Aug 15, 2008

The future we might deserve

This would be President McCain's foreign policy timetable:

21 Jan 2009: Recognize independent Chechnya. Call Putin "Poo-Poo" and Medvedev "Merde".
22 Jan 2009: Recognize independent Tibet. Call Hu Jintao a gook.
23 Jan 2009, morning: Recognize independent Ukraine. Call Nancy Pelosi a bitch.
23 Jan 2009, afternoon: Remember that Ukraine has been independent since 1991. Blame the bitch for forgetting earlier.
24 Jan 2009: Vow to defend Chechnya and Tibet. Note that "Tibet" sounds like "you bet" and "Chechnya" sounds funny. As does "Poo-Poo".
25 Jan 2009: Go to church and look presidential. Smile a lot.
26 Jan 2009, morning: Speak about the need to send troops to Czechoslovakia and Timor, the nations we recognized last week. Wish the Chinese a happy new year and try to avoid saying "Gook".
26 Jan 2009, afternoon: Have all the tapes of the morning speech edited to hide his gaffes. When asked about it, tell reporters to fuck off. Call Connie Chung a gook.
27 Jan 2009: Recognize independent Utopia. Look very presidential.
28 Jan 2009: Recognize independent Texas. Look very experienced.
29 Jan 2009: Blame Phil Gramm for the "terrible misunderstanding" the day before. As punishment, appoint him ambassador to France.
30 Jan 2009: Visit the troops leaving for the Chechnyan border. Tell a soldier "Maybe you'll be like me one day."
31 Jan 2009: Complain that we are behind schedule in bombing Iran.
01 Feb 2009: Watch Super Bowl XLIII. Bomb Iran if the wrong team wins. If a foreign leader interrupts, bomb his country. Unless it is Putin; don't bomb his country, just tell him to fuck off.
02 Feb 2009: Give the State of the Union Address. Refuse to recognize the Super Bowl result. Tell an ape joke.
03 Feb 2009: Deny having told the ape joke. Deny refusing to recognize the SB result. Deny having given the State of the Union address.
06 Feb 2009: Wish Ronald Reagan a happy birthday. Call Vladimir Putin and say "I fart in your general direction!"
07 Feb 2009: Say "I don't recall wishing Ronald Reagan a happy birthday."
11 Feb 2009: Say that nuking Moscow and Beijing might avert a global warming crisis.
12 Feb 2009: Deny having said there was a global warming crisis.
14 Feb 2009: Call his wife a cunt.

Aug 12, 2008

Mind Games of the XXIX Olympiad

I didn't care enough to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. I didn't doubt that the Chinese would put up a more impressive spectacle than any host had done before, but I am just not interested in ceremonies and spectacles. Instead, I took a walk and then caught up somewhat on my e-mail.

Every day, I am more glad I didn't care. First we found out about the computer-generated fireworks, and now the lip-syncing girl. So, what else is fake? Oh, yes, some spectators.

Now why can't injured athletes just send their computer-generated holographic images to the Olympics? It would work particularly well in individual sports like gymnastics.

Aug 10, 2008

General Idiotic

The Olympic-themed Ecomagination commercial is the newest contribution to the imbecilization of America. Its setting is clearly suggesting ancient Olympic Games, but shows an athlete wearing clothes, and women in the audience. Come on, GE, the Greek Olympians competed naked, and women weren't allowed anywhere near. Sport nudity was not confined to the Olympics, either: the words "gymnastics" and "gymnasium" come from the Greek word for "naked". This is the same type of idiocy as showing cavemen co-existing with dinosaurs.

Is Hawaii in US and A, anyway?

There's the real reason the Constitution requires the President to be a US citizen by birth: we don't want to allow candidates to take those elitist trips home. Imagine, for example, if Arnold Schwarzenegger went to Austria! Who does he think he is? Mozart? A celebrity? Un-American? (Question for homework: Why would this not work?)

Note to aspiring candidates: if you want to run for President, make sure you are born in Dead Possum Hole, Redneck State, and you go there for vacation. Alternatively, you can run as a Republican.

Dude, where's my 14 million dollar house!?

From the department of I-told-you-so:
Wait a minute. Who will buy those houses? At 6% annual interest rate, a 30-year mortgage on an average home would require payments exceeding three-quarters of an average household's income. And that's just mortgage payments - no property tax, insurance, maintenance, or utilities. Even at the entirely unrealistic zero interest, mortgage payments would equal 36% of income. Prices can be astronomical in a limited area, where only the region's elite can afford to live, but the study refers to the entire Washington Metropolitan Area, which, according to the article, will then span from Baltimore to Richmond and have a population of 9.9 million. If only the top 5-10% can afford housing in the area, where will the other 9 million live? There is a violation of the law of supply and demand in the study's results.

That study is yet another example of the dangers of extrapolating exponential growth rates over long periods. If you calculate the annual growth rates implicit in the study's results, they look reasonable: housing prices increasing 7% per year, and incomes 4.6% per year. Assuming 3% inflation, the real (net of inflation) rates are 4% and 1.6%. I might use those numbers myself if I had to predict prices and earnings 2-3 years from now.

The problem is that the difference in growth rates of 2.4% compounds to a factor of more than 3 (in other words, a difference of over 200%) over 50 years. What makes sense over short periods doesn't necessarily make sense in the long run.

On the bright side, we will not all be Pentecostals by 2075.

I am only an elected official, I can't make decisions by myself

The Maverick has some responsible adults telling him what to do:
Someone in Mr. McCain’s entourage — typically Nicolle Wallace, a Schmidt ally and a veteran of Mr. Bush’s 2004 campaign and White House who recently joined the campaign as a traveling senior adviser — is given the responsibility of making sure Mr. McCain agrees to the message and tries to stick to it.

Where have we seen that before? Aha:

The two rotating faces are fitting, too.

Aug 9, 2008


On the day Russia invaded Georgia, the top story in the news is John Edwards's affair. That is so incredibly stupid that I can't find adequate words to describe it. It is a perfect occasion to quote Zbigniew Brzezinski from a few weeks ago:
And we’re probably as ignorant as ever about the rest of the world, because everybody now lives in a kind of simplistic, trivialized virtual reality in which fact and fiction, impressions and impulses, are mixed up in an incoherent fashion. The public really has no grasp of complexities, no sense of intellectual refinement in judging them, and our political leaders have become increasingly demagogic. The way George W. Bush campaigned for the war in Iraq, with reference to fictitious WMDs, and with sweeping, simplistic, black-and-white generalizations about freedom and tyranny, is a case in point. But he was responding to our increasingly imbecilized societal condition. This is very troublesome.

Imbecilized. The perfect adjective for our society. Zbig, you da man.

Aug 6, 2008

Presidential terms and actuarial errors

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the actuarial firm John M. Bragg & Associates has estimated the healthy life expectancy - average remaining life free of Alzheimer's or other impairments requiring an assisted living facility - for John McCain and Barack Obama. Bragg gives McCain a health expectancy of 8.4 years, and Obama 21.9 years, and offers the following conclusion:
“Either candidate can be expected to serve two full terms, without age or health being an issue,” said John M. Bragg, the firm chairman.

John Aravosis points out that Bragg's numbers don't add up:

The actuarial (sic) says McCain has 8.4 "healthy" years left. He mistakenly drew the conclusion that McCain would therefore be healthy through two terms in office, thinking that eight years from now is the end of McCain's term. That's incorrect. The end of the term is in 8 years 5.5 months from now. Statistically, that means McCain won't make it through two terms as a "healthy" president. By healthy, he means “the person does not require the care provided by an assisted living facility and is free of Alzheimer’s disease.”

By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that means McCain wouldn't even be able to complete two full terms in office. His time runs out on December 30th or so of 2016, a good three weeks before the new president would be sworn in. So that means, statistically speaking, before the end of two terms, we should expect President McCain to have to be moved to a retirement home because he'll no longer be able to care for himself, and we should expect that he'll already be suffering from Alzheimer's.

Aravosis is correct in noting that 8.4 years from now does not give the new President (whoever it is) two full terms. His explanation of what that means is a little sloppy, but the end result is most likely correct. The issue is what it means that "we should expect" McCain (not) to be healthy and alive by the end of the two terms. I assume that Aravosis means "it is more likely than not", but that doesn't follow so simply from the published statistic.

Mathematical expectation is the theoretical mean, not median. What it means is the following: if we had a thousand men of the same age and other relevant characteristics as John McCain, we follow them all until they die and note how long each lives, and then we sum up all of their times from now until death, and divide the result by 1000 (the number of them), we will get something very close to 8 years, 146 days.

It does not mean that 500 of them will live longer than 8.4 years and the other 500 shorter. That would follow only if the remaining lifetime were distributed symmetrically, for example, if it followed the bell-shaped normal distribution. But that is not the case: all remaining lifetimes must be greater than zero, but there is no reason some of them couldn't be 30 years or more. The expectation (8.4 years) is obviously not in the middle of the range, so the distribution is skewed (asymmetric).

Now it turns out that, in most distributions of this kind (with a "tail" on the right), the median is less than the mean. If the median healthy survival is less than 8.4 years, it would mean that fewer than 500 of the initial 1000 "McCain clones" would have more than 8.4 years of healthy life - and, obviously, even fewer would have 8.46 or so years needed to complete two terms in office. So Aravosis made a correct statement, after all.

If Aravosis is correct, Bragg must be incorrect. It is not possible to say, based on Bragg's own numbers, that McCain "can be expected to serve two full terms, without age or health being an issue". Because the median is almost certainly lower than the mean, it would not be true even if the expected healthy life were somewhat longer, say 8.5 years, extending beyond two terms. It would still imply that McCain is more likely than not to die or become seriously impaired before the end of the second term.

But this error in arithmetic is not the most bothersome part of Bragg's statement. After all, if all the critique amounted to were nitpicking about chances being 49% rather than 51%, it would be rather academic. I see a far more serious problem in Bragg's choice of risk measure.

Suppose for a moment that Bragg's arithmetic was right, and that McCain could be expected, albeit barely so, to be alive and healthy on January 20, 2017. Suppose his chances are 55%. That's a generous "improvement" of Bragg's estimate, but it still means a 45% chance he would be dead or incapacitated. Would most people be comfortable with a president facing those odds? Would most people, upon hearing that number, characterize a potential McCain presidency as "without age or health being an issue"? I doubt that. From the risk management point of view, Bragg has cited an almost useless statistic.

John M. Bragg is not just any actuary. He was President of the Society of Actuaries. That, however, was a long time ago, when the US President was named Gerald Ford.

Aug 3, 2008

Police right to wait for sermon to end?

A few corrections and second thoughts about the Rev. Hannibal Lecter:

1. I used the ubiquitous, but wrong, spelling of the infamous name in the title of that post. I should have written "Usama bin Ladin".

2. To avoid misunderstanding: I think the police should generally do their work rationally, and that includes minimizing the possibility of riot or other risk of injury, particularly to innocent bystanders, when making arrests. However, I also feel it is extremely important that all people be equal before the law; therefore, the arrest procedure must not depend on the occupation or social status of the accused. Discrimination based on race, sex, or religion, is particularly pernicious.

3. Testimony in blog comments from former law enforcement officers (in whose identification or words I have no reason not to believe) has convinced me that I was likely wrong in assuming that the police would have behaved differently if the accused had not been a preacher. My tentative conclusion is that I might have overlooked the, let's call it, "man bites dog" bias in news reporting. While there are many reports of police brutality and haste in arresting criminal suspects, the total number of arrests is far greater. It is quite likely that the spectacular raids and high-speed chases we read about are anomalous, and that they make news because they are exceptional.

4. That said, there have also been blog comment testimonies for the opposite view - that theatrical and dangerous arrests are the norm. Incidentally, all those testimonies seem to be about drug-related arrests. That's disturbing. While I can understand that drug arrests present special challenges for gathering evidence (if the police aren't quick, the suspects can get rid of the drug), something is profoundly unjust in a system that, by design, puts suspects of non-violent drug offenses at greater risk of injury during arrest than murder suspects.

5. I think that people who use the "innocent until proven guilty" principle as the main justification for the police waiting until the end of Hopkins' sermon to make the arrest are seriously misunderstanding what that principle means and how it is applied.

Swimming with Ben Franklin

I headed to the pool yesterday, in mostly sunny weather, but just when I got there, distant thunder could be heard. The lifeguard followed the standard procedure and ordered all the people out of the pool before I could get my toes wet. I didn't have time to stay and wait for half an hour or more, so I turned around and walked home, not getting the 20-30 minute swim I had hoped for.

I wonder whether this risk-averse policy of preventing lightning strikes in the pool makes sense. To answer that question, we need some quantitative measures of risk, not just an explanation why it is risky to be in water in or near a thunderstorm. Of course, being in water increases risk, but by how much? There are indications that expert advice tends to be more risk-averse than most people would be willing to follow. For example, the National Lightning Safety Institute says that cars are safe (because of their metal shell), but only if you
close the windows, lean away from the door, put your hands in your lap, don't touch the steering wheel, ignition, gear shifter, or radio.

That means you shouldn't drive in a storm. But how realistic is that? Imagine the traffic coming to a standstill every time a thunderstorm is near. Similarly, if you are at home, you shouldn't take a shower or wash your hands during a storm, because plumbing is part of the house's conductive shield, and touching it - directly or through water - puts you at risk. But seriously, how many people have died or been injured by lightning while washing hands at home?

Numbers matter because foregoing unsafe actions is usually costly. If traffic stopped in storms, there would be significant economic losses, and moreover (if you think money is not worth the risk), parents would be late picking up children from day care and patients would not get to hospitals on time. Not washing hands may increase your risk of getting ill, which may - depending on the numbers - outweigh the risk of getting shocked by lightning. Similarly, in my case, I am not sure if foregoing swimming to reduce the risk of lightning was a net benefit to me.

Exercise is healthy; it improves life expectancy as well as the quality of life. I estimate that half an hour of swimming would have increased my life expectancy by a few minutes. My reasoning for that estimate uses the analogy with smoking. It is often reported that smoking one cigarette shortens your life expectancy by about 10 minutes. (That's consistent with the assumptions that an average smoker smokes 20 cigarettes per day for 40 years and lives about 6 years less than a non-smoker with the same characteristics.) While I have no data supporting this, it seems intuitively plausible that a good aerobic exercise session would improve one's health by about the same order of magnitude as one cigarette would damage it.

Now, my life expectancy is about 20,000,000 minutes, so I should be willing to risk a one-in-a-few-million chance of being struck by lightning to obtain the life-prolonging benefits of exercise. And so far, this calculation doesn't take into account the pleasure derived from swimming. We pursue pleasures involving risk of death every day. Driving 7-8 miles to the mall or theater implies about 1 in 10 million chance of dying in a car accident (and a much higher chance of being injured). 5,000 food poisoning deaths per year in the US amount to about 5 per meal (1 in 60 million), with serious illness requiring hospitalization being 60 times as likely. And I am not even talking about activities that are normally perceived as risky.

What about lightning? It is hard to find relevant statistics. About 1 in 6 million Americans is killed by lightning every year, and about 8% of those deaths are water-related (but 40% are "unknown"). However, a lot of the water-related lightning accidents occur on small open boats, so it is unclear how many are swimming-related. And, of course, most people take safety measures, so it is hard to know the exposure underlying those accident statistics. They don't help with the specific question I had:

What is the probability of being struck by lightning during a single 30-minute swim in an outdoor swimming pool when a thunderstorm is nearby?

If this risk is of the order of one in several million, it is better to swim anyway. If it is, say, one in a hundred thousand or less, the standard safety procedures make a lot of sense.

I could make it more precise by listing several other factors. Lightning was not visible and by the rolling sound of thunder, I am pretty sure the storm was more than 5 miles away. The pool is lower than most surrounding areas, including the pool house. A train station is just about 200 yards away, with various structures likely to attract lightning. There are plenty of houses, trees, and electric lines in the vicinity - it is a densely populated area. It seems to me that all those factors reduce the risk of a direct strike to the pool (and thus of a deadly strike to the swimmer), although some of them might increase the risk of a strike close enough that some charge might find its path through the pool (but this would seem to be more relevant to the risk of lighter injuries).

Does anyone have some relevant quantitative data?

Aug 2, 2008

What the "Celeb" ad really says

Wondering WTF that McCain's ad was about? Confused by talking heads discussing who "played the race card"? I am starting a new service for my readers: subliminal-to-abominable translation. What used to be between the lines is now clearly spelled out, line by line. Watch the enhanced "Celeb" ad:


Aug 1, 2008

What if Osama bin Laden is taping a message when we find him?

Should we let him finish before arresting him?

Apparently, the police in Jackson, AL, think so:
Police allowed Hopkins to finish his sermon before arresting him

WTF!? He is a murderer and (probably serial) child rapist! What is the point of the police waiting? So his holy message wouldn't be lost?

Looks like you can get away with almost anything in the name of religion, and even when you cross all bounds, you still get way more respect than other criminals.

UPDATE: Over at Pharyngula, many commenters think the police did the right thing because (1) Hopkins was not about to flee or commit another crime, and (2) he is only charged with those crimes at this point, not convicted. Those people are completely missing the point. Commenter karen (#31) has it right:

The police wouldn't wait for any other type person to finish his business before arresting him. This is just pandering to the woo.

The procedure for arresting a preacher must be exactly the same as that for arresting anyone else. If it is not, the police is violating the Constitution, specifically the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment.

UPDATE 2: It gets interesting. A comment by "Doug the Trucker" (#104) challenges my (and PZ's) view in a valid way:

OK, former LEO here.

We try to avoid creating a scene when arresting someone, especially if it in a public place where an arrest might stir up an even larger problem. From the description, Mr. Hopkins was in a controlled area, wasn't planning on fleeing, and was quickly arrested after the sermon. If there had been reason to believe he was armed, or was about to take off and run, then the officers would have moved in for an immediate arrest.

We try to do this for everyone, not just clergy.

If this is factually correct, I am ready to agree that the police did the right thing. But, for now, I find it hard to believe that the police would normally wait when arresting someone for murder.

UPDATE 3: Another police officer says this is standard. Well, I would hope it would be, but how then do we explain numerous accounts of SWAT team drug raids, high-speed chases, and so on?