This blog is still alive, just in semi-hibernation.
When I want to write something longer than a tweet about something other than math or sci-fi, here is where I'll write it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Happy belated birthday to the gosh darned pater familias.


My dad turned 83 on Saturday and the family members who live in the area, that would be me (the short kid on the left), my big brother Michael (the tall kid on the right) and Karla (the one on my dad's lap) treated Dad to lunch in Crockett, kinda sorta the mid-point for those of us in the Bay Area and the folks up in the wine country. We were also joined by two more generations of our family, with Holly (a grand-daughter for my dad)) and Cleavon bringing Adia (a great-grand-daughter), who will be one month old a week from tomorrow. I also got to meet another grand-niece Avery, daughter of Nefera. That means though my sisters Jenny and Kim couldn't make it, they were represented by their granddaughters(!) Also in attendance were my dad's wife Beverly, Michael's wife Janelle and Karla's husband Tino.

It was great seeing everybody and many happy returns to my dad. I love you all.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday numbers, 2012, vol. 2: End of May electoral college

I'm keeping track of the numbers for the general election much earlier this time around than I did in 2008. I feel it's too early. Still, I'm going to do a snapshot of the situation every Sunday for my own edification and publish at the end of the month until the summer is over, at which time I'll publish every Sunday.  I'll also be keeping track of the Senate races once all the primaries are through.

If the election were held today,  there are 200 electoral votes that look to be solidly Democratic, 174 that look solidly Republican and 164 that I will call "toss-up", though you will see that right now one side or the other looks to be a prohibitive favorite in many of these races.  Here is the current toss-up list of fifteen states. The number in parentheses is the electors and the percentage is using the Confidence of Victory method I developed, which will change over time based on the latest polls.

Romney favored 
TN (11) 98%
AZ (11) 94.8%
IN (11) 94%
MT (3) 93.7%
MO (10) 75.7%
NC (15) 69.5%

Toss-up state
CO (9) 50%

Obama favored
WI (10) 89.7%
MI (16) 90.8% (gold)
VA (13) 91.5%
PA (20) 92.4%
OR (7) 94.7%
NV (6) 96.7%
ME (4) 98%
OH (18) 98.2%

The word (gold) is currently next to Michigan.  This means that if Obama can win Michigan and every state where his odds are better than Michigan, he will be president for a second term. Conversely, if Mitt Romney can win Michigan and every easier state, he will win.  Since the state is currently considered to Obama's advantage by a 90.8% Confidence of Victory number, he is favored overall.


Taking these toss-up states and looking at all the 32,678 possible combinations of outcomes, the median result is Obama with 303 electoral votes and Romney with 235 electoral votes. If Romney wants to console himself, that is much better than McCain did in 2008.  Romney has been known to brag about how much money Ted Kennedy had to spend to beat him in the Senate race in 1994.

Second place is still second place, Mitt.  It still means you don't get the job.

Here is a graph of the overall probability of victory for each side. A month ago it was at about 70%-30% for Obama and it improved steadily throughout the month. It changed in Romney's favor this week for the first time in a month, but the probability of victory for Obama is still at a daunting 98.5% to 1.5% if the election were held today.

I'll post new numbers at the end of June.

Here is a link to my methodology.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The best writer with no sense of humor.


I have made it clear several times on my blog how much I detest Ayn Rand.  My greatest peeve with her is she can't write a lick.  Her prose is cloying and grandiose, her characters have no depth and perhaps most damning of all, she's never been funny, not even once.

Maybe some fan of her work diagrees.  If one stumbles upon this blog, I ask that hypothetical person with this. Give me a funny passage of hers. Just one in those long depressing, poorly written books of hers.

My favorite writers bring the funny.  Some like James Thurber, Nick Hornby, Calvin Trillin and Mark Twain are considered funny first and stylists second.  The great stylists I love, like Jane Austen, George Orwell, Salman Rushdie and Charles Dickens, also can weave a funny tale, sometimes in dark and desperate stories.

Patrick O'Brian, my latest literary crush, can be stylish and funny at the same time. It's stunning how good his stuff is.

By the "bring the funny" criterion, I have genre writers I like better than others.  Raymond Chandler trumps Dashiell Hammett, for example. Molly Ivins kicks David Broder's ass ten ways from Sunday. I never became a huge fan of science fiction because so few sci-fi writers (or SF writers for the older, more serious fans) could find funny with a GPS.  That's why guys like Douglas Adams, J. Michael Straczynski and Joss Whedon were such a breath of fresh air when they came along.


Because I am a mathematician by training, whenever I think of a blanket statement, I try to come up with a counter-example. It took me a while to warm to him, but I think the best writer in English who has never made me laugh might be Joseph Conrad.

Heart of Darkness is not a laugh a minute page turner. It's just one of the best novels ever written in English. This is made more remarkable by the fact that English is Conrad's third language, learned in adulthood after he learned he learned in youth his native Polish and French, the language preferred by literate Europeans of his age.

Still, Heart of Darkness haunts, so much better than the films that it has inspired, especially the pretentious Apocalypse Now. It really is worth keeping Conrad's work about what he actually was describing. The first few paragraphs of the book are the preface a man makes about his experiences in Africa.  He is making them in a comfortable home in London. He takes the historical view and considers that two thousand years earlier the Romans, the most civilized people in the world, came to England, where he and the listener are sitting pleasantly in the present, in an attempt to subdue and exploit the scariest people in the known world, the scattered tribes of Britain.

There is also the description of an African resting in the shade of a tree, worked like a dog and waiting to die, that is unforgettable.

So there is the nomination of a mathematician/trivia expert for the greatest writer in the English language who never tried to be funny.  There are two ways to present counter-examples.

1. Find a passage of Conrad that is funny.
2. Find a stylist equal to or greater than Conrad who is also not funny.

If there is some writer you love in translation who did not write originally in English, I am willing to consider him (or her) as well.

I await your replies.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

A review of Atlas Shrugged - Part 1.


Cheap, subversive bastard that I am, I saw a DVD of last year's movie Atlas Shrugged at the public library and decided to pick it up.  It made me happy that not a dime of my money would end up in the filmmakers' pockets. I wanted to see it because I want to have an informed opinion about it.

For a man must have a code. Let me state things objectively, because the followers of Ayn Rand call themselves objectivists.

This is a really talky movie.  Boy, is there a lot of exposition.  Folks tells us what's going on instead of seeing what is going on, with tiny little hints of what's going on after the long explanations.

Showing what's going on is expensive and this movie was made on the cheap.  There are scenes that are pretty enough, but it moves slowly.

The heroes will be played by Thor Svensson and Priscilla Smith-Smythe-Smith. The villains are portrayed by Jewy Jewenstein.  There is a division of labor between the good guys and the bad guys.  Most of the bad guys are played by Jewish actors - Jon Polito is the major exception, but he is a stock weasel character actor for most of his career - and the heroes look very northern European. In real life, Ayn Rand was born a Russian Jew and many of her inner circle were Jewish as well, but that's not how they play it in the film.

A Randian hero (or heroine) is a person of honor and true to their word.  At least until a better deal comes along. Grant Bowler plays Henry Rearden, the maker of the bestest steel in the world.  The evil government breaks up his massive empire by passing a law that says no one may own more than one company.  He is forced to sell off his companies, including one sale to Paul Larkin - an Anglo enough sounding character played by Patrick Fischler, best known as the Jewish insult comic Jimmy Barrett on Mad Men.  Rearden immediately assumes Larkin will screw him over in business.

But Rearden is no hero.  He is married and he decides to screw Dagny Taggart, the typical Randian heroine.  She truly understands him, while his wife does not.  It's a minor detail that she is also younger and hotter than his wife.

We also have the heroic Ellis Wyatt, played by the sadly miscast Graham Beckel. Beckel was the fat, violent and corrupt cop Dick Stensland in L.A. Confidential, but we are supposed to see him as another good guy.  He betrays Rearden and Dagny and destroys his profitable business because, yes you guessed it, a better deal came along.

Staying true to the source material, there are no funny scenes in Atlas Shrugged, the movie.  A friend gave me the book to read about twenty years ago.  I didn't get very far.  I've read more stylistically satisfying stereo set-up instructions.  In the movie, no one is given a sense of humor.  There is a scene where Rearden, Dagny and Wyatt are seen dining and enjoying themselves, but the overbearing musical score drowns out any dialogue.  Given the level of the dialogue, this was likely a blessing.

The future (2016) according to the filmmakers is a strange place indeed.  Here a few jarring problems with this future that looks a lot like the present.
  • There is no Internet, or at least our protagonists have no idea how to use it.
  • No rich person has any personal security, not even someone to answer the door at their swanky home.
  • All rich people do all their own investigations, never thinking of hiring a professional or someone who might know how to (gasp) use the Internet.
  • Science is magic.  Rearden steel is so very much better than any other kind of steel that it might as well be adamantium, the super-special metal from the Marvel universe used in Wolverine's claws. It should be remembered that Rand writes in the era of some heroic constructions, both publicly and privately funded, though she would never admit that. We get the skyscrapers, the massive observatories and great bridges, but also in the era of those great leaps forward like fiberglass, asbestos and DDT.
  • The government is all-powerful, except when it isn't. When the government makes a law that no one can own more than one company, Rearden folds his hand like a weakling.  But he uses Rearden steel in his construction and we are told it is untested.  The government doesn't let people use untested stuff.  Someone writing the script should have explained that one better.

In short, I don't recommend the film, but if you can get it at your local library, give it a shot, if only to have an informed opinion.  This was only part one of the very long novel and the movie did not do well at the box office. There is an IMDB listing for Part Two, but it has a completely different cast. It is said to be released in 2012, but no release date is given there.  The filmmakers hope to release it before the election, but the fate of low budget films is tenuous at best. The fans of Rand's book are often derided as stunted adolescents, but they are not a market to be exploited like the actual adolescents who turned Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games into huge financial successes.  For people who love money as much as they do, they just don't seem to have the knack for making it. Ayn Rand would not be amused.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happy birthday, Karlacita!

 Happy birthday to my baby sister Karlacita! This picture was taken just a few days after her first birthday.  I look somewhat skeptical about the latest addition.

But within a few months, once she is old enough to sit up on her own, she and her big brother are bestest pals. She liked it when I read to her.

Many happy returns, sweetie.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Whoever is in charge of famous people dying, please... pace yourself.

 Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows I follow the obituaries. It sounds like the morbid curiosity of a person well past the middle year of his life, but I've actually read them since I was a kid. I distinctly remember talking to my brother about the idea of casting Richard Kiel and Ted Cassidy together as brother private detectives with a good cop/bad cop vibe, only to have my brother tell me Ted Cassidy had died.  It really bothered me not knowing that.


This week, there has been at least one obit a day of someone whose work I knew.  The race car driver and designer Carroll Shelby died this weekend.  He is responsible for the Shelby Cobra, definitely in the running for the sexiest two seater ever to hit the road.

This is, of course, in the fine American tradition of putting an entirely too big engine in as small a car as possible.



This morning, Donald "Duck" Dunn died on tour in Tokyo.  Dunn was the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, the house band for Stax/Volt during their glory days. (The picture from left to right: Dunn, keyboard player Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Al Jackson.) Dunn also was the bass player for The Blues Brothers. If you saw the movie, he's the guy always smoking the pipe.

The hits these guys played on are too many to mention, but whenever I think of them, the first melody in my mind is the seminal instrumental Time Is Tight. Here is a link to a great article about the song and if you want to listen to it, here it is on YouTube.

Once someone tells you the drum sounds like a person panting during sex, it's hard to hear anything else. But listen to when Dunn and Cropper are playing in unison.  You don't have to be smoking dope to get completely entranced in how close they are, trying pick the notes apart, the bass from the guitar. Their time is incredibly tight.


And then there's Horst Faas, who died on Thursday.  He was a photojournalist.  His best known work comes from Vietnam.  He didn't take the picture of the police chief shooting the guy in the head; that was Eddie Adams' work. He has some violent images, but a lot of his stuff is more lyrical. This picture is from an early morning with a mixed squad of American and South Vietnamese forces, up all night waiting for an attack that didn't come.  There are collections of his work on several websites right now, including NPR and The New York Times.

I hadn't heard his name before he died, and that's my bad. He was stunningly good.

I'd like to say this is NOT one of those Group of Threes so many people like to think are true when people die.  A whole lot of well known people have died this month: NFL Hall Of Famer Junior Seau, MCA of the Beastie Boys, Maurice Sendak, George Lindsey (played Goober on Andy Griffith), bandleader Mort Lindsey (no relation) from The Merv Griffin Show and earlier than that Judy Garland's musical director, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon and Nicholas Katzenbach, advisor to JFK and LBJ. That's ten in as many days, and there are actually others on the Times obit page of whom I had some knowledge.

As someone who follows obits, that is a quite a streak.  Weeks can go by without anyone dying whose claim to fame I know before reading the obit. Whoever is in charge of killing famous people, please pace yourself.  There's no need to showboat like this.

Best wishes to the families and friends of Carroll Shelby, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Horst Faas, from a fan.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Is the life expectancy of NFL players 55?


Junior Seau, one of the greatest linebackers of his generation, died this month at age 43, an apparent suicide. Anyone dying at that age is far too soon, but in the public grieving period that followed, several people repeated the statistic that the average life expectancy of former NFL players is 55.

This is a flat out falsehood.  Life expectancies that low happen in the poorest countries on earth, places where any infection can be fatal and infant mortality rates are very high.  In a country like Sierra Leone - average life expectancy 56.55 years the infant mortality rate is 76.67 death per 1,000 live births. Believe it or not, this is a vast improvement in less than a decade.

For men who are old enough to play in the NFL, the infant mortality rate is obviously zero. Given the 312 deaths of former pro football players from Jan. 1, 2010 until today, the average age at death is 74 and the median age at death is 78.

Ages at death of former pro football players vs. other celebrated people

I do not report this fact to lord it over the people who read the 55 number some place and assumed it to be true.

Let me explain my methodology. I took the data for the players from the excellent website Oldest Living Pro Football Players, which keeps tab on the obituaries of players, coaches, general managers and owners of pro football teams.  I also grabbed 100 ages at death from the New York Times obituary lists from this year and last, excluding pro football players.

The average for the 100 people on the list was 82.3 years. The standard deviation for the players' ages is 15.5 and for the other celebrities is 12.5.  The t-score for significance was 5.43, which is crazy high.

You can see from the graph above, with the football percentages in blue and the other celebrities percentages in red, that the vast majority of other celebrities made it to their 80th birthday (72%), while less than 50% of former pro football players made it to that age (46.8%).

It can be correctly argued that this test has a big apples to oranges problem. There is a steady increase in the number of people born each year, but pro football had very big jumps in the number of players when new leagues started or established leagues expanded, and some big drops when some unsuccessful leagues folded. For example, let's assume a pro football player begins his career somewhere between the ages of 22 and 25, assuming four years of college and possibly some military service. If someone is now 80, they began playing somewhere between 1954 and 1957. In this period, there are only 12 teams in the NFL and the most recent rival, the All-American Football Conference, packed up their tent in 1948, with their three most successful franchises - the Browns, the Colts and the 49ers - becoming NFL teams.  For players who are now 70, they should have begun playing in the years 1964 to 1967, the era of the AFL and NFL. Those years started with 22 pro teams and jumped up to 27 by 1967, with one more in 1968. There are now 32 NFL teams, and there have been several leagues that have come and gone, including the WFL, the USFL, the XFL and the NFL Europe league, not to mention arena football and the unsuccessful attempted expansion of the Canadian Football League into under-appreciated U.S. cities.

One way to lose this statistical noise is to take a sample of pro football players born in a given year and check their survival rates against the average American male. The Social Security system gives the national survival rates for males and females born in a certain year, and when checked that way, both baseball and football players do a better job of making it to 65 or 75 than the average American male born in the same year.

So in conclusion, we have data that says the average pro football player is dying earlier than the average celebrated person, but that data is skewed by the fact that there are a lot more ex-football players 70 or younger than there are ex-football players older than that, percentages that are nothing like the general population.  We also have data that pro athletes do a better job of surviving to 65 or 75 that the average American male born in the same year.

What we don't have is data that can be spun in any possible way to tell us the average life expectancy of a pro football player is 55.  That number is pure nonsense and needs to go away.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012


A picture is worth a thousand words, especially if drawn by Maurice Sendak.

I always loved his stuff.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

New fambly member! Yay!


My adorable niece Holly has given birth to her first daughter, Adia Joy Smith, 8 lbs. born at 4:43 am yesterday, 5/5/12. I waited until Holly and Cleavon posted on Facebook.

Adia is Swahili for gift, but she shall be called Itty Bitty Smitty by her grand-uncle until that name no longer applies. (Her parents are both tall, so I expect will outgrow Itty Bitty-ness in just a few years.)

Yay, new babies!

The tallest midgets in Texas, 2012 edition.


Fox News Channel is the great success of cable news, but distinguishing between "pay TV"and "broadcast TV" is an idea that belongs to last century.  Most people who watch TV have access to at least the basic cable so they are competing with everybody on TV, not just other cable news outlets.

Fox News is designed for people who never want their world view challenged.  Even the possibility of seeing something upsetting on Today or Good Morning America is too much for their delicate sensibilities, so they watch FOX and Friends in the morning to avoid cognitive dissonance over coffee.

According to the TV ratings, this is a tiny number of people.

ABC and NBC are now in a battle for first place among morning shows.  Today has been the leader for a while now, but Good Morning America has caught up and for the past few weeks has pulled ahead.  Both shows get about five million viewers a morning, with just over two million in the coveted 25-54 demographic.  CBS trails badly, getting barely half those numbers, two and a half million viewers and a million in the 25-54 age range.

CBS should be ashamed of themselves. They do so well in prime time and they suck so bad in the morning.

FOX and Friends has an audience half the size of CBS, a rank failure. Instead of getting about 40% of their viewers from the prime demographic, they get about 30%.

This is also true of Fox News evening programming.  They are MUCH bigger than other cable news outlets, but still minor league in comparison to broadcast news. The distinction between cable and broadcast is getting smaller all the time, but the "success" of Fox News Channel is just a minor league victory.

Nowhere is this clearer than the show Fox News Sunday, which goes head to head with the other Sunday talking head fests on the broadcast channel Fox. In this arena, CBS has the leader with Face The Nation, competing with NBC's Meet The Press for first place, while ABC's This Week trails badly for third. Fox News Sunday gets put in the mix with the big boys and it's patently obvious it can't keep up. Here are the numbers for last week, which are typical of the numbers I've seen for this year. (Source: TVNewser.)

Network Program Total Viewers A25-54
CBS
“Face the Nation” 3.03M 840K
NBC
“Meet the Press” 2.81M 760K
ABC “This Week” 2.39M 727K
FOX “Fox News Sunday” 1.04M 471K
Univision “Al Punto” 886K 358K

Fox News Sunday shows how weak the brand really is.  It's not trying to catch up with ABC. It's running for its life, hoping not to be passed up by a show broadcast in Spanish.

Time to stop pretending Fox News is a success story. It's a propaganda channel for a political party that is getting eaten alive by the changing demographics in this country. Like Sarah Palin, one of its contributors, Fox News gets a lot more attention than it deserves.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Trivia quiz:
Two way TLAs

When I was working in industry, someone noticed how many acronyms have three letters, so folks I used to hang out with started using the three letter acronym TLA to stand for "Three Letter Acronym". It could also mean the Texas Library Association or the Theater of the Living Arts.  Lots of TLAs are ambiguous like that.

Here are ten TLA that have at least two meanings.  See how many you can find.  Answers can be put in the comments.

      1. TLC
       2. GBH
      3. QED
      4. SRO
      5. MSG
      6. JMS
      7. ERA
      8. LBJ
      9. IPA
    10. MCA