Muddled Middle

Thought I'd beat the lines by voting early.  The early voting line turned out to be 1.5 hours long.  And Norman being a small town, there were at least 8 other people I knew in that line.

On the national races, I voted for two Democrats (Barack Obama, Andrew Rice) and one Republican (Tom Cole).   Counting all the local races too, my votes ended up being 5-4, one more Republican than Democrat.

Of course, this being Oklahoma, my vote is pointless.  The incumbents will all win. And where there is no incumbent, the Republican will walk away with the election.

The Economist's Choice

The Economist, the thinking person's magazine, endorses Obama.  It's uncanny how much the endorsement captures my thought process through this election season. I started out undecided between McCain and Obama; it was McCain's lurch to the right and choice of Palin that pushed me to the other side.  And Obama's amazing political skills make it possible that his could be a transformative presidency.  Why settle?

Why not McCain?
Mr McCain ... has bravely taken unpopular positions—for free trade, immigration reform, the surge in Iraq, tackling climate change and campaign-finance reform. A western Republican in the Reagan mould, he has a long record of working with both Democrats and America’s allies.  That, however, was Senator McCain; the Candidate McCain of the past six months has too often seemed the victim of political sorcery, his good features magically inverted, his bad ones exaggerated. The fiscal conservative who once tackled Mr Bush over his unaffordable tax cuts now proposes not just to keep the cuts, but to deepen them. The man who denounced the religious right as “agents of intolerance” now embraces theocratic culture warriors. The campaigner against ethanol subsidies (who had a better record on global warming than most Democrats) came out in favour of a petrol-tax holiday ... The choice of Sarah Palin epitomised the sloppiness. It is not just that she is an unconvincing stand-in, nor even that she seems to have been chosen partly for her views on divisive social issues, notably abortion. Mr McCain made his most important appointment having met her just twice.
Why Obama?
Merely by becoming president, he would dispel many of the myths built up about America: it would be far harder for the spreaders of hate in the Islamic world to denounce the Great Satan if it were led by a black man whose middle name is Hussein; and far harder for autocrats around the world to claim that American democracy is a sham ... There is no getting around the fact that Mr Obama’s résumé is thin for the world’s biggest job. But the exceptionally assured way in which he has run his campaign is a considerable comfort. It is not just that he has more than held his own against Mr McCain in the debates. A man who started with no money and few supporters has out-thought, out-organised and out-fought the two mightiest machines in American politics—the Clintons and the conservative right ... On the financial crisis his performance has been as assured as Mr McCain’s has been febrile. He seems a quick learner and has built up an impressive team of advisers, drawing in seasoned hands like Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Of course, Mr Obama will make mistakes; but this is a man who listens, learns and manages well.
The final choice comes down to the greater promise:
... this cannot be another election where the choice is based merely on fear. In terms of painting a brighter future for America and the world, Mr Obama has produced the more compelling and detailed portrait. He has campaigned with more style, intelligence and discipline than his opponent. Whether he can fulfil his immense potential remains to be seen. But Mr Obama deserves the presidency.
It's also interesting that the Economist's choices have almost matched mine over the past few elections except for their choice of Dole in 1996.  I would have been for Clinton (1992), Clinton (1996), Bush (2000: yes ... what can I say?), Kerry (2004), Obama (2008).

How I plan to vote

The League of Women Voters has a non-partisan voter's guide with candidates' answers to questions that are relevant to the office they are seeking.  For example, the presidential candidates lay out their positions on climate change, health care and China & Russia policy.  Senate candidates answer questions on energy policy and immigration.

This is how I plan to vote ... let me know if you think I'm making a terrible mistake.

President:  Barack Obama (D)  need a steady hand at the till
Senator:    Andrew Rice (D) any one but Inhofe
Congress:  Tom Cole (R) moderate Republican, leader in the House, good constituent services
Corporation Commission:  Jim Roth (D):  proponent of wind energy, which has great jobs-potential for Oklahoma and diversifies our economy
                 Jeff Cloud (R)  mainly to keep the corporation commission bipartisan
Judicial Ballot:  retain all.

State questions:
735:  No.    Don't add more Rube Goldberg contraptions to the tax code
741:  No.    Why add to the bureaucracy? If a person/business is eligible, give it to them
345:  Yes.   Such regulations are needed for effective conservation
346:  Yes.   Anything to reduce the horrendous restrictions around the sale of alcohol in Oklahoma

Not outraged, but saddened

This feature, about a negative ad attacking an Indian American running for Congress, was produced by a Minnesota TV station.   To some extent, every negative ad darkens the image of the opposing candidate.  And as you can imagine (given my African/Indian background), dark skin doesn't carry much of a negative connotation for me.  So I'm not sure what to make of this.



I'm not outraged by the negative ad itself -- the darkening of images does nothing for me and I can not imagine why or how it would affect other people.  But I want to see a healthy and strong Republican party, not liberal overreach.   If a local TV station is picking up on this, I would imagine that a lot of other people are picking up on it too.  Since this is being done by the national Republican party, not some rogue candidate running in Appalachia, I'm afraid that all this dirty short-sighted racism is going to permanently alienate the next generation of voters.

Not outraged by the tactic.  But saddened.

Infomercial or documentary?

The family's in bed, so watched Obama's informercial on You-Tube.


A few things that struck me:
  1. He talks about how his mother woke him up at 4.30 in the morning every day from the time he was eight and made him study.  When he grumbled, she'd say "It's no picnic for me either, buster."  The camera cuts away to his nomination speech in Invesco field.  Extremely powerful, for what's unsaid: that this is the promise of America: work hard and you can be anything you want to be.
  2. I expected a rousing speech. I wasn't prepared for a documentary.  A documentary with excellent photography, scripting and narration (by Obama himself) ... Wouldn't be surprised to see this one do an Al Gore with an Emmy/Oscar nomination. 
  3. Is Wednesday a little early for this?  With the election on Tuesday, any post-informercial bump will die down a bit.  But then the weekend has poor viewership, and Monday is too late.
  4. Some good ideas (energy efficiency, alternative energy, conservation) but still nodding to lousy ones (clean coal?).  At least, no mention of ethanol.
  5. His health care plan is not universal.  All the information technology in the world is not going to save $2500/yr per family.  Hope Congress comes up with a better alternative.
  6. Such careful diversity for a supposedly post-racial candidate.  Equal numbers of men and women.  One black person for every five whites.
  7. No attack on McCain/Palin. Not even a subtle aside.
  8. He had Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who mentioned Warren Buffett. But no Warren Buffett!

Insurance without doctors

The university is changing health insurance providers again.  This time to Blue Cross/Blue Shield and ... the lowest cost (HMO) plan on offer doesn't have any pediatricians in Norman enrolled. None!

Pediatricians are among the medical specialties that make the least amount of money and perform the fewest high-cost procedures.  If even pediatricians wouldn't go for what Blue Cross's HMO plan is offering to pay, I have no expectations onf the quality of surgeons and the like who will go for the plan.  Of course, it's a deathly spiral.  The university can't afford to pay for health insurance, so they try to get premiums reduced. In turn, the insurers turn the screws on doctors. Medical practices are so inefficient that they balk.

Why is health insurance tied to employment, again?

The vet who did not vet

I found this video awesome -- captures the rhythm of a children's book:

The second best food ever

S1 is going to be so jealous.  When his kindergarden teacher asked the kids to write down their favorite food, he wrote down "crab".  In a sea of "pizza" and "candy", that really stood out enough that the teacher mentioned it to us at the next parent-teacher conference.

"He likes to watch me cooking crabs more than he likes to eat it," I said.  She looked at me uncomprehending (this is Oklahoma; if it doesn't have hooves, it's not edible).  "The way you cook crabs is to boil them alive," I explained.

My crab boil doesn't hold a candle to what I was served for dinner yesterday.  In fact, it was probably the best food dish I've ever had (other than a can of beets we cooked over a fire in Big Bend National Park after a long, exhausting day of hiking in chilly weather -- we were so famished that the can of beets will remain heads and shoulders over anything else).

Black pepper crab:  deep-fried crab in thick, fragrant black pepper sauce.   The unreal spicy hotness of black pepper with the soft, silken, sweetness of crab flesh ...  

I've got to go to a book store here and pick up a Singapore cookbook.  After I check prices on Amazon, of course.

A Proposition

I was walking around on Orchard road, window shopping and generally minding my own business.  Orchard Road is to Singapore what 5th Avenue is to New York i.e. a high-end shopping district and tourist trap.  So, anyway, there I was on Orchard Road.

This young woman comes and taps me on the elbow.

"Hello," she says, "How are you?"

I smile and wait for her to ask me for directions.  Maybe she'd ask me for directions to the metro and I could actually tell her how to get there.

"How are you?," she asks again.

"I'm okay," I tell the polite woman, "but how can I help you?"

"My name is -- and I am from --," she tells me, "where are you from?"

"I'm a tourist too," I reply, "but maybe I can help you."

"If you want," she says lightly touching my elbow, "you and me, I can give you a massage."

Lunar Orbiter vs. Weather Radar

Yesterday, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched a lunar orbiter and hopes to play a much bigger role in outer-space exploration.

But here is the thing.  A successful space program has to do two things:  (a) advance the science (b) advance technological capability.

The scientific benefits of a lunar mission are iffy at best.  A manned mission to the moon is even iffier.

Technology-wise, ISRO has never been able to carry skills and know-how over to other projects.   For decades now, they have been trying to develop a decent Doppler radar.  The quality of the radar they have is still laughable.   I remember looking (offline) at cyclone Ogni as it traveled south to north.  When the cyclone was south of Chennai, it was captured on a Gematronics radar in Chenna; towards the end of its life-cycle, it was captured by the ISRO radar in Sriharikota.  And in between, both radars captured it. The difference in qualitybetween the two radars was stark.

So, when the Indian meteorological department decided to install a network of Doppler radars, they had to buy the radars from China (the Chinese are using a 20-year old US design).

So, this whole lunar orbiter thing is totally pointless. ISRO needs to first learn how to migrate their know-how.  It's less sexy than launching spacecraft, but more useful to the country that funds their work.

Deepavali in Singapore

The Chinese-Singaporean who is my host his week mentioned that next Monday was a public holiday. I didn't think twice about it, assuming it was Singapore Independence day or something. It took a visit to the Little India neighborhood to make me realize what the public holiday was for.

The Indian-Singaporean doorman of my hotel asked when I came back if I'd caught the celeberation at the local temple.  "We can't even use drums," he groused to me in Tamil, "we have to celebrate in a lawful manner".  He used the English word lawful.

Happy Lawful Deepavali.

Panglossian views

I was watching the financial news while waiting for a phone call.  It was amazing how much the people wanted to believe that they would be okay [my view of reality in parentheses]:
  1. South-east Asia i.e. Singapore will not be affected by a global recession because it is only 6 hours away from China, India and the Middle East.  [And Moscow is 6 hours from Europe, the Middle East and China.]
  2. Because commodity prices have gone down, Chinese growth will pick up. [Commodity prices have gone down because markets for Chinese goods are hurting. In fact, China just reported that its growth rate fell, to 9%.  Chinese numbers are problematic, but trends are probably real.]
  3. India will actually benefit from the financial crisis. A $700 billion dollar bailout requires many thousands of loans to be evaluated and much of that work will be outsourced. This could be the Y2K crisis of the financial industry i.e. the crisis that proves the quality of work that Indian outsourcing firms can do. [The US government is not going to be outsourcing its loan analysis to India.  And terms of aid to banks will probably grand-stand against outsourcing jobs.]
  4. South-east Asian banks are safe.  They learned their lessons from the Asian financial crisis a decade ago.  Besides, savings rates are high.  [Aren't savings rates high in Japan too? And haven't banks around the world bought bad paper?]
You would think that people here are avoiding reality.  Meanwhile, this morning's paper reports that Singapore's Changi airport reported its first year-on-year decline in passengers since 1995.

Finally! A place where I'm cool

I was headed towards lunch at the old market in the central business district.

"Nice tie!," smiled an attractive young woman in a head-scarf.

You could have knocked me down with a feather.  If I had to make a list of strangers from whom I am likely to get an appreciative compliment, an orthodox young Muslim woman would be near bottom.

But it turned out that she wanted to sell me a credit card.  

"I'm not from Singapore," I parried.

"Where are you from?," she asked. I told her.

"No wonder your tie is so cool," she replied.

Not all new

The best thing about Singapore is the spectacular way that old neighborhoods and buildings have been preserved.  Something uplifting about seeing a colonial-era white-washed building right next to a modern glass-and-steel skycraper:
My work is in a room that overlooks the harbor.  The construction is for an upcoming casino.
Cranes are everywhere.  This is a view looking across the Singapore river:Good thing they are also preserving the past.   Some of the cultural icons that caught my eye as I walking about yesterday:




Singapore street food

Singapore has the best street food of any city I've been in.  Hands down.

My work's near "Lau Pa Sat", an old market that's now been taken over by an array of street food vendors.

Yesterday, for lunch, I had Chinese-style chilled noodles. 

Today, I had Malaysian sambal solong served with an omlette on top.

Looking around for deserts, I saw "Durian Chendol" advertised.  The ingredients listed durian (a fruit with a sickly-sweet odor), green jelly, black beans, icy shavings of soy milk ... not exactly appetizing.

But I'd decided to try all things durian, so I gave it a try.  It was amazingly good.

Singapore: great service, poor building codes

One of the ways I fight jet lag is to adjust on the plane to the time at my final location.  I left Norman on Saturday morning and arrived in Singapore midnight Sunday.  So, I stayed almost entirely awake for the 20+ hours I was on airplanes.  The idea is that I check into the hotel, take a shower and hit the bed and when I wake up, I'm on Singapore time. This always works like a charm.  I'm typing this on Monday morning and feel completely fresh.

But sometime at night, I shuffled off to the bathroom and back to bed.  As you can imagine, having gone 20 hours without sleep, I was dog-tired.  My eyes were firmly shut as I was doing my shuffle.

And lo and behold, it turns out that the bedroom was at a slightly raised height from the rest of the suite.   I tripped on the step and nearly fell.  Shockwaves through my feet as I clutched them and hopped onto bed.  

Five minutes later, there was still a sharp pain coursing through my feet.  Something was wrong.  I switched on the bedside light to find my toe bleeding profusely.   Washed it off in the bathroom to find that a quarter-inch of the top of my middle toe had been scalloped away.   Till the bone, but luckily not through it.

I covered it up with a bandage I had in my kit, went down to the reception, got antiseptic cream and dressed it up.  

"Where is the trash can?," I asked the person at the front desk.

"Oh, give it to me.," she said, holding out her hand for all the stuff I'd used to clean my wound.

"No, can't ask you to touch this stuff," I told her, "show me the trash can."

Reluctantly, she did.   Can you imagine a receptionist in the US willing to dispose off bloody cotton balls?  Would never happen in India either.  I'm not sure if this sort of self-effacing service is typical of Singapore. 

Or may be it was just the general poshness of the hotel.  My suite in the hotel would be a rather upscale studio apartment stateside.  Very posh. Sports a Bose music system and a couple of flat-screen TVs.  The bathrooms floors and walls are granite. The fridge and microwave are built into the cabinetry. You get the idea.

When I went back to my room, I looked at where I'd tripped.  Surely, I should have just stubbed my toe if the bedroom was at a slightly different level.  How can a step take quite a bit of flesh off?  Closer interrogation revealed that the "step" was really a ledge.  Pretty much how you'd set a trap if you were of a mind to:


So, this brings me to my second observation about Singapore.  Regulations that we take for granted in the United States, like building codes, are not part of the milieu here.   Don't let the nice buildings and roads fool you.  This is still a third-world country.

Indian cities and their American counterparts

I was flipping through the inflight magazine on Cathay Pacific and encountered an article on Delhi.

"Delhi," the article averred, "is fast-paced New York to Mumbai's laid-back Los Angeles."

Say what?  If I had to compare Indian and American cities, my choices would be:
  1. Delhi: bureaucratic, monument-filled, governmental.  Much more like Washington, D.C. than like New York.
  2. Mumbai (Bombay):  a cross between the neuroticness of high-finance New York and the glamorous moviedom of Los Angeles
  3. Chennai (Madras):  Cautious and conservative.   Maybe Tallahassee
  4. Bengaloru (Bangalore): High-tech, pleasant and open to outsiders.   San Francisco.
  5. Kolkata (Calcutta):  A squalid center of culture.  New Orleans.
P.S.  Cathay Pacific ...  What an evocative name!   Compare with geographically literal names like Southwest, Northwest, American or British or with the mundanely literal airline names like Jet or Lufthansa.  The name "Cathay Pacific" brings to mind a very romantic view of Hong Kong and its place in the world, a world of old trading houses and shipping lanes. 

Chicago (the musical) is wonderful

Just got back from an OU Theater production of Chicago the musical.

The musical is so high-energy that we were drained by the time it was over.

Definitely a must-see, if you can still get tickets.  It's on till next week.

Wind through the prairie

Those of you who are not from Oklahoma have probably not experienced the sight of wind blowing through a short-grass prairie (this is tickle grass).  The video is from our hiking trip in South East Oklahoma (near Ada) last weekend.

video

Besides the grasses and oaks, we saw these wild berries (American Beauty berries) for the first time:


Obama much better on science issues

A very good article that shines a light on the competing science proposals from the two camps.

Obama's motivation:

Many of the engineers Mr. Obama met at Google were from Asia or Eastern Europe. "As far as I could tell, not one was black or Latino," he wrote. His guide told him that finding American-born engineers of any race was getting so hard that American companies were setting up shop abroad, in part for access to talent.

America, Mr. Obama wrote, cannot compete with countries like China and India simply by cutting costs and shrinking government. "If we want an innovation economy," he added, "one that generates more Googles each year, then we have to invest in our future innovators — by doubling federal funding of basic research over the next five years, training 100,000 more engineers and scientists over the next four years, or providing new research grants to the most outstanding early-career researchers in the country."

McCain on his record:

"I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution," he said in the survey response, pointing to his Navy experience with advanced technologies as well as his leadership on the Senate commerce committee. "Under my guiding hand," he added, Congress developed a wireless spectrum policy that prompted the rapid rise of mobile phones and Wi-Fi technology.

The two candidates' differing approaches (and priority) to science issues:

 According to the journal Science, ... Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser and head of the Congressional Budget Office under Mr. Bush, serves as Mr. McCain's "point man" on science, having been in touch with experts on climate, space and "science in general."

On the other hand, Mr. Obama established a science advisory committee led by Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who is president of the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Varmus said the group's leaders communicated almost daily with the campaign's policy leaders.

Indeed, McCain approaches science as just another economic issue:
Mr. McCain says easing regulatory and tax burdens will encourage private spending on research. (Experts say industry now tends to focus on near-term applications, while government finances more basic research that has greater breakthrough potential.)

...

The McCain campaign has said he will encourage corporate research by reducing the capital gains and corporate taxes and promoting "conditions favorable to investment." In response to a survey by Science Debate 2008, a private group that tried to arrange a debate on science issues, he cited "burdensome regulations" as inhibiting innovation in the United States and said he would work to remove them.

The choice on science issues is clear.  McCain mouths platitudes but remains hampered by the anti-intellectualism and anti-government view of his base.  Obama has clear goals and wants to address underlying problems with the state of science in this country.

McCain post-debate reaction

From Reuters, the viral image of the debate:

Reuters explained what happened:
US Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reacts to almost heading the wrong way off the stage after shaking hands with Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) at the conclusion of the final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 15, 2008.
Someone even found an amazingly apt quote by Negro League baseball player Satchel Paige:
Don't look back: Some crazy old coot might be chasing after you, panting, with his tongue hanging out and his clammy meat hooks reaching for your skinny ass.

Tough year ahead

A friend asked over lunch today how things were, what with the economy tanking and all.

"It's going to be a calm year next year," I opined.  Research funding looks reasonable in the out years -- both presidential candidates have promised science and technology investments and weather research is non-controversial. But the corporate training business is another story altogether.  Our courses target two major customers: government and financial firms.  Government will probably keep its spending up during the recession to avoid a Herbert Hoover-style depression.  But financial companies are cutting expenses and people:

Vikram Pandit, Citigroup's chief executive, said: "While our third quarter results reflect both a difficult environment as well as continued writedowns on our legacy assets, we are making excellent progress on the parts of our business we control, including expense reduction, headcount, and balance sheet and capital management."

They're definitely not going to be doing any new training for a while.

Gaming college rankings

Of all the ways of gaming college rankings, this has got to be the most devious:

Baylor University in Waco, Tex., which has a goal of rising to the first tier of national college rankings, last June offered its admitted freshmen a $300 campus bookstore credit to retake the SAT, and $1,000 a year in merit scholarship aid for those who raised their scores by at least 50 points.

These students are already admitted, so why should they retake an admission test?

When other colleges try to game rankings, they try to admit better students earlier, or award merit-based scholarships or classify temporary instructors as faculty. But trust the Baptists to zero in on the core rottenness in the system.

India's Invisible Men

Aravind Adiga's debut novel, "White Tiger", won the Booker prize this year. Like many Indians who return to India after living abroad, he noticed how middle-class Indians do not notice the poor or their ramshackle slums. His explanation of what prompted him to write the book in an interview last month:
Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man right after the Second World War. It's a book that suggests the metaphor of invisibility as a way of understanding the African American experience of that time where the central character feels he is invisible just because the white people around him don't see him as a human being.

When I came back to India after a long stint in the United States, I was struck by how many invisible men are around us in India. When you are in a car in New Delhi, there is invariably a chauffeur. The person who owns the car is almost never driving it. And he conducts a conversation with you in the backseat in which he can discuss all kinds of things about his private life and there is another man in the car, the servant who can understand what is being said, but he's almost not there. He's part of the machinery and there are so many invisible men in India today.

There are three writers - Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, who dealt with race and class along with racial issues, and they form a template that can be moved onto India today. Our poor are almost invisible in a way that African Americans were invisible then. And also a lot of rich Indians think of the poor as a distinct race in a sense. The poor in India tend to be darker, leaner, physically different. The difference between the haves and have nots is almost a physical, corporeal, racial difference in India.

How good are American schools?

Math problem faced by our 7-year old in school:

Kate has $0.38 and John had $0.39.  They each gave Madison $0.15.  How much money did all three children have together?

There are adults I know who wouldn't know how to solve that problem.

You hear a lot of bad news about American schools and American education, but most parents are happy with their schools.  Inner-city and rural schools are failing, but most Americans live in the suburbs.  What they see is a functional school system with pretty good standards.

Whether the quality of schools should be dependent on the poshness of the neighborhood is something else entirely, of course.

Obama making the tax code even more complex

So Obama gave his big economic speech and guess what? It's chock-full of the government bureaucracy Democrats are known for

For example, a $3000 tax credit to new jobs within the United States created by small businesses.  Why? Jobs created by big companies are not good enough?  Besides, most companies view jobs are long-term investments.  A short-term $3000 discount is poorly targeted. So, this is essentially a short-term cash infusion into small businesses (which, in a recession, is a good thing).  Why not just give the tax credit without making them jump through bureaucratic hoops documenting hiring and retention?  And why limit it to small businesses?  Simply give a tax credit that is a proportion of the number of employees on payroll ... this way, there is not an incentive for big businesses to fire employees and hire contractors (usually the same people!) from small businesses.

Or no income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000.  Why only seniors?  Because a young family with two young kids making $50,000 is less deserving than retired seniors making the same amount?  Or because Florida is full of seniors whose votes can be bought?  Does this mean that income tax is now dependent on age?  What next, making it dependent on weight? Height? How far you can throw a dead cow?

Or being able to withdraw $10,000 from an IRA with no penalty.  This just complicates the tax code and makes IRAs even more complex.  Why have a tax penalty on withdrawls in the first place?  People pay tax on withdrawal amounts anyway. Isn't that enough?

Or a mortgage tax credit ... This is a great opportunity to rethink the special treatment for mortgage interest.  Why should it be tax-deductible?  That and home-steading only encourages people to buy larger houses than they need or can afford. Besides, home-ownership has the significant disadvantage of reducing labor mobility.  And if long-term US competitiveness is a concern, removing the home mortgage deduction would be a good way to start.

A pragmatic centrist would be taking this opportunity to push for simplification of the tax code.  Not making it more complex and special purpose than it already is.


A blogger wins a Nobel

Paul Krugman, Princeton economist and New York Times columnist and author of this indispensible blog, won the Nobel prize in economics this year.  Of course, the Nobel was for his academic work -- on international trade -- and not for his popular work.  But it is through his New York Times columns that most of the world (I was surprised to find on a recent trip to India that The Hindu carries his columns!) knows him.

He saw the duplicity of the Bush administration's economic policies earlier than most, and has been beating the drums for a better health care system for years now.  He also warned against Greenspan's enabling of a housing bubble back when Greenspan was suggesting that people go get adjustable rate mortgages.  He suggested ways of improving the bailout -- the British government and the European Union essentially took his recommendations. It appears that our government is swallowing its pride and following suit.  Krugman is a one-man poster child for why you need experts and not jack-of-all-trades hacks and journalists setting and criticizing policy.

Krugman's reaction to the Nobel announcement, on his blog, is quite droll:
A funny thing happened to me this morning …
During the Democratic primary, he was for Clinton and against Obama because her health care plan was more progressive than his and because he believes that America is  too racist for Obama to actually win the election.

What's the Matter with McCain?

There are some books you think you have read simply because they've become part of the discourse.  Thomas Franks' What's the Matter with Kansas? is one. The caricature of his argument goes something like this:  Working class voters are brainwashed into resenting liberal elites who look down up on them and so they vote Republican.  What they get for their trouble are conservative policies that make the working class even poorer.  As I said, that was a caricature.

Franks' argument is a lot more subtle than that.  He says that Kansas has always been a hotbed of rebellion and that many farmers', union and populist movements started out in Kansas.  So, he is not surprised that Kansas is at the foreground of the backlash against a world that is leaving them further and further behind.  But unlike the populists of the last century, the anti-abortion brigade of the present are focusing on the wrong problem.  So, instead of getting a New Deal, they are getting a raw deal.

Which brings me to the title of my post.  Obama made a smart and reasoned choice of vice-president: he picked someone who'd complement his weaknesses and have the ability to shepherd bills through Congress -- think of Kennedy choosing LBJ.  McCain made an impulsive, reckless choice.  It's as if he wants to prove the caricature view of Franks' argument: that all working class Americans need is a folksy culture warrior. What if McCain had made a reasoned choice of vice-president?  He could have chosen Mitt Romney -- a moderate, centrist Republican with extensive experience running things and running them successfully.

And the Republican ticket could now be arguing: "Wait a minute. Don't strangle our economic recovery with over-regulation.  Elect us so that we can keep a Democratic congress in check."   Instead, the Republicans are now litigating Vietnam-era battles over rich war protestors.

P.S.:  McCain and Palin are now going around inciting right-wing mobs.  If this keeps up, the Kennedy-LBJ parallel will become more uncomfortably true: one commentator likens the atmosphere at Republican rallies now to the atmosphere in Israel before right-wing nut jobs assassinated Yitzhak Rabin for being a "traitor" and "appeaser".

Vote No on Prop 8!

A shout out to my California readers: Vote No on Prop 8! A stable family life should be within the reach of any couple.

Ugly

These are the voters that McCain and Palin are now appealing to with all their barely-coded messages about how Barack Hussein Obama pals around with terrorists.

What does it say about John McCain that he is actively encouraging this sentiment?  He doesn't even have the excuse that he is drunk.

"Country First".  Indeed.

UPDATE:  See also David Frum who says he will be voting for McCain but is afraid of what these attacks do to Republicans' future:
Those who press this Ayers line of attack are whipping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that is going to be very hard to calm after November. Is it really wise to send conservatives into opposition in a mood of disdain and fury for a man who may well be the next president of the United States, incidentally the first African-American president? Anger is a very bad political adviser. It can isolate us and push us to the extremes at exactly the moment when we ought to be rebuilding, rethinking, regrouping and recruiting.
UPDATE 2:  Obama's response, in an interview to ABC.

Renegotiate, yes. But with whom?

I've ranted before about what an ideal bailout plan would have looked like:
What you need is for the government to get warrants in the companies going bust and allow bankruptcy judges to reset mortgage rates.  
The bailout bill that passed did have the provision for warrants. But no provision for renegotiating mortgages.

So, I perked up when NPR played a snippet of McCain saying (I didn't watch the debate; no TV in our house until the kids go to bed):
I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes -- at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make those -- be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.
Hey, John McCain, the mortgage companies should bear the losses because of their bad loans. Not the taxpayer!  They should renegotiate directly with their clients.

Assume McCain knows what he is talking about. Suppose the federal government were to buy off all the non-performing loans from mortgage companies.  How much would that be? There is $1.3 trillion in sub-prime mortgages around.  Assume 50% of them have to be bought out and that the tax payer takes a 30% loss on each loan.  That's a $200 billion tax hike right there.  Unlike the $700 billion bailout, this is actually a loss.  It's not an investment that may pay off (in Sweden, the warrants the government got rose in value so that the government broke even on the deal -- this is why economists were all clamoring that the government should get an equity stake in the form of warrants).

$200 billion dollars.  Vote responsibly.

UPDATE:  See also Brad DeLong.  Apparently, it would be "only" $100 billion dollars, not $200 billion.  I guess only 25% of mortgages are in arrears.

How to debate in plain sight and not be seen

Andrew Rice, like all challengers, wants lots of debates.  Jim Inhofe, like all politicians who are ahead, didn't want to give him an opportunity to appear senatorial.  But these days, you just can't completely duck a debate.

What's the next best thing?

Schedule it on the same night as a presidential debate so that TV doesn't broadcast it.  And just to be doubly sure, hold the debate in Tulsa (Inhofe is from Tulsa; Rice from Oklahoma City).

Pronouncing Pakistan

It's eer-aan not eye-ran.

eer-aaq not eye-rack

pahk-is-thaan not pack-is-tan

Just sayin'

A Monty Python fan from Madras

V. Anand, world chess champion and resident of Madras, in an interview to the German magazine Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: Mr Anand, in two weeks you will be defending your title as World Champion against the Russian Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn [Germany]. Two weeks ago you finished last in the Masters Tournament in Bilbao. Is that a psychological handicap?

Anand: Thank you very much for bringing that up. It reminds me of John Cleese from Monty Python. In Fawlty Towers a group of Germans visits his hotel, and he admonishes his staff not to mention the war to them – while he himself can talk about nothing else. So please: don't mention Bilbao.

An interesting part of the interview is where Anand (that's his first name: it's not Mr. Anand) talks about the role of computers in chess:

SPIEGEL: Computers are becoming more and more important. Has chess become a preparation game – whoever is better prepared wins?

Anand: That was always the case. Today we analyse our games with the computer, in the 16th century people did it with a board. That is only a gradual difference. Preparation for a world championship was always an arms race, in previous times with books, then with seconds, today with computers. The computer is an excellent training partner. It helps me to improve my game.

Of course, this is not limited to chess.  Computers have increased human ability in a lot of fields by doing away with a lot of drudgery.  But it is the rare practitioner who can see that and not be threatened.

The interview finally veered back to Monty Python:

SPIEGEL: In recent times the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen has been in the headlines. He is seventeen and at the beginning of the month he was, for five days, the number one in the unofficial world rankings. How good is he?

Anand: He will sooner or later become World Champion. I like him, he is a Monty Python fan, just like me.

SPIEGEL: There are rumours that he is your second for the World Championship against Kramnik.

Anand: That's a rumour I have heard as well. Perhaps there is some truth in it. Perhaps not. Let Kramnik figure it out, let him occupy his mind with this question. That is part of the psychological game before this kind of match. When you know who is part of your opponent's team you can imagine what he is planning. So I will not reveal anything.

Shrimp and sprouts sandwich

We got back from a hike yesterday and were looking for a simple, tasty meal.

"Where are the bratwursts?," asked the wife after searching unsuccessfully for them.  Planning ahead (there needs to be one in every family), she had bought some hot dog buns (whole-wheat, naturally) and bratwurst (organic, what do you think?)  so that we'd be able to make a quick dinner when we returned from the hiking trip.  

Unfortunately, earlier in the week, I was making gumbo.  The bratwursts were close enough to sausage, so I'd used them. 

Now it was up to me to concoct something. I looked in the fridge to see what we had:  shrimp and beansprouts.  And the usual staples.

I marinated the shrimp in lemon juice and turmeric.  Then sauteed the beansprouts with chopped green chilis.  The beansprouts and shrimp were tossed with fenugreek and cilantro leaves and cooked on low heat with a pinch of red chili pepper and salt until the shrimp was cooked through.

The mixture looks as if it were made for hot dog buns (see picture). Mouthful of flavor too.  And only 30 minutes from start to finish.

RECIPE:
1.25 lb raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
juice of 1 lemon
1 green chili finely chopped
2 cups bean sprouts coarsely chopped
2 tbsp chopped fenugreek leaves (thawed if frozen)
3 tbsp chopped cilantro leaves and stems
1/4 tsp red chili powder
8 hot dog buns
  1. Marinate the shrimp in lemon juice and turmeric about 20 minutes.  Prepare the vegetables while the shrimp is marinating.
  2. Sautee beansprouts with green chili (3-4 minutes)
  3. Add fenugreek leaves and cilantro and continue sauteeing on low heat (2 minutes)
  4. Add red chili powder, salt to taste, shrimp and marinating mixture.  Cook until shrimp is cooked and all water has evaporated (5 minutes)
  5. Stuff a hot dog bun with 3 tbsp of the mixture
Makes 4 servings

Keystone Forest visit

We went to one of the Nature Conservancy's projects in Oklahoma today. Keystone Forest is an undisturbed -- there are trees in the forest that are over 400 years old -- cross-timbers area northeast of Tulsa.  The preserve is a partnership between the Oklahoma Tourism Board, the city of Sand Springs and the Nature Conservancy (this sort of innovative partnerships is why I like the Nature Conservancy.)

The kids had fun finding butterflies, especially because they were so well camouflaged. This photograph has a butterfly (left) and a leaf (right):

The recent icestorm had damaged quite a few trees
Washington Irving famously described the cross timbers as a forest of cast iron. Imagine him on horseback, encountering this stretch and not knowing how far deep it was.

I saw Indian grass (Oklahoma's state grass) and switch grass for the first time (Switch grass is the promising biofuel). Or rather, I learned to recognize them.

The Last Word on the Debate

This is the viral image about the debate (by Aden Nak):



S2's vote

Our 4-year daughter brought home a weekly reader from her pre-school.  It was on the presidential election.   What the president does ("talks to people"), where he lives ("the White House"), etc.

The final page of the reader asked the child to vote for either McCain or for Obama.  The top half of the page carried a picture of McCain talking to some children.  The bottom of the page contained a similar picture of Barack Obama. 

I saw my daughter checking a box.

"Why did you vote for him?", I asked.

"I don't want the black man," she replied.

She must have caught the look on my face.

"I like the blue one," she said in a concilatory tone,  "Tomorrow, I can choose the black man.  Okay, appa?"

A quick glance at the pictures explained what she was talking about. The picture of McCain had him wearing a black suit.  The picture of Obama had him in a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled back.

Spell it like an American

For a lot of companies, the most important market is the USA.   So, many organizations standardize on American English.

But no sooner do I join a club than it starts to lose its cachet.  This is the new printer in our office.  Note the spelling of "work center".  To add insult, the printer is made by Xerox, a company founded in Rochester, New York and headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut.

Mediocre!

In the comments to this post:

McCain has been calling gadget plays (reverse/end around, Statue of Liberty, single wing, direct snap to running back).

Right. McCain isn't 1984 Boston College. He's 2006 Boise State. The problem is, he's playing against a really good team, and not mediocre crap like 2006 Oklahoma. He's playing 2006 Florida, and he's getting his ass kicked.

Mediocre? Who you calling mediocre?

What a word!

Once in a while you come across a word in a foreign language that is simply untranslatable.  It is so apt, and captures a situation perfectly but somehow, it is also quite specific to the cultural milieu of the foreign language.

"Schadenfreude", for example.   Who hasn't exulted in other people's misfortunes?  But it took the Germans to come up with a word for it.

I ran into another such word recently:  "okoge".  It's Japanese for a single woman who spends a lot of time with gay men.  Most cultures don't even recognize the presence of gay men, let alone the phenomenon of a certain type of woman who prefers to stay in their non-threatening company.

Dogs that didn't bark

One of the strange things about the whole bailout discussion is the number of dogs that didn't bark. Credit is supposed to be hard to get, but credit cards are still sending around low interest rate offers. The broader economy is supposed to be at great risk but local chambers of commerce are not beating the drum in favor of the bailout.  Contrast their nonchalance with their their behavior towards legislation such as raising the minimum wage.

But that seems to be changing.  Paulson's original bailout plan was horrendous because it made no financial sense for the taxpayer.  With modifications for equity stakes and oversight, it has become much more reasonable.  The failure of the bill in the house seems to have waken up folks who are peripheral to this mess.  Retail investment companies where most Americans hold their 401(k)'s and other savings have started to explain the bailout to their customers -- this is the email Fidelity sent out.  Today's Norman Transcript carried an article about Tom Cole (the local congressman who did vote for the bailout) calling it a tough but necessary vote.   McCain has turned on a dime again and stopped demagoguing the bailout -- he's even taken to calling it a rescue.

None is explaining, though, why the bailout is supposed to work.  Sure, I get that every credit crisis in the past has been addressed by infusion of liquidity.  But the scale of this crisis -- $45 trillion in credit swaps -- is dwarfed by the size of the "rescue" ($700 billion).  The only way it will work is if the underlying mortgages are rolled out, right? So why aren't bankruptcy judges being given a shot at rewriting the terms of mortgages?