24-hour News Panic

If 24-hour cable news can not fill their time with outrage, they move on to panic.

According to the CDC, seasonal influenza or flu causes on average (within the United States):
  • 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu;
  • more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications; and
  • about 36,000 people die from flu-related causes.
If you will recall, swine flu so far has killed 160 people worldwide. So, what makes swine flu such a threat that it should be dominating the news cycle? Sure, the WHO classifies this a pandemic, not just seasonal influenza. But the pandemic classification does not mean it's dangerous now, but that it could become dangerous:
New diseases are, by definition, poorly understood. Influenza viruses are notorious for their rapid mutation and unpredictable behaviour ... WHO will be tracking the pandemic at the epidemiological, clinical, and virological levels ... Countries should remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia ...

The biggest question, right now, is this: how severe will the pandemic be, especially now at the start? It is possible that the full clinical spectrum of this disease goes from mild illness to severe disease. We need to continue to monitor the evolution of the situation to get the specific information and data we need to answer this question.

Meanwhile, our president is out there advising that schools be closed if any child gets the flu. If a school in a town is closed, the parents stay home, the economy of that town grinds to a halt. Is that what we need in a deep recession?

There is a significant societal cost that we are paying for our 24-hour cable news channels and their fake stories.

Gluttony or finickiness

S1 ran in the OKC kids marathon today. At the end of the marathon, they were handing out food -- bananas, apples, waters and a hamburger. This person has, like most of the others, fully eaten the hamburger (at 9am in the morning!) but left the apple untouched:
The next one is a picture from the 89er day parade last week where people riding the floats throw candy to spectators lining the street. This kid sure has been busy. Notice all the half-eaten candy wrappers on his blanket.
What's the opposite of such gluttony? Self-restraint, I would think. But people just go to the other extreme, becoming way too finicky about the food. Again, from the day of the 89er day parade, a notice on the billboard of a local organic produce store:
What happened to good old moderation in matters of food?
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David Boren fights the good fight

Pretty proud that David Boren (now president of OU) had something to do with us not torturing any more:

At the time, Obama was leaning toward adopting the Army Field Manual rules for intelligence interrogations but wanted to receive a broader perspective. He sent Craig; retired Gen. James L. Jones, now the national security adviser; foreign policy adviser Denis McDonough; former senators David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and Chuck Hagel(R-Neb.); and former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith to Langley. ...

The use of waterboarding ended in 2003, but Hayden said he wanted to keep the flexibility to utilize some of the other, less controversial techniques. Boren and Smith said the group was not convinced that whatever useful intelligence had been gleaned from the programs warranted keeping them as an option.

Not renewing football tickets

This email just landed in my email-box:

We hope you will once again join us for what we anticipate will be another special season on Owen Field; however, we have not yet received your 2009 season ticket renewal.  The deadline was yesterday and if you would like to retain your season tickets, payment must be received by the end of the day tomorrow, Friday, April 24.

Last year, I went through a tortured decision process before I decided to renew my tickets.  This year, I nearly missed the deadline to renew them. I do have a few more hours, but I think I'll just let it slide ...

Frugal Health Care

The Economist points out that America's health care model is broken because of its failure to properly integrate technology, quoting two experts:
Many studies show that America’s spending on health care is soaring, yet its medical outcomes remain mediocre. Mark McClellen of the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank, says that a big problem is the overuse of technology. Whether or not a scan is needed, the system usually pays if a doctor orders it—and the scan might help defend the doctor against a malpractice claim. “The root cause is not greed, but tremendous technological progress imposed upon a fractured health system,” says Thomas Lee of Partners Community HealthCare, a health provider in Boston.
[emphasis mine]. My parents, of course, receive their medical care in India. My dad had his cataract operation at Aravind, which the Economist article points to for the way it keeps costs low through specialization and financial innovation:
Rather than rely on government handouts or charity, Aravind’s founders use a tiered pricing structure that charges wealthier patients more (for example, for fancy meals or air-conditioned rooms), letting the firm cross-subsidise free care for the poorest. ... Aravind also benefits from its scale. Its staff screen over 2.7m patients a year via clinics in remote areas, referring 285,000 of them for surgery at its hospitals. International experts vouch that the care is good, not least because Aravind’s doctors perform so many more operations than they would in the West that they become expert. Furthermore, the staff are rotated to deal with both paying and non-paying patients so there is no difference in quality. Monitor’s new report argues that Aravind’s model does not just depend on pricing, scale, technology or process, but on a clever combination of all of them.
Whereas Apollo, where my mom once had surgery, keeps costs low while being technologically on par with Western hospitals.

Unlike the hidebound health systems of the rich world, he says, “in our country’s patient-centric health system you must innovate.” This does not mean adopting every fancy new piece of equipment. Over the years he has rejected surgical robots and “keyhole surgery” kit because the costs did not justify the benefits. Instead, he has looked for tools and techniques that spare resources and improve outcomes.

Of course, low cost is relative. My mom complained that Apollo cost a lot. But that was before she had to go visit a dentist when she was visiting us in the US. She then stopped complaining about how much Apollo costs.

Dog on pony

Sure, you've heard of dog-and-pony shows. But have you heard of a dog-on-pony show?
Scene from 89er day parade in Norman.
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Still needing an ethnic crutch

For the first time, I went to the Indian-American program at OU. These are the hyphenated Americans whose parents immigrated to this country.

The kids all acted and sounded Oklahoman. Their accents, sense of humor and speaking patterns all owe more to Broken Arrow or Edmond than to Gujarat or Kerala. Yet, nearly every one of the kids seemed to be part of an almost exclusively Indian fraternity/sorority. I was surprised that a university as small as OU (20,000 students) sports two "South Asian interest" fraternities and one such sorority.

The popularity of the fraternities probably is because 18-year olds gravitate towards what's comfortable. One of the videos in the program showed a homesick freshman coed being taken under the wing of a sorority and adjusting to life away from home. Yet ... why not just a regular Greek house? Why a "South-Asian interest" one?

When I was in grad school at Ohio State, it was interesting that when assignments had to be done in teams, all the teams would be ethnically homogeneous. The Turks would all do a project together; the French would team up with other French fellows; the Chinese would form a couple of groups and the Indians another (there were not enough Americans in engineering graduate school for them to be too picky on whom to consort with).

Maybe I was naive, but I'd expected that second-generation Americans would not need such an ethnic crutch. But apparently, they do.

P.S. Just so that it is clear: I am not casting any sort of aspersion on these kids. There is a lot of daylight between a few kids joining an ethnic fraternity and a nefarious cycle of poverty and radicalism such as when:
... six of ten ethnic Pakistanis in Britain pick a spouse from Pakistan ... British-born Pakistanis, or those who immigrated as children, are more likely to have foreign spouses than those who came to Britain as adults. This startling fact may help to explain why Pakistanis (and Bangladeshis, who have similar marital habits) are failing to close the gap with other ethnic groups on female employment. Only a quarter of ethnic Pakistani women work, compared with 64% of Indians, for example. Mr Manning thinks something has to give: British women have greater earning power than their Pakistani husbands, which makes traditional roles in the home less plausible. In some cases, extremism may stem in part from male frustration that the old order is being subverted, he speculates.

What S1 was doing in the 89er day parade

One of the local banks had a float in the 89er day parade on Saturday (This commemorates the land-run of 1889 that culminated in Oklahoma becoming a state sixteen years later). Since the theme of the parade this year was "green", the bank outsourced part of their float to S1's second-grade class and their recycling rap.

That's why S1 was marching in the parade with a host of other green-clad little people. I'm sure he's not the kind of Indian the original 89ers had in mind.

Oklahoma City's Hindu Temple

Oklahoma, for a long time, did not have a big enough Indian community to afford a proper Hindu temple. The community used a glorified barn a long, long away from the city. One nice benefit of the rural location is a great, unobstructed view. This, for example, was the view from the temple on Monday evening:
But over time, enough money was collected. And parts of the temple were built as money came in. Now, the temple is now nearly complete. This is the gopuram (spire) that marks the entrance to the temple.
And a close-up of one of the reliefs:
The official opening is in June. It's at 7200 N. Coltrane in Oklahoma City.
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First Herbs

Our herb and vegetable garden was a disaster last year. We were traveling quite a bit and it became over-grown with weeds.

Two of the herbs have come back: tarragon and mint. The herb we use the most of -- basil -- comes up only in peak summer, so I won't know whether it survived or whether we have to buy a new plant.

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Confirmed Prejudices

Nothing like having one's prejudices confirmed.  A few years ago, the wife and I stopped over in Oman on the way to India and took a taxi tour of the place. The whole city struck me as surreal: the palatial buildings, the omnipresent pictures of the sultan, the oblivious white people, the blue-overall-clad underclass of South Asians and the craziness of the locals. Johann Hari went to Dubai, and he wrote up his experience:
"The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems," Karen says at last. "Nothing. This isn't a city, it's a con-job. They lure you in telling you it's one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."
Meanwhile, to confirm another prejudice comes this article about lobbying. The next time some one tells me that lobbying is a first-amendment right, I can now point to data that proves that it may be free speech, but it's really just bribery:
we use audited corporate tax disclosures relating to a tax holiday on repatriated earnings created by the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 to examine the return on lobbying. We find firms lobbying for this provision have a return in excess of $220 for every $1 spent on lobbying

Half-read books

For some reason, I suddenly have a string of half-read books. I don't know whether it's because extensive blog reading has reduced my tolerance of a long-winded story or whether it's just random chance and I just happen to have picked up a series of not-quite interesting books.

Working backwards, these are the half-read books:
  1. Snowball, a biography of Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and for many years, one of the two richest men in the world. He's also a world-class bridge player and since I'm interested in both stocks and bridge, I thought this should break my half-read streak. The book starts strong; Buffet's childhood enterprises -- he was filing business taxes by the time he was 14 -- were amazing, and my interest didn't flag through his post-Columbia years working for Ben Graham. But pretty soon, we get to Buffett's own career and the narrative falls apart. Buffett was extremely secretive -- people who invested with him had to trust what he did because he would not tell them about his exact investments. He would make his clients join informal partnerships so as to not exceeed 100 clients because with 100 clients, he would have had to register with the SEC. He did his own accounts and paper work. He promised his clients a return of 10% above the market. He would take only clients who specifically asked to join him -- they had to literally "beg". His most spectacular early investments -- in GEICO or American Express -- were completely contrary to his putative method (which was to follow Ben Graham's value philosophy). So by the time I came to this section of the book, Warenn Buffett started to resemble no one more than Bernard Madoff, the runner of a 50-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. And once I started to suspect that the subject of the hagiography might be a crook, my interest fell apart. I stopped reading around the 400th page (it's a 900-page book).
  2. The World a Moment Later which is a fabulous (in the sense of the "magic realism" of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) story of Israel. I loved Garcia's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. But under lesser writers, his magic realism falls apart. What works in Garcia's case is that his stories are about ordinary people. The powers that be are far away and their decisions affect the protoganists behind multiple layers of cause-and-effect that makes it seem magical. But Gutfriend's book is about a fellow who makes things happen by pulling strings behind the scenes. This simply doesn't work, and again one has no empathy for the protagonist. I stopped reading this book, too, half-way.
  3. Lincoln, the biography of a writer, is about Abe Lincoln and his impact on American literature. For whatever reason, Fred Kaplan starts the story with Lincoln's grand-father and the trials of Lincoln's father. By the time you come to the half-way point of the book, you still haven't read an analysis of anything that Lincoln wrote. I quit.
  4. Unconventional Success, an "investment guide" that purports to show that Wall Street is horribly compromised and the strategies that individual investors should follow. This turned out to be rather conventional advice, of the sort that every personal finance magazine doles out.

So what was the last book that I read cover-to-cover? It was Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. This is magic realism at its best. It's set in British India, at a time when the Brits were forcing Indian farmers to grow poppies (backbreaking labor, with the economics set up that farmers ended up being neck-deep in debt). The Brits would make opium and sell it in China, thus managing to kill two civilizations with one product. The protagonists of the story: a farmer's widow fleeing her husband's debts; an untouchable village idiot; a half-black American who's passing as white; a French orphan escaping the extremely class-conscious European society of Calcutta; a rich landowner cheated out of his land by a British merchant and put on a ship to Mauritius. It's the passengers of this ship, and the Indian seamen ("laskars") who man it, that form the crux of the story. A wonderful story, in an exotic but historical setting with characters you immediately start to empathize with ... is that really so hard?

Asian names

Giving Oklahoma's own Sally Kern a run for her money is North Texas representative Betty Brown:
Brown suggested that Asian-Americans should find a way to make their names more accessible. “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?” Brown said.
Betty is mixing up her Asians. Thai and Indian names are hard. Chinese and Vietnamese names are easy. For example, she made her statement during the testimony of someone named "Ramey Ko". Now, really ... how hard is that?

Why you should avoid liquidation sales

One of our friends, R., went to the Circuit City in Norman when they announced that they were closing the store (this was before the entire company went bankrupt). He wanted to buy a digital camcorder but found that (a) the "liquidation" price was higher than Amazon's and (b) he had to send it back to the manufacturer if it failed because the liquidation was conducted by someone other than Circuit City. There was no point in buying something at a brick-and-mortar store if he couldn't count on an easy return, so he ended up walking out.

Apparently, the majority of consumers were not as smart:
Circuit City hired professional liquidation services to run the final days of the chain. And somewhat counterintuitively, the first thing the liquidators did was raise prices. Substantially. And it worked. Merchandise flew out of the showroom and the company made some real money in its final moments of existence.

The reasoning actually proves pretty simple: A high-profile closure brings a crush of bargain-hunters. Circuit City was mobbed. Those customers, however, were operating off of a fairly simple theory of why they would get a good deal; Circuit City was going out of business and needed to sell down its stock. But the liquidator had a lot more experience with closures than the customers and so knew full well that the consumers would think they were getting a good deal whether or not they were. And so they in fact got a bad deal.

Liquidation sales, in other words, are typically bad deals.

Spring in Maryland

Peach on peach:
It's still too cold for this much color:
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Hot money

What's the deal with the unsubtle way post office and metro machines force dollar coins on you?

I took the Metro from Washington National's airport to my hotel and had only a 5-dollar note. The vending machine gave me two Thomas Jefferson dollar coins in change.
I got rid of the pair of coins within 24 hours, using them to pay for lunch.
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The excuse you've been looking for

According to research from the University of Melbourne:
Dr Brent Coker, from the Department of Management and Marketing, says that workers who engage in ‘Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing’ (WILB) are more productive than those who don’t. “People who do surf the Internet for fun at work - within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office - are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t,” he says.
Apparently because the short break increases workers' concentration subsequently.

UPDATE: The press release is dated April 2, 2009. One hopes the department didn't send it to their press office on April 1.

Worse than Chinglish

What's worse than Chinglish (Chinese instructions translated poorly into English)?

Chinese instructions that are not translated:
This is on a packet of mung bean noodles that I picked up. I tried immersing it in boiling water for a minute (what you'd do with dried rice noodles), but that didn't work. I then left in there, on the stove, for 15 minutes. The noodles remained gelatinous and uncooked.

I suppose the Chinese instructions tell you to soak it overnight in cold water first. Or something. I'm pretty sure step #3 is not to put the gelatinous mess into the trashcan. Which is what I did.
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