Tuesday, May 31, 2011

SkeptiCal 2011

My sister Karlacita! used to be an author of New Age books. In the past few years, she has come to question the things she used to believe and in some ways has become a pariah in her old field. She found some like minds in the skeptical community, so she decided to attend SkepiCal 11 this past weekend in Berkeley. She asked me to come along as moral support, to be that person she could turn to and ask the all important question, "Is it me or is it them? It's them, isn't it?"

I won't say I felt "right at home" in a conference of skeptics, but I certainly had been in similar situations before. It was a nerd herd. It was somewhere between a professional nerd herd and a amateur nerd herd. For me, an amateur nerd herd is a board game convention or about back in the 1990s, a sealed deck Magic The Gathering tournament. Professional nerd herds have been things like the Computer Game Development Conference back when I did that for a living or math symposiums now.

Since the idea of SkeptiCal was plunking down money to hear people talk, it's more like the professional. By that standard, this was pretty weak. I will be kind and name the only speaker worth his salt, while others will be described but not named.

The first fellow was a member in good standing in the skeptical community who had appeared on Survivor a few times. We spent an hour learning about the ins and outs of a show I have never watched all the way through. (Personal note: The last drummer for my old band The Wonders of Science has been on more than one season, and I still haven't watched one full hour of the show in my entire life.)

Here's the inside dope. What you see is real, but it's all about the editing.

Thanks. I already figured that out without watching. I didn't need an hour's explanation of it. (Karlacita! tells me that in the line to the ladies' room after, my feeling about that hour was echoed several times.)

The next speaker was Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute, a climate scientist who is also a blogger on the Huffington Post, giving a talk entitled Climate Change Misperception. His inclusion on the speakers' list was a source of controversy for reasons I will discuss later.

Gleick's talk was the only one where I actually learned something from the speaker. (I learned plenty from Karlacita!, but that can happen when we're just hangin' out and I don't have to plunk down forty five simoleans to do that.) He discussed several of the critical thinking fallacies - ad hominem attacks, appeal to authority, appeal to consensus, cherry picking data, etc. - and showed concretely how climate change deniers use these tools. He also stated that climate science consensus might look like an argument by consensus, but that it is more that the scientists are convinced by the data and that data forms a valid scientific consensus.

The skeptical community, if one can call it that, is a very contentious bunch and internecine squabbles are common. Gleick showed an e-mail from a skeptic who would not attend because Gleick's inclusion showed the group had obviously caved to the Warmists, as deniers sometimes call the vast majority of climate scientists. This was the last mention of any alleged grudge or slight in Gleick's talk.

There are dozens of tacks the deniers take to poke holes in the climate data. Having only an hour to talk, he only brought up a few examples directly and showed Power Point slides that proved the statements, some of which I had heard before, were egregious examples of cherry picking.

1) Polar ice coverage is not shrinking because April 1989 coverage was less that April 2009 coverage.

Refutation: Yes, April 1989 was less than April 2009, but every other month in 2009 had less ice coverage than 1989, often quite a bit less. Classic cherry picking, especially since there was exactly one cherry in twelve matched pairs of data.

2) Global warming stopped in 1998, even though CO2 levels continue to rise. (I hadn't heard the first argument before, but I had heard this one, notably from George F. Will, who couldn't prove the Pythagorean Theorem with an hour's head start and the address to mathworld.wolfram.com.)

Refutation: Average yearly temperatures go up and down. 1998 was warmer than 2008, but 2005 was warmer than either, and now that 2009 and 2010 data have been added, both far warmer than 1998, this argument is complete bunk, though deniers still quote it.

Again, Gleick's talk was the closest to the quality I would see at a math symposium, most of which are free of charge. (Quibble: everyone who used technology had trouble with it, including Gleick. For most of his talk, the computer resolution was wrong and his slides were cut off at left and right. To his credit, when the problem was pointed out, Gleick is the only one who fixed his technical difficulties.)

You may not have heard of the skeptical community. For example, when Karlacita! told the Gosh Darned Pater Familias about where she was going, neither he or any of his friends had ever heard of people describing themselves as skeptics.

In this small community, the great celebrity is The Amazing Randi, a magician and debunker of paranormal claims. His greatest moment of glory is going on Johnny Carson's show and showing the famed spoon bender Uri Geller was a fake. He is the founder of the modestly titled James Randi Educational Foundation, or JREF.

In December 2009, The Amazing Randi wrote a piece doubtful of climate change, which he has since recanted with a standard non-apology apology. For me the money quotes are using the wry quotations marks around "politically correct" label he gave to the academics who do the hard work he is not willing or able to do and most damningly, the first sentence in paragraph six:

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid.

For those of you unaware of The Petition Project, climate change deniers got it into their heads to put together a petition of scientists NOT in the field, as though ten sociologists counterbalance one climate scientist. This is obviously both an appeal to completely unearned authority and an appeal to consensus.

Many skeptics fell in line behind Randi and have not changed their position even though he has weakly recanted.

I've seen this before in nerd herds. Way back in the day, a guy named Chris Crawford, a writer of video games that didn't sell well but that he thought were "important", started the Computer Game Developer's Conference (CGDC) to get his ideas out. I had more than a few run-ins with him and his tiny cult, but eventually the business was making too much money to have such a meeting be a yearly pilgrimage to his shrine and he left, though the level of volunteerism in departure is disputed. Once The Great Man was dislodged, the CGDG actually became a Big Damn Deal.

Here's the thing. We can all of us fall prey to these problems with critical thinking. When it comes to hero worship in math, I am honest to Lenny* proud of the fact that I shook the hand of Donald Knuth, the author of The Art Of Computer Programming, and can remember chapter and verse the conversation I had with Frank Harary, the father of graph theory.

Here's my defense. Knuth and Harary actually moved human endeavor forward. As someone who teaches math, it is my job and my glad duty to make sure their names, and more importantly their ideas, are never forgotten.

I cannot say the same for the Amazing Randi.

* For those new to the blog, "honest to Lenny" is my oath to my favorite mathematician in history, Leonhard Euler. Yet another example of hero worship and one I will defend to my last breath.

Here endeth the lesson.

Blogger and Firefox for Mac are friends again.

For about a week, Blogger wasn't working on my Mac using my browser of choice Firefox. I found a workaround of using Safari instead, but many are the ways that Safari sucks.

I thought it might have been a problem on my end, possibly downloading some virus that screwed something up, but no diagnostic I could do solved the problem. Yesterday, everything was back to the way it was and I have no need (or desire) to use Safari again.

Blogger as a package has been ultra reliable for over four years for me, whether I was using Mac or PC, but over the past few months it has had some serious glitches lasting days on end, which I can only hope are finally solved.

I chatted with fellow blogger sfmike, who also has some experience with software development, about what the problem could be. He conjectured that it might be the quality of programming at Google is deteriorating, a loss of institutional memory involved. My guess is that some of the Internet big boys are screwing with each other, possibly intentionally and possibly not.

No one has come forward to give the exact reason for the screw ups yet, but having a huge piece of software being used by thousands of users (and millions of visitors) that is being updated regularly and has to interact with an uncounted number of interfacing browsers on various computer platforms is not possibly unstable. It is very nearly a mathematical certainty that it's unstable. It's a miracle that it has worked this well for this long.

A metaphor for the modern world, Matty Boy?

Yes, Hypothetical Question Asker, something like that.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Protection from force and fraud.

I have said this before, but I realize I have skipped some details. When I actually was a fresh faced lad, I was registered as Libertarian. This means that in 1976 when I voted for the first time, I cast my vote for Roger McBride, the Libertarian candidate, instead of for the eventual winner Jimmy Carter.

I thought the Democratic Party was too soft on Nixon's worst offenses. If we had any Democratic senators today with the cojones of Frank Church, it would be a dream come true.

I went to a Libertarian meeting, and that one exposure soured me on the party. I had read some of the literature and I understood the first principle of libertarianism at the time, which was that government should protect the people from force and fraud. Hard core libertarians believe in police, prison guards and soldiers as valuable government employees and everyone else is just taking up space. I was upset about illegal wiretaps and the war on drugs. There were some people in the room who could get just as worked up by the idea of the government running the post office. I asked about environmental protections. I was nearly alone in the room in considering the loss or degradation of our common needs, like clean water and air, as force. I didn't go back.

Roger MacBride wasn't an idiot. Seeing that the Libertarian Party was going nowhere, he rejoined the Republican Party in 1983 to form the Republican Liberty Caucus, a group devoted to promoting libertarian ideas inside the Republican party.

Unfortunately, MacBride the non-idiot would never have a significant fraction of the influence of the idiot Ronald Reagan, lionized beyond all recognition. I will grant you that George W. Bush may be duller than Reagan and Reagan did not get us into two wars he did not know how to end, but because Bush's legacy is under such a cloud, I still rank Reagan as the worst president of my lifetime.

George W. Bush is the turd the Republicans flushed. Ronald Reagan is the turd they worship.

Avuncular, well practiced in front of the cameras, Reagan could deliver a line, I will give him that. One of his most revered witticisms is "These are the the nine scariest words in the English language: I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

He repeated this many times at many campaign stops.

As a former Libertarian and past, present and future logician, I could figure out what this really meant.

Government is force and fraud.

Cops, firefighters, teachers, janitors, nurses, construction workers... all just a bunch of parasites that need to be eradicated.

This is the logical conclusion of what Saint Ronnie said, and the Republican Party at the local, state and federal level are following that statement without question today, in the executive, legislative and - possibly most frighteningly - judicial branches around the country.

The worst ideas of the ugly, cancer-ridden cult leader Ayn Rand have become the unquestioned marching orders of one of the two parties in the alleged greatest experiment in democracy.

Some people might view this as class warfare.

To them I say, "Fucking A."

Better class warfare than class genocide. We can't match their money, but as it stands right now, we have a hell of a lot more ballots than they do. We have to use them every chance we get. Until the conservative movement has a better idea than "Fuck you, I've got mine", they deserve the undying enmity of everyone who works for a living.

Here endeth the lesson.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The best football team ever?

Barcelona beat Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley Stadium in London today to win the Champions League final, to the surprise of no one. This was more like a coronation than a sporting event, the way some Super Bowls are or when Michael Jordan's Bulls were in the NBA Finals.

I hadn't seen Barcelona play this year. I was amazed. They controlled the ball 70% of the time. The game was tied at half, but it was a mirage. Man U scored one goal on one shot on goal by Wayne Rooney. That was it.

I was watched at a packed bar in Oakland. Early in the second half with the game still tied, someone asked about the overtime rules in Champions League. I said, "Don't worry about overtime. This is surgery, not football. It won't stay tied." Not more than two minutes later, Lionel Messi drove home a wicked twisting shot from 25 yards out to prove me right.

To be fair, I don't think Messi actually heard me and proving me right was not his main concern.

I could not believe how far outmatched mighty Man U was. If this was World Cup football, this would be like Germany versus Australia in 2010 or Brazil versus Japan in 2006. With all the squads spending all the money they have, it's hard to fathom one team can be this much better than everyone else. Their passes don't miss. There's always someone open. They finish strong and make a goalie's day a nightmare. If you stop Messi, their little Argentinian thunderbolt, then you have to deal with the native Spaniards Pedro and Xavi and Iniesta.

It's just not fair.

Congratulations to FC Barcelona, without question the best football team in the world today and arguably one of the best of all time.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Redefining nightmares.

Nightmares are not what they used to be. When I was a kid, nightmares were about fear. Wake up with a scream, go in to mom and dad's room and ask if you can sleep with them.

You know the drill.

As I got older, nightmares were not so much about fear as anxiety, especially the inability to solve a problem. When I was in college, I would sometimes have dreams that there was a bureaucratic screw-up and there was no paperwork proving that I had passed fifth grade. So I'd be pulled out of a class on topolgy to go into a room with little individual desks, learning about the Louisiana Purchase and long division.

Worse yet, no milk and graham crackers.


I had a couple very vivid dreams this week. In one, I was in the middle of your standard zombie apocalypse.

You know the drill. Lots of zombies, very slow, unrelenting, usually ineffective against flamethrowers or even a sturdy baseball bat.

And I have this feeling like, okay, this isn't good, but I can handle it. Somehow I got this far and sure, life sucks, but this is a manageable level of suckitude.

You might think this is a metaphor for being a part-time teacher in this economy.

You might very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.

Okay, I'm out fighting zombies, trying to find a safe place, when the military comes in, surrounds us non brain-eating civilians, beats the hell out of any zombies stupid enough not to run away and takes us to safety.

This is often when the credits roll in a zombie movie, but in my dream, not so much.

I notice that the officers look more or less normal, but the grunts are kind of grey and steroidal, and they actually grunt a lot. Sometimes they start fighting each other viciously, and the cure for all problems with these huge, armed galoots is to feed them something called "moorehead". It's a grey glop, kind of the shape of meat loaf, sometimes cooked, sometimes served cold in sandwiches. Civilians are advised not to eat it.

Clever me, I understand the plot devices in my own dreams. These guys are some kind of zombie hybrids and they still eat brains. I don't know if it's cow brains and cat brains or people brains, but I'm thinking I might not be as safe as I'm supposed to be, so I start looking for ways to escape.

I find my way to the edge of camp and look for some way exit. There is an attack on the camp by people who are clearly not zombies. They kind of look like the better looking people in a Mad Max movie (here exemplified by Virginia Hey, as in "Hey, who's the new girl?") and their leader is going on about "pure blood" and re-building the human race". I understand that he's talking about the zombie hybrids, but these people are also kind of steroidal with some Nazi-like undertones that don't make me particularly comfortable.

And then I wake up. I'm not screaming, my heart isn't racing. I'm thinking about this like a teacher reviewing a student's first draft of a story. Plenty of plot points, but who is our likable character? While we have obstacles, is there a chance for redemption? Are there people pulling strings behind the scenes?

In other words, is this a two hour movie, a mini-series or the start for a role playing game?

But then there's what passes for a nightmare in my boring, middle aged brain. I'm someplace far from home, maybe in Santa Cruz down south or Sonoma up north. Obviously, I drove here, but when I come out to look for my truck, it's gone.

I search the parking lot. Nothing. Maybe I got turned around, so I check another parking lot.


Shit. My truck was stolen.

And then I wake up. Pissed.

Shit! My truck was stolen! What am I gonna do now? Will insurance cover it? How am I going to get around?

Then I think, wait... where am I?

I'm in my room in Oakland.

How did I get back to Oakland without a truck?

I don't own a truck.

Did I borrow my dad's truck?

No, I'm in Oakland. I just dreamt I was far away and my truck (or whoever's truck) was stolen.

So instead of waking up scared, I wake up pissed, that kind of pissed you get when something is stolen and you have no one to blame but the world in general. Even after I knew it wasn't real, I was still feeling pissed for about ten minutes.

It was very odd to have this emotion lingering on when I knew nothing real caused it. Maybe I should talk to my sister Karlacita! about this. Emotions are her thang nowadays.

Still, if I ever get a hold of the guy who stole that truck...


No zombies. No zombie soldiers. No steroidal pure bloods. No truck. No trip to Sonoma or wherever.


Okay, now I feel better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Maru's birthday

Mugumogu has compiled some of Maru's greatest hits with background music for the celebration of the kitteh's birthday. I put it here because I lubs de Maru, as do all right thinking humans everywhere.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Somebody call the cops.

Dr. Harold Camping is at it again. Judgment Day did happen on Saturday, it was just really quiet. The big damn noisy one will be October 21. That will be the actual end of the world.

Recall that he first said it was in September 1994, though he had bad feelings about 1988. When Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed him in 1995, Camping said with a straight face that 1994 wouldn't be officially over until March 31, 1995.

You might not have any specific memories of March 31, 1995, but one thing you probably will recall is that is was one of those days when the world didn't end. Days when the world doesn't end have a distinctive and easily recognizable pattern, the sun rising in the east the next morning.

If you look at the end of this article from the Associated Press, you will see that Camping's Family Radio is sitting on a boatload of cash. $18.3 million in donations last year, assets of more than $104 million, including $34 million in stocks or other publicly traded securities.

It's time to charge the guy with fraud and take his money.

I realize there's a whole bunch of free speech and exercise of religion stuff involved here, but Camping believes the era of the church is over, so he can't very well call himself a church. He's just a very successful scam artist. Time to separate this fool from his money and give some of it back to the fools who sent it to him in the first place.

As DeForest Kelley might have said in my situation, "Damnit, Jim, I'm a mathematician, not a lawyer!" Even though he looks like a frail old man of great conviction, I swear he's no different from Donald Trump. You can't believe a word he says and it's in the public interest to stop him from fleecing the sheep.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The ballad of Brave Last Dave:
A sad story getting sadder.

I like the obituaries. I always have. Most people think it's morbid, but when someone dies you haven't thought about in quite some time, it gives you a chance to reflect. One of the most popular posts I've written this year was my tribute to Sir Henry Cooper, the British boxer who was the first to knock down Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) in his pro career.

When I rejoined the Internet back in the late 1980s (I was on something like a chat room in 1974, so I gots a little seniority), one of the first newsgroups I joined was alt.obituaries, where people from all over the English speaking world posted obits. I met my friend Amelia from New York there. I'm not on the group anymore, but I joined their deadpool this year under the name Brave Last Dave, using a list gleaned from the people who the tabloids predicted would die in 2010.

I contend obituaries aren't morbid. Deadpools, on the other hand, most certainly are. Predicting who will die in a calendar year is by definition morbid. My excuse is that the predictions aren't my own, but instead a test of the tabloids' power of predictions.

My nom de mort is Brave Last Dave. After getting very lucky, catching the very first celebrity death of the year with Anne Francis, the only other hit I've had is Miss Elizabeth Taylor, who was also on 23 other people's lists, so not much of a coup there.

My contention is that the tabloids kind of suck at telling you who will die soon. My standing near the end of May in the deadpool bears this out.

I have two hits out of the 40 people on my list for a total of 13 points. The points are a combination of how old someone was when they died - younger people are worth more points - and some bonus for having a name that was on very few other lists. So far, I haven't had any bonuses for solos, duets or trios and given how well known the people are on my list, I doubt that I will get any.

The average number of points for people who have at least one hit is 27.1 points and the median is 22. The average number of hits is 3.2 and the median is 3. In other words, I'm at the bottom of the pool and my odds of a miraculous turnaround stink pretty bad.

My list has some politicians (the elder Bush and Bill Clinton, but not G.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter) and some British royalty, but it leans heavily on people who were famous before I graduated from high school, especially people who were on TV in the 50s, 60s or 70s. There are some young out of control folks on the list (Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, for example) and they have a dislike for the fat (which explains the inclusion of Rush Limbaugh and Kirstie Alley), but it's very light on aging rock stars or athletes, so I have no chance to score points when someone like Seve Ballesteros or Phoebe Snow dies.

The people who join these deadpools usually put some thought into their choices, so I didn't expect to come in and sweep the field, but I do find it interesting just how bad my list is doing versus people who are putting in some effort.

The shorter version of this post is this.

The tabloids suck at tell the truth and they are even worse at predicting the future.

But we kind of knew that already, didn't we?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Spring Dance Party Random 12

If tomorrow is the end and I have to get my affairs in order, I realized that I hadn't posted a Spring Dance Party yet, so here it is.

Soul Finger The Bar-Kays
Poker Face Lady GaGa
The Sweet Escape ft. Akon Gwen Stefani
Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Clash
54-46 Was My Number Toots & the Maytals
Police and Thieves Junior Murvin
Subliminal They Might Be Giants
007 (Shanty Town) Desmond Dekker
Hey Ya! Outkast
Secret Agent Man Johnny Rivers
Would I Lie To You? Eurythmics
Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile) Van Morrison

We start with the big horns, we end with the big horns, we make several stops in Funky Kingston and a few trips to the 21st Century, just to keep the young people on the floor.

As just in case tomorrow isn't the End of the World, and that's how the smart money is betting, here's to all my friends and readers who have that special someone that makes them sing along with Van Morrison when he says,

I'm in Heaven
I'm in Heaven
I'm in Heaven
When you smile.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A note for people using Blogger.

Here's a little tip for other bloggers using Blogger software from Google.  About a week ago, Blogger was on the fritz and could not be reached.  When it came back, posts that had been written for about a day before the system crash were first missing, then returned, but any comments were lost and the labels went all screwy.

A small price to pay, but if that's the worst crash in four or five years, it's something I can live with.

But there were other bugs that only some people are going to see. I also put together blogs for my students in certain classes with notes and practice problem and the like, but I use a different gmail account.  After the crash, when I would log into my "professional" alias, it would only link to my silly Matty Boy blogs.  I tried several different fixes and they all came to naught.  I emailed Google, but good luck with that!

There is an option called "Blogger in draft".  When I go to the other account and click on the "Blogger in draft" button, my classroom blogs can be accessed.

Yay, weird workarounds for problems which Google fails to acknowledge the existence!  Granted, I don't know how many people have multiple blogs under multiple aliases, but I'm guessing I'm not unique in the world.

An End of the World for the rest of us.


You know, Odin swallowed by a wolf, Heimdall and Loki finally destroying one another, Thor kills a huge snake but succumbs to the poison, the Nine Worlds engulfed in flames, the earth swallowed by the sea.

But... there's a happy ending.

Ikea stores for everyone!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The penis:
Necessary evil or evolutionary dead end?

Reading the news these past few weeks has been ultra creepy. It's nothing but penises, penises, penises.

It's not exactly like this Bay to Breakers post from sfmike, which you should DEFINITELY NOT CLICK ON AT WORK. Compared to the real news, this is almost quaint and endearing.

No, the news is filled with penises getting their users in serious trouble. You can't swing a dead cat right now without hitting a live penis, and probably an erect one at that.

I could go with a picture of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose penis has put him in actual jail, or Newt Gingrich or Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose penises have made them unelectable laughingstocks, but instead I go with John Ensign, who should have resigned from the Senate a year ago but waited until just recently, when he found out his penis did more than cost him a mint, it will probably mean he will be on trial and several of his Christian pals who helped engineer payoffs to clean up his penis trouble might find themselves on the wrong end of a subpoena as well.

To make matters worse, I got some movies from the library this week that in one way or another re-enforced the idea that penises are more trouble than they are worth for society. In Venus, Peter O'Toole plays an aging actor who lead a reprehensible life and is still a dirty old man.

Quite a stretch for his penis, I'm sure.

All the people who find him a cad are bad people in the film.

Then why did I find myself agreeing with them?

Having seen Thor, which is the latest film directed by Kenneth Branagh, I decided to rent Dead Again, a movie he directed and starred in with his then wife Emma Thompson before he decided Helena Bonham Carter was juicier. The movie doesn't hold up very well. It was kind of impressive at the time how good their American accents were, but since Xena:Warrior Princess, it's not such an amazing feat. There's also a scene with Campbell Scott that makes no sense, a very greasy Andy Garcia and a silly supernatural plot.

Not Ken's best work.

Last and by no means least, I watched Crimes and Misdemeanors, which I would still rank as one of Woody Allen's best. On screen, it's Martin Landau's penis that is the major cause of grief and chaos, but it's hard to ignore that Allen cast then wife Mia Farrow as the object of his character's hopeless affections. More than that, the innocent love he feels for his niece is more than a little creepy now, though none of the creepiness is in the script or the performances.

I want to say that I am not advocating the abolition of the penis. I have owned one for over fifty years and it's gotten me into very little trouble. I'm just saying that if it was an optional extra you got from a doctor instead of standard equipment, today's FDA would never approve it.

Kind of like aspirin.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The quality heartbreakers.

Over the past four decades, bay area pro sports fans have had it pretty good. We've had championships produced by the A's, 49ers, Raiders, Warriors (yes, it's true, youngsters; you can look it up) and most recently and currently, the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

I do not tire of typing that phrase.

That would leave exactly one major pro team out of the mix, our hockey squad the San Jose Sharks. Ironically, the Sharks are currently the best franchise in the bay area, what I define as a quality organization, a team that can produce a streak of seasons with not only playoff appearances but also advancing past the first round. (One could say the Giants have started on a streak of one season of playoff appearances and they are leading their division, but the season is still young.) The Raiders were that kind of organization for decades until their complete collapse early this century. The Niners were quality for most of the 80's and 90's.

But right now, if you want to enjoy a playoff game in the San Francisco Bay Area, you'll probably have to drive down to The Shark Tank in San Jose.

The Sharks have built a team around Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and have been either the first or second seed in the Western division of the National Hockey League for five straight years.

With a total of zero appearances in the Stanley Cup finals.

This year, the Vancouver Canucks stand in the way of the Sharks making it to the finals, and even diehard fans have this feeling that somehow, someway, the Sharks will find a way to screw this up.

Come on, Sharks! This is your year. Show the league you can choke on the biggest stage in all of hockey. I know you can do it. You are the quality heartbreakers.

You've been the Cleveland Browns for long enough.

It's time to become the Buffalo Bills.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Trying to get inside people's heads.
With varying success.

For the third time in a year, a piece of spam has been sent to me, each time slightly altered. The idea is that some month will have five full weekends, five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays. The e-mail or blog post I read tells me this is a wonderful and rare event, something that only happens once in 823 years, and you should send this message along to your friends because this is good fortune. The month shown on this calendar, July 2011, is such a month.

The thing is, it isn't rare at all. There are seven months every year - January, March, May, June, August, October and December - that have 31 days, so on average, there is one Friday a year that is the first of a month with 31 days, which means five full weekends that month. (It isn't every year. In non-leap years, some day of the week starts two 31 day months and one day is skipped. In leap years, two days are doubled up and two days are skipped. But if January 1, 2011 is a Saturday - and it was - January 1, 2012 will be a Sunday, so a different day gets skipped and a different day doubled up from one year to the next.)

Why do people believe this? Well, it helps if they do not naturally think mathematically about things, and most people don't. I'm a math teacher and I have plenty of evidence of this. Most people will be able to follow the idea that five Friday/Saturday/Sunday combinations in a single month is EXACTLY EQUIVALENT to saying a month with 31 days starts on a Friday, but only a minority of people will try to prove this themselves.

It would be easy for me to turn up my nose and think myself superior to the people fooled by this, but I know my own limitations too well. There are things I tried to learn that never became second nature to me the way math is second nature. (It might be more precise to say math is first nature to me.) I learned Spanish, French and Italian in school, but I can't make subtle statements in those languages the way I can in English. I can't casually eavesdrop on a conversation in Spanish, for example. If a catch a phrase - pure luck - I may be able to follow, but eavesdropping in English doesn't take effort, it just takes proximity and a loud enough speaker. I have to focus to NOT eavesdrop in English.

More than that, I understand the allure of thinking that you are witnessing something special. Once in 823 years, that would really be something. Only this time, it's not even remotely true. If you are waiting for the next Friday the first of a month with 31 days, you likely won't have to wait 823 days.

And then there are the people who believe in next Saturday but not next Sunday. KEAR, broadcasting out of my hometown of Oakland, is the flagship station of the innocuously named Family Radio Network, and they have given a platform to Dr. Harold Camping, a man with a degree in engineering and a bug up his butt about the end of the world. He predicted the end in 1994, when it didn't come recalculated for six months later. When that one missed, he proclaimed "The Lord has decided to tarry." Instead of being a good and humble Christian man who admitted both his own fallibility and the word of Christ in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that no one but God the Father knows the last day, he pulled out his slide rule again and recalculated for May 21, 2011 being the day of the Rapture and October 21, 2011 being the complete and final destruction of the planet.

Next Saturday, Dr. Camping's FAQ website says there will be an earthquake so strong it will open every grave on earth, and the remains of the saved will be gloriously reborn into perfect bodies. There is no direct mention what will happen to those alive whose names are written in the Book of Life on the website. Five months from now, the great tribulation for those who survived will be over and the world will be destroyed completely. Many Christians believe in the Nicene Creed, which says Jesus will return to Earth and his Kingdom shall have no end. Obviously, if Dr, Camping believes this, he thinks the Kingdom is someplace else.

Can I get inside Dr. Camping's head? Yes. I don't need Dr. Camping explained to me.

Obsessiveness. Stubbornness. Vanity.

I can look in the mirror and figure those out.

What I don't understand is who decides to believe him. For this, I turned to two very smart people whom I love dearly and who know a lot more about the subject than I do.

My close personal bud Padre Mickey and my sister Karlacita!

In seminary, Padre Mickey made a deep study of both eschatology, the end of the world, and on Adventism, the cults that have claimed to know the exact day. He was able to tell me why the number 144,000 shows up so often (12 tribes of Israel, 12,000 souls of each tribe written in the Book of Life) and the subtle differences in the various cults that sprung up. Last year, Padre wrote a terrific post comparing Dr. Camping to William Miller, an American Adventist who had calculated the End of the World for 1843, then re-calculated to 1844. When 1845 came, which started with a very harsh winter, his followers experienced a horrible, soul crushing personal defeat they called The Great Disappointment.

My sister Karlacita! has studied cults from the sociological end of things. It's easy for us unbelievers to think of these people as chuckleheads, but that wasn't what she found among Adventists. Like the people who want to think a five weekend month is an extreme rarity, many of these people also are drawn to the feeling that they will see a special thing with their own eyes. Some, of course, believe they are saved, so this end of the world is just the beginning of their life in glory. Others follow a stricter view called Calvinism, that the Book Of Life has already been written and all your prayers and good works are worth nothing. Either you are in or you are out and when the time comes, you'll know one way or the other only on that day.

My sister says that many of these people are very sensitive souls. They see the world around them as a very dark place. The idea that the end is near is as simple as the faith "Surely God must see this, too."

Karlacita! posits that a lot of the followers may be people with undiagnosed depression. It certainly makes sense, especially for the Calvinists.

She is a sensitive soul herself. Her most pressing concern is about Sunday, May 22. "When it comes, who will be in Oakland and around the country to help these people through their Great Disappointment?"

Here endeth the lesson.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

California tries to enter the 20th Century.
The Republican Party tries to hold them back.

It's easy to think that America no longer produces oil, but the fact is we just consume massively more than we produce. We have been in this situation since the 1970s.

According to several sources on the Internet, California is the only oil producing state in the union that does not charge the oil companies for extracting oil out of our land. This is not a Red State/Blue Thing. Texas has an oil extraction fee and uses the revenue to fund schools. Alaska uses theirs for a little socialist trick called the Alaska Permanent Fund, where everybody in the state gets a check for at least a grand every year for doing nothing, courtesy of the oil companies being "robbed" by the gummint.

Extraction fees are the standard across the world, except in California. This is an odd legacy from the days when Standard Oil ran our state like it was a company town.

AB 1326, an assembly bill now being considered in California, is more along the lines of the Texas model than Alaska model. Here is a paragraph I lifted from a recent e-mail from a colleague.

*****The measure " requires that California apply a 15% oil extraction fee on the value of each barrel of oil, California's common resource, extracted onshore and offshore. Following Texas' example of devoting this oil revenue to its appropriated for non-capital purposes in the following amounts: K-12 shall receive 30% (approximately $1.08 billion). The California Community College System (approximately 3,000,000 students) shall receive 48% (approximately $1.72 billion). The California ~State University System (approximately 412,000 students).shall receive 11 % (approximately $400 million). The University of California System (approximately 200,000students) shall receive 11 % (approximately $400 million). This will reduce college and university tuition fees, and restore cut class sections. The funding increases will pay to rehire professors, laid-off teachers, and reduce K-12 class sizes.’ The update (as of May 6) on this tax measure as a bill– AB 1326 – is it was approved on a partisan 5-3 vote in the Assembly Higher Education Committee (Democrats supporting, Republicans opposing) and is now headed to the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee. It would require a two-thirds vote in both Houses of the Legislature for gubernatorial consideration. *****

As you can see, the lion's share goes to the community college system, which would be a boon to Matty Boy and other people whose paychecks come from community colleges. I don't know if these percentages are "fair", but I know that a revenue system can't be fixed until it is implemented. If you are a California citizen, please call your representatives and ask them to support AB 1326, most especially if your representative is Republican. The oil companies have been taking the oil out of our soil for more than a century now, and it's time we saw some revenue from them for taking an important resource from our commonwealth.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tengrain wins the Internet today.

My blog buddy Tengrain over at Mock, Paper, Scissors wins the Internet for May 9, 2011 with this sparkling sentence.

Show-girl legged former mayor Rudy Giuliani is now mulling over a seat in the 2012 Goat Rodeo*. But with OBL out of the picture, doesn’t that make him a parasite without a host?

*For those unused to Tengrain's prose, the 2012 Goat Rodeo is the race for the presidential nomination in the Republican Party. It can be inferred by context, but I wanted to make sure it was clear.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A word that should return to regular usage:

Mountebank: a fraud or charlatan; one who makes money by deceiving others.

Etymology: Italian. The direct translation means "mount a bench", which is the way sellers of miracle cures would stand above a large crowd to get attention.

You see the word in 19th Century literature quite a bit. W.S. Gilbert broke up with Sir Arthur Sullivan for a time and wrote an operetta titled The Mountebanks with Alfred Cellier in 1892. The play had a long run in London and short run in New York, but is rarely performed today.

Please do what you can to bring this wonderful word back into usage. There are many mountebanks in the world today. Reading about the derivatives market, mountebanks appear to be the engine of the world economy.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Have we seen this show before?
The overture sure sounds familiar.

You may have heard that this week, especially yesterday, was a big shock for several commodities including the three that Matty Boy, Investment Advisor to the Stars* follows closely for no good reason other than habit, gold, silver and crude oil. Silver in particular took a massive blow, from about $48 an ounce to slightly less than $36 an ounce, losing roughly 25% of its value in the space of 24 hours. The percentage hits that gold and crude took were much smaller, about 4.5% for gold and 14% for crude. All three still are trading at prices higher than they sold for on New Year's Day.

I bring this up because there was something like this at the end of March 2008. All three commodities were riding high but then took a big single week bump, with silver taking the biggest hit. This was the beginning of the end of the party for the metals, while crude oil rallied back and went to nominal high price records of over $140 a barrel just before joining the other prettier but not as important commodities in free fall. Within six months, we found out that the world economy had been secretly married to degenerate gamblers for several decades, and like all degenerate gamblers everywhere, they eventually hit that very bad streak, bankrupting the world's economy as well as themselves.

Here's my theory. I cannot vouch that it is anything like the truth, but it does sound plausible, which I must advise as Matty Boy, Mathematician is a very long distance from the actual truth. In 2008, the margin calls in the derivatives market were being cashed in, and the losers needed to pay their bad bets in Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and Colateralized Debt Obligations (CDO), so they started cashing out other successful bets, the profits they had seen in the commodities markets. These successful bets weren't even close to covering their losses, so over the next six months a hell of a lot of investors were moving off their positions in silver and gold, some handing it over straight to their creditors, others speculating in the only winning game in town at that time, crude oil futures. When crude hit the high end of its roller coaster ride and began to fall precipitously, the last slot machine in the casino that was paying off went bust and it was a flat out panic, which the public was informed about when Bush and Hank Paulson told us they need $700 billion like RIGHT THE FUCK NOW or everything would simply stop working.

Again, I have no idea if that is the case right now, but I am certain of one thing. The problems in the derivatives markets have NOT been fixed. There is still no limit to how much credit the big banks can get in this insane casino, and some may be in the stinky position Bear Stearns was in when it died, $30 of bets on the table for ever $1 of actual assets they had on hand.

The people running the show these days, followers of that disgusting homonculus Alan Greenspan, himself a follower of an even more disgusting homonculus Ayn Rand, tell us there is no way to regulate the markets. Recall that 30 years ago, the Hunt brothers tried to corner the silver market and took a beating. They didn't take the entire world economy with them, but Paul Volcker, who was then head of the Fed, thought the situation was serious enough to institute a rule that banks weren't allowed to lend money to speculators.

Now it's the banks themselves that are lending money to speculators on their own payroll and the free market fetishists in charge of the world economy see nothing wrong with this.

If you are the sort of person who prays, now would be a good time to start.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

An obvious observation on a sunny Cinco de Mayo

If you are in a mariachi band and you don't have a gig today ...

have you considered the possibility that you kinda suck?

Monday, May 2, 2011

You know what I haven't done in so long?

A lolz.

More specifically, a lolz cat.

Even more specifcally, a lolz cat of the form "im in ur _______, bein _____."

And now I feel almost magically better.

Sir Henry Cooper:

Muhammad Ali's butt met the canvas only three times in his career.

The last (and easily least) was when the grotesquely out-matched Chuck Wepner stepped on Ali's foot and hit him at the same time. The referee missed it, so it counts to this day as a knockdown instead of a trip or slip. Besides this act of clumsiness or cleverness, Wepner has two other claims to fame: he is the model for Rocky Balboa, a third rate club fighter facing the greatest champion of the last half century, and his wonderfully and horribly accurate nickname The Bayonne Bleeder.

The second time Ali was knocked down was by Smokin' Joe Frazier in the first of their three epic fights, the one Frazier deservedly won on the biggest stage in boxing, Madison Square Garden, following the biggest hoopla for a boxing match in this country from then until now.

The first time he took a seat involuntarily in his career, Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, and the brash kid from Kentucky had traveled all the way to London, England to meet the British Commonwealth champion Henry Cooper, later to be known as Sir Henry Cooper. Clay was already running his mouth as he would throughout his career, and in the pre-fight lead-in called Cooper "a bum". Cooper said he put lead weights in his shoes to make it to the heavyweight limit of 175 pounds that night, and no one disagrees that Clay was both taller and heavier than Cooper.

Clay was also a once in a lifetime athlete, a natural 200+ pounder with the speed of a man 50 pounds lighter. Cooper could not believe how deftly the bigger, younger fighter kept away from his blows, but at the end of the fourth, Cassius Clay met 'Enery's 'Ammer, the nickname the British sportswriters gave Cooper's vicious left hook. Clay got lucky and the ropes kept his noggin from bouncing on the ring floor, else he might have been out for the count.

The story gets better. Between rounds, Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer, put smelling salts under his fighter's nose, which isn't legal. He also saw a small tear in Clay's glove and made it bigger, so the ref gave him some extra time to repair the glove. Cooper claims it was an extra two minutes, "all the time a fit man needs". In any case, Clay was ready to go the next round and opened cuts on Cooper's face that forced the fight to be stopped in Clay's favor with Cooper ahead on all cards.

After the fight, Clay took back all the unkind things he said about the plucky British bomber and the two men were fast friends ever after.

Once Clay beat Sonny Liston, became the champion and Muhammad Ali all on the same night, he decided to give Henry Cooper another chance. Older and wiser, Ali used his superior size and reach to jab Cooper's face and once again open cuts. This time, he didn't play around. One encounter with 'Enery's 'Ammer was enough. Ali later said Cooper hit him so hard "my ancestors in Africa felt it".

Ali fought several times in Europe, most notably against the Brit Brian London and the German and European champ, the southpaw Karl Mildenberger, but that first fight against Cooper truly stands out.

I have only once heard a discouraging word about the great Henry Cooper, and I only heard since he died yesterday. He never gave the Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo a shot at the Commonwealth championship. The two fighters were about the same age and it would have been a great contrast in styles. Cooper was known for getting cut easily, the weakness Clay/Ali exploited twice, but he had one of the most feared punches in the game. Chuvalo was not as powerful, but he was as tough as a cheap piece of meat fried on a railroad tie. Some clever Trevor at the time said that if they still let heavyweights fight for 55 rounds like they did back in Jack Johnson's time, George Chuvalo would have been the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Let me call this a quibble. The travel costs would have been a lot for either Chuvalo or Cooper, and neither had the name recognition of an Ali or Joe Frazier.

I come to praise Cooper as others bury him. I write this post because a horrible cowardly villain died yesterday and the press can't stop talking about him. A brave and honest man, beloved in his nation to this day also died, dead from a broken heart at the recent loss of several loved ones.

Best wishes to the friends and family of Sir Henry Cooper, from a fan.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sunday Numbers 2.0, Vol. 9:
Reciprocal word problems.

Most word problems except the ones involving compound investment are solved with linear equations. They can look very different, like solving how much of two different alcohol solutions to combine x gallons of 25% alcohol solution and y gallons of 50% alcohol to make to make 10 gallons of 30% solution or how 19 dimes and quarters can add up to $2.50, but those kind of problems use linear methods. (The answers are 8 gallons 25% and 2 gallons 50%, and 15 dimes and 4 quarters. Figuring out how to set up the problems is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Let's consider something about the answers. With 19 coins that are either dimes or quarters, the lowest possible answer is $1.90 (all dimes) and the greatest total is $4.75 (all quarters). For the solution problem, the minimum percentage is 25% and the maximum percentage is 50%.

The answer must be between the two known extremes.

Consider the following question instead.

One drain pipe can empty a pool in 2 hours, while a smaller pipe can empty the same pool in 4 hours. How much time will it take if they work together, provided that they don't get in each others' way?

I always hate to use this phrase, bit it should be obvious the correct answers are not between 2 and 4 hours, but instead less than 2 hours.

This problem is solved using reciprocals. If a pipe can do the job in two hours, let's assume it finishes 1/2 the job every hour. (Depending on the physics, this assumption might not be accurate, but let's leave that alone for the moment.) Using this assumption, that means the smaller pipe which takes four hours finishes 1/4 of the job in an hour.

If we agree that they can work without getting in each others' way, in one hour they do 1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4 of the job. Once we add the reciprocals together, we reciprocate the sum to get the answer. The reciprocal of 3/4 is 4/3 or 1 1/3, so the two pipes working together finish the job in 1 hour and 20 minutes. This means opening the second pipe is only a 40 minute savings over doing the job with the first pipe alone.

This may very well be the trickiest word problem type around, though others involving rate, distance and time might also get the the award.

Some of those next week.