Friday, December 30, 2016

Half Forgotten Fridays:
John Riley

Folk music is making a comeback after the success O Brother Where Art Thou?, but it tends to be the more "authentic" branch and less pop. The recordings here of the traditional love song John Riley are from the era of more pop style singing. The TV show Hootenanny featured mostly younger acts, though they sometimes had on people from Pete Seeger's generation. I'm not sure they would have gone for "old timey" acts like the Stanley Brothers or the Cox Family, but I must admit the show is one of those things I've half forgotten.

The next version is from Joan Baez.

And the first version I ever heard was from The Byrds. They are now remembered as a druggie lyrics and jangly guitars, but they were deeply connected to the folk music scene. I love the harmonies here, which I think are close to the style of madrigals. This version is without the string section overdub added to the album version and is repeated for reasons unknown. You will also hear a record skip unfortunately. As much as I love the Byrds' music that is still remembered, this may be my favorite of all their songs.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Math Thursday:
The math of life and death, part 2
Ticks and trends

Death statistics are very rarely news because they are best viewed over the long haul. In the past few months, major news media have had stories about small yearly upticks in some statistic or another. All these stories have found at least one scientist  to make the case this story is about a serious problem. Personally, I remain skeptical.

Here is the graph of the number of reported cases of tuberculosis, usually shortened to TB. You'll notice that there was a peak in the early 1990s which coincides with the height of the spread of AIDS. Since then the number of reported cases has dropped or stay nearly equal each year until a slight uptick in 2015 compared to 2014. It's hard to see on the graph, but the 2015 numbers were lower than 2013, so the rise is not very serious. Given the size of the U.S. population, the number of TB cases is about 3 per 100,000. If this was the death rate, that would be a number worth noting, but the number of TB deaths is not even 1 in 20 compared to the number of reported cases in a year. A cause of death that is below 1 per 100,000 population is not a significant vital statistic.

Simply put, trends should be news, but a tick upward for a single year should not be a major news story.
The next story is also about a single year tick in a average life expectancy, which is a much more important vital statistic than the TB rate.

In general, the life expectancy rate is a non-decreasing sequence, by which I mean it either improves or stays level for almost all years when measured at the level of one tenth of a year. Yet again, the last down tick we saw was a single year in the early 1990s coinciding with the worst of the AIDS deaths. Having so many people in their 20s and 30s dying at increased rates will have an impact on the overall numbers. The reason for the new small downturn is not as clear cut as was the health crisis of the early 1990s, though there is a prime suspect.

To my mind, the most significant news story about vital statistics in the past two years was the 2015 study by the wife and husband team of Case and Deaton looking at middle aged mortality (people from 45 to 54) from 1999 to 2013 here in the United States. Simply put, black folks in that age range showed a great improvement in mortality, but of the three groups listed, they still have the highest mortality. Somewhat to my surprise, Hispanics were slightly better in terms of mortality in this cohort compared to non-Hispanic whites even at the start of this study in 1999. The part of the study that made big news is that middle aged white Americans actually had a worse death rate in 2013 than they did in 1999, bucking not only the trend of other demographic groups in the United States but also almost all the rest of the industrialized world. The graph on the right shows the trend is being cause by that most precious of voting demographics this year, "the white working class".

Are the findings of Case and Deaton the cause of the down tick in the life expectancy rate? Since we have seen the trend they have discussed is about fifteen years long, why has it taken until now to see this downturn? Is this just a tick in the overall life expectancy rate in the U.S. or the start of a trend?

I haven't studied the numbers well enough to have an educated opinion on all of this, but I would say the answer to the first question is very probably yes, while the answer to the second question takes more serious study than I have put in and the answer to the third is harder still.

Next week: breaking down a significant part of the Case and Deaton numbers, deaths from overdoses of drugs both prescribed and illegal.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Carrie Fisher 1956-2016

I saw a lot of pictures of Carrie Fisher this morning on Twitter and Facebook, but I chose this sketch by John Kovalic, a fine cartoonist and a hardcore nerd, to represent her. It's iconic and she was an icon in so many ways. It also gives a nod to the late Kenny Baker, the guy inside the tin can who died this year as well.

We got some warning with Carrie and there was some hope because she was still alive when they took her off the plane, but 2016 has been the year when hope is nearly the worst thing you can have. Carrie Fisher's former flame Paul Simon wrote "These are the days of miracles and wonders". Maybe - just maybe - she might pull through. But the early news reports said she was unresponsive for ten minutes on the plane. Miracles and wonders aside, it's very hard to come back from that.

Carrie Fisher had roles people remember other than Star Wars, including Shampoo before and The Blues Brothers after, but so many tweets and Facebook posts were quick to point out her career as a writer. I show the cover from this book because my friend Mina Millett Vanderberg was of the opinion it started with one of the great first lines in literature, up there with Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville and Austen.

Maybe I shouldn't have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway.  

It lacks the brevity of "Call Me Ishmael" or "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." But there is no denying it packs a punch.

Carrie Fisher was my age. Mina was my age and she died ten years ago. A lot of stuff is piling on today.

The 20th Century is chock full of writers talking about their own drug experiences, but Carrie Fisher was one of the first to talk directly about her own battles with mental illness as well. In her case it was depression and bipolar disorder. On Twitter, there are tributes from other writers who made their struggles public, including Mara Wilson and Stephen Fry. Here's a link to on of Fry's tweets today that made me both laugh and cry.

And so I close as I often have.

Best wishes to the family and friends of Carrie Fisher, from a fan. May she never be forgotten.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

All the tweeted Christmas music in one post

I tweeted links to a bunch of Christmas music starting Friday, so here they all are in one easy to access place.

I started with The Wexford Carol, my favorite traditional Christmas son, performed by Allison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma.

Next, Daniela Andrade sing the Vince Guaraldi tune Christmas Time Is Here, positive lyrics over a very melancholy tune, with a bonus adorable dog.

And for a real hearttugger, it's hard to beat Charles Brown's 1960 hit, the often covered but never equaled Please Come Home for Christmas.

This one was recommended by Frank Conniff, a.k.a. TV's Frank, a holiday station identification from CBS back in 1966.

And one of the great recent traditions, Darlene Love singing Christmas, Baby Please Come Home on the David Letterman show for the last time with the full Wall of Sound treatment.

And the saddest modern Christmas song, made sadder this year, Another Lonely Christmas, one of my favorite B-sides from Prince.

And after all this melancholy, I sincerely wish a happy holiday season to all my readers.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Half Forgotten Fridays:
The Who and the traumas of childhood

Welcome to the second installment of Half Forgotten Fridays. Today I talk about The Who. Clearly, The Who are not forgotten, but nowadays the 1960s is often boiled down to "Beatles or Stones?". Many other great bands of the British Invasion, most notably in my mind The Kinks, The Yardbirds and The Who, are relegated to the second division, which is a re-write of history I'd like to smash into pieces.

All bands have tension. The Beatles had John and Paul's different visions and George trying to be heard, The Stones had Mick and Keef and early on Brian Jones all fighting for musical dominance. The Who were much worse. Only Pete Townsend and bassist John Entwistle were actually friends. Early on, Roger Daltrey was a complete dictator and had to agree to a democratic system only after Townsend and Entwistle threatened to quit. Keith Moon was the last member to join, the final piece of the puzzle, one of the most amazing drummers in rock history. He was also a drunk and a drug addict and most of the English music scene knew how miserable he was in the band, with people like Jeff Beck actively trying to poach him away. Still, he stayed until his death in 1978.

Over the past fifty years, The Who's career has been distilled down to several great hits such as My Generation, Who Are You?, Baba O'Riley, Pinball Wizard, Substitute, Behind Blue Eyes, Won't Get Fooled Again and many more. I want to take a look at some early recordings that aren't quite as famous but completely turn the sex god rock star image inside out.

Let's start with Pictures of Lily, a story of familial bonding over the restorative effects of masturbation and the eventual heartache of falling in love with a woman who died fifteen years before you were born. This interpretation of the text is not hard to decipher, though I will admit there is some slight subtext here. Compare this to The Beatles' appreciation of underage girls (Well, she was just seventeen/ You know what I mean...") or the Stones being coy about menstruation ("Baby better come back maybe next week/ 'Cause you see I'm on a losing streak"). Singers are supposed to glorify the search for sex, even if it is unsuccessful. Enjoying masturbation is not usually an acceptable topic.

The only fig leaf of dignity allowed Roger Daltrey singing this Pete Townsend song is the fact it is set in childhood. Still, there isn't a song in rock from another band that comes close to being this odd until The Kinks record Lola in 1970.

Our second exhibit is I'm a Boy, again sung by Daltrey and written by Townsend, again set in childhood, a story about a young boy forced to cross-dress by his mother. Looking at it through a 21st Century lens, we have a cisgendered boy forced to behave as if he was transgendered. It takes only a little bit of empathy to see how this story relates to the lives of the transgendered forced to conform to sexual roles in which they aren't comfortable.

The song's lyrics are dark ("My name is Bill and I'm a head case..."), but the music is unrelentingly cheerful. The final notes singing "I'm a boy!" have a harmony part that is at the very highest end of most males' falsetto.

This is just strange. Fifty years ago, it was even stranger.

But I'm a Boy isn't nearly as strange as The Who Sell Out, their third studio album. It had songs that were ads for deodorant and baked beans. The biggest hit was I Can See For Miles, but the song presented here is Tattoo, a slow and tender ballad about kids getting beaten by their parents. Critics loved this change of pace and Townsend considers one of his favorites.

So here's to The Who, great hit makers for several decades and the band that may have produced more truly subversive songs than any other major rock band in history.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Math Thursday:
The math of life and death, part 1
Population pyramids

Over the next few weeks, I'll be covering population statistics. This week's graphics come from the website, which has a set of population pyramids for nearly every country on earth as well as the entire world population (shown to the left) and regions like Western Europe and Western Asia.

Note: I've shrunk down the screen shots so they fit in the blog format. You can click on any picture to get a larger version or visit the btlas website to get more data about different countries or different years.

The population is split into five year cohorts, starting at 0-4. The pink and blue bars represent the number of females and males respectively in that cohort rounded to the nearest tenth of a percent. Let's look at a few features of the data.

Mode: In data sets where the size is a knowable number, the mode would be the largest cohort and any ties for largest, which is this case would be just the 0-4 cohort with 4.4% female and 4.7% male. But in sets like this where the exact number is changing, a cohort counts as a mode if it is greater than or equal to both the cohort immediately below and immediately above. In terms of the graph, if we have pinches and bulges, any bulge can be a mode, even if it is not the widest overall. In this case, the 25-29 cohort is larger than both the 20-24 group and the 30-34 group, so it counts as a mode, though it isn't nearly as large as the 0-4 cohort.

The age at which the female population surpasses the male: It is typical that there are more males under five years old than females and also typical that males die at higher rates than females. At ages less than 50, men are dying faster than women in large part because of accidents. Eventually, the proportion of females catches up and surpasses the males. In this case, the 45-49 cohort is tied at 3.1% for both males and females and the 50-54 cohort is tied at 2.8%. All of the cohorts older than 50-54 have more females than males.

Youth, Adults and Seniors: One way to group these cohorts is to look at the Youth for 0 to 19, the Adults from 20 to 64 and the Seniors, 65 and older.  In this case, the percentages add up to 34.0% Youth, 57.4% Adults and 8.4% Seniors. (if often happens that the total isn't 100% due to rounding error.) It is assumed that the Adult cohort are the wage earners for the most part, caring for the Youth and Seniors. It's a bad sign when the Adult cohort dips near to 50%.

Population growth: The blue curve with the cross hairs shows overall population growth. According to these numbers, the world population in 1950 was about 2.5 billion, it is now around 7.4 billion and projected to be 11.2 billion in 2100.


Here are the numbers for the good old U.S. of A. Birth rates have been decreasing, in large part due to declining teen pregnancy rates, so the 0-4 cohort does not count as a mode at all. The three modes here are at 20-24, the very tail end of the Baby Boom at 50-54 and a much smaller bulge at 40-44. The Youth/Adult/Senior split is 25.3%, 59.8% and 15.0%, more adults and seniors than the worldwide numbers and less kids.

The age at which women outnumber men is the 55-59 cohort. You'll notice the 60-64 cohort is represented by exact numbers instead of percents. That is a feature of the site when the cursor scrolls over a cohort bar. In my age group, there are about 600,000 more women than men. Lucky me.

The website speculates that the population will keep increasing throughout the century. My best guess is the numbers we have worldwide and nationally now are not truly sustainable. The best guess fifty years ago was we would have a famine large enough the reduce the population, but food production has kept up with population so far. We have paid for that with increased carbon emissions and terrifying air and water pollution in developing nations throughout Asia.

That shit is gonna catch up with us, as mathematicians are fond of saying.

And then we have the Russians, our new best buddies and a completely failed state. We have a boatload of pinches and bulges, so much so that 75-79 is a mode due to World War II. We have a crazy pinch when comparing 20-24 vs. 15-19, the kind of fall off that is usually indicates a major war, but this time was instead the result of the fall of the Soviet Union. Women outnumber men in the 35-39 cohort, due in no small part to young men killing themselves with alcohol. The very pronounced squeeze from 0-4 to 15-19 is typical in a country with a horrible medical system that can't keep babies alive. The good news in all of this is their Adult cohort vastly outnumbers their Youth and Seniors, so they should be able to support their children and elderly.

And then we have the population curve. The population of Russia has decreased over the past few decades, though the decline is leveling off. The author of the website, a Belgian named Martin De Wulf, thinks there will be even more decline in the decades to come.

I won't be around to collect, but if I was betting on the world population in 2100, I'd say there's a good chance it will be less than it is today. While this would good news for the planet and our chances for long-term survival, it's more than a little depressing that it will take the whole world turning into the kind of shithole Russia has been for decades.

More in the first comment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Fran Jeffries, 1937-2016

Fran Jeffries died last week at the age of 79. She had a career as a singer, dancer, actress and model in the Fifties through the Eighties. The highlight of her film career is singing and dancing in 1963 film The Pink Panther. You can see several of the film's stars in the background: David Niven, Robert Wagner, Capucine. The song is Meglio Stasera, which translates to "It would be better tonight", with music by Henry Mancini and Italian lyrics by Franco Migliacci.

Having seen some films about show business in the past few years, notably Birdman and La La Land, it's hard to think of the lives of actresses as being glamorous. Ms. Jeffries was a Northern California girl, daughter of a Greek immigrant barber who went on to own a restaurant. Her first big break came when she was discovered by Dick Haymes, twenty years her senior and at the trailing edge of his career. Haymes had a beautiful voice, but was hated in Hollywood, partly for not serving in World War II and the other part for being a womanizer and drunk.  She recorded a few albums, none of them hits and no singles made the charts. She has a grand total of eight appearances on, including Elvis Presley's Harum Scarum. She appeared twice in Playboy, the last time at the age of 45.

Ms. Jeffries' career is an archetypical example of just how talented and attractive you can be and have a career that never catches fire. It is typical of the time to have her Greek name taken from her and given an Anglicized name in its place. She could have had a career like Julie London or Vikki Carr, an Anglicized beauty of Mexican-American heritage, but it was not to be.

While her life's glamour may have been hard won and short-lived, as a kid I thought this scene was the height of glamour. It reminds me of the sexy dance Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) does at a party on Mad Men.

Here is Fran Jeffries singing Meglio Stastera from The Pink Panther. May she never be forgotten.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

We're all in the same boat
Ready to float off the edge of the world.
The flat old world.

I chose a line from The Band's song Life is a Carnival as the title of this week's political post, though I might have also chosen the title of The Fortunes' biggest hit, You've Got Your Troubles (I've Got Mine).

Shorter version of this post for the tl:dr set. Plenty of elected governments have their people in "we're so screwed" mode.

For those who want to stick around, I promise a lot of swearing and pessimism, two great tastes that go great together.

Let's start with Rodrigo Duterte, the elected president of the Philippines. He got elected on the platform of killing drug dealers and drug addicts and he is keeping that campaign promise. He now admits that when he was a police chief, he killed a few of these miscreants himself, proving he walks the walk.

People love a strong leader, right?

Would it surprise you that admits to taking a very strong painkiller known to be addictive?

Please tell me your answer is "No, it wouldn't surprise me." Any other answer would disappoint me, and I've always thought so highly of you.

Let's move from there to Poland, where the parliament is making wholesale changes in the law to limit representative government. The proposed changes are so clearly against the will of the people that they kicked journalists out of the legislative chambers.

What kind of vicious, backward government do such a thing? Well, for a second example, we have North Carolina.

I will give this to Trump, and I really don't want to give that dullard crook jack shit. He knows the kind of entertainment the news media wants, especially cable news. The current plan of the rich is to steal everything that isn't screwed down and undo any screws that are in place. But is that what the press is interested in?

Fuck no.

Ooh, Trump met with Kayne! He met with Leo! There's an auction to have coffee with Ivanka!

Seriously, we are entertaining ourselves to death.

We appear to be in the middle of a great mass extinction. The last one was sixty six million (66,000,000) years ago at the end of the age of the dinosaurs. Is the new mass extinction news? Fuck, no, it's too slow. We won't care until it's some big lovable creature like the polar bear or the African elephant gone or past the point of no return.

Earth surface land temperatures are heading upwards in a big damn hurry over the past few years and we are seeing the "lull" of the early part of the century can be adjusted if we take ocean temperatures into account. Is this news?

Again, fuck to the no, it's too slow and the polar vortex is making Canadian and North American winters crazy cold. Explain that, pointy headed scientists!

They can explain it, but the people asking the questions aren't actually interested in the answers.

Human population has gone completely nuts in the past two hundred years. Fifty years ago, the best guess was over-population would cause a famine big enough to make the growth rate negative, but that hasn't come to pass yet. We figured out ways to increase food supply and the rate of starvation has shrunk, even though the number of people in true food jeopardy worldwide is about the same as it was in the 1960s at about a billion. That used to be about a third of the world, nowadays it's closer to an eighth.

I like to end up on conclusions where I can point to the numbers. Even as a pure mathematician, I understand physics well enough to know that no natural thing can grow infinitely. Eventually, the temperature rise we now see will have to level off to a new stable point. The problem is, that stable point may not be conducive to some large proportion of creatures alive today. Natural selection, as always, will pick the new winners and losers.

I can't do the computations well enough to know on what side of the ledger humans will find themselves. If we are truly the cause of climate change, the only solution will be earth's climate changing so drastically that our numbers shrink to levels where we are no longer a major factor.

I'd like to be more optimistic.

I'd also like to be younger and skinnier.

Two out of three is the best I can hope for, and I don't like the odds of that happening.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Half Forgotten Fridays:
James and Bobby Purify I'm Your Puppet

Welcome to Half Forgotten Fridays, a new feature on my reboot of this blog. I do this as a geezer who finds it remarkable that young people - and for that I mean people under forty - are completely willing to listen to music that is fifty years older or more. When I was younger, it was very hard to get the rock generation to listen to the music popular during World War II, and that was only twenty to thirty years old.

The election got me to thinking about the song I'm Your Puppet, the only top ten hit for the duo of James and Bobby Purify. You might think that last name is too good to be true, and you would be half right. James Purify is using the name he was born with, but his cousin Bobby Dickey was willing to bend the truth a little to come up with a memorable name that sadly few now remember.

While the artist are obscure, the song is not. Look it up on YouTube and you have your choice of recording, one with ten million hits and another with nearly four million. It has been used in recent years by the TV show Ash vs Evil Dead and the radio show Democracy Now! Like a lot of slow jams, it's a popular song for cruising and found its way onto the Cruisin' Classics compilation. Reading the comments, you can see how popular it is in the Latino community, with teenagers admitting their love the song on its own merits, and other young people waxing nostalgic for the times their abuelos would dance in the kitchen or their parents would sing along when the song came over the speakers in the car.

From 1966, here's James and Bobby Purify performing their classic, I'm Your Puppet.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Math Thursday:
A small victory celebrated

I have created a lot of blogs over the past ten years, and one of the least popular was Math Year 2013, which as you might expect was written in 2013 and had posts that concerned math. One mathy thing I did that year was work with the data set created by Berkeley Earth Surface Temperatures, now shortened to Berkeley Earth, their website available through the link. Created by UC physicist Richard Muller on a grant from the Koch Brothers, the website has one of the best databases of temperature readings from around the globe, going back centuries. Muller does not deny climate change and the Koch Brothers still fund him. Muller is a flack for fracking and shale oil, which are the reasons I assume keep him in good graces.) In 2013, I took the data set and reduced it to a more easily readable form for my computer program written in C++. I decided to look at regions defined by longitude and latitude over the time frame from 1955 to 2010. If the earth were flat, these regions would be rectangles, but the actual shapes are more a slice from a "ring" defined by two concentric circles. If the one of the latitudes is the North Pole or South Pole, the region is shaped like the slice of a pie.

The jagged maroon line marks the average yearly temperatures. The step-like lines, the two black ones on top and bottom and the dotted red line in the middle, are respectively the high, low and median temperatures for defined time periods. It's the definition of a time period that is my idea.

Folks in California are well acquainted with the words El Niño and La Niña as they refer to our weather. It refers to the temperature of the water near the equator all the way across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, from the eastern shore of Africa to the western shore of South America. In El Niño years, that water is warmer than normal and the opposite in La Niña years. In California, the pattern has an effect on our rainfall totals. El Niño and La Niña have effects on the weather all around the world, even being a factor in the Atlantic hurricane season.

I came up with the Consistent Oceanic Niño/Niña Intervals or CONNI for short. An interval starts with a high El Niño year, must contain at least one low La Niña year, then ends just before the next high El Niño. The intervals are not all the same length, but for the region shown above, every interval was warmer than the last in all three ways of measuring. (It should be noted that this is not true for every large region, but was true for both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.)

Okay, so I did all this work and nearly no one read it. Given how little I did to advertise it, I should not be surprised. What is surprising is that this year, someone read it, someone liked it and someone paid me cash money to use graphics based on the picture above.

As any blogger will tell you, it's the "cash money" part that's the big surprise.

In August, I got an e-mail from AQA, a British company that lists itself as a "charitable organization" and writes the A-Level exams. These are like the SAT exams in the United States, a way to get into university. The main difference is that in Great Britain, there are several organizations that produce the tests, unlike the monopoly enjoyed by The College Board here in the States. 

So they showed interest, I saw they made changes in the graphs but didn't obscure the meaning, so I asked about pay. They want two graphs, and they paid $200 total. Since they are a "charitable organization", I guess this makes me a charity case. I won't quibble over this.

In any case, unexpected free money is always appreciated. I believe this is true for non-bloggers as well.

Monday, December 12, 2016

So what can I get for a used brain?

Joke by Emo Phillips

Damned little, I can tell you that.

If my brain were a computer, I would have traded it in for a new, less glitchy model ages ago. That not being an option, I give it snap quizzes every once in a while to see how it's working.

Tonight's snap quiz: Ten French Mathematicians in ten minutes.

Okay, I'm at six faster than plus vite!

The three great guys before Newton: Descartes, Pascal, Mersenne.
Three "La" or "Le" prefixes: LeGendre, LaPlace, LaGrange

Oh, yeah: seven: Poincare

Ummm... Cauchy.

So I'm at eight in about two minutes, and then things slow down.

The heat equation guy, lived in Grenoble, kept his house crazy hot...
Sorry, says my brain. I'll give you the anecdote, but not his name.

I started thinking 20th Century and dragged up Rene Thom. That's nine.

There was a great French mathematician whose name was like a great German's mathematician, but different pronunciation. I know the German worked with Einstein and his name was... all I get is Kurt. That's not right. Kurt Goedel was at the Institute of Advanced Studies with Einstein and xxx, but the guy I'm thinking of has a different first name.

Tick, tick, tick.

Think of a theorem or field! My brain gives me Abel. No, Niels Abel was Scandinavian.

I've now got two minutes and I'm hating my brain.

AH! Galois! Galois and Abel independently prove the insolubility of the quintic! My brain was giving me puzzles to solve.

Timer goes off, ten in ten minutes, so success.

Unsolved puzzle #1: my brain offered Kurt because of Kurt Weill, not Kurt Goedel. Hermann Weyl is the German mathematician, Andre Weil (pronounce "way") is the French.

The heat equation guy was Fourier, whose name completely slipped my mind. No puzzle worked here.

Also if I'm naming the guys before Newton, Fermat should be there. Duh.
Also Hadamard, Borel, both guys named Cartan, deMoivre, Mandelbrot, Poisson, Hermite and Sophie Germain.


I passed the test barely, with the feeling I would have breezed through it even ten years ago.

Getting old sucks. But most of you knew that already, right?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Deciphering the suffering to come

Political Twitter is a fascinating resource. I follow several writers from newspapers and magazines and they send links to the most important stories they have seen, sometimes their own work and sometimes not. This weekend, a hell of a lot of folks are mentioning
this Lauren Duca essay from Teen Vogue. Many express shock that an article that could be in The New Yorker or The Nation is written by a young woman who is the weekend editor for Teen Vogue and often covers the Selena Gomez beat. The fact is that Ms. Duca has written for The New Yorker and The Nation, and there should be no shock that she could write this, only surprise that Teen Vogue decided to publish it.

Ms. Duca's point is that Donald Trump lies. A lot. And like many people who lie constantly, he's doing it for a reason, trying to make people around him question reality. Sadly, "the people around him" now describes the entire planet, as he becomes the leader of the most powerful country on that planet. As the stories about Russian interference in our election gain traction and Trump brazenly puts forward a tool of the Russian oligarchs to be Secretary of State, people on the left and right are talking openly about a constitutional crisis. Trump's team, on the other hand, dismisses the CIA as the people who brought us the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq story, yet another lie. The intelligence agencies had serious doubts about Saddam's arsenal. It was other serial liars, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who pushed this lie hard enough to make it official policy of the American government.

While this essay is about the lies Trump tells and the actions he takes that show his true intentions, I use a photo of Chinese Communists writing wall posters during the era of divided government near the end of Mao Zedong's life, when the clique that wanted to seize power were denouncing The Gang of Four, Mao's wife and her closest associates. Foreign intelligence agencies made a detailed study of these posters, which would change several times a week, to see which faction looked to be more likely to survive the power struggle that was taking place inside a government completely opposed to transparency.

And now we have a situation not unlike Red China in the 1970s, opaque one party rule where there appear to be competing factions. To us on the left, the Republicans appear ruthless and monolithic, but it is much more a collection of factions that are willing to deal with one another about their particular pet projects, something along the lines of "I'll help you destroy women's rights to reproductive freedom if you will let me gut these environmental protections". From Trump's nominees for important posts so far, his goal is to tear down as much of the government as humanly possible, but we still don't know how far he will take this and if any Republicans will stand in his way.

There are only the smallest glimmers of hope in the very dark clouds that gather above us. The team Trump has assembled is exactly what we could have expected from Ted Cruz or any other hard right Republican, except when it comes to policy towards Russia. Openness to Russia and playing hardball with our NATO allies was the only plank of the Republican platform that Trump's team worked tirelessly to change at this year's Convention, and there are a lot of old school Cold Warriors like Lindsey Graham and John McCain who are dead set against this change in policy. As we saw clearly during the Obama Administration, a single Senator with a bee in their bonnet can hold up nominations nearly indefinitely.

When it comes to domestic policy, change tends to be slow. Some policies like women's reproductive rights and environmental protections now appear impossible to save from the GOP over the next few years, but other issues like Social Security and Medicare might be spared the axe. In foreign policy, change can be as quick as September 11, 2001 or December 7, 1941. Come January 20, 2017, we will have an incompetent president, already in bed with the murderous and dominant Vladimir Putin and surrounded by advisers itching for war.

One match can start a fire. With this gang of villains, it might well be an American hand that throws the match. Let me end with a poster from Great Britain in World War II that is beginning to eclipse the "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters from that same era.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Okay, so this isn't at all ominous.

I haven't been posting much for the past few years, but Blogger stats tell me I have over a thousand visits a day. I should find that heartening, right? My little blog has an audience.

Well, looking at the stats of yesterday's blog traffic, there were 1,166 visits from Russia and 54 visits from the United States. The stats I would get back in this blog's heyday were nothing like this, when I got well over 90% of my viewers from the U.S.

So the takeaway from these numbers is not so much "I'm a writer with a large and loyal audience" as much as "the Internet is up to its eyebrows in Russian bots."

To make matters worse, the browser of choice is Internet Explorer with 1,165 visits.

Russians use Internet Explorer, more proof that they are a backward fucking country.

We'll see if this little insult is enough for the Russian robots to grow feelings that can be hurt.

Getting back in the habit.

Longtime readers, all six of you, will know this was my first blog. I started blogging here on April Fools of 2007. At that time, I would write political stuff on The Smirking Chimp, which now calls itself The Smirking Trump in its headline though the link still uses the antiquated insulting nickname for George W. Bush. This blog launched as a place where I could write about whatever I wanted, though politics was certainly not off limits. Over time, I started other blogs about specific topics like math, supermarket tabloids, science fiction and poll aggregation. Now I come back here to write about whatever strikes my fancy. Back in the day, I posted here daily, sometimes several posts in a day. My goal now is to post four or five times a week.

The New Normal. 

1. I'm changing the layout of the blog with the intent of having a slightly larger font as the standard.  

2. I'm going to try to hold myself to one political post a week on Sundays. Obviously, this is not conducive to the BREAKING NEWS standards of the Internet, but there are plenty of other places you can get that.

3. My plan on Saturday, though not this Saturday, is for Geezer Posts. I talk to people younger than myself and notice what "old" stuff is not well known to folks twenty or thirty years younger than I am. Other geezers may disagree with what I consider forgotten. I welcome discussion on the topic, as long as you get off my lawn. (EDIT: I've decided to move this feature to Fridays, calling it Half-Forgotten Fridays.)

4. Obituary posts. In my defense, I've always done these, it not just me getting old and cranky.

5. Math posts. I had a time when I could do one a week. They weren't necessarily massively popular, but The First Rule of Blogging™ is"You're not the boss of me!"

6. The tone. I used to write when I was upset about stuff. I think I'm going to have a lot of chances to be upset over the next few years, but I am going to make an effort to write about things I like. The Sunday political posts get a dispensation from the general Keep It Cheerful rules.

I'll be posting links to new blog entries on Twitter and those will get put in my Facebook feed. As always, I welcome comments. When blogs get famous, the comment sections can become slime pits, but at a nice cozy Mom & Pop blog like this, I have met some of my best online friends in the comments. I certainly hope that continues.

And we're off!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Mortality comparison: NBA vs. NHL

Here I am back at my original blog to post the results of a study comparing the mortality rates of two sports leagues, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL). This will be part report and part lesson in statistics.

Those of you not already asleep are welcome to follow the rest of this.

Motivation: Earlier this week, the Facebook group alt.obituaries posted the death notices of two hockey players, both under 70 at the time of their deaths. This made me wonder if hockey might be bad for one's long term health, so I decided to compare it to basketball. The sports are not comparable in terms of play, but they do have very similar lengths of seasons.

Designing the data sets: I decided in the interest of nice round numbers to look at the rosters of all the teams in the 1975-76 season of the NBA and NHL, which is forty years ago. I did this because of the ages of the deceased this week, Tom Lysiak and Rick MacLeish who died at 63 and 66 respectively. I figured they would both have been playing in that season and I was correct.

Data source and methodology: I went to the websites and, both part of the family of websites. While I cannot prove the 100% reliability of these sources, every player in both sports that I knew had died in the past year was listed as deceased, so I am going to assume this website is as reliable a source as I am likely to find.

While this source is reliable, it is not 100% complete. My original idea was to include players from the two rival leagues, the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association, both of which fielded teams in 1975-76, but I could not find the data for those teams.

The question, stated as a Null Hypothesis and an Alternate Hypothesis: Is there a difference between the mortality rates of the NHL and the NBA? In a statistical test like this, the Null Hypothesis H0 always has to state that nothing special is happening, which in this case would be that there is no significant difference. The Alternate Hypothesis HA is that there is something special happening, that there is a difference and it is significant. Because of the two hockey deaths this week, I assumed hockey - the clearly more violent of the two sports - might be worse than basketball, but two deaths is not enough information to make an assumption, so we will make the test two-tailed, which means we would be surprised either by significantly greater mortality in the NHL versus the NBA or vice versa. We need to set a confidence level for what we will consider significant.The standard for publishing papers in nearly every field is 95% confidence, which means we need p-values less than .05.

Data set sizes: There are more men on a hockey roster than on a basketball roster and injuries are more common, so the NHL list for that season is longer than the NBA list. In the NHL, n = 461while in the NBA, n = 228.

Significant statistic #1: The average age in the NHL that season was younger than the average age in the NBA. The numbers for the birth years were as follows, rounded to two places after the decimal.

NHL: average birth year: 1949.43, standard deviation of the set: 4.33
NBA: average birth year: 1948.73, standard deviation of the set: 3.64

This has to do with the fact most NBA players come out of college while most NHL players come up through the ranks of junior hockey. The difference was only 0.7 years, or about 250 days, but because of the size of the sets and the low standard deviations in both sets, the two tailed p-value was .0265 and so the data is statistically significant, while in terms of mortality rates, 250 days difference in age is negligible in effect, especially for two sets of men averaging less than 70 years old. It should be noted that I only took down the year of birth, not the date, so rounding to two places after the decimal should be different if the measurement system was more precise.

Significant statistic #2: The percentage of now dead players from the NBA 1975-76 is 15.8% while the NHL roster from the same year has only 9.3% deceased.  The p-value for this difference is .0092. When publishing papers, lower p-values are better, so this difference is more impressive than the difference of less than a year in age between the rosters. Moreover, because the data of dead/alive is categorical, the size of our two data sets is on the modest end of acceptable, while when comparing numerical data, the data sets are rather large.

Guessing at the source of the difference: Obviously, the more violent nature of hockey does not make it a "deadlier" sport in the long run. The best guess I have for the cause of the significant difference is race and nationality.

African Americans are extremely well represented in basketball, especially in comparison to the population of the United States. The NHL in 1975-76 was still largely a white and mostly Canadian league. (The upstart WHA had a lot of European players. Once the leagues merger, the league became less and less Canadian over time, with a large influx of Eastern European talent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.) The difference in mortality very likely has more to do with comparing the overall mortality rates of black Americans to white Canadians.

Where to go next: The data set makes it hard to compare these cohorts to the general population. When I did a baseball vs. football comparison years ago, I hunted down players born in certain years, which meant I could use the excellent database of the Social Security system to compare the mortality rates against what was the expected mortality for men precisely that age. I don't have a good idea on how to collect a set of about 400 Canadian men who would have been between 20 and 35 in 1976 and a similar set of about 200 American men. If we could find such sets, we could have an idea of whether playing these sports is hazardous to your long term health. The earlier study I did said both baseball and football players are slightly healthier than the population as a whole.