18c pander

John McCain and Hillary Clinton are pandering to the stupid with the idea of temporarily repealing the federal 18c gas tax. Paul Krugman explains:

... the price to consumers will always rise until the quantity demanded falls to match the quantity supplied. Cut taxes, and all that happens is that the pretax price rises by the same amount. The McCain gas tax plan is a giveaway to oil companies, disguised as a gift to consumers ... The Clinton twist is that she proposes paying for the revenue loss with an excess profits tax on oil companies. In one pocket, out the other.

The sad thing is the media report this too as a "he said, she said" story. "She said repealing the gas tax will help people with long commutes. He said it's all just a gimmick that will increase prices in the long term".

Talking about a book I haven't read

The title of the book ("How to talk about books you haven't read") intrigued me enough that I picked up the book even though it's a translation from French.

The author, a professor of philosophy, doesn't actually tell you not to read books (at least in the first two chapters that I've read so far). Instead, he says that "reading" comes in shades of gray -- ranging from books you skimmed, or have heard about, to read but have forgotten to books you have read closely. To talk about books, he says, you need only to know the milieu, not the exact contents.

The title is catchy but the actual argument is quite ho-hum. Take for example, John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. I think that I read it when I was in elementary school. Why do I think I have read the book? (1) Because I remember reading about a family driving across the country to California. They stop to fill gas and "let air out of the tires". At the time that I read that (my acquantance with cars was non-existent until I bought my first car in graduate school), I had no idea why anyone would let air out of tires. I still have a lingering memory of the confusion. (2) I have had several conversations about dust bowls and how Steinbeck gave Oklahoma a bum rap. And I do remember reading something about dust settling in on everything. But I could as well have been remembering the Harmattan wind of my West African childhood. (3) I also seem to remember something about locusts and people frying locusts and eating them. Now here's the clincher: Did I actually read all those in Steinbeck's book? Or have I conjured up a memory of the book from other things I've read or encountered? Who knows? These memories fit the impression I have of Steinbeck, and I can talk intelligibly about the atmosphere he evokes ... Why do I have to read Steinbeck's book at this point?

This is Bayard's point, or at least I believe it is -- I've read only 2 chapters of his book so far. Should I read the rest or move on?

First hint of a problem?

S1 and I were playing Scrabble today (we play a simplified form suitable for a six-year-old) and this is the board after a few plays:
Some of S1's words are circled. Should I reserve a spot at Betty Ford's place?

The problem with Obama

Paul Krugman is the probably smartest person writing columns for a newspaper. He saw through Bush at a time when most of us thought we'd like to have a beer with him. He's been totally anti-Obama this election cycle and in his latest column, he provides a lucid explanation of his reluctance to back Obama:
... maybe his transformational campaign isn’t winning over working-class voters because transformation isn’t what they’re looking for. From the beginning, I wondered what Mr. Obama’s soaring rhetoric, his talk of a new politics and declarations that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” (waiting for to do what, exactly?) would mean to families troubled by lagging wages, insecure jobs and fear of losing health coverage. The answer, from Ohio and Pennsylvania, seems pretty clear: not much. Mrs. Clinton has been able to stay in the race, against heavy odds, largely because her no-nonsense style, her obvious interest in the wonkish details of policy, resonate with many voters in a way that Mr. Obama’s eloquence does not.

But there is a problem with this diagnosis: It's not that Obama is not winning working-class voters. He's not winning older voters and he's not winning women. I think older voters are simply voting for the "brand-name" candidate -- Obama's simply less known to these voters. And women are voting for the woman in the race -- what's surprising is that Obama's doing so well when half the electorate can so easily identify with his opponent and when his opponent has instant name recognition. So, unlike Krugman, I'm not worried about electability.

Another point that Krugman makes, however, is deeply discomfitting because it is so true:

Tellingly, the Obama campaign has put far more energy into attacking Mrs. Clinton’s health care proposals than it has into promoting the idea of universal coverage.

Krugman saw that "compassionate conservatism" was a hoax because Bush's economics simply didn't make any sense. Has he similarly spotted the problem with the case of Obama? After all, the main rationale for an Obama presidency is the transformatial nature of his candidacy. Because he is an excellent communicator, he should be able to bring the American people along with him. But what use is being an excellent communicator and a transformational character if you don't bother to sell the big picture?

Seminar on Weather Data Mining at the National Weather Center

The meteorology department at OU has an unusual requirement of anyone who wants to become adjunct faculty in the department: they have to give a seminar, on a topic of their choice, at the weather center. I'm giving my seminar today. It's essentially a mash-up of a couple of conference papers along with some background to make it all flow together. If you're in the area and you're interested in the topic (the slides for the talk are online), come.

. Because I pulled my talk out of already-written papers, and the papers are written with LaTeX, the slides are too. This explains their non-PowerPoint-like appearance. Using LaTeX (and Beamer) made it much easier to reuse figures, tables and equations.

Rowing in Oklahoma City

A couple of years ago, we met an amateur rowing team at a party.  I'd seen boats out on the Oklahoma river, which you cross to get to the city from Norman, but hadn't realized that it was a bonafide rowing place, one that people formed teams to row in.  This article in the New York Times explains why the river is good enough to host Olympic trials:

Knopp, a rowing enthusiast, looked at one 2,000-meter stretch that was perfectly straight and realized the Army Corps of Engineers had unwittingly created an ideal location for a boat race.

The memory of boathouses on the Charles (in Boston) makes me think would be so cool to have an OU boathouse on the river.  Although having a sailing club at Lake Thunderbird hasn't prompted me to take up sailing, so why would a boathouse prompt me to take up rowing?

It's a small world, take two

A visiting German meteorologist called in a hail report and estimated its size as being "twice the diameter of a 1-Euro coin" (read it with a German accent). I can only imagine the look on the face of the Weather Service person on the receiving end of the phone call.

NWUS54 KOUN 220905

404 AM CDT TUE APR 22 2008

..TIME... ...EVENT... ...CITY LOCATION... ...LAT.LON...

..DATE... ....MAG.... ..COUNTY LOCATION..ST.. ...SOURCE....

0853 PM HAIL MAYSVILLE 34.82N 97.41W


Thanks to T. for pointing me to the preliminary storm report.

Report the controversy, forget the facts

Time was when ridiculous articles by foreign correspondents would go unnoticed by the people written about. Not any more. It is a smaller world now.

Cricket, a boring 5-day game which more often than not ends in a draw, has been shortened into a three-hour frenzy. This was done by giving each side just 20 overs (an over is six pitches). A one-day version of the sport which limited sides to 50 overs each has been around for several years. This is how the Washington Post described the new game:

It condenses nearly a week of match play into three hours, with shorter "overs," which are similar to innings in baseball.

This totally wrong synopsis of the newest professional league in India has naturally prompted quite a few guffaws.

But I'm trying a make a larger point, so bear with me. If I were writing an article on the phenomenon, I would focus on the entrepreneurship involved -- after all, the Brits have had a dowdy professional league for decades but it took a swashbuckling Indian beer tycoon to create a professional league worth watching. Because this is a league -- and game -- built completely from scratch in a matter of months, every one's making things up as they go. One of the league teams even imported Washington Redskins cheerleaders to train up a cheer leading squad.

Give the American press a choice between making half-assed observations and writing a researched article about economics or sport and what would they choose? You got it. They decided to write about the "controversy" caused by the amount of skin exposed by the cheerleaders. That premise too has also been challenged ... but of course, to understand that India (like any country) is a complicated place would get in the way of an easy story.

We are badly served by our media. I'm reminded of this every time I read an article on something that I actually know something about.

Losing the argument

The wife and S1 had gone to one of his activities. S2 (the three-year old) was in the yard, watching me mow the lawn and playing with clam shells (the remnants of a meal a couple of weeks ago: S1 decided they made nice puppets and they have been in the backyard ever since).

I finished and went around the house, to the garage, to put the lawn mower away. Then, opened the back door to let S2 into the house and found her crying her heart out.

"What happened?," I asked.

"You left me here," she sobbed.

"I put the lawn mower away and then I opened the door for you, you silly girl."

"No, you didn't.  You opened the door because I was crying."

Make that one more person I'm not going to win any arguments against.

Football season tickets: To buy or not to buy?

In the spirit of Darwin, my checklist of reasons to not buy football tickets:
  1. The tickets are quite expensive.  We could almost have a family vacation in Yellowstone for what two tickets cost.
  2. S1 and S2 are interested, but more for the novelty of going to the game, rather than the game itself.  They'd probably be equally delighted to go to a women's basketball game (in fact, they were).
  3. Last year, I ended up selling the tickets to two of the games because of travel.  Don't want to deal with eBay that much.
  4. A 2pm game ends up wasting an entire Saturday.
  5. This year's schedule of home games is horrible.  I hope Kansas is as good as they were last year, or the complete schedule will be a bum rap.
Arguments for buying the tickets:
  1. The kids love it. So does the wife (she won't watch a game on TV, but she loves the atmosphere in the stadium).  I get to take different friends to different games.
  2. We have good seats.
  3. The waiting list is so long (15,000?) that if I give up the season tickets, I won't be able to get tickets again till 2020.
That last point won the argument. I sent in my form for this season's football tickets today ... But a stingy part of me hopes that my forms will arrive at the box office after the deadline and I get my money (and the money for all following seasons!) back.

Darwin on Marriage

Charles Darwin's papers have been placed online. Among his papers: a checklist Darwin made to decide whether or not it was worth getting married:

"Reasons for not marrying: freedom to go where one liked; choice of Society & little of it. - Conversation of clever men at clubs - Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. - to have the expense & anxiety of children - perhaps quarrelling - Loss of time. - cannot read in the Evenings - fatness & idleness - Anxiety & responsibility - less money for books."

But the arguments for a union won the day: "Children - (if it Please God) - Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, - object to be beloved & played with. - better than a dog anyhow."

He married Emma in 1839 [six years after the checklist -- Lak] and they had 10 children.
I think Darwin left out one of his key reasons -- among his papers was a recipe for boiling rice.

Ed Lorentz is dead

Ed Lorentz, author of perhaps the most famous meteorological paper ever, died yesterday. He found that perfect weather forecasts were impossible, because even small errors in observations led to dramatic changes in model results. How great is it that the most cited meteorological work is a negative result, one that proves that the perfect forecast is impossible? You do know of his work, even if you haven't heard it described in these terms before -- he was the author of the notion that a flap of a butterfly wing in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas, a notion that led to chaos theory and to need for probabilistic forecasts.

Ed Lorentz gave a general lecuture at the lab (or was it the university?) a few years ago, to a very crowded room. He provided a simple introduction to Lorentz attractors, the starting point for chaos theory.  In these days of fancy multi-media presentations, he used transparencies (someone had to go dig out one of those overhead projectors) with computer printouts of simple graphs.  And his talk was no less lucid for that.

How bad is our stewardship of Earth?

Guess what this image, from the European Space Operations Centre, is:
It's all the trackable objects (of debris) floating around the earth. I think we all know how bad our stewardship of Earth is ... but sometimes a picture can really bring that point home.

What my camera phone captures about our kids

My camera phone takes pretty lousy pictures, but I've found myself treasuring the pictures from it quite a bit. The phone pictures seem to capture the essence of our kids growing up, mainly because the phone camera is always on hand.

This is S2, the three-year old, trying to use chopsticks at a dimsum restaurant:
Five years ago, there were three dim sum restaurants in Oklahoma City but we are now down to just one. Mostly due, I think, to bad management at the other two restaurants and not because of any lack of interested diners.

This is S1 showing us snakes do have legs. Apparently pythons have vestigial legs. Imagine my surprise when my six-year old suddenly flips over the tail of a 8-foot long python to show us two dark spots:
It was all I could do to pull out my phone to capture the moment.

This is S1 and S2 watching TV together (their usual routine on Saturday mornings):
Notice that he has two remotes in his hand. And S2, who'd normally fight him for everything, is happily sitting by him watching. Apparently, she's figured out that you don't separate a guy from his remote control.

All of a sudden, S2 has developed an interest in an old set of cooking toys. These were the toys that my wife's grandmother played with when she was a little girl. So, several of the things are quite obsolete:
I asked the kids to guess what each thing was used for. We had a lot of fun. They guessed that no. 3 (tied to a rope and used to haul water out of a well) was an "easter bunny's basket for easter eggs". That no. 6 (a seat) was a table. They had no clue about no. 7 (used for cutting vegetables) or no. 9 (used to carry water on the hip). The coal stove (not shown) really threw the kids for a loop.

Foot in the mouth disease

A few of us (guys) were discussing our worst episodes of having a foot firmly in our mouths.  Interestingly enough, our stories all had to do with what should have been content-free pleasant conversations with women.

My worst episode relates to a conversation that I had with one of my cousins who had recently lost her child. A few months after the baby's funeral, I saw her again and said, "Congratulations!".  "Why?," she asked, puzzled. Undeterred, I plowed right on. "Looks like you are pregnant."  "No," she said sadly, "I'm not pregnant. Just a little overweight."

My friend's worst was a series of conversations that took place at a formal dinner. He was seated at the same table as the keynote speaker. She'd just given a rather impressive talk but it was not quite my friend's area of expertise, so he had nothing intelligent to say on her talk. But she did look young, perhaps 35 or so, and he decided to go with that. "You have accomplished so much being so young," he told her, "you are, what, 29?". "No," she replied loud enough for the rest of the table to hear, "I'm just 19. I'm still in college."

Suitably chastened, he turned to the only other woman at the table and discovered that he'd done some work with a colleague of hers. They started to have a friendly chat and it turned out that she and her spouse drove through Oklahoma City quite often because she worked on at a West coast university but did summer research at an East coast institution.  "The next time you are driving through," my friend offered, "you and your husband are welcome to stay at our home."  "My partner," replied the woman dryly, "is a woman and her name is K-".   My friend said he didn't say another word the rest of that dinner.

Glad I'm not traveling

Early Spring is when the rubber hits the road as far as my work is concerned.  You can test all you want on canned data, but it is when things actually start happening in real-time that many subtle problems crop up.  So, these are the weeks when I make sure that I'm not traveling anywhere.

Am I glad that I'm not traveling?  Consider: 

London Heathrow opened a new terminal for British Airways flights. The baggage system was so badly broken that hundreds of flights were canceled and many passengers missed their connections.  Guess who's connecting to British Airways through Heathrow next month?  I hope things will have been ironed out by then.

American Airlines has been canceling hundreds of flights as they scrambled to check all their planes for loose bundles of wires. And American is the airline that I usually fly.  I hope that all this will be settled by mid-May when I'll be back on a plane again.

The American Airlines fiasco illustrates something about our philosophy of government though.  As the "government is evil" mantra caught on, many regulations were dismantled or defanged.  Thus, the depression-era rules that prevented investment banks from getting into banking were waived, but the regulation of banks was not extended to investment houses and hedge funds. And that brought us the subprime crisis. Ironically, investment houses (the institutions, not the managers) have probably lost more money because of this than if congress had not repealed those rules. Similarly, as the FAA became more and more "customer" friendly, airlines started to cut corners on safety. The Southwest airlines fiasco a few weeks ago prompted the FAA to get serious.  Don't you think American Airlines would have been better off with a consistent, and strict, regime at the FAA than this lurch between being toothless and being anal?

Droughts and red skies

I was at a seminar on geoengineering where the speaker explored the effects and consequences of pumping aerosols into the atmosphere (by pumping aerosols, you block out some of the sun, and thereby reduce global temperatures a bit). "What can we learn by looking at volcanic eruptions?," he asked. After all, volcanoes pump aerosols into the atmosphere.

So, he showed us the results of a climate model of the effects of the 1783 fissure in Laki, Iceland. Turns out most of the northern hemisphere did cool off by a couple of degrees. Hurray, right? Well, not quite. Turns out that the sudden cooling of the landmass interferes with the African and Indian summer monsoons. So, such a volcanic eruption will cause droughts in a band stretching from Niger to the Nile basin to central India to China. But ... this is just a model, right? Well, not quite. There really was a major famine in Egypt, India and China in 1784. All because of a volcanic eruption in Iceland. So, geoengineering may cool the northern latitudes, but it will severely impact billions of people.

The visual impact in the talk, however, was the famous "Scream" by Edvard Munch. Everyone focuses on, well, the scream. But glance a little at the sky in the picture. The wavy red skies are modeled on how the sky actually looked in Scandinavia in 1886, because of an eruption in Krakatau, Indonesia three years earlier.

Droughts in India, red skies in Europe ... it would be far safer and cheaper to reduce our consumption of carbon. Carbon tax, any one?

Subway submarine reef

Apparently, Delaware got subway cars that New York City was getting rid of and sunk those cars to the ocean floor. This provided fish with a reef-like habitat. So much so that:
The [Redbird] reef, named after New York City’s famous Redbird subway cars, now supports more than 10,000 angler trips annually, up from fewer than 300 in 1997. It has seen a 400-fold increase in the amount of marine food per square foot in the last seven years, according to state data.
On reading this article, I had to look up at the dateline. It was reassuringly April 8, not April 1.

Time then to get our trucks off the blocks and into the 1120 square miles of lakes?

Medieval Fair: a spectrum of reactions

The Medieval Fair ("largest weekend event in Oklahoma") started today. The whole family went. And as is usual in Norman, we ran into a bunch of people we know.

First up was the dad with seven year old in tow. "Unavoidable," he said to me eyes rolling upward.

The next person we ran into was a journalist from Slovenia who we'd met at a party a few months ago. He seemed to find it all very curious.

Later, we'd gotten funnel cake and a turkey leg and had settled down to eat. Another friend (a bachelor in his 40s, but not one of those chronicled earlier) saw us. "Ah, you're having dinner here too," he enthused, "last year, I was here for dinner all three days. I think I'll do the same thing this year too."

As we were leaving, we spied a couple we know clutching musical scores and easels and obviously in a hurry. "Got to run," she shouted, "we have a rehearsal starting in 2 minutes. Come back tomorrow at 1 o'clock. We're going to be singing."

We didn't see anyone we know actually wearing medieval outfits, although S1 was walking around with a pirate patch. So, maybe if you count him too, the folks we met today cover the complete spectrum of reactions to the fair -- from reluctant to curious to enthusiastic, to participating to really-into-it.

Maybe he can move to Tulsa?

One day at lunch, a few years ago, a friend announced: "so here we are, 120 years of sorry bachelorhood around this table." There were three of them at lunch that day (I seem to never be present when classic lines like these are spoken).

Soon after that, the author of the line got married. Then, the second guy at that table also found his soul-mate. For those of you at home keeping count, that still leaves one. The still-available bachelor recently returned from a stint on the East Coast and we were teasing him about how he'd failed to take advantage of the male-female ratio. He protested that there didn't seem to be any surplus of single women in DC, no more so than in Norman.

Looking at this map, three things come to mind:

1. That map is woefully innumerate. It should use larger circles for higher ratios, not higher differences: a 2,000 difference may mean nothing in a population of ten million and but be significant in a town of 40,000.

2. Look at the huge red circle around the nation's capital. If he didn't notice any significant difference in the number of available women ... no wonder he is still a bachelor!

3. Maybe he could move to Tulsa

For the geographically challenged: Tulsa's the red circle in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is the state due north of Dallas, Texas.

Cool okie blog

In case you can't get enough of Okie blogs ... check out Okie-Doke. He even has a more light-hearted take on the new state immigration law (contrast to my own huff-and-puff takes)

I see a problem developing for us Okies.

First this:

Illegal Immigrants Fleeing Oklahoma

Then this:

Escapees from Oklahoma prison fleeing into Arkansas

If this trend continues, the state could end up with a glut of law abiding citizens. And while that may sound good at first, the eventual shortage of business executives and politicians would be a shock to government as we know it.