Why you can't find your favorite beer

When we were in Phoenix for a conference a couple of weeks ago, several of my colleagues fell in love with Fat Tire beer. Unfortunately, when they came back to Norman, they found that they couldn't get it here. Why? The beer distributor that serves Oklahoma doesn't carry that particular brand, probably because of perverse incentives. Why are there middle men in the first place? Because it's a cushy monopoly given out by state legislators to their friends:

The 21st Amendment gives states the power to regulate the sale of alcohol within their borders. Some states decided to assume control of all alcohol sales (they’re known today as control states). Most of those that didn’t adopted laws mandating a state-based middleman between alcohol producers (brewers, distillers, wineries) and retailers (restaurants, grocery stores, liquor stores). There are some exceptions, but generally in three-tier states no one is allowed to buy directly from a producer. Everything must go through a distributor.
For decades wholesalers have quietly added 18-25 percent to every bottle of beer, glass of wine, and shot of liquor you pour down your gullet. And there's been little resistance to them, for a few reasons. First, wholesalers don’t interact with consumers. They take their markup between producer and retailer, out of the sight of the people whose money they’re ultimately taking. Second, they’re rather powerful. Alcohol wholesaling is a lucrative, concentrated industry that reaps enormous benefits from policies whose costs are spread out across the general public.

It would be much better to cut out the middlemen and put a 18-25% tax on alcohol and directly use it to fund state government.

Assimilating in fits and starts

I finally downloaded photographs taken over the last month on my cell phone. And wouldn't you know it ... they all seem to do with the immigrant experience.

This one is from Dallas. We went to a pizza place and found that the next table over was occupied by a couple of desi families dining together. Their kids were throwing tantrums, running around and, in general, being a bad example to ours! The photograph captures how the area around their table looked when they left -- the restaurant had to assign three people to do the cleanup.

I saw the next one on the fridge of a friend of ours who is himself an immigrant from a Muslim country. The photograph seems to have been taken in Europe and is of a Muslim man who is taking a picture of his women who are all in black, head-to-toe burqa. The hand-written caption under the photograph read: "The world's best photograph".

When we went to Dallas, we shopped at Indian grocery stores and restaurants. One of them must have sold our address because we soon got a very glossy advertisement brochure from a Dallas-based jewelry store. The interesting thing was that the brochure was so targeted -- the models wearing the jewels were all Indian models. The prices and sales pitches, though, were definitely American.

S2 (our four-year-old) plays with dolls, most of which are thin, white and blonde. I hadn't yet gotten to worrying about this, but it appears that I don't need to worry too much. I noticed today that she'd "marked up" one of her princess dolls:

A society that's too cautious

What with the ice storm, the local schools have been closed yesterday and today.  But here's the thing: it was obvious from the forecasts that the last of the sleet was going to be yesterday evening.  Enough time to clear out highways and main arteries.  As they were this morning.  And yet, yet ... schools are closed because some parents would keep their kids home rather than risk driving on even mildly dangerous roads.  And the rest of us have to deal with it.

Research and Development Funding: China vs. USA

Trends of Research and Development (R&D) funding around the world look quite scary:
  1. R&D spending in the US will go down (after adjusting for inflation) in 2009
  2. Chinese R&D spending is showing really explosive growth in R&D. There is mild growth in India and other Asian countries.
  3. In Europe, R&D funding is going to be flat
When the global recession is over, guess where the new innovations are likely to come from?

One-state solution: the demographic time bomb

Muammar Qaddafi (yes, him!) has a seductively reasonable op-ed arguing for a one-state solution in the Middle East:
The Jewish people want and deserve their homeland ... A two-state solution will create an unacceptable security threat to Israel ... The Palestinian-held areas could not accommodate all of the refugees ... Israelis and Palestinians have also become increasingly intertwined, economically and politically.
But he side-steps the key reason that Israelis want a two-state solution.  Palestinian Muslims have much higher birth-rates than Israeli Jews and would, in a matter of years, become the majority in a combined state.  Since the history of minorities in Muslim-majority countries is not encouraging, there is little reassurance that Qaddafi or any other Arab can provide to Jews in this regard.

Idiotic headline

Look at the headline the Norman Transcript sported on inauguration day -- a headline that they are so proud of that they are selling plaques and T-shirts of the front page. "YES WE DID" is an apparent reference to Obama's campaign slogan "Yes, we can!".

First: "yes, we can" as a union rallying cry (Si se puede) dates to Caesar Chavez and is an exhortion with the meaning of "we can do this". It's what underdogs cry out when they are trying to summon up their will to challenge an ingrained status quo. So, it makes no sense once the campaign is done and victory achieved.

Second: Who are the "we" here? So what exactly did "we" do? It doesn't take much to imagine that the newspaper is congratulating the public on having elected a black man.

The irony, of course, is that such self-congratulation is not only in bad taste (53% of the country believed Obama to be the better candidate; this was not affirmative action) but that it is also inaccurate. The residents of Oklahoma gave more votes to John Kerry than to Obama and every one of this state's counties went for McCain.

Geithner's Taxes and Obama's Tickets

Tim Geithner, Obama's choice to be treasury secretary, claims about his failure to pay $34,000 of taxes:
These were careless mistakes. They were avoidable mistakes. But they were unintentional. I should have been more careful.
But the taxes that he should have paid are self-employment taxes. The self-employment tax replaces the Social Security and Medicare taxes of income that we are all required to pay -- if you don't have an employer withholding and doing employer matches, you are supposed to pay the entire amount yourself on your tax form along with your quarterly estimated tax statements.

In other words, these are really basic taxes that every consultant in the country pays on every penny of contract income. The most basic form where you declare non-W2 income has a line that tells you that you owe this. If you use Tax-Cut or Turbo-Tax, the software automatically puts in the amount. No tax accountant in the country will mistakenly leave it out. Tell someone with independent income that you "forgot" to pay self-employment tax and he'll snicker at you. So, I'm surprised that Geithner seems to be getting away with his whopper (see also James Fallows' comment at the Atlantic).

The real clincher, however, is that Geithner worked at the IMF and failed to pay self-employment taxes for 2001 to 2004. Due to the statute of limitations, an IRS audit was able to demand that he pay only 2003-2004. A person who made a honest mistake would then have paid up 2001 and 2002 as well. But not Geithner. It was not until he was tapped to be Treasury Secretary that he decided to pay what he owed from 2001. In other words, he was not going to pay the tax as long as he could get away with it.

Of course, this is not very different from Obama paying 17 traffic tickets dating from 1988-1991 weeks before he launched his presidential bid. Two peas in a pod, these two men are. If a law is not diligently enforced, they won't abide by it.

You call this a poem?

Obama resurrected the practice of commissioning a poem on his inauguration.  Elizabeth Alexander, the poet he selected, turned in a poem that suggests that the president should have let sleeping poets lie.  This is her second "verse":

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

What drivel.   "All about us is noise", indeed.

No miracles

The Onion said it best on the day after the election: "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job":
In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation's broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind.

The country seems to be full of Obama Enthusiasts (to use a pejorative coined by Neal Stevenson in Anathem) -- can 79% of Americans actually approve of the performance of a guy who hasn't yet made any hard decisions -- on what grounds are they approving?  There are Facebook groups devoted to counting down the hours to when he becomes president.

It's almost as if, a desperate nation is hoping that Obama pulls us out of our funk (and becomes more than a historical marker).  But, it is just as likely that, like Carter, he is forever associated with incurable malaise.  And even if he succeeds, he's not going to succeed in a matter of minutes!

Ambient awareness through Facebook

"What's going on?," is such a vague phrase that only formulaic responses come back.  It's hard, therefore, to forge a sense of connection with people you see only once in a while.  That's what makes Facebook so useful.

No one ever sends out an email saying "We're planning our summer vacation to Australia" or "I'm sick and tired" or "I'm surrounded by New Years' resolution folks at the gym" or even "I'm in Phoenix" (all actual status updates from my friends).  Yet, these updates give you a decent idea of what their life's been like when you do meet them face-to-face. It sets the stage for a better connection. As this this article points out:
Nobody avoids meeting people in real life by escaping to the Web. In fact, the opposite seems true: Short, continuous, low-content updates about the particulars of your friends' lives—Bob has the flu, Barbara can't believe what just happened on Mad Men, Sally and Ned are no longer on speaking terms—deepen your bonds with them. Writer Clive Thompson has explored this phenomenon, what social scientists call "ambient awareness."
Ambient awareness.  I like that term.

Rediscovering the Great Depression

A few months ago, one of my colleagues wanted my help. He wanted me to create a very simple model -- this was so that he could show that the more complex models that everybody uses in hydrology were actually necessary. Essentially, I was to create a model that would take a dive.

I've done lots of things involving severe storms, but nothing involving hydrology. So, I was excited, got into it and came up with a simple model that was nevertheless quite good. It sure wasn't going to take a dive. By god, it would put up a fight.

And today, I presented the paper. I talked about the problem (an I/O formulation doesn't work), my idea (a finite impulse response function) and how I approached the non-linear optimization (a combination of genetic algorithms and linear regression). Then, on to the results which demonstrated a very good fit on the independent test event which happened to be an extreme event.

Pretty proud of it all, I then opened the floor to questions. The first question was really a comment. "You seem to have rediscovered the unit hydrograph," the audience member remarked, "which has been known since the 1930s."

Americans and Irony

I'm at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting in Phoenix this week and was attending a talk.  A professor from Imperial College, London remarked, after one of this jokes fell flat, "I was told that irony doesn't work in America, but I thought you'd appreciate it."

His problem was not that the audience didn't get the irony but that he misjudged his audience.  These, as far as I can tell, were his two jokes:
1. Sometime in the middle of this talk, he said "this material was distributed to scientists, academics and even politicians like me".
2. He remarked "my friend, Dr. Fernando who is a well-known Greek scholar, calls this somethingmetrics".
I was just puzzled by the first reference, as I'm sure the rest of the audience was.  Apparently the fellow has been knighted for his work on urban air quality and so, he's technically a member of the House of Lords.  That was his "politicians like me" reference.  As for the second, it turns out Dr. Fernando is one of the fellows in his lab,  and so presumably just another meteorologist.  But for all we knew, he might have been a Greek scholar.

Humor is not that different.  You need to figure out what your audience knows before you start cracking jokes and condescending to their sense of humor.

All neurosurgeons

In Oklahoma, it seems that half the Indian-American population consists of physicians. So, when Asif Mandvi blurts out "We are all neurosurgeons, Jon!", I found it particularly funny.

The sexy mustache

I've often suspected that I'm just ahead of the fashion curve. Apparently, mustaches are the new in thing for hip and sexy people (viz Brad Pitt, on left).

A word of caution, though: My mustache reminded at least one New York comedian of porn stars. Mine apparently wasn't the only one that prompts people to reach for that metaphor:
Douglas Friedman, 36, a photographer, has endured many a jab since he grew a “porn-star ’stache,” as the basic mustache is now widely known, on a whim 10 years ago. “I get a lot of good-natured ribbing, but it’s usually derogatory,” he said. ...
Widely known as "porn-star 'stache"? I am out of touch!

Obama the unsuccessful amateur food critic

WWTV in Chicago has a TV show called Check Please! where locals visit a restaurant and then review it on camera. Apparently, they got State Senator Obama to review "Dixie Kitchen" back in the day, but didn't think it was worth running (he doesn't seem that bad to me, but who knows what the show's producers were looking for). But now, of course, they are going to run that "long-lost Obama episode". Here are a couple of You-Tube snippets:

The new hip thing

The hip thing to do if you are white and visiting India is to be a Bollywood extra. So much so that there's a well-known spot that guidebooks tell interested tourists to visit:
If you'd rather be in a Bollywood movie than simply see the set of one, that's possible too. Foreigners are always in demand to be extras in Bollywood movies. The easiest way to make it happen is to hang around Colaba Causeway in Mumbai, particularly in the area around Leopold's Cafe, and you're sure to be approached to be an extra. Expect long hours, lots of waiting, and pay of around 500 rupees ($12) per day.

An Australian who actually followed the advice insists:
If you are a westerner and reasonably young you WILL get asked to be in a film so don't worry about potentially wasting your travel time to allow for being in a film. If I can be a Bollywood extra, anyone can.

But it was not really that simple -- Bollywood could choose among the interested foreigners; so you also had to be reasonably attractive. One of the more entertaining stories reported one fellow's struggle to get a speaking part in an Bollywood film, along with a bunch of social commentary:
Whites might score speaking parts here and there, Gary explained, but the roles often made you feel dirty, because you were promoting a negative stereotype—white men as brutes and buffoons. The role landed by the New York comedian Brandon Hill, for instance, was that of an American billionaire who is duped into "buying" the Taj Mahal. And in one film whose premiere I attended, the character portrayed by Corin Nemec—an American actor known for such immortal works as RoboDoc, Operation Dumbo Drop, and Mansquito—travels to Gujarat to learn more about Gandhi but (like E. M. Forster's Adela Quested) suffers a breakdown when confronted with the "real" India. He ends up smashing furniture and getting bombed on country liquor. Bollywood's racism toward whites, Gary said, was most pronounced when it came to a white man dating an Indian woman. The grievance was personal for him, since Gary's wife is Indian; he leaned on the point repeatedly.

Later, Gary told me a director had just offered him a part in a film. "An actress comes into my hotel room," he said, describing the role. "I see her, throw a fit, call her a prostitute." This character, Gary said disgustedly, pressures the girl for sex; she rejects him in horror. I asked him if he took the part. Of course not, he declared. "I said, 'I'm not interested.'"

My pulse quickened.

"I'm interested," I breathed. Gary lifted his eyebrows.

"You don't mind being seen as a rapist? Because every time they need a white rapist, they'll call on you." I didn't mind, I told him. I jotted down the number of the director whose part Gary had refused.

To make a long story short, he didn't get even the part of a rapist.

But apparently, it's gotten a whole lot easier, thanks to last month's terrorist attacks on Mumbai and the subsequent reduction in the number of tourists:
Until recently, Imran had an easy job. He and his underlings could meet and enlist as many as 50 extras with a day's notice, no problem. But that was before Nov. 26, when a group of heavily armed men went on a sadistic, three-day rampage that ended with 163 dead. Since then, the tourism business all across India has essentially flat-lined. During a recent three-week trip through the country, I saw way more armed guards than Europeans and scarcely any Americans. Every large and pricey hotel now has a private security detail, and you can't get near the front door until the undercarriage of your car has been checked for bombs and all your luggage has been wanded. The creepy part is that once you're waved through, it's often just you and the staff in a huge and empty lobby.

So, if you've always wanted to be a movie star, go to Bombay before tourism revives!

Open-source software for data mining

What's the world coming to? The New York Times has an article on open-source software used for data mining. In this case, it's a hagiography of R:

Some people familiar with R describe it as a supercharged version of Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software that can help illuminate data trends more clearly than is possible by entering information into rows and columns. What makes R so useful — and helps explain its quick acceptance — is that statisticians, engineers and scientists can improve the software’s code or write variations for specific tasks. Packages written for R add advanced algorithms, colored and textured graphs and mining techniques to dig deeper into databases.
But R also has quite a learning curve. The easy things are easy, yes. But the easier things are probably even easier in Excel. For the more complex things, you do need to know how to program. I really learned to use R by reading the book (what a quaint concept) by Venables and Ripley.

What other open-source software do I use in my day-to-day data mining work? I use Weka for quick analysis of data sets (the corresponding book by Frank and Witten is useful to understand what these tools are doing). For neural networks, I use SNNS even though it's quite old and not quite maintained anymore.

The main reason I use these tools? They're scriptable so that I can combine UNIX shell scripts with statistical analysis on large data sets and automate the whole damned thing. That's hugely important for real-world data mining, and it's something that closed-source software makes hard. Often overlooked in the case for open-source tools is that it is typically easier to incorporate them into larger, more complex systems.

PBS Documentary on India

PBS is running a 6-episode documentary on India Mondays starting Jan. 5. From the website on the program:
India is also the world's most ancient surviving civilization, with unbroken continuity back into prehistory ... This series sets out for the first time to ... show a world audience the wonders of India; the incredible richness and diversity of its peoples, cultures and landscapes; and the intense drama of its past, including some of the most momentous, exciting and moving events in world history.
I checked out a short clip from the documentary; it was on Madurai. Based on that, the documentary seems to be an awful lot of deep-throated narration accompanied by poor visuals and an ignorance of history. The Madurai Meenakshi temple mentioned in that video has amazingly intricate sculptures; why any one would prefer a distant view of temple spires is beyond me. There was also no mention of the (relatively recent) history of the temple -- from its destruction in the 13th century by Muslim invaders, to its triumphant rebuilding by a Hindu chieftain in the 14th century. Hopefully, the full series proves me wrong.

Which brings me to ... does anyone have a DVR? Can you record it? I don't want to buy the DVD if the full show is as bad as that short.

UPDATE: A friend, now living in Ireland, informs us that it ran there a few months ago and that it's well worth watching. So much for forming impressions based on snippets, eh?

Negative Three

Thanks to playing Mary in her preschool's Christmas pageant and eagerly anticipating the birth of a cousin, the four-year-old is totally engrossed by the question of babies.

"When I was a baby," she asked her brother, "how old were you, S1?"

"I was three," he replied promptly.

"And when you were a baby," she continued, "how old was I?"

"You were not born yet," I started to say when S1 interjected with his answer, "negative three!"

New Year Graphic Forecast

This graphical temperature forecast was put out by the Norman Forecast Office yesterday (thanks to D.L. for pointing me to it). Even with the hint, I didn't get it until I was given a second hint.

The second hint? Look at the first letters of the Oklahoma cities.