all.

More importantly, "looking forward" right now means we must ignore that our laws were broken by the people who swore to uphold the Constitution for the first eight years of this century. The problem the Obama administration has is that if the chips are allowed to fall everywhere, the people in the dock will not only be Bush administration officials, but people still in the government. Nailing people like John Yoo and David Addington would allegedly make it harder for Obama to reach out to conservatives, but I think if the scumbags on the right know there's a bloody big stick as well as a nice juicy carrot, some of them might become more docile, not less.

When I hear the phrase "looking forward", I am reminded of the low point in the public life of baseball slugger Mark McGwire. In the 1990's, McGwire was one of most feared hitters in all of baseball. For generations, hitting 50 home runs in one season was a remarkable accomplishment, something that might happen once or twice every ten years. Hitting 60 home runs or more had been done twice, first by Babe Ruth with 60 then Roger Maris with 61. In 1998, McGwire hit 70. The next year, he hit 65. The concept of what a great power hitter can do was revolutionized.

I'd say the concept was changed forever, but we know that isn't true anymore. Mark McGwire didn't get arms that size by drinking his milk, taking his vitamins and saying his prayers. McGwire regularly used steroids, and did so from the beginning of his career. In 1998, we turned a blind eye to the obvious. Baseball attendance was way up, and more than just McGwire tearing it up, there was competition from Sammy Sosa. Two big, friendly guys, one an All-American white guy and the other a Spanish speaker of African descent, made for a demographic dream for Major League Baseball.

Fast forward to 2005. People are shocked, shocked! It turns out their heroes were using performance enhancing drugs. Congress dragged a boatload of baseball stars, some of them retired, some of them still playing, up in front of an investigating committee. Oh, nice work, Congress! It wasn't like there was anything more important to investigate, like wars or no-bid military contracts or secret prisons and rendition. No, spend time finding out about steroids and baseball. That's what the public really needs to know.

Our elected officials grilled the players. Some, like Rafael Palmiero, angrily asserted their innocence, and were later found out to be lying scumbags. But Mark McGwire, only 41 years old at the time, looked like a defeated man. Seven years before, he was an athlete like no other, demolishing a record no one had even approached in his lifetime. But in that hearing room, wearing reading glasses, his hair receding, grey in his stubbly beard, he was a whipped dog. More than any of the other physical signs, he wore the expression that Princess Sparkle Pony has dubbed the Frowny Sucked In Lips Face, and as all regular readers of the Princess know, things never turn out well for these folks.

When asked about his use of performance enhancing drugs, McGwire said he didn't want to dwell on the past, but instead to "look forward". Well, Mark, let me help you look forward. In your first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame in 2007, you got 23% of the writers voting for you. It takes 75% to get in. In 2008, the number remained the same, and in 2009, you lost ten votes and dropped to 21.9%. You are going in the wrong direction, and every time we find out about a Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez, more baseball writers will be reminded of why your amazing accomplishments now are unworthy of praise.

I hate to equate steroid use with violations of our laws and our principles by the most powerful elected and appointed officials in our country. It makes me look as stupid as a member of Congress, and that's hard to do. I do this here because people need to be reminded that the "looking forward" argument is a load of crap. Mr. President, you are now the boss of the guy who runs the Justice Department. Let those people do their jobs. The guards at Abu Ghraib did hard time, mainly because they took pictures of the stupid crap they did and those pictures got out. We have evidence against others from that era, and that evidence should be put forward in a court of law, where the people who did those documented things can have their day in court, and either be exonerated or found guilty and brought to justice.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Random 10+1, 5/22

The Weight The Band
Picture Book Young Fresh Fellows
That's Mathematics Tom Lehrer
Sleep, Forever Madder Rose
Going Out West Tom Waits
Journey To The Center Of The Mind The Ramones
Semaphore Signals Wreckless Eric
Pretty Women Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp
Baby Love Diana Ross & The Supremes
Unmarked Helicopters Soul Coughing
Bonus Track:
Papa's Got A Brand New Bag (Part 1) James Brown

10 of 11 over at The You Tubes, so you can check them out yourself. Tom Waits, The Ramones, and James Brown, can't be bad. Also, you get live Wreckless Eric, a clip from Sweeney Todd and the Young Fresh Fellows covering The Kinks.

I do love the Soul Coughing song from the compilation Songs In The Key of X.

Unmarked helicopters, hovering
The Lord is coming soon.
Unmarked helicopters, hovering
They said it was a weather balloon...

I know the truth, I know the whole shebang,
I know the names of men they had to hang.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

What can save the stinkiest cheese?

Wandering around the 'net, aimlessly looking for other stuff, I stumbled onto the story that ABC is going to air a "re-imagined" version of the 1980's sci-fi series V. Those of you who remember V have probably worked hard trying to forget it, and if the new version isn't almost completely different from the original, it too will find a place on the special shelf reserved for only the stinkiest cheese.

I wouldn't bother mentioning that a future bad TV series is in the works, but the role of the female leader of the reptilian alien invaders will be played by Morena Baccarin, seen here in a publicity still from the Joss Whedon series Firefly and looking pretty gosh-darned mammalian to me.

In Men In Black II, Lara Flynn Boyle played yet another alien invader disguised as a hot chick, and in that role she spoke this deathless line of dialogue.

Silly little planet. Anyone could take over the place with the right set of mammary glands.

Please no more calls. We already have a winner.

Wisdom arrives late to the party, if at all.

Once again, Bristol Palin is giving interviews. America's best known unwed mother beams from the cover of People magazine, wearing her mortarboard and cradling her very cute baby, symbolizing her two main accomplishments of 2009.

I certainly don't blame People for trying to sell magazines. The Palins are still news that a lot of people want to know about. People who agree with them politically see them as a family dealing with crisis responsibly. The other 75% of the population watch them the way you watch a bad car accident or Paris Hilton. You feel a little dirty and you know you should look away, but in the end... okay, one more little peek and then I'll stop.

The money quote from the interview is on the cover: "If girls realized the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex. Trust me. Nobody."


Here's the thing, Bristol. Young people are blissfully unconcerned with consequences. Having unprotected sex is just one of the stupid things people your age do with disappointing regularity. Drivers under 20 are statistically the worst hazards on the road. And of course, teen pregnancy and teen auto accidents are made more common by teen alcohol use and abuse. While making alcohol illegal is a very bad option we tried and discarded last century, it should never be forgotten that alcohol is a major contributor to human stupidity, in this country rivalled only by genetics, television and talk radio.

Here's something else you should understand, Bristol. Things that have random consequences make people think they might get lucky. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you will get burned. Direct cause and effect. But having unprotected sex or driving after drinking too much... sometimes nothing of consequence happens. Your elders can warn you of the risks, but you will also see instances of your peers doing stupid stuff and coming away from it unscathed, and the prospect of getting away with something is an enticement that never gets old.

I can imagine you are getting an earful from your mom about this, Bristol. When she was your age, she was winning beauty contests, not getting knocked up. She was 24 years old before she got married, so she had time to go to college after college after college and get a degree before settling down and eloping with your dad. You might have done the math by now and realized your brother Track was born seven months and three weeks after the wedding, but that doesn't matter, does it? Your mom found a guy who would stick it out after she got pregnant, not some self-proclaimed hockey redneck who couldn't handle the responsibility.

If you are still reading this far, Bristol, you might notice that I included genetics as one of the major contributors to human stupidity. Sadly, dear, you are going to have to live with that for the rest of your life, and some lessons will have to be learned again and again.

Since repetition is part of good pedagogy, let me end with something I wrote earlier.

Wisdom arrives late to the party, if at all.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol. 72: Dr. Deming

"Efficiency experts" were a common enough breed back in the 1940s and 1950s that they were mocked in popular culture, most famously in the play Desk Set, which was turned into a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Perhaps the most successful of this breed was W. Edwards Deming, though he wouldn't become famous in the United States until the late 1970s.

Deming was trained as a statistician, but he wasn't keen on a lot of the ideas in the field. He found little value in the concept of hypothesis testing, for example. The idea is to test samples from different populations to see if there is a significant difference in the measure of some similar aspect in the two populations. Deming was of the view that if there was a difference, eventually you should be able to find a large enough sample to show that difference to a convincing level.

Deming's great success as an efficiency expert came when he went to Japan after World War II. It might be hard for young people to believe, but in the middle of the century "Made In Japan" was just as much of a joke as "Made In China" is today, a sign that a product was made poorly so that it could sell cheaply. Deming and his system of continuous improvement is given much of the credit for turning things around.

In a mass production environment, Deming stated that quality was largely a matter of lack of variability. To reduce variability, he came up with a four step process.

Step 1: Measure everything. Take a sample of your product and carefully measure stuff. Say it's a car. Measure the length of the bolts in the transmission, the thickness of the windshields, the diameter of the intake valves, everything you can think of.

Step 2: Find the thing with the most variation. Here's where the math comes in. How can we fairly compare windshield thickness to intake valve diameter? Deming's idea was to use the coefficient of variation, the standard deviation divided by the average, usually written as a percentage. For example, the average height for men is 69.0 inches and the standard deviation is 2.8 inches. For women, the average is 63.6 inches and the standard deviation is 2.5 inches.

2.8/69.0 = .04057971... or about 4.1%
2.5/63.6 = .039308176... or about 3.9%

Notice that if I measure the heights in centimeters instead of inches, the raw numbers would change but the coefficient of variation would remain the same. Men are not only taller than women on average, but they have a little more variation in their heights.

Step 3: Reduce the variation of the most variable thing. Let's say that after all this measuring, we find that transmission bolts have the highest coefficient of variation at 5.1%. Deming says get that fixed. Go to your supplier and ask for the bolts to have less variation. If the supplier has trouble complying, this might be a process that needs to become internal to the company. However it gets done, bring down the variation of those transmission bolts.

Step 4: Go back to Step 1. This is what makes Deming's method continuous improvement. Once the bolt problem is fixed, measure again to find what the most pressing concern is now. There is a possible hitch in this method, where some factors negatively influence others in a feedback loop. Maybe fixing a problem with the bolt causes the thickness of the transmission wall to become more variable, and fixing the wall thickness problem causes the bolts to be more variable. If this shows up, where a couple of the things you measure are always causing the most trouble, it's time to completely redesign the product. Otherwise, over time the variability of everything should go down, and for a mass produced commodity, that should mean quality goes up.

Deming was highly respected in Japan, and companies gladly paid him to present his ideas. If he asked that the president of the company and the board of directors show up to make sure that everybody understood what his methods were about, the bigwigs would be in the front row. When Japanese quality was clearly better than American, and it probably happened in the sixties though we figured it out in the seventies, Deming, who was born in 1900, was invited to America to spread his ideas back in the good old U.S. of A. The thing is, when he invited the presidents and board of directors here, they sent secretaries. His message didn't get all the way to the top. Deming hated slogans. After he gave his talk at Ford, the company made a change.

Their new slogan was "Quality Is Job One."

Deming had little good to say about his experience in dealing with American industry. He passed away in 1993, but his ideas live on. There are many American companies now that have adopted the system of continuous improvement, and quality of many American made products is getting better. This, of course, assumes you can actually find American made products any more.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Some surprising good news, and some unresolved no news.

Fox has decided to keep the Joss Whedon show Dollhouse and cancel the lead-in show The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Neither show was getting stellar ratings, and both were rumored to be on the chopping block. The tea leaf readers thought Dollhouse was likely doomed when the show was scheduled for thirteen episodes, but only aired twelve. Tim Minear, a writer and producer who has worked with Whedon on several shows, says that this was intentional all along, the thirteenth episode was always planned to be an extra to entice obsessive fans to buy the first season DVD.

As a spokesperson for fans of sci-fi TV shows, we object to being called obsessive. We don't disagree with the characterization, we just don't like it much.

Why Fox gave the show a reprieve, especially after giving the show the same shabby treatment the network gave to Arrested Development before it was canceled, might be explained by a sudden rise on Amazon of sales of Firefly, the previous Joss Whedon show on Fox that was pulled from the air before all thirteen episodes were shown.

TV executives don't completely understand obsessive sci-fi fans, but they know there is a buck to be made off of them. They just have to figure out how.

While one show I like is getting a second chance, another is struggling to get even a fair shake at its first chance. The NBC show Kings will begin airing again on Saturday, June 13. Five episodes have already been shown. On imdb, titles are given for the sixth and seventh episodes, but not the eighth through eleventh. Episodes 12 and 13 are called The New King, Parts 1 and 2, respectively. The story is going to follow the basic outline of First and Second Samuel, so David has to become king eventually. For my money, if this means they have to get rid of Ian McShane as Silas Benjamin (name changed, but the character is based on King Saul from the Bible), I might not even be interested in a second season of this show. McShane, the guy in the grey suit, second from the right, is the best thing on the series, and the younger cast in the middle of the photo is a lot less interesting than their elders. There is some small hope that instead of killing Silas, he might be sent into exile. Silas put one of his rival kings in the war of unification under house arrest while telling the world he had been killed. This gave the writers a chance to re-unite McShane with Brian Cox, who showed up for too brief a time in the last season of Deadwood.

I have a couple of shows I look forward to over the next few months. Besides the continuation of Kings, AMC gives us the next season of Mad Men, and a mini-series remake of The Prisoner, starring Jim Caviezel as Number Six and Sir Ian McKellan as Number Two.

As for what will thrive and what will fall, we will just have to wait and see.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Nostalgia vs. Nutrition

Bolstered by bargain prices, Nostalgia beats Nutrition in a walkover, 6-0, 6-0.

At the local grocery store, Laura Scudder's potato chips are making a comeback. When I was a lad, there were many potato chip options in Northern California, including Laura Scudder's and Granny Goose. As time went by, the Frito-Lay juggernaut overwhelmed the salty snack food market, with only Proctor and Gamble's Pringles being a non-Frito-Lay choice for the potato chip buyer in these parts. Over the past few weeks at Lucky supermarkets, Laura Scudder's is being reintroduced at bargain prices in the two-bags-in-a-larger-bag option, which isn't exactly environmentally friendly, but it does make it easier to make the chips last.

I won't say Laura Scudder's are clearly superior to Lay's. They are both a little bit of potato surrounded by plenty of salt and grease. But they taste like I remember them and I'm glad to nosh knowing I have an option, not forced to give my money to Frito-Lay, the Microsoft of the snack industry.

Cat yodeling for beginners.

I don't have much time this morning as I have to do some preparation for class. As a quick filler, I bring you lessons in cat yodeling. It's nice to see humans who truly understand cats, and still have some affection for them anyway. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Messages for My People in the popular media.

It's been a while since I've had a post specifically targeted at My People and Our Agenda, so I thought this might be a good way to pass some time on a lazy Sunday.

There are a lot of movie posters that have metaphorical giant women on them, but no giant women in the film itself. This is the DVD cover for the comedy Smother, starring Diane Keaton, Dax Shepard and Liv Tyler. I haven't seen the movie, but I very much doubt this scene is in the film. The original ads for the movie did not use this image, so this is just an ad idea that didn't make the first cut.

It's actually pretty common to have movie ads that have metaphorical giant hot chicks or metaphorical shrunken men.

Metaphorical giant moms... not so much.

I don't know if any of My People have an interest in such things, and I really don't want to know, thank you very much.

There is an ad for an allergy medicine called Omnaris that has a squad of tiny men dressed as... I don't know. Hard hatted scientists? Tiny exterminators? Your guess is as good as mine.

Besides this print ad, there are also ads on TV for the product. Would any of My People be interested in giant women sneezing?

I googled "giant women sneezing". Apparently, the answer is yes.

Here in the United States, people use giant breasts to spread the word of Jesus, especially that Jesus hates gay marriage, or at least to mock those who use huge hooters to spread the good word. Besides Bill Maher, blog buddy Dr. Zaius also mocked Carrie Prejean and her giant anti-gay marriage breasts, though he only used words and not images.

In Sweden, the confused socialists there do not use giant women to spread Jesus' word, or do they even have their leather clad giant women laugh an evil villianess laugh as they watch the tiny bugs below them scurry in panic. In Sweden, leather clad gal-gantuas ask politely for directions and thank the tiny, terrified men afterwards.

Obviously, socialism has clouded the collective brains of the Swedes, who do not understand that the powerful must force the weak to do their bidding, lest they crush the weak under heel. I mean, I grew up in the alleged commie enclave of Northern California, and it seems pretty obvious to me, right?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A new Highlight Reel™ vote

So the Madonna Highlight Reel™ vote gave a plurality to "she sucks". So let's go with a different sort of actress.

It might be unfair to say that Emma Thompson is everything Madonna is not. Just because she's adorable and really good as an actress and writer, very funny, gets along with her family...

Okay, I take it back. It might be fair to say that Emma Thompson is everything Madonna is not.

So, let's see what the people think should be her Highlight Reel™ should be. Eight movies are listed, and the standard choices "too many good roles" and "she always sucks". I wouldn't be surprised if some folks have a favorite Emma Thompson movie or TV role that isn't listed. The episode of the Ellen Degeneres' sitcom where Emma Thompson admits to being born in Iowa is pretty high-larious, for example.

I know what I think the right answer is, but I'd like to see how my readers feel. Voting is open until the end of the month.

All the Kodamas sing...

Hippo Birdie Two Ewes,
Hapy Birfdei To Youse,
Hippo Birdei, Karlacita!
Hopi Berkeley Tooth Hughes!

And many more.

With best wishes from your big brother, too.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Random 10, 5/15 and a reminder to vote

Bluebird Buffalo Springfield
Ooo Baby Baby Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Don't Go Yaz
Long Ago And Far Away Jo Stafford
Done Somebody Wrong Elmore James
Love Junkyard Rickie Lee Jones
Novacane Beck
What Holly Sees Madder Rose
Missionary Man Eurythmics
I Ain't Got Nobody Fats Waller

Only six of ten on The You Tubes this week, which is a low percentage given recent history. I'm a little surprised that Bluebird from Buffalo Springfield is missing, not at all surprised that the Madder Rose song isn't there.

Alison Moyet and Yaz! I loved Yaz! British synth-pop at its finest.

Everyone on American Idol and the dreck shows like it should be forced to listen to singers like Jo Stafford. You don't have to go through vocal pyrotechnics on every song. Learn to sing the song the way it's written. Sometimes, the songwriter actually knew what he was doing. When it's Jerome Kern, he always knew what he was doing.

Also like to give a shout out to Elmore James. Not only did he play the guitar in a completely distinctive style, he wrote blues songs where the singer admits that some of his troubles might be caused by his own actions. Startling!

Sorry this version of Fats Waller playing I Ain't Got Nobody isn't available. There was never a pianist before or since who means as much to me as Fats. He was superb.

You may have noticed there is no Madonna on the list. The probability of a Madonna song on a Matty Boy Random 10 is.... let's see..., oh yeah, zero.

But I put up this picture of Madge once again because the voting on her Highlight Reel™ ends tonight, May 15 at 10 pm PST. Right now, "she sucks" is in the lead with Desperately Seeking Susan close behind in second. I'm pretty sure there's a Desperately Sucking Susan joke in there somewhere, and I'm also sure that any such joke would not be something I'd like my mom to read, so I'm just gonna leave it alone.

Vote! Operators are standing by!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

He looks glum, but he's made me happy.

This morose looking fella is Gil Kerlikowske. Until about 9 o'clock last night, I did not know him from Adam. As of now, he's easily in my top ten list of people hired by the Obama administration.

Kerlikowske used to be police chief of Seattle. He is now the United States drug czar. (To see how I feel about calling people czars, click on this link.) He has been quoted as saying we should lose the phrase "the war on drugs."

Nice first step, Gil.

I want to say that I have no personal stake on the outcome of our country's drug policies. My favorite drugs are caffeine and alcohol. There is absolutely no war on caffeine, and the laws only forbid operating heavy machinery under the influence of alcohol. Since I currently don't own any heavy machinery, I can live with that.

This whole idea that this is a "war" adds to a lot of stupid ideas about how to reduce the use of drugs in this country. There are a lot of people who think that places where drugs are produced are havens of corruption and vice, while the United States, the place where the drugs are consumed, is completely untainted as cops and federal agents try to stop a multi-billion dollar business. We need to look at what our efforts have done to communities, to realize that some of our decisions should be reconsidered, to stop what amounts to a race war with the cops as the shock troops for the white people.

I'm not saying Glum Gil here is the guy who will do it all. But losing the "war on drugs" terminology is a really good first step, and I hope he can follow up on it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol. 71: The Logistic Curve

Two types of growth patterns that show up in natural and man-made settings are the linear model and the exponential model. If we use the linear model, it draws a line. For example, If your cable bill is $70 a month, it will cost 12*($70) = $840 a year. The increase of the total from one month to the next is found by addition. The exponential model instead acts like multiplying by a constant. If you invest $100 and get 5% interest on your investment in a year, you will have $105 at the end of that year. If instead you had invested $1,000, you would have $1,050 at the end. The larger the amount you start with, the larger the increase, unlike the constant size of the increase with the linear model.

While both of these models would tend towards infinity as time passes, the exponential model gets bigger faster. As I stated a few weeks ago, nature abhors the infinite. In the real world, a system showing exponential growth will eventually have to cool off. The idea is that a natural system will have some kind of limit to the size to which it can grow, and eventually instead of growing more and more as time goes forward, the growth rate cools off and the size of the thing being measured levels off, unable to get larger than the natural limiting value, which may be difficult to measure precisely. For example, the spread of a disease or a rumor cannot go beyond 100% of the population, so the curve seen here might model that growth rate. In reality, the rumor or disease may only reach a percentage of the population less than 100%, and the top of the curve doesn't reach 1.

Regardless of the highest value attained, this growth pattern is called the logistic curve. All curves with a shape like an S are also called sigmoid curves, but I like logistic better. I can't think of two syllables put together in English that have a creepier sound than "sigmoid". This is completely unrelated to the meaning of the word, it's just a disturbing sound.

There are different kinds of logistic curves. The one above is defined by an equation found in most books, but the great French mathematician Cauchy came up with an equation that created a more radical logistic curve, though the picture I found of it on the internet gives the credit to Edwin Mansfield. In the first picture, if we drew the tangent line to the curve near the middle, we would get a line at an angle of 45 degrees, which is to say a growth rate of 1. The tangent at the middle of this logistic curve would be a vertical line, which is to say the growth rate for one instant is technically infinite.

If you see a prospectus for an investment that boasts the growth rate for the most recent year is more than the growth rate for the previous year, and even more still that the growth rate for the year prior to that, be very wary. All such investments must eventually level off, and it must be getting closer to the time when the growth rate will start to get smaller, and eventually the growth will be effectively zero.

Before it flattens out, and it always flattens out, logistic curve growth is the cause of much irrational exuberance in the markets.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The choice is clear.

Much speculation has been put forward as to whom will be nominated by President Obama to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by David Souter. Many people are speculating that the choice will be female, and conservatives are up in arms that Obama made "empathy" one of his considerations.

This, of course, points to Obama selecting Counselor Deanna Troi of the Starship Enterprise as the next Supreme Court justice. Conservatives are already readying questions as to her relationship with Commander William Riker, her well-documented dependence on chocolate and her odd fashion choices of deep-cut, asymmetrical necklines.

Some so-called legal scholars say that Counselor Troi is ineligible due to being half-human and half-Betazoid, therefore not a citizen of Earth, while others point to her being "fictional".

These are the sort of hair-splitting quibbles that cause unrest and contempt among the lay population for the legal profession.

Jane Jacobs and cultural amnesia

I never read any of Jane Jacobs' work until after she died in 2006. The work that first brought her to prominence was the 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The first book of hers that I read was 1985's Cities and The Wealth of Nations, which argued that cities that create products to replace imports were the most important engines of a growing economy, not the nation states that contain those cities.

Earlier this year, I read Jacobs' last book, Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004. As in all her books, there are many ideas discussed to bolster her main argument. The main argument of this book, not surprisingly, is given by the title. She expresses concern about many aspects of modern culture, including the shift in education from teaching to credentialing, taxes collected and distributed from on high and spent on "one size fits all" solutions, the disrespect for science and the squeezing of wages that force many families to have two incomes to survive, taking both mother and father away from the time needed to be parents and time their communities need for them to be citizens.

With all these symptoms and more, Jacobs starts with a symptom of dark ages which seems impossible today: cultural amnesia. How can this exist? There is more information available to anyone with a computer than the greatest scholars could put their hands on in any century before this. We have The Google and The You Tubes and dozens of other incredibly handy tools at our disposal. How can this culture especially, loaded down with pack rats saving anything and everything if you know where to look for it, have cultural amnesia?

You can see the signs all around. As we gather more and more information, ideas have to fight for space in the cultural memory. Time after time, the new and shiny crowd out the old, and "old" becomes redefined every day, until even events only a decade or two in the past are essentially forgotten, replaced by a shorthand version, heavy on emotional pull but missing essential details.

Here is such a memory from a time many people alive today lived through.


It's easy to see medicine today as a racket, hawking expensive procedures and drugs that mask symptoms instead of treating disease. But let us recall that it was about fifty years ago that western medicine, distrusted now by many segments of the population, actually found cures and preventative methods for diseases that impacted millions of lives.

The little girl planting a kiss on young Elvis Presley has to be older than I am, probably around the age of my older brother, give or take a year or two. Just a few years before I entered school, polio was a terrifying fact of life for children and their parents. My father told me that in every school he ever attended, there were always kids on crutches. I remember getting the shot when the vaccine first came out, which sticks in my mind because I hated needles. A few years later, everyone in my grade school was compelled to get vaccinated again, this time by putting sugar cubes on our tongues and letting the sugar melt.

Polio was a disease that could strike nearly anybody, and that was made clear by the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man of great wealth, contracted the disease just before he turned forty, a full decade before he would win the presidency. But earlier this decade, when FDR is still remembered but the scourge of polio recedes into oblivion, a peer reviewed study put forward that FDR did not have polio, but instead another paralyzing ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, also known as GBS. Unlike polio, there is no vaccine for GBS, but with early diagnosis, many people who contract the disease recover and the paralysis is only temporary. Other well-known people besides FDR that contracted the disease include Andy Griffith, Joseph Heller, and recently, former Chicago Bears' star lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

Using the new toolbar gadget I downloaded from Alexa, I can see that the publishing page for Blogger is the eighth most popular page on the internet. Literally millions of people like me are maintaining websites, writing about whatever interests them. Out there somewhere is all the information you might need, but finding it and getting it in front of enough people so that it becomes general knowledge is very tough indeed. So much shiny trivia competes for our attention that vital information about our past and even the present is lost, drops of meaning vanishing in oceans of nonsense.

Once again, Jane Jacobs got it right.

Monday, May 11, 2009

OMG, It's Swine Flu!

Flu season comes along every year. Every year, the press tells us that this is a killer flu. When I was a kid, I remember the warnings about the Hong Kong flu. Now, we worry about Bird Flu and Swine Flu.

There are three kinds of flu, Type A, Type B and Type C. Type C is the mildest, type A the strongest. The flu vaccine you can get, either free if you belong to an HMO like Kaiser or for a reasonable price otherwise, protects you from two Type A influenzas and one Type B.

Flu isn't a joke. About 36,000 people die from the flu each year, mostly small children, the aged and the infirm. The killer influenza of 1918, called the Spanish flu, was a Type A flu, a strain of the H1N1 virus, as is swine flu. Millions died all over the world that year. One of the Type A strains the vaccine protects against is H1N1.

Get vaccinated. Make sure kids and seniors get vaccinated. Because of widespread availability of vaccine, influenza epidemics with millions dead are things of the past, like fear of polio, especially in the developed world. Don't be complacent, but don't be panicked. Flu isn't the apocalyptic terror it was 90 years ago.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The return of the Golden Rule.

The guy with the spiky hair and sun damaged skin is CBS golf analyst David Feherty. The woman with the bangs and the much clearer complexion is professional poker player Annie Duke. This is not a post about the importance of sun block. This is about an application of The Golden Rule I wrote about two years ago, back when a lot less people read this blog.

The advice is simple. Don't wish people dead.

Here is how Mr. Feherty broke the rule, writing in D magazine, a publication about Dallas, Texas.

From my own experience visiting the troops in the Middle East, I can tell you this, though: despite how the conflict has been portrayed by our glorious media, if you gave any U.S. soldier a gun with two bullets in it, and he found himself in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Osama bin Laden, there's a good chance that Nancy Pelosi would get shot twice, and Harry Reid and bin Laden would be strangled to death.

Here is the offending quote from Ms. Duke, aired as part of the promo for the finale of Celebrity Apprentice, where she is competing with Joan Rivers: "That woman needs to die."

Over on The Huffington Post, a center-left website with a large following and on Keith Olbermann's Countdown, there are calls for CBS to fire Feherty, much as they fired sports commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder decades ago for some stupid comments about race.

There is no outcry for a public apology from Ms. Duke, as the bad blood flows in both directions between her and Joan Rivers. Joan has already broken Godwin's Law by comparing Annie to Hitler. I don't watch the show, so I had to go online to find out about this.

I want to be clear. This is not a spirited defense of Joan Rivers or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid. I can't think of a celebrity I dislike more than Joan Rivers, and if I were to make a list of what is wrong with the Democratic Party, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would be very near the top, possibly numbers one and two.

The point is this. When speaking in public or writing for publication, do not wish people dead simply because you dislike them personally or disagree with them politically.

Note that Feherty brings up murder fantasies about Bin Laden. The public accepts the view that Bin Laden is a mass murderer, though in fact he is really just the figurehead leader of a loose organization that commits mass murder. There is no political or personal fallout for wishing Bin Laden dead. It is put forward as our patriotic duty to do so. I would compare Bin Laden to Charlie Manson. Anyone publishing fantasies about a violent death for Manson wouldn't be singled out for public derision, even by me.

I think the general public's acceptance of the death penalty helps fuel these weird fantasies for the deaths of people we don't like or disagree with. Bill O'Reilly wanted terrorists to attack San Francisco because the Board of Supervisors took R.O.T.C. money out of the budget. Pat Robertson wished for the nuclear destruction of the State Department in 2003 when it was being run by Colin Powell. O'Reilly does not work for an actual news organization with integrity to defend, so his job was in no jeopardy for his stupid death wishes. Over at The 700 Club, Robertson owns the joint, so there's no one to fire him.

Feherty, on the other hand, works for CBS, and they would do well to let him go. Annie Duke can't be fired by anyone, except fake fired by her fake boss Donald Trump. I hope she finds it in herself to apologize for her death wish against Joan Rivers, though I fully understand the disapproval of one blogger doesn't exactly equal public outcry.

For those of you who do read this blog, I hope you take my advice seriously. Leave the death fantasies alone. We need to move beyond this, and all of us can help make a start.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Al Franken loses again.

We still wait for the number of senators to increase to the natural contingent of 100. I have several times put forward questions of which would happen first, the seating of Senator Al Franken or some other then future event.

Among the events I put forward, the Daytona 500, Ash Wednesday, pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, the Obamas getting a dog and Alex Rodriguez returning from injury to play in the Yankee lineup have all occurred before Al Franken has been allowed to join the senate after being declared the winner by the courts in Minnesota. Norm Coleman is taking the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, as is his right. That case will be heard early next month.

The last race I proposed was A-Rod's return vs. Franken's seating. Staying with baseball, let's go with a race between Franken being seated vs. Manny Ramirez returning from his performance enhancing drug suspension, which is set at 50 games and will be over on July 3.

This time, I have some guarded optimism that Franken will win this one, though I'm not putting any money on it. This is an exhibition, not a competition, please no wagering.

UPDATE: And, oh yeah, I wrote another post over at The Smirking Chimp about increasing energy prices. Not on topic for this post, just another blatant advertisement for myself.

To make it on topic, we could have a race between Al Franken being seated and $70 a barrel crude oil. Crude's close to $60 as this is being typed.