Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tiger Woods Situation Explained

In case you are wondering what happened, this makes it all much more clear (h/t & E.):

Monday, October 26, 2009

Al Franken Explains Selection Effects

Al Franken is quickly becoming my hero. Below is a clip (h/t Effect Measure) where he not only makes a very prescient case for health care reform and the impact on "medical bankruptcies," but also shows that he is unwilling to be bullied, knows what selection effects are, and is able to explain them so that they can be understood in such a way that he uses them to make the case for health care reform.

I can admit that I was a little bit weary of Al Franken running for the Senate. I used to listen to his radio show on Air America and thought that he was a little arrogant and showed a lack of nuance in some of the opinions that he expressed on that show. I was also worried that he didn't have the discipline to stay on message and not make needlessly disparaging comments that would come back and haunt him later. But, he handled himself with incredible grace during the recount and subsequent court battles in Minnesota and has shown an incredible acuity for both politics and policies in the Senate.

Medical bankruptcies are bankruptcies that are related to medical or health-related issues. A 2005 study showed that medical bankruptcies affect between 1.9–2.2 million Americans in 2001 alone. As if filing for bankruptcy wasn't bad enough, the authors found that many of those who filed for bankruptcy had problems finding a future apartment, job, or cars because of their credit unworthiness. Sen. Franken points out that there are zero of these bankruptcies in France, Germany, and Switzerland.

Then, when the right-wing shill asks Sen. Franken if he knows the international disparities in cancer outcomes, he already has an answer that every intro stats class should watch for an explanation of selection effects. If, because we only treat people socioeconomically advantaged enough to not have serious complications for cancer, of course we would expect that our cancer outcomes would be much better than those who treat difficult cases as well. In other words, the design of the study selected on the dependent variable — likelihood to survive cancer treatment — to receive treatment; it is therefore, unsurprising when cancer patients here survive more.

As is becoming frequent of late around here, I congratulate Senator Franken for his outstanding representation of this country.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Progressive and Not Diverse? Not Really

In urban planning circles, Portland, Oregon is held up as a model of urban planning. It is designed to be highly walkable, has an extensive system of bike routes, good public transportation, and was one of the first cities in the country to make sustainability a priority. As is often the case, being held up as a model by one group invites criticism by another and a recent post at the iconoclastic planning website takes Portland to task for lacking diversity and being all-white.

It is true that Portland is not a very diverse city and, if author Aaron Renn had left his criticism at Portland, he would have had a much stronger argument, but he does not. Instead, he argues that "the best, the most progressive and best role models for small and mid-sized cities" are havens of white exclusivity and goes on to present an array of statistics to demonstrate this point. In his analysis, there are flaws in the way that he presents the data. In particular, despite his claim that these progressive models are "White Cities," he doesn't actually present the percentage white in cities. In fact, he doesn't present data for cities at all — he presents statistics for "Core Counties" (these are counties that contain the central city).

Renn addressed the second of the two criticisms in the comments of his post by saying:

Comparisons between cities are inherently difficult. I generally do not like to use central city corporate limit data as a basis for comparison because the size of central cities is so different. Indianapolis and Columbus are both large because they annexed large amounts of "suburban" territory, while Cincinnati and Cleveland did not and are much smaller geographically.

I agree that it is difficult to compare different cities because cities vary both geographically and administratively. But, the same could be said about cities and, given that Renn is discussing "progressive" policies, then it seems like corporate limits would be exactly what he would want to report because in almost all areas in the country (Indianapolis being a major exception) policies are decided within municipal boundaries. In fact, the political fragmentation is associated with racial isolation/segregation. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that counties vary widely in their administration and autonomy.

Perhaps more problematically, while Renn makes the argument that model progressive cities are white havens, he does not present any statistics on how white cities are. Instead, he publishes the percentage black in the core county. This brings up two problems. First, it assumes that the American population is made up of only whites and blacks and ignores the increasing racial diversity in many cities including the mass immigration by Latinos and Asians. Second, this also assumes that the mere presence of blacks means that cities are diverse; however, if there are lots of African Americans, but they are segregated into a small number of specific neighborhoods (e.g., Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, Milwaukee) then these cities cannot be said to be diverse.

In order to look at what impact these assumptions have on the conclusions that Renn draws, I have taken Renn's examples of model progressive cities: Portland, Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, and Seattle and charted the percentage of residents by racial composition in each central city. The chart gives a much different impression than that given by Renn's charts. Using central cities and charting racial composition by multiple groups shows that both Austin and Denver have only 50% of whites in their municipal limits while Minneapolis is only 63% white. Seattle is slightly higher than Minneapolis with 68% white while Portland — Renn's poster child — is 74% white. In the United States in 2000, only 75% of the population was white meaning that Portland would be right on the average of the entire nation if the entire U.S. population were spread out without clustering. Although the percentage of white residents in Portland is certainly higher than most cities, the fact that one in four residents in the city means that the city cannot be identified as only white as Renn implies.

But, even if a city had a large non-white population, it does not mean that residents are integrated or interact with one another. I downloaded the metropolitan area segregation statistics[1] from the to see how racially segregated these metropolitan areas are. I use three measures available for download from The Mumford Center. Although there are multiple domains of segregation that can be measured, I focus on two here: the dissimilarity index and the white isolation index. The first measures the extent to which residents of two different races are evenly distributed in neighborhoods (i.e., tracts) within a metropolitan area and the second measures the neighborhood percent white of the average white resident. The former is unaffected by the relative size of the two groups being compared, while the isolation index is dependent on both the size of the white population and its geographic dispersion (a greater percent white in a metro area pushes isolation higher).

Dissimilarity and White Isolation in "Model Progressive" Cities
W ISOLATION70.177.988.4095.5079.60

Generally, scores on either indices above 60 are considered extreme segregation. Denver is the only city above this threshold for black/white dissimilarity, though Minneapolis is close at 57.8. Dissimilarity in the other cities, while high (30 is generally considered high) are not terribly segregated. Latino/white dissimilarity scores were much lower, though Denver again stood out for being among the highest. All of these cities have extreme levels of isolation but, again, Portland is an extreme outlier — probably owing to its disporportionately white share of the population relative to the other cities. Just for comparison's sake, I also queried the segregation indices for the largely Midwestern cities Renn held up as examples of diversity. Those indices are presented below. The comparison is shocking: with the exception of Nashville, all of the cities have higher levels — often much higher levels — of black/white segregation. Latino/white segregation is comparable to those of the "model progressive" cities (with the exception of very low levels in Cincinatti). And, perhaps more tellingly, the isolation index scores for Renn's alternative Midwestern cities are much higher than three of the "model progressive" cities (Austin, Denver, and Seattle), though Portland still retains the highest white isolation score of any of the metropolitan areas.

Dissimilarity and White Isolation in Renn's "Alternative" Cities
CincinattiClevelandIndianapolisKansas CityNashville
W ISOLATION90.7088.4088.3086.1084.70

Thus, while Renn certainly has a case about Portland being held up as a model for progressives despite its lack of diversity, the data simply doesn't back up his arguments for the remaining cities he identifies as models of progressive communities. Even worse, cities he holds up as alternatives because of their diversity tend to be more segregated than the progressive cities that he flogs in his post. While he brings up important points to consider in discussing urban planning and policies — considering the importance of diversity in comparison to "livable" environments — unfortunately, he gives the wrong impression of most of the cities and draws the wrong, sometimes drastically wrong, conclusion about the relative levels of diversity in these cities.

[1] I know that I am switching geographic units here, but metropolitan areas gives a better impression of what effect differences in urban versus suburban racial composition would have on racial segregation

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Despite having good fun at the expense of crazy Republicans, the latest news about incompetent Republicans is horrifying. Below is a clip from The Daily Show explaining how the majority of Republicans voted against an amendment offered by Al Franken that prohibits “the Defense Department from contracting with companies that require employees to resolve sexual assault allegations and other claims through arbitration” (h/t ThePopTort Blog):

The amendment, sadly brought to national attention because of the bravery of Jamie Leigh Jones who came forward to describe her horrific ordeal being raped in Iraq while employed by former Halliburton subsidiary KBR. KBR tried to mandate that, before her co-workers gang-raped her and then locked her in a shipping container, Jones had signed away her right to sue KBR and could only seek redress through arbitration with KBR.

Now, you would expect that many Republicans would support business interests over others. But, I never thought that anyone would support business interests over the interests of rape victims! Unfortunately, that is what happened because 30 Republican senators voted against this amendment. Although the readership of this blog is small, I feel that it is necessary to call these Senators out publicly:

Alexander (R-TN)Barrasso (R-WY)Bond (R-MO)
Brownback (R-KS)Bunning (R-KY)Burr (R-NC)
Chambliss (R-GA)Coburn (R-OK)Cochran (R-MS)
Corker (R-TN)Cornyn (R-TX)Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)Ensign (R-NV)Enzi (R-WY)
Graham (R-SC)Gregg (R-NH)Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)Johanns (R-NE)Kyl (R-AZ)
McCain (R-AZ)McConnell (R-KY)Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)Sessions (R-AL)Shelby (R-AL)
Thune (R-SD)Vitter (R-LA)Wicker (R-MS)

I cannot believe how incredibly despicable some of these legislators are.

I believe that it is also important to note the Republicans that broke with the majority of their party to vote for this amendment:

Bennett (R-UT)Collins (R-ME)Grassley (R-IA)
Hatch (R-UT)Hutchison (R-TX)LeMieux (R-FL)
Lugar (R-IN)Murkowski (R-AK)Snowe (R-ME)
Voinovich (R-OH)

NOTE: A slight edit made to the original version because, on a quick glance, it appeared as those who supported the amendment were despicable — not their 30 detestable colleagues.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Today, four members of Congress asked the sergeant-at-arms to investigate whether interns were internal spies. How did they come upon evidence that these interns might somehow be spies? Based on a book published by World Net Daily. One of the coathor's sons posed as a Muslim to intern at the Council on American Islamic Relations and stole documents — including documents that (gasp!) laid out a lobbying and PR strategy!

This is obviously not funny but, really, I just cannot help myself from laughing. I mean this is so absurd, I cannot do anything except laugh. Let's enumerate the problems with this plan:

  1. They had one of their sons intern at an organization to get the inside scoop. I mean, how many organizations give their interns access to vital details and why would any terrorist organization do that, especially?

  2. Following a similar line of logic, would the U.S. Congress tell its interns anything important. I mean, the U.S. government doesn't even tell the members of Congress important details.

  3. What is the sergeant-at-arms going to do? Call them out of order — I mean really, that is the highest authority they could go to?

  4. These people got elected to CONGRESS!!! (alright, that one is not funny at all)

I thought that we had gotten rid of the clowns. Apparently, we only got rid of the ones that were marginally sane.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

No Really, Coke is Good For You, Trust Me

I just read this commentary from Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent that is so incredibly duplicitous, I really cannot believe that even the Wall Street Journal would publish it without significant editing. Let me tell you the punchline upfront: shockingly the CEO of Coca-Cola Corp. does not believe that a tax on sugary drinks will help curb obesity (now you'll understand why the Wall Street Journal published it). Basically his argument boils down to...well it doesn't quite boil down to anything, so let me summarize: Coke has lots of calories, but so do lots of other things. People need to exercise more. And, oh yeah, I employ lots of people.

To support this rambling, Mr. Kent has a great deal of evidence and insight into why Coke is not responsible for Americans becoming obese. For instance, he first pulls out the favorite claim of the American Beverage Association and the National Restaurant Association, Coke doesn't make people fat — people make people fat:

If we're genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it's not just about calories in. It's also about calories out.

Let's see, calories in > calories out = weight gain. True fact. Now, there are two ways that one could mess with that statement: 1) increase calories out, or 2) decrease calories in. But why drop your calories in when you could have it all just by exercising more! In case that didn't persuade you, Mr. Kent moves on to playing the victim:

Our industry has become an easy target in this debate. Sugar-sweetened beverages have been singled out for demonization in spite of the fact that soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled water combined contribute 5.5% of the calories in the average American diet, according to the National Cancer Institute. It's difficult to understand why the beverages we and others provide are being targeted as the primary cause of weight gain when 94.5% of caloric intake comes from other foods and beverages.

Hmmm... Can't imagine why you would be singled out. Americans get one in twenty of our calories from soft drinks, which — as it clearly states on Coke products — are "Not a significant source of calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron." Which leads Mr. Kent to his next argument (confused yet):

Research from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that added sugars, as a percentage of total daily available calories, have declined 11% since 1970. Yet the percent of calories from added fats and flour/cereal products has increased 35% and 13%, respectively, during that same time period.

That's right — the 5.5% of absolutely empty calories that you get from his products are MUCH better than the fat and carb calories you get from eating other foods. I wonder what the Snack Food Association and International Foodservice Manufacturer's Assocation thought when reading this and whether they are going to start a round-robin blame game. "It's cereals making kids fat!" "No, it's Twinkies!" No, it's soft drinks." Finally, Mr. Kent pulls out the trump card:

Policy makers should stop spending their valuable time demonizing an industry that directly employs more than 220,000 people in the U.S., and through supporting industries, an additional three million.

That's right — don't tax us or you'll lose your job (I'm sure Dave will especially love that one).

There's more I could pillory in the commentary. It is actually quite a feat to put so much unrelated garbage in a mere 724 words that he should be awarded some prize just for that. I'm not sure that a soda tax will work to curb obesity and I think that it is actually a pretty crappy policy. Sodas are not cigarettes; no one is going to be upset if you are drinking caramel coloring, carbonated water, and sugar next to them the same way that there was social pressure to stop smoking. If we are going to invest in obesity prevention, it would be a lot smarter to make physical activity a priority by ensuring access to safe neighborhoods with amenities for kids to be able to play. It would mean reducing the work week so that parents can have time to spend with their kids supervising them and being able to go to grocery store and prepare dinner rather than buy it pre-made. But, of course, that would require investment of government dollars and increasing taxes, which you know Mr. Kent would be opposed to no matter what.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Republican Health Care Plan

Although this here blog has been silent for a while as I am knee deep in my crash-course on health policy and other distractions I will hopefully write about later, I thought that this succinct description of the Republican, courtesy of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), was worth passing along (h/t TPM):

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thoughts on Obama's Speech

I am positive that I am not that knowledgeable about the details of the health care debate. This is a little troubling on a personal level since, tomorrow (i.e., eight hours from now), I am going to a class focusing on health policy. Yes, I too thought that I was done with classes years ago, but it is part of my program that I take this class. Although I study health, I study neither health care nor health policy, though part of the program that I am in is designed to have participants think more about health policy. Can't say that there is much better of a time to have a tutorial than now and I am really looking forward to it.

Let me start my thoughts by saying that I think that Obama's speech was great. Given my cursory knowledge of the subject, I think that his plans sounded reasonable. Of course I would like a full-fledged universal insurance program, but I don't think that it is possible or, frankly, at this point that important. If insurance is made affordable enough to make good health care attainable to all Americans, I think that reform will have succeeded. While fully universal coverage would be a better option, having the organizational structure in place to show the American public that it is possible will succeed in making it impossible to get rid of it. The perfect demonstration of this point is the number of people out protesting last month against government-sponsored health care who didn't want Medicare touched. Beyond the cognitive dissonance that makes it difficult to believe that these people make it through a regular day, the fact that Medicare and Social Security are untouchable demonstrate my point.

At the same time, it is also true (again, to my limited knowledge) that both Social Security and Medicare have remained largely the same since their creation. The fact that neither has changed significantly doesn't bode well for incremental-style changes that some in the center and the right (including Newt Gingrich) are advocating. Simply doing something isn't going to cut it in terms of creating good policy; therefore, if anything like what Obama proposed tonight is passed through Congress, then he and Kathleen Sebelius need to develop a strong agency that is relatively impervious to meddling in the future and that aggressively pursues its mandate at its inception. If the agency that is developed is strong enough to assert itself and to regulate the insurance industry to accomplish the goals laid out by Obama, then I think that a bill resembling Obama's outline tonight — with all of its significant shortcomings — can actually improve the state of health care in this country.

Finally, from a political point of view, I think that Obama's speech tonight re-cast the debate in a way that is favorable to passage. I won't say that he re-framed the debate; the Democrats' lethargy during the summer and especially in August cost them the ability to really frame or re-frame the debate. But, re-casting the debate instead of re-framing it might actually work to Obama and the reformers' advantage. With Baucus' announcement today that a bill is going to be passed whether Republicans want to be part of it or not and Obama effectively portraying Republicans as obstructionists, I think that the Democrats painted Republicans into a corner. The Republicans even helped in this regard as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina's outburst calling Obama a liar (pictured at left, from TPM) only showed how correct Obama was to chastise Republicans for failing to tell the difference between civilized debate and emotional outrage.[1] I think that tonight's speech was effective enough to persuade progressives to go along, point out the obstructionist and downright rude behavior of the Republicans, and emphasize the overwhelming mandate that health care be passed as an issue of morality and American pride. Although the final bill will not end up being everything that I would have hoped for myself, I think that it will be a drastic improvement on the current situation in health care in this country and really move the country forward.

[1] TPM has also noted that this might lead to a censure of Rep. Wilson by the House for violating the rules of decorum. Following these rules, the Minorty Whip, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) was also caught violating the rule to "Refrain from eating, smoking, or using electronic equipment, including cellular phones or lap top computers, on the floor." Video here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Now Broadcasting from Philadelphia

It has been a couple of exciting weeks for us. I ended my previous job, we spent a week relaxing in gorgeous Ocean City, NJ, moved to Philadelphia, and I started my new job while E. started in her new office. Blogging has been short on the list of priorities as we still have boxes that need unpacking and stacks of used boxes need to be put somewhere; but, hopefully we will be back up and posting more regularly soon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dissent is *Still* Patriotic

The “debate” surrounding health care reform has caught almost everyone's attention. The vocal opponents of health care have been variously described as a “mob”, “un-American,” and even “brownshirts.” This isn't just anyone saying this, but it is (in order), arguably the leading progressive columnist (Krugman), the #1 and #2 Democratic leaders in the House, and a U.S. Congressperson. The hostility and animosity expressed during these demonstratiosn including firearms being brought to events or Sarah Palin saying that a “death panel” would euthanize her son because he has Down's Syndrome (before, gallantly calling for civility) is becoming downright scary, including the actual death threats against sitting members of Congress. But, to have the kind of people calling out opponents of health care as un-American or comparing them to fascists is downright wrong.

Although I disagree with the tactics used by those who oppose health care reform, Andrew got me thinking about what it means to denounce them. Very thoughtfully, he reminded me that the sort of “deliberative debate” that I would prefer

imply a particular kind of deliberative democratic subject:

- One who is calm, considered, rational, and deliberative. This worries me because it implies that emotion is an illegitimate way of engaging in politics. That, in turn, privileges particular kinds of people, and kinds of discourses, as a matter of form.

He is right to point out that many people, often those who I care about greatly and support, use these tactics. I have been to labor protests where the rules of civility were thrown out the window because civility favored management. Disruption hit the financial bottom line and forced the managers, who were hiding behind this cloak of civility, to take notice. There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with these protests as a tactic and, certainly nothing un-American or fascist about them (leaving any violence—real or implied—aside). Americans have a right to redress their grievances to their government; nothing ever said that the government had to like the way that citizens chose to carry out this redress.

This reminded me of a really influential passage in the book Urban Fortunes by John Logan and Harvey Molotch. The book describes the process of urban land development, providing an interesting synthesis between traditional neo-classical and human ecological models of urban growth and Marxian models of economic growth. One of their main points throughout the book is that:

The traditional academic literature on the topic tends to equate “community organization” with progressive social forces generally and to see all such groups as analytically equivalent because they are from the “grass roots” and help “empower” local people.

They go on to point out that many local organizations (their interest is in understanding the forces guiding urban development) are indeed not progressive. One can look back in history to local community forces that were, indeed, not so progressive such as the northern white block clubs that tried to maintain the starkly segregated residential color line.

I have seen the argument that there is a difference because these protests are “astroturffed”, insta-activism bought by the insurance lobby. Although it seems to be funded by the insurance lobby, I also have a hard time believing that all of these activists are bought off. I also don't think, as Paul Krugman suggests, that “the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the ‘birther’ movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.” Granted, many of the birthers are probably among the crowds, but to say that this is all about Obama's race or that the tactics are somehow un-American denies the reality that there is a substantial opposition to health care reform. I don't think that it is the result of deep-seated hatred (though, for some, this is undoubtedly the case), but is likely a fear and mistrust of the government that has a real basis in reality.

The answer to this is not to disparage and insult those who are protesting, to question their patriotism (remember the “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper stickers). It is to organize an opposition, including some who might simply be confused or nervous about changes and have real concerns about government-run programs. I'm not tilting at windmills; I don't believe that one will ever convince most of the people shouting at town halls and I think that it would be futile to do so. But there are lots of people, I would guess, who are hearing some of their concerns echoed by the vocal protesters and who see that people—fellow citizens—really care about opposing this bill. Without effective organizing to counter-act this movement and inoculation against the opposition's talking points health reform is unlikely to succeed. Reformers have the advantage is that there are many in the reform movement, including the President himself, who have learned how to build an effective organizing base from which to enact reform. If this truly is an astroturf campaign, then real organizing (with time) should be able to overcome it. I just hope that he remembers that is how he got to have the meteoric rise from a state senator to President in less than a decade and that he calls some of those advisors up to help rather than those he keeps finding from inside the Beltway.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Unconscionable Math of Insurance Fraud by Insurance Companies

E. and I were driving home from a family function last week and caught the end of the This American Life episode on "fine print." Among the stories was a heart-wrenching tale about the problem of rescission, which is basically where insurance companies take premiums for years and, right when you need an expensive procedure, drop your insurance because you "lied" on your application. This really affects people who get their insurance on the private market. During the episode (described in more detail by James Kwak at Baseline Scenario), the health insurance companies being grilled during congressional testimony argued that rescission affects about 0.5% of their clients.

But, in a truly amazing post, Taunter explains how conditional probability can explain why this 0.5% can sound so small but amount to an unconscionable fraud on the part of insurance agencies. Using the Monty Hall Problem (and, implicitly, Bayesian reasoning), he explains why the insurance executives essentially bank on rescinding one in two claimants for those in need of service! He points out that you have a three times better chance to survive a game of Russian Roulette. It is an amazing lesson in conditional probability and Bayes Theorem that could be an incredible teaching moment.

Until the patients needs an expensive procedure, patients are paying their premiums into the coffers of the insurance company and the pockets of their executives. The expensive procedures, of course, are why people need insurance. The insurance companies, though, get to keep all those years of premiums for all of those years even though they don't follow through on their commitment to pay out, getting rich off those years and years of premiums. The procedure goes something like this: take money from a group of people and promise them a return in the future, use the money to pay off claims of others (minus a heavy for the service), and when it comes time to pay out, renege. Taunter points out that this seems vaguely Madoffian.

The justification of this procedure is that, without it, insurance prices would rise for everyone in the system and that people should be punished for fraud. Of course, many of these people did not commit any sort of fraud and instead got confused by the leagalese and convoluted medical language which were intentionally designed to get people to slip up. It is probably true that insurance premiums would probably go up, but it doesn't really matter if people aren't getting a service that they pay for (in other contexts, that's called stealing). But, it is also an argument for why the "free market" does not always know best and why health care reform is so important. I hope that in the coming days and weeks, the Obama administration and Congress get their footing and actually start to stand up for reform.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jamming about Stats

I have a hard time imagining anything that could be better for the Pragmatic Idealist household. E.'s favorite band jamming about statistics! No, I'm not kidding. Really, I'm not. Check it out (h/t Mark Blumenthal):

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Moving on from Cambridge

I have to admit, I have become very weary of hearing about the Gates incident in Cambridge. I hate the vitriol that this discussion causes and makes people instantly react and assume that those involved acted in bad faith and were out to "get" the other one. I don't like it because it so often turns into an argument about the veracity of claims or the impugning of character that draws on entire histories of caricatures of peoples positions on certain groups. "Cops are all racists" and "There 'they' go again, playing the race card." Yet, in placing these caricatures on both the sergeant, it is a convenient way to avoid talking about the underlying historical role that these forces play. Instantly, we (the public) assume a narrative that we believe to be the case and impose it on the situation.

How is it that an officer that had taught a class on racial profiling ends up being caught in a media firestorm over a racially-charged arrest? On the one hand, some say that it is "proof" that there was nothing racial about this incident whatsoever. Or, that a black officer supporting the sergeant's arrest must be evidence that race has no role whatsoever in this. On the other hand, there are those who argue that really, the cop could still harbor subconscious racism and "had Gates been white, this wouldn't have happened."

What I think we need is a greater understanding of each other and knowing that we all make mistakes, but also the vast majority of act in good faith. I find this debate tiring. Not because I don't believe that race is important in shaping the experiences of all people, particularly in the United States. Nor do I believe that we should just say that everyone made mistakes and this was troubling, and then move on. In some way, the mistakes were perfectly predictable. The fact that racial profiling happens a far greater proportion of the time than it should provides the basis for mistrust. The fact that the officer teaches classes on it doesn't mean that the situation might have been handled differently had Gates been white. At the same time, it doesn't take away the fact that police officers face dangerous situations and, on a regular basis, have people lie to them. That it seems like Crowley escalated the argument rather than trying to diffuse it was a mistake, but it was an understandable human reaction to the situation. The fact that Gates was, by all accounts, heated didn't help the situation but, again, it was an understandable human reaction to the situation. I have little patience for people who say, "I would have done this or that in the same situation." One, it is impossible to tell—I have been surprised by the way I have reacted in many situations; and two, just because I would react in a certain way does not mean that every person acts differently in a situation does so in a way that is unreasonable or not understandable.

That is why, in all of this, I find this surprise press conference by the President refreshing. First, he admits that he didn't help the situation—he admits that he did something wrong. Let me tell you how much of a relief that is after President George W. "I make no mistakes" Bush. There can be no understanding and dialogue if people are not willing to admit that they would, if they had the opportunity, to do or say things differently. But second, and I think more importantly, Obama doesn't give in solely for political expediency. He could have apologized and said that everything was blown out of proportion; instead, he said:

...where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other, and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.

In other words, I did something that I wish I hadn't done and didn't help the situation. At the same time, let's not pretend that there is not a situation of minority profiling/discrimination that requires dealing with because I did something I wish that I hadn't done. It should also mentioned that the consequences of this racial discrimination and profiling can be truly tragic for the police as well. Obama's final statement:

There are some who say as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all, (which) I disagree with. The fact that this has become such big issue is indicative of fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society.

speaks to this.

Ultimately, I am not arguing that Crowley or Gates should have necessarily acted differently. It is in fact my very point—I know nothing about the situation other than how it fits into a larger narrative that requires assuming bad faith on one or both sides of the incident. By playing into that narrative and personalizing a structural situation into these two individuals leads to nothing but mistrust and hot air that ultimately gets us nowhere. I truly hope, if Sgt. Crowley and Dr. Gates are both interested in moving race relations forward—as much evidence seems to indicate—that they can then work together over beer, with the President, to actually make this a more constructive dialogue.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sans Computer

Earlier this week, pitse1eh posted some valuable dissertation advice so that you could learn from her and hopefully not make what she perceives to be her mistake (although something that combines that many things is bound to be interesting!). Let me add another: back up your files often.

As you might guess, there is a very good reason that I am sharing this advice. In the course of my dissertation, I almost lost one computer and totally lost another. Fortunately (for me), the computer that I almost lost was the one with my dissertation on it. "Almost" losing it means that I didn't actually lose anything on it, but it caused quite a scare. The second computer was E.'s and died while I was on a trip to San Diego; that one is completely gone—mechanical failure of the hard drive. Beyond my guilt at having everything on there gone (including some really sentimental photographs and our entire address book), the reason I was using it was because on my previous trip to San Diego (this is true, I only wish I was making this up) was when my computer had almost died.

Luckily for my dissertation, I had all of my work backed up (after the initial frightful scare of my computer almost failing the first time). At most, I lost a couple hours and probably a few months off of my life due to my dramatically increased stress level. But, the fact that I had two computers fail in a span of three months after having zero fail for four years seemed really odd to me. That was, until I realized that both of these computers (which were bought in our respective first couple years of grad school) were old and were getting more use than they had received in years. Suddenly, I was asking old machines to do a lot more work for me, and they were giving in.

Although this was a truly frightful and aggravating experience (particularly not backing up our personal files on E.'s laptop, which was just stupidity on my part), I learned in talking to people that it is not all that uncommon to have computer problems at the last stages of your dissertation. This could be a perfect manifestation of Murphy's Law or partially explained because it is easy to become careless as you are harried and stressed at the end of the dissertation. But, I think that it is also largely for the reason I mentioned above: the machines that we typically purchase in our first couple years of grad school just wear out by the time we finish. I would suggest delaying the purchase of your own machine as long as you can stand it (particularly laptops since they are especially prone to wear and tear) and, no matter what, always back up your files.

Why am I mentioning this now? Well, this week, my computer finally got too tired and passed onto the place where all good computers go—to join E.'s computer in the big computing center in the sky. Now I am sans computer at home, which means that posting is likely to be light from yours truly for a while. But, until I can offer more pearls of wisdom, please learn from me as well, and back up all of your files!

Friday, July 17, 2009

We Were Never at War with Eurasia

Seriously, I thought that this had to be some masterful hacking hoax. The kind that would get you arrested and sent to jail, but for your name to be forever remembered as the mastermind that pulled off one of the greatest stunts of all time.

Last night, Amazon pulled the digital copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindle devices. That's right, freakin' George Orwell is the book that our new digital Big Brother decided to delete from its Kindle devices. So forgive me if I really did think that this was a masterful hoax by some ingenious hacker to embarrass Amazon's corporate behemoth.

Unfortunately, I would be wrong. Amazon really did pull the digital copies of George Orwell's books from users' Kindles:

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned. (h/t Josh Marshall)

It turns out, the copies that were distributed on Amazon were illegally distributed by a company that didn't own the rights to the book that it put online. And, from the discussion board linked to in the story quoted above, Big BrotherAmazon decided that it was not important to inform customers of what happened. I don't know who is running the ship over there, but given that this is their second major publicity blunder in four months doing things that showed complete arrogance, I'm not sure that they are competent enough to be Big Brother.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Practical Research Problems

One area of my research studies how much physical activity people perform and how those factors might be related to the physical environment in their neighborhoods. One of the "gold standard" methods to complete this kind of data collection is to use accelerometers to measure how much physical activity people do during the day. There are obviously problems, people forget to wear them, or they occasionally malfunction, but overall you expect pretty reliable physical measurements from them. One particularly innovative intervention is to use an automated text-messaging system to remind kids to be active based on their accelerometer readings.

Proving that you can take nothing for granted in research, there is one way that several industrious kids (in a different, London-based study) figured out how to get around the read-outs of the accelerometers, attach them to their dogs!:

The Health Blog was impressed by the cleverness of some 11- and 12-year-old obese children in east London, who were participating in an exercise research study.

The kids were supposed to be wearing pedometers to measure the number of steps they were taking each day. But some of those in the study got the bright idea to clip the pedometers to the collars of their pet dogs, upping the distance the youngsters appeared to be moving each day, according to the BBC. (WSJ Health Blog)

I've got to hand it to those kids, that's a pretty smart idea.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Statistical Inference

Have I mentioned lately that I love xkcd?

xkcd - 'Extrapolating'

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Healthy Eating: Easier Said Than Done

This article features a Milwaukee farmer, Will Allen, who, through hard work, natural charm, and, of course, ability, sustains a thriving farm a mile away from a Milwaukee housing project.

My heart gets all melty on the subject of our failure to provide quality food to the poor - not only because of the tragedy of people in poor areas having access only to the crappiest of food and sometimes dying because of it, but until recently, I found it hard to believe that obesity and other problems related to eating poorly are sometimes out of the control of people who suffer from it. Turns out not everyone lives in the suburbs near a grocery store and owns a car.

First, the disbelief. It used to be the case for me that when I saw obese people, I assumed not that they were malnourished, but that they were simply eating too much - of whatever, I didn't really know or care. But often what is actually happening is that they are not eating the right foods because they can't afford to buy the right foods. In the Will Allen profile, Mr. Allen claims that the Pick n' Save nearest to the housing project is a three-mile trip. If you don't have a car, you're going to march to the nearest place, which is likely to be a fast food joint or convenience store. Imagine making meal after meal of 7-11 products. You'd get few vitamins and you'd probably put on a few pounds. But when we see an overweight person, the first thought for many of us is not usually, "you need to be eating more foods that are good for you." It's "you need to eat less."

Also, I think our country has kind of a screwed up political narrative about this. For example, I've heard it argued (but am too lazy to do the actual research to confirm) that food stamps largely cover not-so-nutritious food. If that's true, I think it's because of tax-haters and also because the words associated with "urban farming" are not "healthy," "job creating," and "fun," but rather "out-of-touch," "liberal" and "organic." So, if someone were to buy locally-grown organic romaine lettuce at a farmers market with food stamps, a politician may get up on a dais and scream, "This is an excess and an outrage. I pledge to save the taxpayers of this great state millions of dollars by reforming the program so that we all have to make sensible choices." Or, "providing children with free and reduced lunch is a waste of taxpayer dollars. We need to take responsibility as a society and pack nutritious meals for our children, or pony up the cash to buy them." Meanwhile, parents working for low-wages and long hours do not have time to pack their children healthy meals, and corporate suppliers are paying and lobbying the same characters to guarantee that their white bread and peanut butter are food-stamp-eligible and/or sold in public schools.

What I find most disheartening is the child obesity risk presented by unequal access to healthy food, because it leads to horrible problems like heart and kidney disease. But as demonstrated above, it's not always a matter of "laying off the cookies and chips." It's often an access issue, and that's what farmers like Will Allen are trying to get to - access.

It would be an interesting experiment to use state or federal funds, or even private grants to start up more urban farms in currently vacant lots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Jackson, and elsewhere. It would create jobs, a marketplace, healthy food, and a great sense of community.

Other than that, much better qualified people than myself have proposed policy solutions. Organizations like Grist, Wholesome Wave, and the Philadelphia Food Trust seem to be doing a lot of interesting and good work towards equity and access to healthy food.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Guaranteed to Make You Bawl

Children are our future. Okay, not all children. Just the children of PS22.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Brilliant (and Convenient)

That's right, for those who are on the go, BBQ Chicken restaurants offer the convenience of your chicken and your drink in one convenient container. It's brilliant!

What I can't figure out is if your nose ends up in the chicken when you try to take a drink, though.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Artificially Sweet Sorrow

I was in my favorite grocery store tonight, planning to pick up my favorite non-caffeinated, diet soda. This soda is not a well-known brand, but I have come to know and enjoy it over the past few months. It comes in interesting flavors, is only six calories a serving, is manufactured in a charmingly old-timey glass bottle, and is delightful to sip on warm summer days.

I happened upon it months ago one day in the corner of the grocery store, on some kind of special sale, near the kosher meats. That day I picked up a four-pack and I never looked back. Among the child-infested, yuppie-scum-complainer-soaked aisles of the store, I grew to look forward to my detour to the corner of the store to pick up this special soda. Week after week during these miserable shopping trips I have visited that corner, and week after week I encounter the boxes of soda stacked up high, like a cardboard-and-glass lighthouse in a storm.

Today, I approached the familiar corner, prepared to scan and pick my favorite flavors, or perhaps flavors I hadn't tried yet, or flavors I thought Mike3550 would enjoy.

Once at the stack, I surveyed my options. Lo and behold, there was only one four-bottle pack remaining. The rest of the stack was composed of a different, inferior soda brand, and non-diet versions of the brand in question.

There are certain things you come to expect in life. Apparently not included on that list of things are a job that can take you to retirement if you perform satisfactorily, protection from predatory companies, fair presidential elections in a democracy, elected officials who make an effort to deliver on strong campaign promises, labor leaders who act in the interests of their members, managers who can go a day without treating their employees like animals, a phone that lasts more than two years, and not catching deadly diseases from barnyard animals.

To my mind, grocery items that are usually well-stocked in your friendly neighborhood store should be able to go on, and stay, on that list. With all the stupid, unpredictable crap going on, someone should at least put out a warning - "We are selling the last of our ____ soda stock. We hope you enjoy it while it lasts." Or, "Starting next week, we will no longer carry ___ soda. We apologize for the inconvenience." Or, if they are just running low, simply: "We are running low on ____ soda. We should be in stock next week."

Grocery stores should learn to capitalize on the marginal value of someone liking one frickin' iota of predictability! Just one! I was so angry I wrote a haiku about it:

eagerly await
the one bright spot in my day -
- no soda! - hopes dashed.

Oh, and all you santimonious "at least you don't live in ___"-ers out there : please don't put this in perspective for me. Please allow me to wallow like a little piglet in artificial self pity over my stupid, inconsequential soda loss. Thanks.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Obama Ices Fly On Camera

I'm sorry, I know this is not serious news, but pile this CNN video onto Obama's sunk 3 pointer while visiting the troops on the campaign trail, and an eerie, sent-from-another-planet pattern begins to emerge. I love anchor #2's face after the clip rolls, it just continues to fall when anchor #1 attempts some incoherent banter about being scared of horseflies.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Score One for the Good Guys

Several months back, I wrote about that George Mason University was being sued by the makers of EndNote, Thomson Reuters, for breach of contract for the creation and development of the open-source bibliographic management software Zotero. Although I already really liked Zotero and severely disliked EndNote, Thomson Reuters' lawsuit made me bound and determined not to ever use their inferior software.

The good news is that today the judge dismissed the case against GMU. The Citizen Media Law Project, which has a description of the case said that they would post the decision when it is released.

In other Zotero news, a couple of weeks back, they released Zotero version 2.0 in beta, and it is pretty awesome. It allows people to collaborate over the web, build online groups where you can share your citations across projects, and has tools to allow researchers to collaborate and follow colleagues. It is amazing software that I would highly recommend.

Monday, June 1, 2009

In Memory of Dr. George Tiller

Mike and E have asked me for months and months to begin writing posts for the blog, and I have had several thoughts run through my head, but never seem to have the time to write them down. Ironic, then, that my first post comes at a time when I feel so lost for words.

Friends and family who know me may be surprised to learn that I don't want to play the blame game right now (hell, it surprised even me). But I'm just too speechlessly sad. Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in a senseless act of violence that stripped the world of a kind, caring man. His family, friends, patients, and colleagues grieve over the loss. There will be plenty of time for justice -- and I believe there is plenty of blame to go around, from the culture of violence the hatred-soaked anti-abortion rhetoric implicitly supports, to the individuals themselves who participate in such senseless acts -- but now is the time to simply remember a man who gave everything so that women might have the lives and families they needed or wanted; and oftentimes, gave them a compassionate option when the lives and families they so desperately wanted were shattered by fetal anomaly or devastating illness.

Yesterday morning, the women's health and reproductive rights/justice movement, the medical profession, and women in need of compassionate abortion services lost a great advocate, teacher, and professional. I had the absolute privilege of meeting Dr. Tiller at the most recent National Abortion Federation meeting. When he learned I planned to enter obstetrics and gynecology at the end of my medical training, he gave me his heartfelt thanks and some sage advice. I have only rarely met individuals like Dr. Tiller, who, in the midst of a large crowd of people all scrambling to speak to him, can make you feel as though your story and your thoughts are the most important things going on in that particular moment. He was a gentle, caring soul.

And that is how I imagine his patients felt, too. Dr. Tiller provided compassionate abortion care for women across the spectrum of need. Most controversially, and I believe most importantly, Dr. Tiller provided later abortions that other providers will not - largely for fear of the violence and retribution from anti-abortion extremists that eventually took Dr. Tiller's life. These women have posted comments across the web today, recounting the stories of the discovery late in pregnancy of a fetal anomaly incompatible with life - and how Dr. Tiller offered them an option. Lynn Paltrow said it best in her blog post today at RH Reality when she wrote:

One of the amazing things about Dr. Tiller, in addition to his determination and his extraordinary courage, was the fact that he knew and appreciated who his patients were. He knew them as loving women, daughters, and mothers who are the backbone of their families and, to a large extent, our country.

Many of the women who traveled to Dr. Tiller's clinic were not women who wanted to have abortions, or who even support the right to choose to have an abortion. Many were women with wanted pregnancies who learned that their baby had no brain, or kidneys growing on the outside of their bodies or things their doctors described to them as "severe fetal cardiac malformations." They were women who could not face two or three more months of pregnancy with people patting their bellies and saying, "Oh honey you must be excited. When are you due?" Some women deal with such crises by continuing to term even knowing the baby cannot survive. Others find that their dignity depends on being able to end the pregnancy.

Some women who went to his clinic were extremely young. Some who went struggled with health problems and disabilities that they felt would be exacerbated by a pregnancy they did not recognize until late. All together they represented women with the least desired and rarest abortions - ones late in pregnancy.

Dr. Tiller was extraordinary. When I met him he talked about why women have abortions and how they understand them in terms of their religious faith and spirituality. He described his efforts to serve them with respect, making possible rituals that would allow them to say goodbye to fetal life that they in fact valued.

Some women who returned from his clinic actually felt that they had been treated better through an abortion they wished they had not needed, than through a birth that they had anticipated with joy.
The shockwaves of this tragedy will ripple far into the future. Not only have we lost a great man, but his clinic may face difficulties finding another provider to take his place. And even farther down the road, medical students making choices about whether to provide abortions or not will feel the chill of violence on their decision. I know that I do.

Which is why I hope you'll consider making a donation in Dr. Tiller's memory to Medical Students for Choice, a group that supports and advocates for medical students who wish to learn about abortion provision during their training. We cannot undo Dr. Tiller's slaying, but we may be able to stem the aftermath of such violence -- a palpable chill that ultimately results in reducing women's access to safe, compassionate abortion care.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mike, Ph.D.

On Thursday, I successfully defended my dissertation and have the approval of my committee (with revisions) to submit it to the graduate school "in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy." My committee was tremendous, offered some really great suggestions to smooth some of the rougher edges of my work, and was really supportive. I honestly believe that my greatest professional accomplishment in the past six years was having the foresight to pick an amazing group of people to support me in this quest.

The celebration was tempered slightly by this nagging head cold that I got on my trip out to defend and the fact that it really hasn't set in that this phase in my life is really coming to a close. I knew that it was ending, but even after completing my defense, it hadn't truly set in. I don't think that I really had time to step back and really realize the amount that I had learned until one of my committee members, who read the first draft of my first research paper in grad school, pointed out how much I had learned and developed in grad school that it really started to set in. I think that it is easy for me (and I imagine others in grad school) to get lost in how much we feel like we don't know and fail to realize how much knowledge and skill we do acquire. Although it seems arrogant to publicly acknowledge that, I think that it is something that we often do too little of in grad school.

I will be working the next couple of weeks to finish out my revisions and working on a project this summer that I am really excited about. Then, it will be off to Philadelphia for the next phase in this adventure!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

And Then There Were Two

Shorter Weiner op-ed in NYT today: Not even God has enough money to run against Bloomberg. Also I want a baby. Can't blame the guy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Done (for Now)

I (finally) submitted my dissertation at the very end of last week. It's amazing how many things are running through my head now, like "I should have run this analysis" or "This would have been such a better way to put that idea" or "Why didn't I leave more time to do x, y and z." But, there is nothing that I can do about it now before my defense. I expect a fair amount of revisions, but also feel good about the eventual prospects of each of the pieces to see the light of day in new form -- hopefully as pages in a journal -- at some point in the future. I'll find out on a week from Thursday when I defend.

For those of you who may be interested, here is the obligatory (but still cool) Wordle:

Wordle: dissertation3

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blog Posts: Safe In Moderation

How are we ever going to be a legitimate source of information, snark and general pragmatic idealism if we don't post for two weeks? Absence has all been work-related, we swear. Please to enjoy this spoof of the corn refiners association commercials. Mike3550 and I have spontaneously done our own ("Hey hon, can you pass the salad?" "You know what they say about salad, don't you?") but these people do it better. Caution, there is a bleeped out racial slur that I think goes a little too far. Otherwise, hilarious.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Autotune My Life

Okay these "Autotune The News" bits are wearing on me, but I can't stop watching them. Mainly because I imagine my boss talking through an autotuner. "E. Couuuld Yooou Pleease Geeet Thaaaaat Teee Peee Esss Reee pooort Dooonnnne Tooo Maahhh Rooow. Greeeeaaat. Thaaaanks." Tight.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Teenagers: It's A New World

Two of my dad's students were arrested today in an alleged bomb plot, tied up in the Columbine anniversary. The plan was to create some sort of gas explosion. I think it's so sad when students who obviously need extra help and attention transfer that need to planning horrible criminal acts. I was a high school senior when Columbine happened, and it effed people up for weeks. Schools are supposed to be safe places, and it's so terrifying when they're not.

That said, the charges are steep, and the 17- and 18-year-olds are being tried as adults. One student was charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, three counts of first-degree arson, one count of reckless endangerment and one count of conspiracy to manufacture or possess a destructive device. Both were charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, three counts of first-degree arson and other offenses. Especially since one of the students confessed before they did anything.

I don't pretend to know anything about criminal justice, and it remains to be seen how the trial plays out - it's just really sad that we've failed these children on so many levels, and now they're not getting any better.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine Flu Reruns

Swine flu PSAs from the last swine flu outbreak in the 1970s. I hope that Obama's people (including Sebelius finally!) come up with better ads than these. But, in the kitsch department they are hard to surpass:

For those who might desire a more substantive discussion of the swine flu situation from people who actually know what they are talking about, let me recommend Aetiology and Effect Measure. Both are written by epidemiologists who have a great way of explaining what is going on in the news.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Public Health Emergency? Call Secretary--...Oh.

Do you think now that we have a public health emergency the Republicans will deign to confirm Kathleen Sebelius? Even though swine flu doesn't seem to be epic, it's a pretty big albatross around the neck of the Republicans in 2010 if even one person in America dies. I see an analogy forming: Public Health:Democrats::Security:GOP.

On a related note, here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Appreciating Your Five Senses

I've been laid up with a kind of flu-like sickness for the past few days. Every day brings an awesome development that marks the stages of the illness. Saturday was feeling filthy all day. Sunday was extreme fatigue. Monday, extreme fatigue plus fever. Tuesday, more moderate fatigue plus head cold symptoms. And today, I lost my sense of smell.

I almost always lose my sense of smell when I have a cold (I think a lot of people do) but it always scares me a little bit. I mean, not being able to see and hear seriously affects the way you try to navigate the world, communicate with others, and keep yourself safe. Sense of smell is a little less critical to those functions, but it always blows my mind how frightened I become when I can't smell or taste.

There are very simple, legitimate reasons to be worried when you lose your sense of smell. My moment today was on the subway. I actually tried to work, failed miserably and went home in the middle of the day. When my train arrived on the platform, the car closest to me was completely dark, there wasn't time to see if there were other people in it. Usually I use my sense of smell in this situation. Is there something wrong with the car? Possibly something mechanical? A burning smell? Couldn't figure it out. Of course, the odds were in my favor and I live to tell about it.

But other things throughout the course of the day bothered me. I couldn't gauge my hunger levels because nothing tasted good to me. I went to our fancy bodega to buy simple soup and crackers (they of course only had rosemary crostini and organic chicken and orzo soup, leading me to wonder why the hell I was there in the first place). I settled on saltines that we already had. I really had to hone in on my tummy to feel if I was full. And now I can't remember if I brushed my teeth.

I'm just glad it's (probably) temporary. I really feel sorry for anyone who has to live like this all the time. It's not like severe vision / hearing impairment, but it's a tiny bit terrifying all the same.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I Have a Date

No, not that kind of date...I think that E. might (deservedly) shoot me if I had that kind of date. Nope, I have a date for my dissertation defense: May 28th. This means that I need to have my dissertation completed in the next three weeks. Seeing as how dissertation is not close to being done right now, this means further that the next three weeks are likely to be both stressful and busy. In conclusion, blog posts will be on even shorter supply from yours truly.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mindless Entertainment for Mindless Entertainment

Blogging has been short of late for me because I have been trying to bang out my dissertation. To relax and give my mind a reprieve from Census data and variance-covariance matrices (yeah, it's about as exciting as it sounds) as I am writing it, E. and I are burning through The Wire on the Netflix queue. That made xkcd that much more entertaining this week:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Plane Avoidance

The colossal suckiness of air travel is well-documented. Not having boarded an airplane since October, and faced with the task of boarding four to six of them in the coming month, I would like to extol my experience in the past six months of NOT flying. A more accurate statement than "I hate flying" would be, "I truly appreciate and enjoy not flying."

It's not that I have not been traveling. I have been, and I love it. I revel in the prospect of boarding trains, cars, bikes, vespas, ferries. I like exploring new places with my own two feet. I'm sure I could even grow to love scooters.

There have not been horrible business trips to avoid, either. My last flight was to Rome, my recent trips were to places I really like, and my anticipated trips are to exciting places. I will even get to stay in these places for more than 12 hours - and while one trip is a business trip, it is a place I've never been before that I hear is pretty sweet. No, I am not here to praise a hiatus in crappy destinations.

My glee in avoiding planes is pretty simple. I really enjoy not having to worry about getting to a bus station three hours early. I delight in not being more than a few feet off the ground for more than a few minutes at a time on a train. I also love that my car smells exactly like I want it to, and that I get fresh air with the windows down in the taxi, and that when I walk, I can spin around, spread my arms out, do a dance routine with my umbrella and use all the space I need.

If there were a way to take anything but an airplane anywhere, at anytime, I would take it. For places more than 5 hours by train, my recommendation is that we give stimulus money to one of Bruce Wayne's start-ups to study the composition of Queen Frostine's magic wand, from Candyland. That wand was fantastic.

From this point forward, though, I shall suck it up like the rest of air-traveling America. They still have free meals on planes ... I think ...

How are we coming along on that wand?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Andy Stern is Still (Power) Hungry

The caption that was posted along with this picture is too funny to not pass along, "Where's me bank?" (On the left is John Wilhelm, former president of the union HERE and current Hospitality Division president of UNITE HERE; on the right is Bruce Raynor, former president of UNITE and current president of UNITE HERE; and on Raynor's shoulder is a leprechaun version of Andy Stern, president of SEIU.)

For those of you who might not know the context of this picture and why I find it hilarious, let me try to give the short version of the ongoing saga at UNITE HERE. Basically the short version, UNITE — the former union of textile workers — and HERE — the former union of hotel and foodservice employees — merged to form a single union, UNITE HERE. The merger was precipitated by the fact that HERE had been very successful at organizing members but was burning through cash while UNITE's membership had been declining but was flush with money because the union is the owner of Amalgamated Bank. All was good while the two presidents, Bruce Raynor (UNITE) and John Wilhelm (HERE)were getting along. Then, they stopped agreeing, supposedly Wilhem wasn't allowing Raynor to head the union alone but Raynor was outvoted since at least 60% of UNITE HERE members were from former HERE locals. Anyway, Raynor started talking about a "divorce" (no, literally, with all of the normative assumptions that go along with it) and the two have been trash-talking each other in the press (for the longer version see here).

Well, it turns out that in the divorce there was really a lover in the wings. Andy Stern, the obnoxious president of SEIU wants both unions to join SEIU thereby increasing his own personal power, which it seems, is all that Andy Stern is interested in. Over the past month, the former UNITE locals resigned from the UNITE HERE, and this past weekend formed a new union, Workers United. The nascent union lasted all of a day before they affiliated with Stern's SEIU with a new agreement that essentially lets SEIU raid the sectors remaining under the former HERE's jurisdiction.

It seems like Andy Stern's sole goal in life is to gain more power for himself, make his organization bigger, and be seen hobnobbing with important people (for example). He sees himself as a modern-day John L. Lewis, but in reality he is a corporate-style thug who can't even be bothered to cover the corporate double-speak when busting the union of SEIU employees.[1]

[1] Please note that this post is solely my (Mike's) opinion by observing events in the labor movement for the past three years. Given his style, it would make complete sense why he wants to get his grubby hands on the only union-owned bank in the country.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

And The Cover Is Two Women Licking A Cone

"That's the great thing about blogging! You don't have to do something better, you just get to criticize other people!" -Mike 3550

And with that, I bring you a rant. This Rolling Stone "100 Agents of Change" list list had some major flaws. (h/t to JL) I suspect some of it had to do with the fact that we feel we have to have a number in the multiples of ten. 100 most change-agenty! 50 most beautiful (People)! 500 best-performing companies (Fortune)! So some lists get inflated. Also, it's Rolling Stone, so it caters to the limited attention span, and, on occasion, the rollingly stoned. I would have cut at least a) Michael Moore, b) Radiohead, c) Arne Duncan, and d) Nick Denton - because they haven't done anything a) that changed anything, b) recent, c) yet and d) unusual. #79 Neil Young had someone convert his car into a hybrid and then talked shit about GM. Really, Rolling Stone? The governator rings up at #61. The only thing he's changed is my opinion of the California electorate.

Given that, I see and raise the ridiculousness that is the fact that only 13 women made the cut. How about Michelle Obama? Isn't she changing the way we see the role of the first lady? Hillary Clinton made enormous strides to show us how close we are to having a female president. How about fewer pop and internet darlings and more artists and scientists? Cindy Sherman comes to mind. Unlike Michael Moore, Sherman has produced something in the last four years.

Also let's add more people who live in other countries and/or who aren't white. #76 Wafaa Al-Sadr is a great example of the type of awesome person that could be featured in this kind of article. LeBron James and Taylor Swift get enough media attention, let's feature people who are doing some good in the world.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AIG, Publisher's Clearinghouse Style

I like this idea from NPR science correspondent, Joe Palca for what to do about the AIG bonuses:

Here's what you do. Announce that the money will be handed out at a public function. Then, print the checks on those oversize posters like they do for the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, so you can see the name of the lucky winner and the amount they received from 100 yards away. Anyone who wants the money has to come up on stage and have his or her picture taken with an irate Timothy Geithner.

I'm guessing many would decide it wasn't worth it. And for those who do, well, at least they'll have provided us with a little entertainment.

I also don't buy the line from the NYT columnist Andrew Sorkin that we (the U.S. taxpayers) need to hold our noses and pay out these bonuses because upholding contracts is too important of a value to abandon, no matter how morally righteous it might feel, “If you think this economy is a mess now, imagine what it would look like if the business community started to worry that the government would start abrogating contracts left and right.” Of course, Sorkin goes on to say that the “auto industry unions are facing a similar issue — but the big difference is that there is a negotiation; no one is unilaterally tearing up contracts.” But, that is what happened; as a condition to get the bailout money to save their jobs, the UAW was required to give concessions — and the compensation that they had negotiated and agreed to was severely diminished. It seems that when Congress says “Everyone needs a haircut,” I guess for some that means a trim, and for others a complete shave.

And, speaking of unions, I had the same question as Josh Marshall at TPM, “Where's Labor?” I mean this seems form-fit to read into a narrative about corporate excess: while AIG is “contractually obligated” to pay these dipshits that ran the entire world economy into the ground, UAW workers were forced to concede a significant portion of their salaries, benefits, and pensions (which, are bound by the contractual obligation under federal labor law) before the Big Three could get a fraction of what AIG has received from the federal government. From what I could tell, the AFL-CIO blog has nothing and the Change to Win Connect blog has a completely convoluted post about signing a petition for the Employee Free Choice Act to stop AIG. Granted, EFCA would be a huge shot in the arm for labor and I think that it should pass, but this seems like the most clear-cut moral case that labor could make right now, and it is virtually silent on the issue or tries to fit it into a completely different pre-made frame.