Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Yes, Republicans Are Bad For Science

I know a lot of scientists who think politics is beneath them, or that politicians are all the same or some such.  It's just not true.  Demorcrats, when they have been in charge do not engage in witch hunts against scientists.  Republicans do.  Democrats do not try and hobble research institutions and federal funding agencies.  Republicans do.  These things are not the same and any scientist who either "forgets" to vote or who votes for any Republican is doing harm to science.  Full stop.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Capitalism Values

I feel like I'm the only person whose mind boggles that Apple is the highest valued company in the world (and by a huge margin). Apple is a gadget company.  They make toys.  They do innovate, but not really all that much when compared with the research done by companies in medical (incl. pharma) and energy markets.  At some level they don't even make their products, they just design them; a Chinese factory makes them, and Apple gets all the profit.

Their high valuation comes not because they make great products that enhance human welfare--everything they make is made by other companies, sometimes (often?) better, and almost always cheaper--but because their product market is massive (pretty much everyone on the globe), and they are able to sell those products with much higher profit margins than any of their competitors.  Buying an Apple product is like buying any luxury good: you spend a lot more money for something that isn't measurably better but that has the proper logo on it.  It's arguably worse since many luxury goods are measurably better than the non-luxury alternatives, whether that is nicer materials or better construction, or simply, somehow more (think houses or boats).

This isn't saying Apple is bad (it isn't) or people are stupid (we are but this isn't really a great example), but rather that capitalism values making money, and Apple is better at that than anyone else.

Most other large companies require huge capital investments to get going--oil companies need rigs, labs, land access, mineral rights..., pharma companies need lots of expensive laboratory equipment, as well as plants for scaling up.  Apple doesn't.

In most competitive markets the profit margins of products get driven down--Amazon's margins are sometimes negative.  Apple doesn't reduce its margins to gain advantage.

This should serve as a major indictment of capitalism (similar to the unhealthy profits and values of banks and other financial institutions).  I'm not sure why it doesn't, but I'm suspicious that the people most vocal about the "evils of capitalism" also happen to like and use Apple, and so can't see that the company that makes their computer is very representative of the problem.

It seems that if capitalism best served human welfare, then the largest companies would be the most welfare enhancing.  But the most welfare enhancing aspects of [most] societies are actually government run: health care, infrastructure (water, power, transportation), and social welfare programs (anti-poverty, unemployment, retirement) all contribute massively to increasing human welfare, but they are government operated precisely because they are not profitable enterprises which means capitalism wants nothing to do with them.

In reality it is neither capitalism nor socialism but some melding of the two that best serve society, but still, Apple's valuation is mind boggling.

10/28/2015 Update: Looks like Vox is following my blog.  Of course they come off more like fans than seeing this as an strange byproduct of the values of capitalism.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


I'm not very surprised to hear that more men than women have major parts in movies, but I am surprised that it is as dramatic as it is.  
...In the 120 films the MDSC analyzed, only 30.9 percent of speaking and named characters were women......The United States is far from a leader: Of the 11 most profitable film-producing territories, the United States ranks near the bottom in allocating speaking roles to women.hickey-datalab-globalstudyThe MDSC, which studies the portrayal of women and minority groups in film, also found that women were more than twice as likely as men “to be shown in sexually revealing attire.”
Unlike the plight of minorities in film--which does make some sense from a pure marketing standpoint--that women would be so dramatically underrepresented is very odd. 50% of the population is female, and so 50% of your potential ticket buyers are female, and so it seems that more female characters and leads would mean more potential revenue.

That women are more sexualized in film: also not surprising.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Weird Guy

So Harvard Law School professor (and TED talk dude) Larry Lessig is running for president.  Ok, but, how is it possible that a Harvard law prof is so stupid about politics?
Lessig believes his plan will actually “elevate” [the debate] above the partisan divide by taking on an issue he said Americans agree on: campaign finance reform. Lessig said his proposed platform “would fix this democracy and make it possible for government to actually do something without fear of what the funders want them to do.”
That sounds like something a stupid person would think sounds smart.  First off: Americans agree on a lot of things that don't get past the partisan divide.  In fact, the majority opinion of the American people on almost every issue is supported by the Democratic party.  Tax the rich more: yep.  Regulate Wall Street and banksters: yep.  Everyone should have health care access: yep.  Social security should be kept the same or made more generous even if it means increasing taxes: yep.  People that actually work for a living should have a wage that supports, you know, living: yep.  Children should have access to good schools and should not be allowed to go hungry: yep.  Companies should not be allowed to pollute (air, streams) endangering the health of entire communities: yep.

It is the vary narrow support of [mostly] incredibly wealthy ass holes that is the Republican party line.  He thinks, somehow, that this will be above the fray of politics?  The only thing that allows Republicans to win anywhere in this country is the money in politics (well, that combined with racism and sexism).  They lose on the issues--nearly all of them.

Moreover, a partisan divide is not a bad thing inherently.  It is problematic in our political system because the minority party has enough power to stop anything from happening.  Abolishing the Senate and eliminating gerrymandering in the House would do far more to improve our political fortunes, and is every bit as likely to occur as Lessig's personal delusion.

Other Advantages

While Atrios does (as usual) have a good point here, one of the reasons that [super]trains are compared to air travel rather than auto is because they are more comparable experiences.  You buy a ticket, get a seat, are on your own to get to and from the stations, can't bring too much stuff and can't decide to take random breaks for whatever.

If I could take my dog on a train with me (as you can lots of places in least the city light rail) and if there was a good enough network that after I get off the intercity rail there were plenty of other trains/transit options to get around at the destination (as there is in Europe and in some US cities) then I could look at a train as an alternative to driving.  Right now, it isn't, and it won't be.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Paragraph o' the Day

So far my favorite response to Scalia's "weighty" descent from this Wonkette article:
And poor Antonin Scalia was so angry about the majority decision that he proclaimed in his dissent, “Words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is ‘established by the State.’” We would comment on this, but banana dust intriguingly parses our kleptomaniac vertebrae. Moist colander prevails! Justice Scalia needs to ask himself: Has Anyone Really Been Far Even as Decided to Use Even Go Want to do Look More Like? Truly, we say, armadillo.

There's Always Been Anger

I agree with Atrios that the kids are alright, but I don't think the anger he mentions here is new.  I think that it is just more easily dispersed via the internet.  The vitriol you read in most comments sections today was always there, but pre-internet it was someone reading the paper and yelling at the wind (and maybe his wife and kids...and yes, it was probably a "he" then just as now).

The internet is a remarkable force in our lives, and primarily (overwhelmingly?) for good, but it is a tool, and one that can be and is used for ill at times.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Conservative Catholics in the US

Interesting history lesson on conservatism and Catholicism in the US in the 60's and 70's and its parallels to today.

Catholic--indeed most Christian--conservatives have always struck me as odd.  Excepting sexual liberalism, it is very clear that liberal policies fit in far better with New Testament teachings than do conservative policies.  In fact most conservative Christians point to the Old Testament to find justifications for their political beliefs, ignoring the many times that the New Testament directly or implicitly contradicts those points.

Rich, athiest conservative (e.g. Ayn Rand) makes logical sense.  General asshole/jerk (e.g. racists, Sheldon Adelson) conservative makes emotional sense.  There is a narrow weaving of non-asshole, non-rich that may make some sort of sense, though a strong sense of individualist (aka selfishness) or kook (e.g. Ron Paul) is still required to fit in that gap.  Christian conservative just doesn't.  At all.

Unlike asshole Bill Maher I think that religion can be a positive force in society.  Most religions preach tolerance, love of neighbor, helpfulness, caring for others, disdain for violence, selflessness... That doesn't mean that there are not [always] going to be people who twist some aspect of some religion to violence and selfishness.  There is also a lot of us and them isolationism in religious communities (Mormons donate a the LDS church, they give to other charities at much lower rates than the general public).

I've got lots more thoughts on the subject but this is it for now...

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

"If You Don't Want to Pay for Other People's Health Insurance...

...You Can't Live in a First World Nation."

Title says it all, but the text explains it to assholes (i.e. Republicans who think Obamacare Medicaid and Medicare should all die).  Unfortunately, the evidence shows that said assholes won't have their mind changed by the facts presented which run counter to their beliefs.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Scientific Repetition

Reading through this Vox article I nodded quite a bit.  A few quick notes...

In graduate school I did some research that...didn't discredit so much as countered previously published work by another group (note: I seriously doubt it was fraud).  Nothing came of it.  In a perfect science world, it would have been written up.  Not a major publication, but a short note, with the relevant data and the [correct] explanation.  Except: most researcher's wouldn't really care, lots that would may have figured it out anyway (actually, probably not, but I like to think the best of other scientists) and publication of a short note like that, which really only exists to say "those guys were wrong" seems...petty and spiteful.  That I didn't know the other researchers at all is irrelevant, petty and spiteful are not good reasons to publish.

Still, it would have been best for that particular field of science had that work been published.  Better information which may have helped other researchers doing similar work and referencing the older, [partly] incorrect work.  But had we tried, I've no idea where it would have been accepted.  It's another side of the coin from a "failed experiments" journal.  Science that should have worked but didn't, things that did work, but for which the explanation was wrong or incomplete.

There's a lot of science out there and so there are a lot of these "failures".

One point that I would like to make has to do with the statement in the article that
Most studies aren't replicated — and researchers are discouraged from doing so
which may be true for some longer/larger experiments.  Those that require a full grad student career (or more) to complete, or that are so expensive, that repeating them practically requires a grant application that details "why we should do this again".  In many of those cases, lots of researchers are involved early on and do a lot of checking of each other's work.  Also, in many cases, the raw data is available for subsequent researchers to look into.  But for a lot of smaller experiments--which actually make up the bulk of science research--the studies often are replicated, in the same lab by subsequent students, or by other labs with similar interests/directions.

In those cases, problems do get found out and understood and passed around, but very rarely does that occur via publication that directly counters previous work.  More likely a post-doc comes into a lab knowing about the old paper, and a senior level grad student informs her "actually, that wasn't right and this is what really is happening" and the post-doc is now informed and does research with her new understanding...that has not been published.  Sometimes you can comb through a trail of publications and note that a change took place without any acknowledgement to it taking place, and sometimes you have to either go through the lab or know people connected to it to find out.  So researchers connected to a research network may know a particular thing doesn't work, or didn't mean what it was initially thought, but researchers outside that network may not.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I Voted

Local elections and midterms are often a bit odd.  Effectively today's primary here was the "real" election for most (all?) of the positions.  My area is very heavily Democratic, to the point that Republicans here often put their names on the Democratic primary ballots.  I'm not sure if this is an attempt to confuse or a serious way for them to have their ideas/positions heard and vetted.  I also don't know if it makes much difference since Democrats are always outside the polling location handing out lists of actual Democrats in the primary.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Is There Really a Call For This?

I know that some people party all night long, but even in college, even when we had no restrictions (i.e. house party) things were mostly done by 3 am.  Yes, there were occasional later nights, and yes, some people have schedules that make the wee hours of the morning a perfectly sensible time to have a beer, but is there really enough of a pool of patrons to have bars stay open until 4 am?  Well, in a working/residential city anyway (not Vegas, not New Orleans)?

I know I'm old and all, but things just go downhill fast after 2 am.  Also, nearby residents probably will hate it and stay off my lawn (don't really have to worry much in my inner burb hood).

Monday, April 13, 2015

Being the liberal I am I generally think the IRS gets too much shit, especially since they don't actually write the tax code.  Back in the mid aughts I had a very specific beef with the IRS: I wanted to file taxes online (quicker, computer assist makes things easier) but the only options for such were 3rd party programs...which cost money (if your income is below a certain level and you are filing the 1040EZ then they are free).  There was no good reason for this.  Several states (including Illinois, where I was living at the time) had free online filing, and it seemed the only reason the fed did not was that tax prep groups (firms and software) were preventing it from being implemented.

Well, it's been available for several years now (can't remember when exactly).  It's not as good as it should be: forms should have more assistance like hover-over description or direct links to the relevant part of the instructions, and some things that should be automated are not (Why do I have to look up my tax from the tax table and input that?  Why doesn't it pull info from the W2's over to the relevant places automatically...and speaking of, why isn't entering W2's the first thing it asks you to do?).  Still, it is navigable, and I neither have to pay a preparer nor a software company to file electronically.  Overall I like it.

Taxes are still too complex, but that is not the IRS's fault, it's the fault of politicians and special interests.  And no politician, no matter what they say, is actually interested in simplifying it, because you can't simplify it without increasing taxes on some group (either special interest or fairly broad).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Anti-GMO Nuts Similar to Anti-Vax Nuts

Anti-GMO (and to a lesser extent a lot of the super organic everything types) Nuts are pretty high on my personal pet peeve list.  As a public health/welfare issue it is less important as the anti-vax crowd as the anti-gmo group mostly just way overspends on groceries, but the clear disdain both groups hold for the actual science on the issues is infuriating to me.

I'm really not happy to see Consumer Reports on the nutjob side of this fence.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Wearable Fitness

Krugman points out one benefit of the wearable fitness trackers that are getting popular but misses another.  The immediacy thing has been doable for some time now in the form of pedometers.  What the newer electronic devices that couple to apps on on your phone gives you is not just the inability to fool yourself but also introduces a game element, including competition with yourself and others.

People [generally] have more fun running 5 km in a race than they do on their own.  If I walk 15k steps a day: so what?  If I'm involved in a work-week challenge with friends and family: I can win!  Also, this adds the guilt element: other people will know if you're a slug.  The more automated the tracking and notifications are the more likely people are to do them.

I am reminded of the fitness program in "Ready Player One".  He was a slug who did little exercise and ate pizza, but the program, which could not be uninstalled for a month (iirc) wouldn't let him online until he had exercised.

We generally recognize that fitness is more fun when it is a game, but not all people are going to be good/capable of all games.  Personal trackers that monitor steps, fitness level, heartrate, allow anyone to play the fitness game.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Peggy Carter singing 10,000 Maniacs

Yes, I am very aware that it's actually Natalie Merchant, but that was my first thought on seeing this older performance on YouTube (actually saw it on Krugman's blog).  She doesn't actually look like Hayley Atwell, but the outfit, hair and camera angles...Agent Carter was the first person I thought of.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

"Liberal" Professors

Professors and universities are bastions of liberal thought.  Sure, but why?  This article states that the reason is self-selection, i.e. liberal youth consider academia an appropriate destination more than conservative youth and so choose it.  Fine, but this seems to me to be circular and so there is still a "why?" to consider.

First: it is circular, because the self-selection needs to be kickstarted somehow.  There needs to be a reason that liberals are more likely to see academia as a good environment to them that isn't "there are more liberals than conservatives in academia." It had to get that way somehow.  Note that that could have still been self-selection but the motivation to get from no apparent bias to professors are all liberal can't be that professors are all liberal.

So, why is it that academia developed into a place where liberals gather?  I haven't the resources (time or physical) to figure this out myself--I certainly do have a few thoughts on the matter--but this isn't a new phenomenon (some aspects are but not the whole liberal vs. conservative thought in educational settings).  

I should also note that while this has some bearing on US politics, that isn't necessarily a big part of it. Particularly today, the political side of liberal vs. conservative doesn't really register to me as an intellectual debate.  The two political sides are far more divided along emotional and group lines, though, yes, one side is far more welcoming of intellect/reason/facts/science/thought/... than the other.  

Friday, January 30, 2015

Seriously: Don't Use Brokers

Even before Wolf of Wall Street and now the Furman memo (first at Bloomberg but more fun read is Taibbi's). It was obvious to anyone who paid any attention that managed funds were a bad idea.  Tons of fees and most do worse than the market average (deducting fees even more are worse).  Yesterday's golden boy is tomorrow's goat--past success does not predict future success in finance.

Your best option is and has been to park your money in a couple low cost index funds (exchange traded or not) and then leave it there.  For balance split between total stocks and total bonds.  You can add REIT and international if you feel like it and the ratio of the split(s) should relate to your risk tolerance (more simply: to your age).  That's it.  Anyone who tells you differently is trying to take money from you and pocket it himself (well, maybe herself, but let's be honest: it's probably gonna be a dude).

Yes some people (and maybe you!) can get lucky and pick the right blend of stocks at the right times and make a killing: doing way better than the market.  But 00 may also come up on the roulette wheel, the dealer may not be sitting on 20 with that face card showing, and 7 could get rolled 3x in a row.  If you want to gamble, that's fine, and the stock market is as good a place to do it as any (and more respectable for some odd reason).  If you are just trying to save for retirement the best way possible, on the other hand, gambling isn't the wise choice.  You may hit the financial jackpot, but probably, you're going to be a lot poorer than you would be if you had just stuck with the simple, cheap option.

Because We Don't...Listen?

Look, scientists are not necessarily the people we want to pay attention to for every little thing.  We are, however, the go-to people for, you know, science stuff.  That's why some of this crap is really frustrating.

Look at that list then think about where the two parties sit.  One party is pro-science, the other is not.  There are some crossover issues, but they are not really party platform points...Yes, more liberals (probably) think GM foods are not safe to eat, and certainly more liberal politicians push for laws on labeling, but the Democratic party does not really care.  Animal research is similar.  Nuclear power is also similar except that the party is very much pro nuclear power.  

Only one party has large numbers who state they do not believe the science on climate change.  Only one party has presidential candidates who publicly declare that they do not believe in evolution.  Indirectly on the list but only one party fights against alternative energy mostly that which comes in the form of solar.

I really do wish the Republican party wasn't anti-science.  I probably still wouldn't vote for them because I have a heart (i.e. liberal on social issues) but at least I would be somewhat less fearful of the damage that will be done to our country and our planet when they have power.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Mostly "Conservative" Rich but Not Entirely

So the "Rich Think the Poor Have it Easy" do they?  I am genuinely curious about why this belief comes about.  Is it straight up class-ism?  Is it a combination of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal poisoning their brains?  I just don't understand how anyone could really believe that the poor have it easy.

We have a (small) safety net that mostly keeps poorer people from being completely destitute.  It helps keep poorer families from starving and helps keep a roof over their head.  Public schools provide some opportunity for advancement for their children, though it should be pretty obvious how inadequate that is.  Moreover we put less toward alleviating poverty today than we did 40, 50 years ago.

I wonder how much is an age divide.  Older people are more likely to be rich.  They mostly grew up during that time that being poor was less of an obstacle than it is today, and there are dramatic differences in some standard of living/cultural issues that confuse the whole picture--"When I was a kid I didn't have an  Xbox and a 40 in. flat screen to play it on!  I had a stick and a hoop and I liked it!"

...really this post is going to be either too long or incomplete so I'm leaving it incomplete.  I just wish I could understand the astounding lack of empathy among the well off in our society.  On the one hand they complain about how hard it is to get by on only $250k, on the other they think people making $20k/year have it easy.