Hurray! A Tax cut!

I thought both candidates would raise my taxes, but according to a calculator based on the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, we would actually get at $4000 tax-cut under Barack Obama's tax plans. The bottom line seems to be that if your adjusted gross income is more than $160,000 then McCain will give you a bigger taxcut than Obama. If your income is less than $110,000, McCain will be better.

The calculator is wrong. I don't know if they are actively misleading or merely naive.

It doesn't take into account the fact that McCain is going to tax your health insurance premiums or that Obama is going to lift the social security cap (as I said earlier, these guys' tax increases come in sneaky ways).

My back of the envelope estimate is that a married couple with 2 children will pay more taxes under McCain if they make less than $250,000. If the couple makes less than $200,000, Obama gives them a better tax cut. If they make between $200,000 and $250,000 it's a wash.

Food of India, state-by-state

This is a map that I got through an email chain. It shows the foods that are characteristic of different Indian states and gives you an idea of the diversity of Indian cuisine.

Most Indian restaurants in the U.S. serve Punjabi food (second state in the map from the top-left) -- but there's a lot more to Indian food than that.

The attribution was stripped off, so I don't know who to credit for the map.

Click on the map to see a larger image.

UPDATE: Someone named FaizHaider has claimed on Wikipedia that he is the author of this image. Please credit him, not this post if you use this image elsewhere.

Jim Leach's Reasons

Usually, when I travel alone, I watch TV, but I'm in New York city and the city is great for walking around.  So I haven't watched any of the convention. Based on the commentary, there are two speeches I need to read or watch.  Jim Leach, Republican congressman, on why he supports Barack Obama:

The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values. The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us. The party that formerly led the world in arms control has moved to undercut treaties crucial to the defense of the earth. The party that prides itself on conservation has abdicated its responsibilities in the face of global warming. And the party historically anchored in fiscal restraint has nearly doubled the national debt, squandering our precious resources in an undisciplined and unprecedented effort to finance a war with tax cuts.

It's a pretty thorough indictment, but how much of it can be fairly tied to John McCain? My sense used to be that McCain will be better on these aspects than Bush. However, the way McCain is running his campaign is making me waver: maybe the McCain of 2000 was an aberration and the bellicose McCain who wants to go to war with Iraq, Iran, Russia, etc. is his true nature.

Guesses on the second speech I've decided to watch?

photo in Finland

Just realized that Dave in Suomi posted a photo of us outside an island restaurant.  Helsinki is a very nice city.  I can see why he chooses to live there.

Bitching at the London 2012 games

I'm Indian enough to not care too much for the British.  But this does strike me as true:
And here's a prediction: In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, Londoners will complain about the traffic; politicians will carp about the cost; critics will call the ceremonies tasteless; no one will use the phrase Olympic triumph. But there won't be arrests or police intimidation; there won't be forced expropriation of property; there won't be stony-faced acrobats marching in formation—and in the end, the whole thing will be a lot less sinister, a lot less damaging, and a lot more fun.

Liberty and Freedom

I'm in lower Manhattan today, in the heart of New York City's financial district. The building I'm working at is right on the water's edge and has a view of the harbor and its landmark green statue. Pity it's so hazy today.

On the flight over, I started to read David Hackett Fischer's tome on Liberty and Freedom. I used to think that they were the same thing. Turns out that liberty carries connotations of independence and of rights that are specifically permitted. Freedom is of innate rights that accrue to all members of a free society.

The meanings of these terms have changed throughout American history as each generation continually finds the balance between the individual and collective; and between rights and responsibilities.

Health care: the real luxury

We met a couple of young friends over the weekend.

One of them is taking the semester off from college to bicycle from Oregon to Oklahoma with a couple of his friends. As he put it, "when else are you going to get the chance to do something like this?"  I did something similar when I was in graduate school -- drove from Wisconsin to California, but then driving and bicycling are two different things ... it took us a week to go cross-country.  It's going to take him three months.

Another couple is having a baby. They plan to have the baby at home, unassisted.  Again, we've done something similar -- we had S2 at home.  The difference? A midwife helped us.

The common thread to these stories -- beside the idea that these two are doing things a bit more extreme than what we did at their age -- is health insurance!

What's the bicyclist's family most worried about? Not that he's missing a semester.  He's an honors student and no one expects that he'll drop out of college altogether. Instead, the worry is that he will get into an accident.  You see, he has health insurance only because his college offers it to him. And if he takes the semester off, he loses that coverage. "Don't get into an accident," his mother admonishes.

And why is the second friend having the baby unassisted? She's talked to a midwife and gotten the assurance that if things get out of hand, the midwife will come. But it's a bill that she doesn't want to pay if she can avoid it -- her employer (a small business) doesn't offer health insurance.

Health care is a luxury in the richest nation on earth.

I would pay to have my job

The three-year-old playfully barred my way out of a room.

"Are you blocking me?," I asked.

"No, I'm a door," she replied, "and you have to put money here to open the door."  

I was confused until she made a swiping motion with her hand to illustrate what she was talking about. When she came with me to work last week, she noticed me swiping an access card to open the door to my office.  And where else has she seen me swipe a card? To pay for stuff in a store, of course.  Hence: I must be paying money to enter my office and go to work.  It's all quite logical.

Our book can be pre-ordered now on Amazon

I wrote a couple of chapters in this book on Artificial Intelligence methods in the Environment Sciences.  It appears, from the Amazon publication date, that Springer has targeted Dec 2008 for its final publication and that its retail price will be nearly $90.  Amazon lists it for $72.

The book is based on a workshop that six of us conducted in Corpus Christi in January 2007.   If anyone's going to use it a college text, it won't happen until Fall of 2009.  So, the book has taken three years to go from concept to actual use. We'd have done a lot better by publishing it online instead of using a traditional publisher.  The book would have been out sooner, and the information in it would have been more timely.  Also, that steep $90 retail price? All of it goes towards publications overhead -- we waived our royalties in a bid to keep the price as low as it could be.  If we had published it as an e-book or through an on-demand publisher, the price would have been essentially just the cost of printing.

Still, to academic types, a book published by a traditional publisher "counts" more than a self-published e-book.  And so, even though it makes no economic sense to do things this way, you have to pay $72 for the book at Amazon.

Evaluating the candidates

Looks like we'll get to vote this November.  Living in Oklahoma, a fat lot of good that'll do!  But that is no reason to not go about it systematically. 

Let's get the easy decisions out of the way:
  1. I'm voting for Tom Cole, Republican congressman representing a district that includes Norman.  This has nothing to do with his policies. His office provided excellent "constituent" help when I needed to budge some government bureaucracy several years ago.  Even though, as non-citizens at the time, we were not technically his constituents.  So, he gets my vote as long as he is in office.
  2. I'm voting against Jim Inhofe.  This is the fellow who is proud of his position that global warming is a hoax (being skeptical is one thing; but being proud of your ignorance?). Currently, the leading contender against him is Andy Rice.
I have more research to do on the state-level elections.     Drew Edmondson has been doing some great stuff cleaning up the Arkansas River, so I'm leaning towards him.

Between Obama and McCain, I'm still undecided.  On a couple of issues, I have enough information to evaluate:

  1. Torture:   Obama and McCain have both said they'd shutdown the torture chambers at Guantanamo.  McCain, having been tortured, is a bit more credible on this issue.  However, since the Republicans instituted the policy in the first place, his party is not.   I'm afraid that Obama, when push comes to shove, will start to start to dilute his position to pick up bipartisan support.    This issue is huge for me -- probably the only moral issue in this election -- so if they make new statements about this, I'll update the scores.  But for now, based on their statements so far:     Obama (+8),   McCain (+9)
  2. Taxes:    Obama keeps the tax rates constant for families that make less than $250K, so there's no impact on us of his increasing the top-level tax rate from 15% to 20%.  The middle-class tax credits and increased taxes on dividends don't affect us.  McCain is going to keep Bush's tax cuts in place.  So, it appears to be a wash as far as taxes are concerned. However, both fellows have sneaky ways of increasing my taxes.  McCain will drop the tax benefit for health insurance premiums.  The health insurance premium for our family for four is $14000/year.  So, McCain's tax proposals will result in a tax increase for us of about $6000, once you take fed+ss+medicare+state taxes into account.    Obama will drop the cap on Social Security and charge 2% for income above the cap (now $102,000/individual).  For every $50,000 in income above the cap, we'll end up paying $1000 more in taxes.  This is not bad, if it means that Social Security will remain solvent longer. Besides, the increase is dwarfed by the $6000 sneaky tax increase that McCain has in store.        So, on taxes:  Obama (0),   McCain (-2).

Other issues as they come up ... I'll keep updating the count over time, with appropriate weights to different issues.  For now, the score is:  Obama (8), McCain(7)

Do I look like David Boren?

Poorly executed machine intelligence always gives me a kick. They must have scraped a Java forum, found my email address, done a domain look-up, found the University president listed and addressed the spam to David Boren.

Engineering or sex?

Has someone decided we have too many engineers in the United States? Hat tip, Poor Man Institute.

General Motors Diet is a Hoax

Years ago, in the early days of the Internet, we used to read newsgroups. Newsgroups were essentially topical collections of blogs, except that the original poster had no control over comments. Every fall, the new folks would come online. This meant months of stale jokes, urban myths and all manner of hoaxes. Over a few months, they would get "internet sense". From December to July, the newsgroups would be relatively clean. And in August, the cycle would start again.

I was reminded of that cycle when a dear uncle posted verbatim on our family mailing list a diet (forgive me for not linking to it: I don't want to spread it any further; if you are interested, follow the Google link at the end of this article) that purports to have been:

developed for employees and dependents of General Motors, Inc. and is intended for their exclusive use. This program was developed in conjunction with a grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. It was field tested at the Johns Hopkins Research Centre and was approved for distribution by the Board of Directors, General Motors Corp.
What gives it away (besides the fact that FDA doesn't fund clinical trials, let alone development of nutrition programs; that Johns Hopkins is so big that it has more than one research center but definitely no "centre"; that the board of GM is not going to approve every Human Resources program) is its language:

It will also improve your attitudes and emotions because of its cleansing systematic effects. The effectiveness of this seven day plan is that the food eaten burn more calories than they give to the body in caloric value. This plan can be used as often as you like without any fear of complications. It is designed to flush your system of impurities and give you a feeling of well being.
"Cleansing", "Impurities", etc. reflect a yogic tradition. This sounds like a made-in-India hoax. Sure enough, a Google search for "general motors diet" reveals that the links are all Indian. There is not a single General Motors, USDA, FDA or Johns Hopkins link in the mix.

What astonished me is that a great many of the links are actually posts by people on the 3rd or 4th day of the diet! People, this is a fake! It's a hoax. Don't try it at home.

I looked on Snopes, but apparently the hoax is big in India, not in the US, so it hasn't made it to Snopes. So, consider this a public interest blog post.

Beef bread

S1 called me at lunch time.

"Amma's taking me to Braums," he informed me gleefully, "so we can eat lunch there."

"What are you going to have?"

"A hamburger."

"Get a chicken burger or a fish burger."

"Why not a hamburger?"

"A hamburger has beef in it"

"Is ham beef?"

"No ham is pork, but a hamburger is beef"

"Where is the beef then? Is the bread made out of beef?"

American subcultures and negative attacks

An interesting blog post takes David Fisher's thesis about four basic sub-cultures in the United States (Puritans, royalists, Quakers and Scots-Irish) and applies it to politics and negative attacks:

Fischer argues that these four groups formed the original cultural and political matrix into which later-arriving immigrant groups adapted themselves; and their ancient differences underlie many of the regional and philosophical differences Americans still grapple with today. The migration patterns of these four groups have largely determined the geography of civil and women's rights, economic justice movements, and many other social and political trends. And it seems possible to me that these conflicting value systems may also be at the cultural root of the strikingly ineffectual way that Democratic candidates have consistently responded to GOP attacks over the past 50 years.


Puritan and Quaker leaders demonstrate their moral superiority by doubling down on their self-control when under fire. Losing it brands you forever as a hothead who's a potential danger to self and others, and who should never again be trusted with any kind of serious responsibility.


For one example of this ethos at work, look no further than the last election. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, in true Boston gentleman form, refused to dignify the Swiftboaters with any kind of response at all. He knew his record and his reputation were solid, and believed that any reasonable person would look at that, take his word over theirs, and shun the Swiftees as the shit-stirrers they so obviously were. That's the way it works in New England. But he didn't reckon with the fact that there are 44 states out there that aren't New England, and most of them were full of voters with a value set that interpreted his silence as a withering sign of weakness.

Pizza at the office

I was driving the 3-year old to daycare today morning.

"What are you going to do in your office?," she inquired.

"I'm going to work," I told her.

"No, no, no," she said, "what are you going to eat?  Are you going to eat pizza?"   The kids came with me to work on Thursday. They were so craving pizza after two months of deprival that a couple of colleagues and I took them to a pizza buffet for lunch.

"I'm not going to eat pizza today."

"Don't eat pizza at your office if me and S1 are not there," she told me sternly, "When me and S1 come to your office, then you can eat pizza."

"Yes, dear."

The citizenship interview

I went to the Homeland Security office this morning for an interview to verify that I know US history, civics and English.

"What's the capital of Oklahoma?," I was asked.

"Oklahoma City"

"Are you sure it's not Norman?," smiled the agent, "OU fans seem to think the whole state revolves around them."

"Well, it used to be Guthrie," I offered. And then we had a conversation about perfidious OKC residents who would stoop to steal the official papers from Guthrie in the middle of the night.

The rest of the interview was a formality.  I will get a letter in the mail in a couple of months, then have to go in front of a judge and take the oath.

Browser history to analyze gender

A script that analyzes your browser history to figure out your gender seems to have gone viral. What the script does is to look at the male-to-female ratio of the top websites (in my history: has a 1.73:1 male-to-female ratio while has a 0.83 male ratio and is 0.98). According to the post:

I then apply the ratio of male to female users for each site and with some basic math determine a guestimate of your gender. The math is really quite simple, I just take:
1 / (1 + r_1 * r_2 * … * r_n)
where p_i is the ratio of men-to-women for the specific site.
Now, I'm not against simple formulae, but the above formula is mathematically absurd for two main reasons:

1. The limit is wrong. The more fractions you multiply, the smaller the fraction gets. So, if you visit a lot of popular websites (whose numbers, due to demographics, are all slightly less than 1), the formula will go to 1/(1 + 0) = 1.0 i.e. you will be female.

2. Independence is assumed but not true. By multiplying the individual probabilities, you are assuming that they are independent. But if visiting a website is indicative of gender, then obviously, they are not independent. You can't multiply like this.

Enough with the criticism. How would I fix the formula while keeping the math simple? Change the formula to:
1 / (1 + Average(r_1 , r_2 , … * r_n) )

Advice on Creating Scientific Posters

Some one I know is writing a book about scientific communication. He'd seen my posters at a conference and asked me for copies of my posters at that conference. He also asked if I had any advice about making non-bland posters. Do I have advice? Of course I do. This is what I emailed back:

I think it comes down to a philosophy of what posters are and who the target audience is. I use posters to provide a high-level overview of techniques and results. Most of the viewer-ship of posters are interested in the topic, but are not themselves performing research in it. So, putting too much detail in posters is pointless. This is unlike an article: I write articles for someone who may discover the article by searching the literature. Such a person is knowledgeable in the field and is interested in the minute details of what we did (so technical details are good). (For example, compare my article on storm-type identification with the corresponding poster).

I recommend starting out a poster by coming up with a 1-minute synopsis of the research. Then make sure that the structure of the poster as a whole reflects it. Then, consider what you would say in a 5-minute explanation of the research and make sure that the poster addresses those points without detracting from the 1-minute explanation. Any detail beyond what you would explain in 5 minutes does not belong in the poster.

Thus, the QC poster (above) ended up mostly being an image collage illustrating the improvement in the QC using the new technique (this is the 1-minute synopsis). For people with more interest in the topic, there's a FAQ that addresses why we did what we did and what the improvements were (the 5-minute explanation).

The 1-minute explanation of the storm-type work (above) would be as a set of steps. So, the main thing you see from a few feet away are the arrows. The captions on the images tell you what the steps are. The images themselves add the 5-minute detail to the listing of the steps.

Honey-Do List Done

The wife left behind more than a page of things for me to get done while they were away. I ticked off the last thing in the list today evening. Just in time for the family's arrival tomorrow morning.

I'm sure there's stuff not on the list I should have done. Those will be pointed out to me later in the week.

But for now, I'm enjoying the feeling of accomplishment.

Europe as insane asylum

This Dutch cartoon, published during World War I, satirizes Europe as an insane asylum. Note the attention to cartographic, as well as, stereotyping detail.

More such cartographic cartoons here.

Stuck as chattel

The anecdote in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City that struck me as the most true was about one of the Bombay cops. Ajay Lal is from a rich family and can afford to be honest. He's also a hero in Bombay because he identified the gangster who set off a bunch of bombs. LA Confidential-style, he also advises movie types. But the gangsters have it in for Ajay. His family needs round-the-clock protection. Ajay desperately wants to leave India, to go someplace where he can lead a normal life.

Mehta helps him get a gig at a Washington DC think tank. Ajay is ready to leave, but his boss will not give him a "No Objection Certificate". Ajay can't get his passport without the certificate from his employer, and so he is stuck in Bombay.

It is not usual for employers in India treat their employees like chattel.

When I was in India last month, I got talking to a young cousin. He'd recently graduated college and gone to work for a large construction firm. After a year of not-exactly challenging work, he decided to go to graduate school. He got accepted in IIT Delhi, but they wanted him to prove his year of experience.

His employer refused to give him a reference letter. "We spent 3 lakhs ($7500) on training you," he was told, "pay us the money back if you want to leave." His salary for one year working at the firm? 1 lakh ($2500). Obviously, he didn't have even a fraction of the 3 lakhs they wanted.

"I'm not going to work for a competitor," he explained to his boss' boss, throwing himself at the company's mercy. It went all the way to the CEO of the company. But they refused to give him the reference letter.

"Ask IIT if they really need the letter," I suggested. His advisor didn't care, and was willing to take him on. But the graduate college was apprehensive. The firm had made a couple of big-money research grants. Not people to get on the wrong side of, you could hear them thinking, what's one 22-year old's dreams compared to hundreds of thousands of dollars?

I suggested that he ask the company if they would waive the 3-lakh fee if he agreed to come back to work for them after finishing his M.S. He did. Last heard, they're still mulling over the idea. Meanwhile, college starts in three weeks and my cousin is despondent.