Swedish example

Now that the bailout bill that was so delicately negotiated has failed, perhaps a one-sided bill (no, not the one-sided one that Paulson initially proposed!) has a chance. Because there is no middle ground in this bailout mess. 

What you need is for the government to get warrants in the companies going bust and allow bankruptcy judges to reset mortgage rates.  Sweden's example is instructive.  That's exactly what the Europeans are now doing.  Unfortunately, the Republicans are too blinded by ideology to accept this.  The Democrats are too gutless to insist on it.

Meanwhile, Republicans talk about suspending mark-to-market rules.  The only thing that will achieve is that banks to keep bad loans on their books indefinitely -- look at Japan for what will happen if we do that.

Democrats want to limit CEO pay.  The effect of that piece of demagoguery is to deny failing firms access to new talent and to keep current management entrenched.

And Republicans want to cut capital gains taxes.  As if anyone has any capital gains.  Most everyone has capital losses.  If you cut the tax rates, the effect will be to increase taxes because there is less offset against income.  The last thing you want to do in a recession is to increase taxes.

Meanwhile, people are stuck in homes whose values have fallen.  Expect labor mobility to decrease and unemployment to go up.  It's already 6.1%.  We are paying the price for electing people based on sound-bites, happy talk and affability instead of competence.

Potential prize hostage

Chilling.  President Eisenhower's son was the last son of a sitting president to serve in the front lines of a conflict (emphasis mine):
As the time for my deployment approached, I discussed my intentions with my father. We met at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, just after the Republican convention, and I explained my position. My father, as a professional officer himself, understood and accepted it. However, he had a firm condition: under no circumstances must I ever be captured. He would accept the risk of my being killed or wounded, but if the Chinese Communists or North Koreans ever took me prisoner, and threatened blackmail, he could be forced to resign the presidency. I agreed to that condition wholeheartedly. I would take my life before being captured.
I can not even contemplate myself in Ike's shoes ... to be able to ask for that assurance.

I'd never thought about it this way, but as the author points out:
A prize hostage also endangers those around him. The British soldiers serving in Afghanistan alongside Prince Harry were in exceptional danger until he was withdrawn.

He goes on to suggest:
My inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that the assignment to Iraq or Afghanistan of a service member who is the son or daughter of a president or vice president does not make sense. No matter what the young person's desires or career needs are, they are of little importance compared with ensuring that our leaders are able to stay focused on the important business of the nation — and not worrying about the fate of a child a world away. Personally, I would like to see someone of stature like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arbitrarily reassign them. Too much is at stake.

Campaign sign

This sign has been up on our lawn for about a week now and I've had a few questions, so here's the explanation.

It's not that I'm a big Andrew Rice supporter.   I don't know anything about Andrew Rice other than that he is running against Jim Inhofe. But that's good enough for me! 

I didn't even pay for the sign -- someone had put up the sign outside the gate of the Hindu temple in north Oklahoma City.  I removed it so as to not jeopardize the temple's non-profit status but was loath to throw it away.

And yes, those sorry-looking elms are ours.  At least the grass is mown!

Who reads journals in hardcopy?

A few weeks ago, the Weather Center library held a sale of old journals.   Every body in the building was encouraged to donate, and as you can see, a lot of people did.  The problem was that no one was buying -- it probably all ended up in the recycle bin. 

I don't know why AMS still insists on printing this stuff.  Softcopies are much less expensive:  it costs several hundred dollars to have color images on paper, but the increased bandwidth and storage space for color is negligible.  When was the last time you saw a black-and-white graph or image on the internet?

Not to mention that electronic versions are far more convenient. You can't grep a dead tree, can you?

A briefing on the financial crisis

Why, oh why, aren't all news stories like this?  The Economist has always set a high bar.  On a crisis involving finance, economy and politics, this "briefing" doesn't disappoint -- it's my recommendation for clear and full context on the financial crisis.

I used to subscribe to the Economist until my frequent flier program dropped them from their list of magazines (I was willing to give up 2000 miles for a subscription, but $100/year seems awfully expensive).  A story like this makes me remember what I'm missing.

Gummed up bailout (Yeah!)

So John McCain's ego has (at least temporarily) gummed up the bailout.  He went to Washington to try to take credit for the agreement.  It appears that this threw a wrench into House Republican plans -- they'd planned to keep silent, vote against the bill and run against a "Bush-Pelosi bailout".  The democrats were damned if they would support an unpopular bill, get pilloried for it in close races, and not get credit for doing "the right" thing.

On the other hand, I don't like the bailout.  When Lehman Brothers' assets could be so quickly sold, when Warren Buffet invests in investment banking companies for the first time ever, when Citibank still keeps sending me low-interest rate offers and when JP Morgan can pick up Washington Mutual and keep running the bank without a break in service, I don't think things are as dire as they are made out to be.  The Wall Street banks' assets are mis-priced; they need to take losses.  Things are going to be tough until prices catch up to reality.  But that's what capitalism is about.

If John McCain meant to go to Washington to put the kibosh on the bailout, I have to rethink my position on this election.  Unfortunately, McCain had not even read the Paulson proposal (even I read its full 3 pages and it was just curiosity on my part) and at the meeting in Washington with the president, Obama and congressional leaders, he had nothing to say.  So, I think this was just McCain being hotheaded and tactical.  No great strategy on his part.  I could be convinced otherwise, though.

Fleeing prosecution?

Before the oath-ceremony this morning (the wife and I became US citizens today), a lady was making a speech.

"I know some of you are fleeing prosecution," she said in the middle of her remarks.  No one in the audience as much as tittered, so I don't think anyone caught the slip.  But then, of course, for nearly all of the audience, English was a second language.

"What did she mean to say?," I wondered, "was she trying to say 'oppression'?".

I was relating the story to a colleague and he put his finger on the word she probably meant to say:  'persecution'.  As my colleague remarked, most of those fleeing prosecution are probably headed the other way (to Mexico).

Bailout won't work

I watched part of the bailout hearings on TV while at the gym.  Evan Bayh (Democratic Senator from Indiana) was asking why the taxpayer couldn't get some equity in return for the risk. Paulson and Bernanke (Bush administration fellas) said that it would cut down participation. But ... excuse me ... isn't that the point?  Set the price for a bailout high enough and only folks who really need a bailout will apply.   Without such a disincentive, every finance industry lobbyist in Washington will jockey for part of the $700 billion bonanza.

Even the Democrats' competing bill has precious little oversight.  The Treasury Secretary (possibly Phil Gramm if John McCain wins the election) will get to dole out favors to his cronies.

How much of the $700 billion are you paying?  I did a back of the envelope calculation.  US  tax revenue is about $3.5 trillion.  The $700 billion bailout is about 20% of taxes.  So, if you paid $20,000 last year in Federal taxes, then your portion of the bailout is about a fifth of that -- about $4,000.   Question: will the bailout save you $4000?  If it prevents a depression, then yes.   So, on the face of it, the bailout may make some financial sense.

But only if it works.  The size of the credit swap market was $45 trillion before everything turned in (yes, more than the world's GDP!).  The stuff is not worth that much of course.  But the banks will claim it is, and try to get the full price on the loans they turn over to the government.  So, how on earth is $700 billion going to be enough?  It's just good money after bad.

When things look so dire, gallows humor is all there's left.  The letter starts:
I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude. I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. 
Read the whole thing.

Bailout makes no financial sense

Leaving aside the politics for a minute, consider whether the bailout makes financial sense:

1) Taxpayers need to fork over $700 billion dollars to people whose idea of prudential banking was to underwrite liar loans.

2) The price of the bad loans will be set by the bankers.

3) Taxpayers don't get any collateral in the form of stocks in the financial companies either, so they won't share in the profit.

4) You can not insist on changes in the way these banks do business.

5) How big is $700 billion dollars? It's twice the cost of the Iraq war. Using $700 billion, you can provide provide universal health care for six years. It's enough to pay the cost of universal preschool (one of the best educational investments this country can make) for 25 years.

No half-awake investor would ever go for such a deal. Why should my government enter into such a deal on my behalf?

p.s. I started this as a comment, but decided that it could stand on its own.

Bad Bailout

The more I learn about this $700 billion bailout, the less I like it.

When you and I make boneheaded investment decisions, we lose our money. We can't go crying to Uncle Sam and ask for a bailout. Why should big Wall Street firms receive a bailout?

Actually, I know why they are getting a bailout. It's because they have bribed both sides of Congress and the White House. There's a revolving door that will carry Paulson and all the other people now in the government into Wall Street jobs when Bush's term ends. Wall Street gets a good deal -- for $100 million in campaign contributions, and $20 million in job contracts, they get a cool $700 billion. What a return on investment!

The most amazing thing about the $700 billion bailout is not the sheer scale of it -- it is that there are going to be no strings attached. Because the government should not dictate to private companies how they run their business. Really? So, why are the private companies lining up for my tax dollars?

Robert Reich has a few excellent suggestions:

The government (i.e. taxpayers) gets an equity stake in every Wall Street financial company proportional to the amount of bad debt that company shoves onto the public. So when and if Wall Street shares rise, taxpayers are rewarded for accepting so much risk.

Wall Street firms agree to comply with new regulations over disclosure, capital requirements, conflicts of interest, and market manipulation. The regulations will emerge in ninety days from a bi-partisan working group, to be convened immediately. After all, inadequate regulation and lack of oversight got us into this mess.

If I were a private investor lending money to these guys, I would definitely ask for a stake in future profits and ask for better management. The government should do the same.

Paul Krugman says the bailout doesn't address the real problem, and will not work. $700 billion to Wall Street and we will still have a mess on our hands.

McCain is AWOL on this issue -- economy isn't his strong suite anyway. But Obama's supposed to be the clear-headed one. Why is he not using his bullhorn on this? Is it because his circle of advisers includes financiers who are the main beneficiaries of this bailout?

A South India Travel Story

When I was getting married (a little over 10 years ago), one of my friends wanted to come to the wedding.  It was only after he bought a guidebook that he realized that Tamil Nadu was a long way away from the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas.

"You can not realistically visit both South and North India in a couple of weeks.", I suggested, "just keep it to South India for now and then you can go back and visit Rajastan and Delhi another time."

"Who goes to India and doesn't see the Taj Mahal?" he griped.

It's a common attitude, unfortunately.  The New York Times this weekend carried a travel story by a professional travel writer who didn't get to Tamil Nadu until his umpteenth time to India.

Don't get me wrong -- the Taj Mahal is an amazing experience -- but so is the gopuram of the Big Temple in Thanjavur. Even run-of-the-mill temples in South Indian villages are glorious. If you have the chance to go either to North India or to the South, take it.  And no, you can't combine it all in one trip -- India is too big for that.

P.S.  The Times travel story is good, but the writer commits an unforgivable mistake -- he refers to the cuisine of Tamil Nadu as "Chettinad".  I am from Chettinad, and damn if the rest of the state can take credit for our food!  It's as if someone were to say "The cuisine of Italy is called Sicilian and it uses a lot of fresh herbs".

Interesting use of satellite data

Some geography researchers used satellite pictures of Iraq at night to answer the question of whether the decrease in violence is because of something we did or because of ethnic cleansing.  The point is that if it is due to better strategy on our part, then there should more night-life in the neighborhoods. 

They found that light output at night decreased across the board.  And the pattern of decreases fit the pattern of ethnic cleaning already documented by earlier researchers. 

The full article is here.  I can not help but say "Amen" to their opening sentence:
Geographers and social scientists find it increasingly difficult to intervene in debates about vital matters of public interest, such as the Iraq war, because of the ideological polarization and lack of respect for empirical analysis that have afflicted US politics in recent years.
The key results:
In other words, the period of the surge coincides with a decline in the nighttime light of the city after an increase following the invasion and before the onset of the surge [...] This was not just temporary, and thus cannot be put down to military operations disrupting supplies, because the end date of 16 December 2007 is well after the most intensive military sweeps in the city.
pattern of [lightning intensity] declines correlates closely with the map of ethno-sectarian violence and neighborhood ethnic cleansing
They clinch their argument with this comparison of illumination changes in other Iraqi cities that experienced neither military surge nor ethnic cleansing:
Over the same period, there was no significant decline in nighttime light imagery in four other large cities in Iraq (table 3). Most importantly, during the period of the surge, Mosul, Tikrit, and Karbala all had significant increases in nighttime lights between March 2006 and December 2007.
So what role did the surge play?
Our primary conclusion must be that to the extent that the so-called surge is involved at all in what has happened, it has helped to seal off neighborhoods from one another once they have become ethnically homogenized.
I would imagine that it was not just the walls we built to wall off ethnically-cleansed neighborhoods, it was also our paying the bad guys to stop shooting at us.

Where's my bailout?

So, now, the SEC has prohibited shorting of financial stocks. To save the big guys from a meltdown. Where were they when I needed the help? Where's my bailout? Where's the prohibition on short-selling my warrants?

An interesting article by a risk-averse quantitative financier:
the current system of compensation at financial companies does not lead to anything good at all. If you give $10 million to random people on the street and tell them that they’ll get 20 percent of any profit they make, without any consequences if they lose it, then many of them will go into the nearest casino and bet it all on red. (The really clever ones will find a way to leverage it up first — after all, a $2 million bonus is nothing; you can’t seriously expect people to live in New York or London on less than eight figures, can you?)

Many Lehman Brothers employees received some of their compensation in Lehman shares. They aren’t feeling too happy right now. But a system run on that principle could achieve exactly what is needed: a closer link between a person’s paycheck and the longer-term success of his trading. At the moment, a trader can sell a 10-year toxic contract, pocket a nice bonus after a few months based on some theoretical valuation, and then disappear to another bank or off into the sunset, leaving nine years in which that contract could blow up.

Ideal Size of Faculty Committees

D. was struggling to operate the scanner in our break room. I helped him scan the document and showed him how to email a PDF to himself.

As a reward for my help, he cc'ed me on the email. What he'd been photocopying was a yellowed manuscript entitled "An Optimization Analysis of the Size of Faculty Committees" by Blake D. Mills, Jr. A Google search for the manuscript didn't yield its source or publication date. I'm guessing sometime in the 70s in a mechanical engineering journal.

The key graph in the paper shows that the rate of accomplishment reaches its maximum value when the committee size is 0.66 of a member. The next time a graduate student brings a hacksaw to a thesis defense, you can choose which third of yourself you want to lose ...

Analyzing the convention speeches

It'll be good when the election is finally over and we can move on to new things.

But, this is simply too good to pass up. Some scientists did textual and facial analysis of major convention speeches and came up with these observations of whether the speaker was being honest or was spinning.

The expression of disgust on former US president Bill Clinton's face during his speech to the Democratic National Convention as he says "Obama" lasts for just a fraction of a second.
Would have loved to see a photograph of the expression!

Obama's spin level skyrockets when facing problems in the press, such as when Jeremiah Wright, the reverend of his former church, made controversial comments to the press.
That I can believe, because it is simply comparing Obama's speeches with each other.

However, the scientists overreach when they say that:
Obama's speech scored a spin value of 6.7 - where 0 is the average level of spin within all the political speeches analysed, and positive values represent higher spin. In contrast, McCain's speech scored -7.58, while Hillary Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention scored 0.15.
There's a methodological problem in the study because the software counts usage of "we" rather than "I" and increased usage of action words as "spin". McCain's speech was very autobiographical ("I was tough as nails when they tried to torture me"), so would score low on their spin scale whereas Obama's was inspirational ("we can change this country! yes, we can")

The voice analysis profile for McCain looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed
This supposedly because McCain does not modulate his voice when speaking. But that may simply be poor public speaking skills and nothing to do with his mental state.

Finally, though the scientists say that they believe that:
the candidates almost certainly believe what they are saying, even if they are giving some facts a much lighter treatment than others.

UPDATE: Well you can trust a politician, but you can not trust a journalist. The scientist in question has a blog, and on the blog, the number given for Obama is 0.31 not 6.7 i.e. about average in terms of "spin". McCain is at the very low end. My criticism of the methodology still stands though.

Nationalizing America

So we have now nationalized the largest mortgage lenders and insurance company.  Pretty soon, the auto companies will be lining up asking for a handout, to protect them from high fuel prices.  So will the airlines.

So are we now headed towards a policy of nationalizing the "commanding heights" of the economy?

Just askin'

Two ways of looking at it

There are two ways of looking at the tax proposals coming from Obama and from McCain. They are also very interesting ways of visualizing the information.

One of them -- the Democratic way -- is to look at how it would impact the population of the United States. Obama will reduce taxes to a greater extent on 75% of taxpayers. It's only on the top 1% (those making more than $600,000 per year) that Obama actually increases taxes, by about 10%.

The other way -- the Republican way -- is to look at how the tax plans would impact the people already paying taxes. The dirty secret that Democrats don't mention is that the bottom 50% don't pay much in taxes anyway. And the richest 0.1% already carry 20% of the total tax burden. So, Republican plans give the most relief to the rich.
I'm pretty centrist on this. I understand and sympathize with both sides of the argument.

However, even after Obama 's 10% increase of taxes on people making more than $600,000/year, tax rates will only rise to the level that they were in the 1990s. And that was a period of economic boom, budget surplus, low inflation and low interest rates. So, the burden on the rich is not that onerous. Plus: the economic benefits of low inflation and balanced budgets to a rich person far outweigh these additional taxes. Secondly, McCain's plan will reduce overall revenues -- you simply can't give tax cuts without providing offsetting funding and unless Social Security or Medicare are cut, there is no place in the federal budget to get the huge spending cuts needed to fund his tax cuts. Thirdly, with the economy in the doldrums, stimulation has to go to the people who'll spend it (and not to people who will invest it outside the United States)

Advantage: Obama.

Reason for meltdown

Probably the best explanation of the financial meltdown:
Just as homeowners took out big loans and stretched themselves on the assumption that their chief asset — their home — could only go up, so did Wall Street firms borrow tens of billions of dollars to make subprime mortgage bets on the assumption that they were a sure thing.

The article doesn't delve into the reason this could happen -- too much ideology and not enough pragmatism. The ideology in this case is that the free market is a panacea.  That all regulation is bad and that the market will take care of all ills.

What is "subprime"?  Loans that don't meet the government regulations of how much mortgage a borrower with a certain financial profile can carry.   When a bank makes a high-interest loan to a borrower who will not be able to keep up with the payments, the bank is not being just a lending institution. It is being a real-estate firm -- the only way it'll make a profit is if the price of the home increases enough to offset its transaction costs.  Banking, credit and investment regulations used to prevent that sort of thing.

Such regulations were slowly dismantled, thanks to bribes (i.e. lobbying) to politicians.  Such corrupt behavior, unfortunately, was bipartisan.  Sen. Phil Graham, now McCain's economic adviser,  was in the fore-front of this.  But so was Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

What we are seeing is the result of a free market without any regulations.

Whose dress is it?

I was home alone, folding the laundry.  I picked up a blue garment and folded it but wasn't sure where the folded item went. The problem? I hadn't seen either the wife or the daughter wear this piece -- it must have been worn over the weekend, when I was in Washington DC -- and wasn't sure whose it was.

In favor of the hypothesis that it was our four-year-old daughter's frock:  it had the right length and sported a waist-band.  In favor of the hypothesis that it was the wife's: she's recently fallen hard for "baby-doll" dresses.

After turning it over a few times, I realized that the piece of clothing was not 100% cotton, making it more likely to be the daughter's than the mother's.  I'll learn in a few days if my deduction was right, or if I should have hung it in our daughter's closet.

Obama and McCain on Science Policy

Finally! Issues! The two presidential candidates responded to questions on science policy.

Obama's answers reflect a realization that competition from the rest of the world is heating up.  He believes that the U.S. needs to invest more in our soft capital in order to maintain our leadership:
Our talent for innovation is still the envy of the world, but we face unprecedented challenges that demand new approaches. For example, the U.S. annually imports $53 billion more in advanced technology products than we export.
McCain points out the need to nurture innovation through a free market. He does not see much of a difference between a pro-business policy and a separate science policy:
To maintain American leadership, I believe we must nurture the conditions under which entrepreneurs can continue to prosper by bringing new innovators to market and the American people can reap the rewards.
Obama wants to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education by broadening its scope beyond just science and engineering majors: 
All American citizens need high quality STEM education that inspires them to know more about the world around them, engages them in exploring challenging questions, and involves them in high quality intellectual work. STEM education is no longer only for those pursuing STEM careers; it should enable all citizens to solve problems, collaborate, weigh evidence, and communicate ideas. 
whereas McCain sees science as being for geeks only.  He wants more geeks, so the rest of the country don't have to bother their pretty heads while getting law and business degrees:
The diminishing number of science, technology, engineering and math graduates at the college level poses a fundamental and immediate threat to American competitiveness.  We must fill the pipeline to our colleges and universities with students prepared for the rigors of advanced engineering, math, science and technology degrees. 
Obama sees technology leadership as being essential to national security:
 It’s essential to create a coherent new defense technology strategy to meet the kinds of threats we may face—asymmetric conflicts, urban operations, peacekeeping missions, and cyber, bio, and proliferation threats, as well as new kinds of symmetric threats. 
whereas McCain sees national security as essentially just military superiority:
As President, I will strengthen the military, shore up our alliances, and ensure that the nation is capable of protecting the homeland, deterring potential military challenges, responding to any crisis that endangers American security, and prevailing in any conflict we are forced to fight.
Obama thinks we are underinvesting with research:
Yet, today, we are clearly under-investing in research across the spectrum of scientific and engineering disciplines. Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades, and, after a period of growth of the life sciences, the NIH budget has been steadily losing buying power for the past six years. As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances. Furthermore, in this environment, scientists are less likely to pursue the risky research that may lead to the most important breakthroughs. Finally, we are reducing support for science at a time when many other nations are increasing it, a situation that already threatens our leadership in many critical areas of science. 
while McCain wants to better allocate current research spending:
With spending constraints, it will be more important than ever to ensure we are maximizing our investments in basic research and minimizing the bureaucratic requirements that eat away at the money designed for funding scientists and science. 
On the other subjects, to the best I can tell,  their world-views are the same. 

If I had to summarize, I would say that Obama sees the US slipping behind and wants to broaden and deepen science.  He wants to change science policy to reflect a new set of challenges.  McCain is happy with the state of US science and promises to largely stay out of its way: neither  blocking it (as the Bush administration has done) nor attempting to set its direction (as Obama promises to do).

Caring for someone else's home

Once a year, a bunch of us at the lab take part in United Way's "Day of Caring" campaign.  Local non-profits ask for volunteer help with relatively large projects that require labor rather than money.  Over the years, we have put siding on buildings, cut down trees, painted walls, etc.

This year, we showed up at Transition House, a charity that helps people recovering from substance abuse transition into society.  They have a few apartments for their clients, but since most of these clients are also recovering from homelessness, a clean home environment may not be a priority.  Our job was to do deep cleaning of four apartments.

Going to the apartments, we started talking amongst ourselves.  Nearly all of us have housekeepers who clean our houses.  One of my colleagues delegated the job of cleaning cabinets to their teenage daughter.  We use a robot vacuum for regular cleanups.  In short, we haven't been the ones cleaning our homes in several years.  On Friday, though, we cleaned kitchen cabinets, railings, vents and bathrooms in the apartments.

But then, even though I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity building houses every weekend for several years, I don't dare to install a new wind turbine on our roof.  I'm going to hire someone to do it.   I don't know why it's easier when it's someone else's house.

Good to be lucky

On Thursday, our bridge club was part of the instant match-point game.  Thousands of bridge clubs around the country play a set of pre-created hands.  The hands in question were played at a bridge tournament overseas a number of years ago, so there is a good idea of what the "field" should be.  Based on this, you get 50 points a hand if you do what the average partnership in the field did, more than 50 if you do better and less than 50 if you do worse.

My partner and I are still learning our way around the Standard American bidding system (I used to play Precision in my misspent college years). So, we stuck to extremely basic bidding.  There were also no partnership lead signals, because we hadn't had time to discuss (or to learn) them.

Imagine our surprise when we came in third overall .  We didn't even think we'd played that well. Reading the analysis of the hands quickly pointed out the reason why.  There were 32 boards in all.  Because we did not have enough tables in our club, we played only 24.  We were lucky that the really hard-to-describe bids and hands that needed careful defense were in the 8 that we did not play.  We could get away with simple bidding and no carding in the 24 hands that we did play.  Everyone else got averaged down because of the other 8 hands. We didn't.

The best decision we made on Thursday was in picking the table we would sit at.

Bald and Hairy

Enough already with the lying politicians and the media who enable them!

NPR is on our alarm clock radio.  The song associated with this story had me laughing so hard that I woke up.  Great way to start the day.

Steve Jones, of the University College, London, noticed from photographs of Russian leaders that they alternated between bald and hairy.  Now do yourself a favor: go listen to the song on the NPR website.

Apparently the song was created specifically for the story.  The credits list Manoli Wetherell and Josh Rogosin. 

John McCain lies repeatedly

Even the arch-conservative Wall Street Journal is pointing out that McCain is lying

At a rally today, Sen. McCain again asserted that Sen. Obama has requested nearly a billion in earmarks. In fact, the Illinois senator requested $311 million last year, according to the Associated Press, and none this year. In comparison, Gov. Palin has requested $750 million in her two years as governor -- which the AP says is the largest per-capita request in the nation.

And of course, they keep repeating the lie that underlies Palin's supposed reform credentials:

On Monday in Missouri, Gov. Palin put it this way: "I told Congress thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere. If the state wanted to build a bridge we would built it ourselves." Senior adviser Mark Salter pointed to her role in killing the project while in office and allocating the money elsewhere. When pressed further that it was actually Congress that stopped the earmark, Mr. Salter said: "She stopped it, too. She did her part." 

Fact Check says that McCain continues misleading even after his claims have been repeatedly debunked:

The most misleading claim in the ad is that Obama "gave big oil billions in subsidies and giveaways," a reference to the 2005 energy bill that we've debunked again and again. Actually, the bill, which President Bush signed into law, slightly raised taxes on the oil industry. Obama voted for the bill; McCain voted against it. ... In total, the vast majority of the billions in tax breaks and subsidies included in the bill went to electric utilities and nuclear power, as well as alternative fuels research and energy-efficient cars and buildings.

McCain has an ad that claims Obama wants to provide sex education to kindergarten kids.  The legislation that Obama actually proposed:

provided information to children on what to watch for when with an adult they don't know, such as inappropriate advances or touching.

I think that such a bill is a waste of money, since the vast majority of sexual predators are people known to the child in question (usually fathers, uncles and neighbors).  That would be fair policy argument. But taking a bill whose aim is to protect children from sexual predators and using it to charge that Obama want to teach sex to kindergarteners is beyond despicable.

Everyone mis-speaks or mis-states things. But McCain doubles down on false statements even after they have been pointed out as false. 

What kind of mandate would McCain get if he wins an election based on repeated lies?  Will he be able to achieve any change?  At this point, I'm amazed that I even considered voting for this man.

p.s. You can't make this stuff up.  They even "misquote" FactCheck.org to say that Obama's sliming them.  FactCheck says it ain't so:
That's what we said, but it wasn't about Obama. Our article criticized anonymous e-mail falsehoods and bogus claims about Palin posted around the Internet. We have no evidence that any of the claims we found to be false came from the Obama campaign. The McCain-Palin ad also twists a quote from a Wall Street Journal columnist.
p.s2:  This article showing how Gibson left McCain's claims unchallenged is not a good sign. No wonder he scored the Palin interview.  Politicians give the media free airwaves, and in return the media give them free advertising.

p.s3:  It was only a matter of time.  There's now a wiki that details McCain's lies.  The counter on the site, which is very well sourced and refers to only non-partisan sources, is up to 52.

Google chrome changes your browsing habits

I've been using Google Chrome for a week now.  It's quite good, although if you've been using Firefox (as I have been), the improvements are mostly minor.  If you are using Internet Explorer, stop!

The major change with Chrome is not in Chrome at all. It's how it affects your work habits.  You don't need bookmarks anymore and can recall pages by simply remembering a word or two that was on the site.  This is akin to drastic change in email work habits that Gmail brought about: you don't need folders anymore; you can always do a text search.  This capability of full-text-search of past browsing history really shines when you are using the web for research. Unfortunately, Chrome is not available for Linux, so my use of it has mostly been for non-work-related stuff.

The other nice thing is that if you type in a bad link into the address bar, the returned page is not simply "404: Link not found".  Instead, you get a suggestion box, based on Google searches, that list URLs that you may have wanted.

The URL bar is not just for URLs.  It's also a search bar.

Since I use several computers, I export my bookmarks from Firefox on one computer and import them into Firefox in the other computers. But Chrome remembers my surfing history and automatically creates a homepage that carries my most frequent visited sites.  A sidebar has a recent history of visited sites.  I haven't had to use my imported bookmarks much.

And for those of you using Firefox, Chrome does import login-password information from the Mozilla cache, so you don't need to re-register or re-type your passwords anymore.

Best of all, Google Chrome does not display popups. Nada.  Firefox intelligently tries to determine which popups are ok.  Chrome puts all popups -- even popups you requested -- in a tab which is closed when you close the parent tab.  So unless you want to see a popup, you don't have to see it.

What about internet applications? Javascript is blazing fast. Speeding up Javascript applications like Gmail is the key reason that Google developed Chrome, and it shows.  Flash plays just fine -- no better and no worse than in Firefox.  To run Java applets, you need to download the latest update.

Cancer scientist or lawn guy?

Whatever else you can say about Norman, we have our priorities straight.

Put yourself in the shoes of the editors of the Norman Transcript. You need to decide the layout of Saturday's paper and there are two stories out of the University of Oklahoma.  One of them is a story about the fellow who maintains the athletic fields ('the lawn ranger") for the college football team.  The other is about a research team that identified a cancer marker in stem cells. Whose picture do you run? The groundskeeper or the scientist? Whose achievement do you celebrate?

The first three paragraphs of the cancer story didn't even mention the name of the scientists involved.  Meanwhile, of course, the groundskeeper story was all about him.

The front page of the Norman Transcript had a photograph of the lawn ranger.   It was left to the student newspaper to carry a photograph from the cancer press conference.

P.S.  Yes, yes ... in their defense, they did put both stories on the front page, and both stories above the fold.  But this is the kind of situation where they could have chosen to run the lawn ranger story another day and devoted more space to the cancer breakthrough.

McCain a right-wing zealot?

As usual, Jon Stewart homes in on the cynicism: is criticizing Sarah Palin sexist? and is John McCain a Reformed Maverick?  Mainstream columnists hone in on the recklessness of choosing a vice-president based on how she sounds.  But the more I think about this, the less I believe that his choice was reckless or cynical.  Perhaps McCain is a right-wing zealot?

As you can probably tell from my blog posts, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin has pushed me from undecided  to almost-definitely voting for the Democratic ticket.  What sealed the deal was that McCain has redacted every one of the stands he took that differentiated him from the incompetence of Bush.  Including torture, the moral issue in this election.  On one of the few issues that Palin mentioned in her speech, she swiped at Obama for offering basic human rights to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

I could support McCain as long as I believed that he was a centrist. I was never quite convinced by the Obama's attempts to tie McCain with Bush.  But John McCain has made me a believer -- so on this, again, Obama's shown superior judgment.  In 2000, McCain was talking about the dangers of outlawing abortion; now he wants the government to outlaw it.  He used to be against the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; now he wants to keep them even as our nation's competitiveness erodes.  He changed from someone who decried the incompetence of the Bush administration to, well, choosing someone who needs 3 weeks of cramming for her first press conference.  He went from calling Robert Falwell an agent of intolerance to speaking at his university.  I thought he was merely making noises towards the right, but that he would govern from the center.  But his choice of vice-president has shown that he is not a centrist.

If McCain wins after this genuflection to right-wing nut jobs, say hello to the insanity of the first six Bush-Cheney-Gonzalez-Rumsfeld years, and good-bye to the steady-as-she-goes approach of Robert Gates and his crowd of grown-ups.  It's the difference between an extreme-right-wing administration and a center-right one. McCain has now shown conclusively which side of the Republican party he favors.

Proud papa

S1 entered a pottery piece in the open youth (all ages) competition at the local county fair.   He got first place in the pottery division!

The wife entered one of her pieces in the open adult section; she won second place.

Several more pieces of the wife's work are going to be auctioned off at the Sarkeys Foundation on Sep. 20 at 6.30pm : proceeds go to charity.

Air Force 2 for sale on E-Bay?

My flight from Chicago to Oklahoma City was delayed yesterday because our flight crew was late arriving.  So, I got to watch audience reactions to Sarah Palin's speech.  This was a flight to one of the reddest of red states, yet there was only one person really engrossed in the CNN broadcast of the speech.  Most of the passengers were milling around, simply dipping in-and-out of the speech.  And only one of these sporadic viewers was a woman -- the rest of the women were simply not interested.  So, based on my small sample of a captive audience, the enthusiasm factor outside the convention hall for the Republican ticket is quite low.

One of Palin's statements, though, caught my attention.  This is where Palin was laying out her reformer creds.  Now that her story of having opposed the bridge to nowhere has been shown to be a lie, she had to find another instance of being a reformer.  She chose to point out that she put the governor's luxury jet for sale on E-bay.

Two points:
  1. Selling the governor's jet is mindless populism.  Alaska is eight hours away from the mainland, so it is probably worthwhile to have ready transport.  After all, you don't want the governor unavailable and twiddling her thumbs for a whole workday every time she goes to the mainland for a meeting.  Even a frugal CEO like Warren Buffet owns a corporate jet for this reason.
  2. Does this mean that Air Force 2 is going to be sold on E-Bay if Palin becomes Vice President?  How about Air Force 1? Will it go on sale if McCain dies in office?
UPDATE:  It turns out that even this story was a bit weasely and relied on very careful wording.  Even McCain understood wrong (as the audience was supposed to).  McCain  said "You know what I enjoyed the most? She took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on eBay -- made a profit".  She actually sold it for a loss of half-a-million dollars, using a broker.  The eBay listing was only a publicity stunt.

Views of Madison

The SSEC building on the University of Wisconsin campus with weather satellite dishes and a MODIS receiver on the roof:
My seminar at the SSEC, advertised:
Wisconsin is, of course, the dairy state. The university has a well-known dairy program. One of the first patents ever applied for by a university was done here. The University of Wisconsin patented the method of adding Vitamin D to milk. The campus has a dairy farm; these silos are right next to the barn.
Wisconsin is also a swing state in elections. The Obama card is arranged a magazine cover and has an article titled "shop liberally on a conservative budget". The one with McCain is more earnest: "I'm am the true candidate of change".
Madison, though, is a progressive enclave in a state that is quite conservative. This is a bike path in Madison. Two lanes, well-paved and apparently promptly cleared during snow storms. The lighting is powered by solar panels.
A microbrew menu advertising beer infused with green tea:

A view of State Street, with the Wisconsin capitol:

Hot day in the global village

Everyone's been telling me that it's the hottest day of the year so far in Madison, Wisconsin: it's crossed 90F for the first time this year.

The folks at Madison that I'm meeting with are satellite experts.  I come from the radar world of Norman, so it's been interesting to see their outlook.  Their world is quite different from ours.  The weather radars we work with are surface-based instruments, so our domain is usually just the continental United States.  Satellites have a global view and so, it seems, these people think globally.  Examples of the data sets they showed me today to demonstrate some of their algorithm work included data from the Czech Republic and South Africa.

It's not just the data that has me thinking of the difference between the outlooks in Norman and Madison.  The roads in Madison all have bicycle lanes.  There are scooters everywhere. The lakeside vista is gorgeous.

Someone even has a suitably global hypothesis for why it's been so cool this year.  He showed me data from a newly mounted lidar on the roof of the SSEC building:  plume from a volcanic eruption in the Aleutian Islands shows up as a flat layer at 19 km.

Know the Padre?

Over labor day weekend, we went camping and hiking in the sparsely populated north-west corner of Oklahoma.

Sunday around dlunchtime, we were driving through Mooreland, Oklahoma and decided to look for a place to eat.   Rural towns in Oklahoma usually have three types of restaurants:  convenience stores selling warmed up crap, Mexican restaurants catering to immigrant workers and diners catering to the natives. The diner in Mooreland was closed.  No doubt because it was Sunday.  The convenience store had pizza which may have done in a pinch. Fortunately, we found the Mexican restaurant.  Its parking lot was full -- a good sign.

As soon as we walked in, everyone in the restaurant turned and stared at us.  All the patrons were Mexican and mostly male. Wonder where the white peeps eat. The pretty waitress (there was only one) came to get our order. Her English had an Oklahoma accent and, just in case there was any doubt, her smile was quintissentially American (S2 seems to have picked it up too).  The waitress spoke in Spanish to the other customers though.

We ordered.  A few minutes later, the waitress' mom brought out a soup to the next table.

"What's the soup?," I asked the mom.

"Fish soup," she replied.

"Can I change my order to the soup?," I asked.

The mom nodded, "no problem."  The daughter came by a few seconds later to confirm.  "You want the fish soup instead of the tostados?"

The food turned out to be excellent.  Better Mexican food than I've had in Norman, a town 100 times the size.

The mom came by again about half-way through our meal.  "Do you know Father Thomas?," she asked, pronouncing "Thomas" the Spanish way.

"Who"," I asked.

"Father Thomas"

"Oh, sorry," I said, "we are from Norman.  The Catholic priest in this parish ... he is from India?," I asked.

"Yes, he is very nice. Knows everybody's name and remembers everything about everybody.  I thought you may be his friends.   How do you like the food?"

"The soup is very good," I said.   "You should add the soup to the menu," my wife suggested.

"We make it only on the weekends," explained the mom, "and everyone who comes here knows."

If you happen to be in Mooreland, Oklahoma on a weekend, go by the La Palma restaurant.  They serve a fragrant, tasty fish soup.  You don't have to know the local Catholic priest, although it may help if you look as if you might be friends of his.

Laboring through Oklahoma state parks

One of my cousins visited us over the long weekend. He's been to Norman before, so he's already seen the two local museums we inflict on visitors; last time, I took him to an OU game the last time and he wasn't that much into it. So, this time we decided to show him the other Oklahoma we love.

We went to several state parks.

First off ... red rock canyon and a short hike. There are not that many canyons in Oklahoma, and the red bluffs are usually rather not too tall. So, this park is quite unique and impressive.

Next, to Roman Nose which used to be tribal lands of an Indian chief. There's a natural spring in the park, and the water flows out of an underground cavern and drops about six feet with enough force that you can have a nice, refreshing shower. The spring-cavern-waterfall combo is little known: we were the only ones there on one of the busiest weekends of the year!

After an hour of playing in the water, we camped overnight at Roman Nose. This was S2 (our four-year-old)'s first camping trip but she knew what to expect because we camped out in the backyard a few months ago.

The next morning, we headed over to Boiling Springs. Ever since S1 saw our pictures of geysers and boiling springs at Yellowstone, he's been hankering to go. We've told the kids that we'll take them when S2 is seven or eight, and able to deal with walking 3-4 miles a day (her range is now 2 miles). The park, however, was a letdown. "Is that all?," he wondered. He'd been expecting a geyser and brilliant colors.

We did hike down to the North Canadian river, however. And S1 was impressed when he realized that this was the same river that flows a mile west of our house.

The final park on our trip was Alabaster Caverns. The geology is quite interesting, but this too was a let down. There are no stalagmites in the cave. The thing is that the wife and I have been to both Boiling Springs and Alabaster Caverns before -- the best we can recall is that it must have been about eight years ago and so we could have set expectations properly. But all the springs and caverns run together -- we didn't realize that this cavern is pretty tame.

The best Sarah Palin jokes

Just before leaving for a camping trip over labor day weekend, I heard the name "Sarah Palin" and looked her up briefly on Wikipedia. She looked like an interesting libertarian choice. I returned from the weekend trip to find that she'd become prime comedic material.

Here are some of the best so far:

Apparently, Cindy McCain is dead serious in this interview, but that's what makes it hilarious.

    Mrs. McCain's argument (I'm paraphrasing) seems to be: Alaska shares a border with Russia, so Sarah Palin has foreign policy experience.

Jay Leno:
Palin and McCain are a good pair. She's pro-life and he's clinging to life
Bill Maher:
The only other job she had in politics was the mayor of a small town known as Wasilla, Alaska, and now she has the opportunity to be on a ticket opposite of Barack Obama, the first black man she's ever seen.
Jimmy Kimmel (ok, this is sexist):
She's not bad looking. She looks like one of those women in the Van Halen videos who takes off her glasses, shakes out her hair, and then all of a sudden, she's in high heels and a bikini. All of a sudden, I am FOR drilling in Alaska.
Jay Leno (again):
Actually, it was kind of a smart choice. McCain went with a woman because he didn't want to have to be in a position to have to get CPR from Mitt Romney.
Winston Smith ("Philosoraptor"):
"Yeah, right," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said of Palin, laughing with reporters. "As if! What do we look like, a bunch of complete lackwits? You guys will believe anything."

McCain's actual running mate will be a ham sandwich.

The sandwich, said by analysts to be "a little light on the ham," has never held any public office and is incapable of speech or rational thought. It is thought that the choice will solidify McCain's credentials as a "maverick."

"John McCain makes decisions with his gut," said Davis. "That's what Americans like, right?"

Just to be clear: I'm reserving judgment on Palin. Maybe she really didn't try to abuse her office to get her brother-in-law fired. And maybe she is really driven, smart and well-informed. For now though, the jokes are really good.