Monday, December 29, 2008

Our crappy newspapers

Over the holidays, family members one generation older than me were worried about the impending implosion of print media in this country, largely spurred by reports that the New York Times was having problems, as are pretty much all papers around the country. Circulation is down, revenue is down, etc. etc. The root cause of this doesn't appear to be Americans' lack of interest in getting the news, but rather that there are so many other sources for news. Couple this to the inability of print newspapers to figure out how to adapt to the internet, and that's why there're all in trouble. Indeed, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, let's not give them a free pass on the latter:
Four — the clearest thing management could have done better was to recognize earlier what business they were in. In particular, letting the online classified market slip away was a preventable error. Everyone might be posting their free classified on had someone really smart come up with that idea. The pageviews involved would have been a huge additional asset to the website and it would have been one newspaper undercutting the competition rather than all newspapers being undercut by a guy named Craig.

Further, let's not pretend that newspapers are doing a terribly good job of reporting the news. Most newspaper stories don't tell you anything but just fill up space. For example, here's a story from today's Washington Post with the intriguing headline "Webb Sets His Sights on Prison Reform." Read this story and try to find one detail of what Webb is proposing, or a piece of analysis, or anything. 90% of the story is Webb's biography, which could have been attached to a story about Senator Webb taking a dump.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Since it is Christmas, a Die Hard reference

"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer". . . Benefits of a classical education.
Ah Hans Gruber, you capture me perfectly. Having emerged as champion of both my fantasy football leagues this year (and scoring the most points overall in both, not simply lucking my way through the playoffs) I'm wondering if I should retire. Now I know what Bret Favre feels like, except I'm winning a lot.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hot Stove: the staff

The Sox boast possibly the best top 3 of a rotation in the game of Beckett, Lester, and DiceK. I've already talked about the first two the other day, so a word about DiceK. He's tough to watch, and one really wonders when and if his luck is going to run out, in that he puts a lot of guys on base but pitches out of it. Last year he loaded the bases 15 times... and opponents batted 0.000 against him. If you assume that the league bats 0.300 with the bases loaded (it is actually higher than that), then you'd get this outcome (0.7)^15 = 0.5% of the time. That's a good a definition of luck as you're going to find. My main beef with DiceK is that all his nibbling and high pitch counts leave him unable to consistently go deep into games, and the Red Sox bullpen (all teams' bullpens, really) pretty much stinks. But the guy won 18 games last year and had a sub 3.00 ERA, so all in all, he's solid.

The backend of the Sox rotation is still in flux. Wakefield may or may not be back next year -- the tea leaves point towards retirement for the longest-serving current member of the Red Sox (since '95), but my gut tells me he'll be back. Wake is kinda a mixed blessing, as he's no longer the guaranteed-2oo-innings guy he once was. If he's your number 5 starter, fine, but even as a 4 that doesn't make for a very deep staff. Other arms to consider to round out the rotation are Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson. The former stormed onto the scene with a no-hitter in his second MLB game in 2007, but was less-than-impressive in '08, ending the year in the minors. Masterson began the year as a starter for the Sox but eventually moved to the bullpen, much more a commentary on the sorry state of the Sox bullpen rather than as a demotion for his work as a starter. By the time of the playoffs, Masterson was essentially Fracona's fireman, the get-me-out-of-trouble in the middle innings guy out of the pen.

If I had to guess, I think the Sox make a play for a free agent pitcher to slide into the #4 slot -- Ben Sheets would be my first choice, because I think he's got a lot of upside, but Derek Lowe appears to be an option as well. The 5 spot is then Buchholz's to claim, as all things being equal, I'd prefer to see Masterson stay in the pen.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lander to advise Obama

Obama has named Eric Lander and Harold Varmus as Co-Chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Both are incredibly distinguished scientists, and even better, both do biology. I served as a teaching assistant for the intro biology class Lander teaches at MIT (he's a really good teacher). Lander has also oggled my wife on numerous occasions, although there's a lot of evidence to suggest she is not alone in this honor.

Seriously though, these are two really good people to have the president's (large) ear.

Hot Stove: the lineup

With the exception of catcher, the Sox aren't necessarily going to see any changes in their starting lineup; of course, they could sign Texeira and jumble everything up. Left to right in the OF is Bay, Ellsbury, and Drew. 4th OF is up for grabs, with Coco having been traded away and Kotsay a free agent. Especially with DL Drew on the roster, a capable 4th OF is a high priority. Defensively I'd say this is an average OF. Bay is a bit below average, Ellsbury has great range but no arm, and Drew gets a good jump on the ball but doesn't have blazing speed, and his arm is perhaps a bit above average.

In the IF, Lowell & Lowrie will work the left side, while the Sox boast the best right side IF in all of baseball, Youkilis & Pedroia. Lurking/sucking in the wings is Julio Lugo, who is still under contract with the Sox. Lowrie is probably average at best defensively at SS, as his range is pretty limited but he has sure hands on the balls he gets to and while not possessing a cannon, throws accurately and turns the double play pretty well. Lowell, Pedroia, and Youkilis are all excellent in the field, so defensively the Sox IF is pretty darn good. There's also a decent amount of flexibility by position, as Youk can play third while Lowrie has seen action at both second and third should the situation arise. The role of backup middle infielder in the past has gone to Alex Cora, but if the Sox aren't able to unload Lugo, they might be content to let him rot on the bench in that role this year. I suppose I'm fine with that.

As for hitting, Pedroia, Youkilis, Drew, Bay, & Lowell (if fully healthy, which he appears to be) are pretty much known quantities at this point, so as much as one can predict the future, they're likely to post similar numbers as last year. Ortiz, as mentioned yesterday, has more uncertainty, but what isn't uncertain is that he'll hit third and the Sox fortunes on offense will rise and fall with him.

Ellsbury was pretty uneven last year, starting off hot but then tailing off for pretty much the whole season, and not doing much of anything in the postseason (indeed, Crisp started several games in the ALCS). Since it was his rookie year, one would hope that he'll be better this time around, especially in terms of drawing walks and getting on base, where his speed is lethal. The Sox other starting rookie, Lowrie, ended the year with a 0.739 OPS, which, if he had enough at-bats, would have put him in the top 50 in the AL. So with some improvement, Lowrie could be a decent contributor. Indeed, how much or little these two now-second-year players improve will go a long way in determining the success of the Sox lineup.

Various statistical analyses have been done to show that, over the course of a 162 game season, lineup construction really doesn't matter all that much in terms of how many runs you'll actually score, but it is still fun to think about. The heart of the Sox lineup, from 2 - 6, is pretty darn good, with Pedroia, Ortiz, Youkilis, Drew, & Bay, which nicely alternates R/L. Lowell makes for a good 7th hitter. If, and this is a big if, Ellsbury can improve the point where he's a solid lead-off hitter, then this is a truly good lineup. Heck, it wouldn't surprise me if Lowrie actually showed more improvement and he ended up leading off. The only weak spot is catcher, whether it be the corpse of Varitek or some scrub they bring in.

Last year the Sox scored 845 runs, good for second in the AL behind only Texas. Of course, that team had Manny for half the season, although Bay did a reasonably good Manny impression when he arrived in August, putting up an OPS of 0.897 with the Sox (Manny's '08 Sox-only OPS was 0.927). Given that not a heck of a lot has changed since last year (at least not yet) I think the Sox will perform about the same on offense, with some room for improvement, if either Ellsbury makes some headway or Papi stays healthy. It is not a lineup that will wow you with homers, but they work the count, get on base, and above all, actually score a lot of runs.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hot Stove: looking back

With a snowstorm apparently imminent (quick, run to the grocery store to stock up on bottled water and Dinty Moore!), and with Mark Texeira talk burning up the WEEI airwaves, baseball has been on my mind a bit lately.

When we last left off, the Red Sox had lost Game 7 of the ALCS, sending the Rays to their first World Series. Why did they lose that series? Well, two items jump out. First, their 1 and 2 starters, Beckett and Lester, combined for 1 win and 3 losses, averaging under 6 innings a start with an ERA of 6.95 and WHIP of 1.41. Pretty much you could stop there, but their big bat, David Ortiz, put up a batting average of 0.154 and an OPS of 0.698, while another major bat, Mike Lowell, wasn't even on the roster. So let's start with these four players...

1) Beckett was clearly hurt, suffering from an oblique strain. The good news is that such an injury is unlikely to be a problem in the future (i.e. it is not an elbow or shoulder problem). So let's assume that Beckett, who'll be 29 next year, contributes what we're used to.

2) Lester was the Sox best pitcher in the regular season, pitching over 200 innings and going 16-6 with an ERA of 3.21. This wass the first year he'd ever pitched >200 innings in his career, so perhaps hitting the wall in the postseason was to be expected. At 25, Lester is still a baby so I think it reasonable to assume that you'll get another solid season out of him in 2009.

3) Ortiz... well, if there were a body type that were to age prematurely, it is the Big Papi. He played in only 109 games this year, but if you extrapolate that performance over 162 games, he'd have hit 34 homers and knocked in 132, so it is not like the played poorly when he was able to go. At 33, he is unlikely to post numbers that are better than previous years, but I'm not expecting him to be Mo Vaughn with the Mets either. His wrist bothered him during the year, but what no ones knows is if that is an injury that can ever fully heal, or if it is more of a chronic problem. Of these four, Ortiz is probably the biggest question mark; I would not be surprised if he hit 0.260 or .310, 20 homers or 45.

4) At 35, Mike Lowell isn't what he used to be, but he is not as old as he looks and he had a very good year in 2008 before getting hurt (extrapolated to 162 games, 24 HR and 105 RBI). Certainly he is a better hitter than those who filled in for him during the ALCS (some combo of Mark Kotsay & Alex Cora, when you got finished moving around Lowrie and/or Youk). Lowell's defense is above average, and in the lineup at this point, he'd be a good #7 hitter or a below-average #5.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tick tick tick

Jaguars are trailing by a touchdown, no timeouts left, and they complete a pass to the Colts 12 yard line with exactly 1 minute on the clock. To me, time is not an issue at this point. But the Jags spike the ball, making it second down. Stupid move, because now you only get three shots at the end zone instead of four.

Of course, as I type this, Garrard throws one out of the back of the end zone and then gets sacks to end the game, confirming that the Jags suck. In general, there's almost never a reason to spike the ball, except for stopping the clock to allow your kicker to come on to the field. If you're running your offense, then run a play, because you have to get everyone back to the line and set anyway.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

No comment

Why is it that people don't want to make comments to the press during on-going investigations? I mean, I see why from a political/public relations standpoint, because the more you say the more the story stays alive, even if you have played no major role in said story (e.g. Obama and Blago, which is what got me thinking about this). But all these statements of "I don't want to comment..." seem to have a vaguely legal tone to them, with the implication that if I opened my mouth and talked, there could be negative consequences towards either the investigation or myself. But is that true? At all? Certainly there would be negative consequences if you lied to the press about an on-going investigation -- certainly PR-wise, possibly legally -- but could there be negative consequences to anyone or anything if you told the truth?

Corn for all

Despite the fact that he's a Hamilton grad, I'm not a fan of Vilsack as Sec. of Agriculture. Our food policy in this country is beyond screwed up, with tons of subsidies given to all the wrong entities. Further, corn-based ethanol is idiotic, but as governor of Iowa, Vilsack has obviously been a huge proponent. Here's one place where it would have been nice to get someone with a genuinely new perspective on how we deal with food and taxpayer subsidies, but it looks like not much will change. I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Idiot Tax

Every time I wait in line behind someone buying scratch-off lottery tickets, I think to myself, jeez, what an idiot. These folks are also quite annoying, as they will hem-and-haw over the exact nature of how to flush $10 down the toilet, debating between "Spin for the Millions" or "Pot o' Gold."

After loathing these mental defectives for a few minutes, I then wonder of the benefits of having a lotto in the first place. The state certainly makes money off of it, as lotto ad campaigns are quick to advertise. But from the standpoint of the commonwealth, is a lotto really a good thing?

I have two opposing thoughts on this. First, we should ban the lotto because it essentially amounts to a poor tax -- don't see a lot of executives mindlessly rubbing a quarter over a piece of cardboard and sending gray dust to the floor. Thus, we'd be better off as a society if these folks didn't have one more outlet on which to piss their money away. Sure, I'm sure that cash would be wasted on something equally as stupid, but at least it wouldn't be directly government sponsored.

But then I think that maybe the lotto is not so much a poor tax as it is an idiot tax. While it is regretable that some people waste their probably-much-needed dough on something so pointless, there are probably a lot of people wasting their discretionary funds on the lotto as well -- most people I see buying tickets aren't obvious hobos. Further, if the state is really using the funds from the lotto to hire firemen and pay teachers, then that's a win. I suppose part of the cost-benefit analysis comes down to some combination of:

a) how much overlap is there between lotto idiots and talking-on-phone-while-driving idiots, leaving-a-loaded-handgun-in-the-house-with-kids idiots, throwing-trash-on-the-streets idiots, etc. In other words, do lotto idiots inordinately contribute to various other societal maladies, or are types of idiocy independently segregating traits?

b) how much would banning the lotto encourage these idiots to leave the state and move to some other state where they could play the lotto?

Unfortunately, I think (b) has a very low probability, so from a public policy standpoint, I don't think that banning the lotto would turn the state into some sort of idiot-free utopia (not to mention the incredible political difficulty in eliminating such an 'institution').

But it does lead me to wonder if there are other potential government sponsored voluntary activities that could take money away from idiots and put it towards the greater good.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Not unlike a liberal

Unhappy with the current political winds, George Will decides to travel back in time and pretend it is the mid-80s, writing a column attacking liberal support for the fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine was an instrument of old-school liberalism, one of those maybe-sounds-good-at-the-time but totally ineffective subversions of the free market. Essentially, it said that television, radio, etc. had to offer equal time to both sides of an issue. Were the fairness doctrine to be enforced, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would have been shut down years ago. Also, note that the fairness doctrine was repealed over twenty years ago.

But that doesn't stop George Will from writing a column railing against those crazy liberals. But, George, who are these liberals who want to re-institute the fairness doctrine? Well, from reading the column, you won't find any names. Nor will you find any names if you read any other news source, because no one wants to re-institute the fairness doctrine. No Congressmen, no liberal pundits, no serious human has called for this. Will might as well have written an article railing against liberals who want to put us on the metric system.

Message to George: these crazy 60s era liberals of which you write are long-extinct, just as their conservative counterparts, Goldwater-types who think that executive power should be restrained, deficits should be kept to minimum, etc. Stop living in the past. Indeed, this failure to understand a current definition of liberal is one reason why Republicans lose the votes of my generation. The messages coming from the the McCain campaign in the final days (Obama's a socialist!) are wholly meaningless to anyone born after 1975. I was 10 when Reagan left office, so the longer conservatives continue to plug their ears singing la-la-la-la and wishing that it is 1984, the longer they will lose.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The day (my) world turned upsidedown

This post for bio-nerds only... not fit for general consumption

A go-to supplier of molecular biology reagents, especially restriction enzymes, is New England Biolabs (NEB amongst friends). Their website is user-friendly, their products are well-documented, and they are just a generally easy company to deal with (in contrast to, say, Invitrogen). Every biologist knows and uses NEB.

Today, I received an order with an insert noting that NEB is changing its buffer system, such that some enzymes that were previously recommended for use in buffers 1, 2, or 3 are now recommended for use in buffer 4. This is like baseball changing the formula for ERA or switching to a 10-month calendar based on the transit of Venus -- everything I thought I knew about how this little slice of the world works has now changed. For example, by memory, here are the previously-recommended NEB buffers for some favorite enzymes:

XbaI - 2
HindIII -2
SpeI - 2
NheI - 2
ApaI - 4
XhoI - 3
NcoI - 4
EcoRV - 3
BamHI - (special)
EcoRI - (special)
AgeI - 1
ClaI - 4

Lemme see how I did... huh, 11 out of 12, the only wrong one being XhoI, which is recommended in 2 but has 100% activity in 3. But now all this info is useless (did it have value before?) or, at least, not up-to-date. Crap.

Oh, as for their recogition sites, from memory:

Yeah, it's been a productive post-college career ;)


Charlie Rangel, the long-serving Democrat from NYC, has been embattled for quite some time now, first over some rent-controlled homes he owns in the city, and now for various ethical questions, including hand-outs to his son. He is also Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee.

Just as with Dingel over in Commerce, this is another old Democrat I'd love to see booted. I've seen Rangel on Meet the Press more times than I can count and I've never been impressed, or for that matter, thought him competent enough to be a Congressman.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, public support for George W. Bush shot up to historically high levels, indicating that Americans did not blame Bush for failing to prevent these attacks. One might wonder how much the timing of the attacks played into this; in other words, had Bush been president for three years instead of less than one, would there have been more fingers pointing at the Oval Office?

I bring this up because of a story in today's Washington Post about a report warning of possible nuclear or biological attacks -- of course, reports such as this are issued all the time, so there's no reason to believe that anything is imminent or anything like that. Rather, it got me thinking, well, if there is an attack, what does that do to an Obama presidency? And does when such an attack occur play a role?

My hunch is that the grace period for Obama is a lot shorter than it was for Bush. Regardless of what the intelligence community was warning Bush about in August (only to be ignored), the American people were legitimately surprised by the attacks and thus gave Bush a free pass. But if America were attacked again, this would no longer be a surprise and I think fewer people would give the benefit of the doubt to Obama. Sure, Obama would (rightly so) point out that, hey, if Bush hadn't screwed things up so bad we probably wouldn't have been attacked, but that argument won't work on everyone -- anyone inclined to doubt Obama will now have their reason.

Anyway, I'd love to get the opinions of Hannity, Limbaugh, etc. on this before the Obama presidency starts, you know, just in case...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hey, they're still making $$$

Meatloaf writes in:

Given that one of the limiting factors to your question is pretty severe (we're looking for stuff in the box of 'groups that are bigger than the Who") the answer is probably 'no," unless Richards/Jagger (or JBJ / Richie Sambora?) actually hate each other. Or you want to count Lennon/McCartney circa 1970-1975.

In all seriousness, I suppose that Plant and Page had their troubles, but that all started long after Zeppelin called it quits on perfectly amicable (albeit sad) terms. Certainly Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel utterly hated each other by the end. Probably ditto with Diamond Dave and EVH or W. Axl and Izzy Stradlin. But I suppose you are looking for people who actually continue to work together. And there's probably not a winning answer there. Don Henly and Glen Frey?

Re: palladia, I have it and I love it. It basically runs live regular concerts non-stop, plus things like "Storytellers." All in HD. Awesome.

He Hate Me

I get a channel named 'palladia' on my cable box. Have no idea what this channel normally shows, but the other day they had a Springsteen concert in Barcelona (already owned, but good effort on their part) and now they are showing The Who, and based on the grey hair and wrinkles, must be a recent show.

Which leads me to this question.... is there a more high-profile/successful group where the two front guys hate each other more than Daltrey and Townshend? Tangentially, if Pete Townshend weren't windmilling on a stage on tv, would I know that he's not a hobo?

PS Townshend looks like a cross between Loomis from 'Halloween' and Freddy Kruger. Better to burn out than fade away, I guess.

My Lucky Day

Off the upcoming Springsteen album:

Not dead yet

Not sure what made me happier in this anti-intellectual culture of ours: that 'Shakespeare' is still a category on Jeopardy! or that I got 4 of 5 in that category. Perhaps this is the most hopeful part of Obama's election -- the guy does not pride himself on being stupid. If anything, this is Bush's most lasting legacy to me and the root of his failure -- he was proud of his ignorance.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

QB 4 Hire

Dennie Green writes in regarding his erstwhile employer:
I think being a fan of a team with no QB I would prefer Brady. This is based on 1) a completely uninformed opinion on my part that a pocket QB like Brady should not be limited by having had a leg injury of this nature (unlike a to RB or Vick-type QB) and 2) that we really don't know how Cassel will progress. Sure, they have almost identical stats through 10 starts, but that does not mean that Cassel will develop into the same QB that Brady did. Also, the Vikings are pretty much a solid QB (and maybe WR) from being a very good team. Even if Brady has fewer years left than Cassel, they might be enough to take advantage of the talent that the Vikings do have now. They can also try and find their own Cassel in future drafts for the post-Brady era. Why pay Cassel nearly Brady money when you won't know what you are getting.
Now that I've thought about it for a few days, I agree with this assessment. Even if you were relatively confident that Cassel was a can't-miss winner at QB and would be Brady-esque after a few years of seasoning, the boom-and-bust nature of the NFL makes your time horizons pretty brief. In other words, you can plan one, maybe two seasons ahead, but beyond that is essentially impossible.

I think the Pats will get more or less the same in a trade for Brady or Cassel. This is not to say that Brady isn't worth more than Cassel, but rather that teams aren't going to make a Hershel Walker type deal (put another way, the Player Value to Trade Compensation graph asymptotes). Since they are a Super Bowl contender in 2009, and you're better off with a 32 year old Brady that season, then that's who you go with. What you don't do is worry about 2014 when Brady is 37 and Cassel would be in his prime. That is too far away for any effective planning.

I'll let another fan have the last word, with point 6 probably being the most important:

On the merits of Brady/Cassel, I have a few points:

(1) Brady is certainly a good value. At least he was last year. He's obviously the best QB, and he's not the highest-paid. That means that the Pats are getting a comparative advantage with Brady, at least against some teams. This would be a lot easier of a problem if that wasn't the case (consider when MJ was the best hoopster on the planet, but also getting paid double the second-best player; in a hard cap system, he might have been a bad value.

(2) Cassel is probably a good value. He's getting paid chump money to be an average starter. But it's only been half a season. He's no more baluable now than a minor-leaguer lighting it up in September. We'll have to see if he can hit a curveball after they find the hole in his swing.

(3) Cassel is less of a deal than he appears, since he'll command a salary that, in theory, makes him value-neutral as soon as he's a free agent.

(4) Brady's trade value might not be as high as you think: for all the reasons he's (potentially) not a great value to the Pats: huge contract, possiblyt ijury, getting old, etc.

(5) This would only a winning move for the Pats if the value they gain from Cassel can be translated in increased skill at other positions. That's not snap-your-fingers easy; there's a lot of variance in signing new players, nevermind the draft.

(6) One huge problem is risk-averse management: even if trading Brady is the right move, it has to be very clealy the right move or no onne will take the cahnce of the public-relations disaster of trading brady and then Cassel being a bust.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Market asymmetry

Right now the Patriots have two quarterbacks, Matt Cassel and Tom Brady. The former is 26 and has started a handful of NFL games. The latter is 31, rehabbing from a torn MCL & ACL, and has three Super Bowl rings. Who's more valuable?

While you don't know until you try, of course, my bet is that the free market of other NFL teams would pay more for Matt Cassel than for Tom Brady. This is somewhat a function of probably having more teams in the bidding for a Cassel than a Brady. I could be totally off-base on this, and please lemme know if you think so -- especially if you pull for a team that has a crappy QB, whom would you want them to pursue this offseason, Cassel or Brady?


One lingering political story that seems to have ended is what will happen with Joe Biden's Senate seat. A particularly annoying aspect of the story has been the repeated insistence that Biden wants to make sure his son can run for the seat in 2010.

Now, maybe Delaware is so blue, and the Biden brand so popular, that these behind-the-scenes machinations won't make a difference. But isn't there a decent chance for some push-back by the electorate -- no, we'll choose our Senate candidates ourselves, thank you very much. Let's also note that Beau Biden has run exactly one campaign in his life, for attorney general.

While dynastic politics is not exactly unheard of in America, it does seem particularly anti-American. If Beau Biden wins an election on his own, fine, but to have your father appoint someone who clearly is just there to keep the seat warm, well, that's not exactly serving the interests of the people of Delaware.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


The final page of this week's Sports Illustrated (which has pretty much been wasted space since Reilly left) has an interesting article about Derrick Coleman, power forward for the Syracuse Orangemen from 1987 - 1990. Coleman was a freshman the year the 'cuse were beaten by Keith Smart of Indiana in the '87 finals, and a senior when Syracuse became the first #2 seed to lose in the first round (to the #15 Richmond Spiders). Coleman was taken first in the NBA draft by the Nets, and went on to have a decidedly mediocre NBA career.

Anyway, the article surrounds DC's efforts to improve his hometown of Detroit. Apparently he's quite active and generous and all that good stuff. Worth the read. But I find it incredibly odd, especially in a sports magazine, to spend several paragraphs talking about Dave Bing's run for mayor of Detroit, his relationship with Coleman, and not mention that Bing also had a stellar basketball career at Syracuse.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Me Vote Pretty One Day

Here's a nice link that shows why Americans score poorly on standardized tests, and why it affects the identity of Minnesota's next Senator:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Adieu, Coco

The Sox have shipped out Coco Crisp, he of the spectacular defense and mediocre offense. I love quotes like this, from the Royals GM:
Royals general manager Dayton Moore called the switch-hitting Crisp a
"championship-caliber player" who will help Kansas City move forward. Crisp is a
career .280 batter in seven seasons with the Cleveland and the Red Sox.

Being on a team that wins a championship does not qualify you as "championship-caliber." Doug Mirabelli has two rings with the Red Sox, does that make him twice the championship-caliber of Coco? Coco is slightly above-average as a CF, no more, no less.

For what it is worth, we got a young relief pitcher for him. His stats look good, but figuring out how relief pitchers will go from year to year is essentially impossible.

Unions, ctd. (& lunch-time link)

[updated, see below]

I've gotten a little push back on my 'unions' post (including one that included the phrase "Earth to John"). Let me be clear. I do not think (nor did I write) that the contracts the unions have with car manufacturers have nothing to do with Detroit's failures -- it is generally accepted and repeated that labor costs make it more costly to produce an American car in Michigan than a Japanese car in Kentucky.

What I do think, however, is that unions are being scapegoated. The primary reason the Big 3 are going under is that they completely misread the market and continued to make cars that no one would want to buy.

Further, let's look at the executive salary structure of the Big 3. According to this article in USA Today, "GM CEO Rick Wagoner earned $9.3 million in salary and bonus in 2006" and "Ford's new CEO, Alan Mulally, got $27.8 million in salary and bonus in his first few months on the job." Now compare that to the Japanese:
Japanese companies are not required to break out salaries and bonuses for top
executives. Instead, they lump them together. Last year, Toyota's top 37
executives earned a combined $21.6 million in salary and bonuses, according to
filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. U.K. firm Manifest
Information Services, which analyzes proxy information, estimates Toyota's top
executive, Hiroshi Okuda, earned $903,000 in 2006.

So perhaps the Big 3 could save some dough not by cracking down on health care for their unions but rather not paying their apparently incompetent executives so damn much.

I've got no particular love for unions -- I'm not in one and probably never will be. But to blame the collapse of a long-decaying auto industry on a bunch of laborers is scapegoating at its finest.

[update]: Matt Yglesias provides a nice link, noting that the Big 3 Execs aren't exactly doing any belt-tightening as their companies go under.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I'm purposefully not catching up on what happened today in Congress with the Big 3 and their bailout until I had a chance to write about labor unions and the auto industry...

It has become a talking point of some, especially on the right, that the American auto companies have failed because of their labor unions. The Big 3, based in the midwest, are unionized, while foreign companies that manufacture in the south are not, so the thinking goes that the unions must be the cause of the American auto industry failure. Well, correlation and causation aren't the same. On a pithy note, remember that Lehman Brothers and many other financial industries managed to nosedive without unions, so apparently companies can fail for reasons other than having unionized workers.

Rather, I'd argue that American car companies failed because they made crappy cars. They were light years behind the Japanese in terms of fuel-efficient, small, city-friendly vehicles. Surprise surprise, those factors become more important and giant gas guzzlers don't sell as well. To blame unions for those poor management decisions is ridiculous.

Monday, November 17, 2008

iPS cells, continued

Okay, I agree that I misstated Bush's stated position, namely that research on stem cells couldn't be done with public money, but that is somewhat a secondary point. Indeed, a new plank of the Republican Party, from the RNC earlier this year, would ban outright any and all work on stem cells, regardless of who's paying for it. So while I agree that our policy apparatus allows for a variety of non-black-and-white approaches to various questions, my position is that Americans who have a moral problem with stem cell research are religiously-blinded fools.

Again, to be clear: There are ~25,000 genes in the human genome, and our various cells differ by the combination of which genes are on and which genes are off. While viewing it in this binary 'yes' or 'no' obscures some complexity, 2^25,000 is still a ridiculously large number, so it is easy to see that there's a lot of chance for diversity from cell to cell (again, your brain cells and your intestinal cells do very different things). So I want to know why one particular combination of genes on & off is sacred and can't be experimented on, while every other combination is, apparently, fine.

If I could take a cheek cell, sprinkle a few chemicals on it, and produce a totipotent stem cell, that would be a pretty damn cool thing. I could use these cells for all sorts of human diseases. But the scientifically uneducated would argue that the resultant cell, the one that was in my cheeck but then had the chemicals washed over it, since it could be used to make another human, now cannot be used for research. These people are not arguing from a standpoint of reason, they are arguing from pure uneducated craziness.

Who knows how much further along we'd be if the past 8 years hadn't pretty much been wasted in terms of stem cell research. That's a lot of human suffering.... because some pattern of gene expression is sacred. Ridiculous.

Big 3 Fail

From a recent WSJ editorial:
Other arguments are on the table as well. Some see the troubles at GM and Ford as opportunities to retool the auto industry to produce environmentally friendly cars. Given their long track records of lobbying against fuel economy standards and producing oversized gas guzzlers, this suggestion seems ridiculous, sort of like asking cigarette companies to help with cancer research.

I'm generally in the 'let-them-fail' camp (whether one is talking about car companies or surly 10-year-olds... tough love and such). But Krugman doesn't see it that way, which gives me pause.

Obama was on 60 Minutes last night and was really good. He's got a dorkish sense of humor, which I like. He didn't give major specifics on the auto industry bailout, but he seems to be in a tough position. It would improper for him to totally start acting like president now, but at the same time, not offering proposals makes it seem like he doesn't know what to do. He did quite clearly state that pretty much the first thing he'll do is sign an Executive Order closing Gitmo and banning torture.

This story in the Washington Post was heartening, as I'd like to see government agencies (especially the EPA) be able to do its job again.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Reply to iPS cells

Victor Lazlo responds to my thoughts on iPS cells. My full reply in a bit:
You wrote:

The Decider decided that creating new human ES cells was wrong. Well, not wrong if you are having sex to make babies, which of course makes ES cells, but wrong if you are doing it in a lab ('it' being making ES cells, not having sex to make babies... although presumably W would be against that, too). Bush argued that we already have some ES lines, so let's just use those. The argument against making new ES lines is that, um, well, god puts a soul in a fertilized egg, and because he's done that, we can't use these lines for research. I'm sure Bush said it better (or not), but let's be clear: the only possible reason one could oppose the creation of new ES cell lines is on the grounds of god & religion.

I think this is 100% correct, but only because you are misrepresenting the argument (at least Bush's argument). Bush's position was that he was against using federal money to create new stem cell lines. This is very, very important distinction from the position you are giving him, which is implicitly "Bush wants to making creating stem cell lines illegal."

The underlying problem is that no one seems to think that anything but two extreme positions exist on a whole host of issues: stem cells, abortion, marijuana, etc. Everyone seems to want to debate it as if it's a binary question. But for any human activity, a democracy has at least five choices:

1) make it illegal, with criminal sanctions
2) make it illegal, with civil sanctions
3) decriminalize it, which is effectively "illegal without any sanctions" or "legal, but you can't promote it commercially"
4) allow it commercially via the free market (with or without regulation)
5) support it with public money and/or public support campaigns
6) have the government run and administer it

An example of (1) is murder.
An example of (2) is jaywalking (or now, pot possession in MA).
An example of (3) is pot possession in Alaska in the old days.
An example of (4) cigarette sales
An example of (5) is NSF-backed science research
An example of (6) is the public school system

The problem is that people talk about stuff like stem cell research as if only choices (1), (5), and (6) exist. Bush's position is actually (4), I think.

And look, I'm not saying Bush is right. But on a whole host of issues, I either want the government to make something legal without supporting it (pot smoking) or not support something without making it illegal (abortion, particularly the use of tax money to underwrite them).

It's not my position on stem cells, but I don't think it's an unreasonable position to say "A lot of Americans, including me, have a significant moral problem with this, so while we're not going to make it illegal, we're not going to spend taxpayer money advancing it or put the support of the federal government behind it."

I mean, that's just Lincoln's position on slavery, 1847-1863.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

PhDs Unite

Bob Sacamano writes in regarding teachers:
granted, there are a ton of inputs affecting the education of our youth. and i have no idea how, if at all, unions have an effect. if i had to guess, i would agree with you in saying they don't. i will say this, the referenced article (on Rhee) in the referenced blog (andrew sullivan) is interesting. i think we should be paying our teachers more, regardless of unions. i don't know if a scheme to bribe teachers and undermine the union will work, however. but i digress. the reason i write is because of something a read a few days ago. it is about teaching, and i copied it below. it presents an interesting theory about the quality of teachers. in essence, it says that in the past 50 or whatever years, when more job opportunities opened up for women, the top women no longer aspired to be teachers but aspired to land those new opportunities as doctors, lawyers, etc. this exodus left a lower tier, to put it rudely, to teach our children. and with a lower quality of teacher, we get a lower quality of education. i have no idea if this is true, but since it is somewhat related to one of my own theories => the lack of $ teachers get paid means that, as a generalization, fewer "successful" college students will gravitate toward teaching and instead aim for other, higher paying positions. heck, it's even happening at the PhD level. Loser, sell-out grad students are leaving academia (or science altogether) to chase after higher paying positions in other fields.

Here's the article Bob references.
Two points. First, I agree that if teachers were paid more, there might be more competition for teacher spots and thus you'd end up with better teachers (George Will doesn't seem to understand this basic free market principle... he writes about it every now and again, so I'm sure it'll come up again). But I'm not sure if the idea that the Wall Street melt down will result in a flood of talented people entering the work force. Put another way, if these people were really all that talented, so many of them would not have been caught holding the bag whent he bubble burst.

Boo teachers!

Andrew Sullivan has a post lamenting the existence of teachers unions, arguing that "until we really do bust the teachers unions, the next generation of kids in public schools is at risk."

I have no love for teachers unions, because the one that touches my day-to-day life seems to be pretty ineffective at representing the needs of its members. Briefly, I think that benefits are slanted too much towards the interests of older memebers, and doesn't reflect the reality that many female teachers will want to return to work after having a child.

But, blaming the teachers unions as the rate-limiting step in improved education in this country is off-base. The 'welfare queen' of this meme is the tenured teacher who doesn't give a flip and mails it in every class. I know a lot of teachers and I don't know one who fits that category. Beyond annectodes, performance at public (with unions) and private (without) schools is damn similar, so the data suggest that unions are not what's holding children back. So the blame-unions crowd are taking something familiar (distrust of unions) and applying it hapharzardly to this situation.

I don't know what the problem is, although near the top of the list has to be bad parenting, either in terms of setting examples or encouraging self-discipline.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dr. Strangecell

I happened to come across a newly published paper today that reminded me of a topic I've been meaning to think/write about for awhile, and that is iPS cells (for an inflammatory title: "why iPS cells show how misguided religious institutions are, and the people who dogmatically follow them").

First, some terminology. We've all heard of stem cells, and in the parlance of our times, stem cells refer to embryonic stem cells, abbreviated ES cells. These are cells that arise very early in development: sperm + egg = 1 cell, and ES cells are a few days' worth of cell divisions after that. As you may have noticed, the cells in your body are quite different from one another; the cells that make up your brain, your tongue, your pancreas, etc. are all doing very different things, but they are doing it from the exact same set of blueprints, the DNA you inherited from your mom and pop/milkman. Your cells accomplish this diversity by turning genes on and off at various times, and thus differentiating into various cells types. ES cells, because they are such an early population of cells (that happen to grow readily in a lab on plastic), are a wonderful resource for figuring out how these decisions about diversity get made and hold tremendous promise for combating a myriad of human diseases. From a very basic standpoint, most things that are wrong with you medically arise because something is broken, and ES cells allow you to re-make that part.

You may recall that a few years back, The Decider decided that creating new human ES cells was wrong. Well, not wrong if you are having sex to make babies, which of course makes ES cells, but wrong if you are doing it in a lab ('it' being making ES cells, not having sex to make babies... although presumably W would be against that, too). Bush argued that we already have some ES lines, so let's just use those. The argument against making new ES lines is that, um, well, god puts a soul in a fertilized egg, and because he's done that, we can't use these lines for research. I'm sure Bush said it better (or not), but let's be clear: the only possible reason one could oppose the creation of new ES cell lines is on the grounds of god & religion.

This point needs a paragraph of its own. I smash a rock and this does no harm because it is not alive. I eat a tomato and that is fine, because it is a plant and doesn't have a nervous system and thus feelings. I kick a puppy and that is bad, because clearly the puppy does have feelings. I eat a pig and that is... eh, okay, foggy area, something that clearly intelligent people disagree on... I eat a pig that has been confined to a cage its whole life, maybe not okay, a pig that has roamed around its whole life, maybe more okay. ES cells are not a pig or a puppy. These cells do not feel a thing, because they can't, they are simply a little ball of cells with no nervous system, no brain, no nothing. So if you want to oppose the use of ES cells in medical research, you must oppose it on the basis that god has a plan for those cells, that god has tucked a soul into those cells (just under the Golgi apparatus, I'm told).

Back to my original topic. A major point I mentioned earlier: the DNA to make any cell type is in every cell type. Quite recently, researchers have figured out how to take cells from an adult and, by introducing specific genes, turn back the clock. These cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) and as far as anyone can tell, behave just like ES cells (pluripotent means that, just like ES cells, these cells can differentiate into every other cell type). To make this transformation occur, at first researchers needed to introduce various genes; in this recent paper, they substituted chemicals for some genes, so at some point in the near future, it is reasonable (or, at least, not unreasonable) to expect that you could swab your cheek for some cells, sprinkle some molecules on it, and voila, you've got some cells that could be used to make a new liver.

So, isn't this a problem? If anything that has the capacity to be a human has a soul, wouldn't these iPS cells qualify?
By definition, true pluripotent cells could be used to make a human. Are we splitting a soul if I were to make another human out of my skin cells? Or does that mean we could be making soul-less people -- I get the soul, my clone gets screwed? If I were inclined to such religious belief, I'd be pissed off beyond belief that scientists are making iPS cells in the lab, for the exact same reason I didn't want otherwise-garbage frozen embryos from fertility clincs used in the lab. Yet I haven't heard a peep from the Religious Right about this. Perhaps they see a distinction I don't. Or perhaps they are just dogmatic morons who haven't asked an original question their entire lives and seek comfort in slavishly following ridiculous doctrines. Either way....

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Please no Kerry

That font of knowledge,, details why John Kerry would be a bad SecState. Needless to say, I agree. Obama took a lot of flak, and stuck to his guns, over whether we should negotiate with leaders. Do you want John Kerry doing the negotiating? Do you want John Kerry showing up on Meet the Press to explain your latest actions in the foreign policy arena?

I'm sure John Kerry would in fact love to be SecState. I'm sure one reason John Kerry was quick to endore Obama in the primaries is that he had an eye on some appointment in a future Obama administration (Kerry's not close to the Clintons). But I want a lot of things and can't have them. I suppose one upside, though, is that it would get Theresa out of the country. I can't imagine Michelle Obama has much to talk to Theresa Heinz Kerry about.

Bill Richardson wouldn't be a bad choice. I think the beard-grow was a good move for him, because it takes away attention from this jowels. And, if I recall correctly from the debates, he was a governor. And has three point plans for everything, which is what you want from a Secretary.

Actually, though, I hope that Obama picks neither of them. I gotta imagine that we could do better.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


Since it is official US policy that we don't torture, we just refer to torture by other names. Many Americans and observers around the world have been horrified by our performance since 9/11, and torture is at the top of the list. Obama has been consistently anti-toture, while many on the Republican side have mocked Dems for wanting to coddle the terrorists. For awhile, McCain talked tough about torture, but during the primary season he lost a bit of his mettle in this area, and indeed, during the RNC, Palin mocked Obama, saying "Al-Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”

I think a great first move by an Obama administration would be to put John McCain front and center at some sort of statement, legislation, whatever, that made it quite clear that we are not a country that tortures. First, as someone who has been tortured and has at many points in the past pointed out how pointless it is, McCain has some credibility on the issue. Second, the post-partisan aura that would eminate from such a move would be astounding and would score Obama a lot of points with the general public. Only the most raving right-wingers would oppose this, and anyone on the fence would take one look at the Obama-McCain partnership and decide it is a good idea, no matter what Sean Hannity says.

Obama transition

Obama gave his first press conference yesterday, and has already announced his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel. I had always assumed that Rahm would end up with a high-level position in an Obama Administration, and CoS seemed like an obvious one. Note that while John Boehner, GOP leader in the House immediately blasted it, Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, praised it as a "wise" decision.

Interestingly, Byrd has in fact stepped down as chair of the Appropriations Committee. We'll have to see who the replacement is, but in general, Byrd doesn't exactly have the strongest committment to progressive policies especially in the environmental realm, so I think this is good news for the Dems. Besides, he's 90, time for someone else to have a shot. Earlier I heard Inoye from Hawaii floated as a replacement, but he's in his 80s, and I'm not sure if that makes much sense. We'll see, I guess. Over in the House, Waxman, whom you might remember as the bald, mustachiod guy from the baseball steroid hearings, is challenging Dingell from Michigan for chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. For the reason I'd love for Byrd to step down, Dingell has been a real road bump towards much environmental legislation (he represents entrenched car interests). Further, Waxman has always struck me as, if nothing else, sincere and truly committed to the progressive cause, so more power to him.

Ned Nedelender writes in:
As noted above, a liberal Supreme Court death in February has got to be the nightmare for Obama. Not the tone you want to set for you admin. But it does raise an interesting parlor question: if you're Obama and you have your druthers, when do you want the first SC retirement? I assume one will happen at the end of the session in June, but that's probably earlier than I want if I'm Barack...

I've been wondering the same thing. I agree that an immediate retirement/death would not be a good thing for Obama, because the Supreme Court battles tend to occur along the more social rifts in our society, Roe v. Wade being at the top of the list, of course, but stem cells, torture (is that a social issue?), etc. Obama doesn't want to refight these battles, especially when the process is largely out of his hands once he picks the guy or girl. If I were Barack, I'd be hoping for at least a year of my presidency, working with strong majorities in both houses, to actually get policy stuff done before dealing with any Supreme Court stuff. Of course, it will be interesting to see many on the Right who insisted on an 'up-or-down vote' during the Bush Administration do exactly the opposite.

Friday, November 7, 2008

My two favorite people

This is why the election mattered so much:

Los Angeles (E! Online) – In case Barack Obama needs an Inauguration Day soundtrack, the Boss should have him covered.

Bruce Springsteen is planning to release a new studio album with the E Street Band in January, right in time for Obama's ascendance to the White House.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And the winner is...

Now that North Carolina has been called for Obama, and Missouri really looks like it'll go McCain, we can announce the winner of the Electoral Vote Prediction Contest...


On Oct. 14 (the day before the 3rd debate, and thus in the '10 point bonus' date range), I predicted 12 of the 14 states correctly (I got Indiana & Missouri wrong.. conveniently worth the same number of electoral votes). Further, I guessed the electoral college exactly right, 364 (should Nebraska's 2nd District end up in Obama's column, I'd still win).

So I got that going for me, which is nice...


Linus Pauling sends in this story. 7.01 is MIT's introductory biology class, and Bob Weinberg is a giant in the field of cancer research:
Not sure if word got back to you about this yet, but during Weinberg's 7.01 lecture and then during floor meeting he made a little speech about the election. He recounted to us about what he said in 2004 to his class after Bush won, the whole "you have more intellect in the last digit of your little finger than Bush". Then he talked about how it was hard to appreciated historic events when you are so close to them. But he feels like this was one. He starts going into this story about how he was in DC and heard MLK give his "I have a dream speech". At this point he starts crying and has to pause for a little while. Then he goes on to say he taught at a recently integrated school in Alabama in the 1960s that had 610 black students and two white students. All the students and their families were sharecroppers, and he had tried to help them vote. At this point he was so choked up he couldn't really finish the story. Wow.

I happened to TA the same class in 2001, and he gave a similarly moving speech in the lecture following 9/11.

Election wrap-up

Allowed myself a day to recover, now back to 'work' as it were. A piece of advice: don't give blood and then drink heavily.

Two graphs caught my attention in the post-election round-up. First, here's one from the NYT showing areas of the country where McCain did better than Bush in '04. Hmm, what do these areas of the country have in common?

I suppose that the Louisiana redness can be attributed to Katrina -- New Orleans was a Democratic stronghold, and many of them have left the state. But for the Ozarks and southern Appalachians, I guess you either have to posit that they for whatever reason really liked John Kerry in '04 or they wouldn't vote for a black guy in '08. My money is on the latter. For Arkansas, I wonder if there were a lot of Clinton voters there who just refused to vote Obama.

A second graph shows that the states pretty much lined up as they did in '04, but that Obama simply 'moved the line' a few percentage points in his favor, enough to have a huge swing on the electoral college:

This shouldn't be surprising, of course, but it is still neat to see such a nice correlation. The one data point that I find particularly interesting is Massachusetts, as apparently there were people who voted Kerry in '04 but couldn't be moved to vote Obama in '08. If you happen to know anyone who voted as such, I'd be fascinated to meet them.

When looking at the final results, a few things stick out. First, Obama won two Bush states -- Nevada (+12) & New Mexico (+15) -- by larger margins that three Kerry states -- Pennsylvania (+11), Minnesota (+10), and New Hampshire (+10). I would imagine that increased Latino vote share accounts for a good chunk of this. Also, while Obama won more states than he needed to, the state that put him over the top was (as I predicted) Colorado. He won Colorado by 7 points, which game him his 270th to 278th EV. Viginia was next at +5, followed by Ohio (+4), Florida (+2), Indiana (+1) and possibly North Carolina (<1).>

In general, the pollsters did a very good job with this election. I'm sure or will do a thorough run-down. Of course, it is easier to get it right when it isn't all that close, as calling one or two states wrong will still give you the right winner. Also, unlike previous elections, this one was remarkably stable in the polling pretty much from the second debate onward, while both '00 and '04 showed a lot of late movement.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day!

11:18pm - Well, after sveral minutes of jumping up and down, we've won, and now McCan has coneeded. Thank logic and reason, Obama won.

10:40 pm - After looking at every possible scenario, Obama will be president (I can't type right now because I'm hammered b/c I decided this in my mind an hour ago)... Holy hell, this is unreal. Wow, wow, wow! WOW!

10:37 pm - So when does Obama speak? Is this the most significant moment of my lifetime? I think it is... WE WON WE WON WE WON!!!

10:05 pm - Corks popped, sobriety lost, WE WON!!!

9:42 pm - Apparently my math doesn't mean shit, but Chuck Todd's does.. I'm about to get the champagne

9:35 pm - Others in my home have not allowed me to pop the corks yet. But in my mind, and voice, which is loud, it is over!


9:17 pm - Just as in '06, Virginia tightening as the night goes on... good sign for Obama

9:09 pm - A bit surprised that more hasn't been called yet, but things still trending Obama's way. Remember, VA went LATE for Webb in '06, very late. VA will still flip, I think...

8:50 pm - Looks like Florida might be called for Obama before Virginia....

8:36 pm - Don't like that GA got called so early...

8:04 pm - and NH called immediately!!!

8:00 pm - That PA got called as the same time as MA (i.e. when polls closed) is a really really good sign.

7:43 pm - On MSNBC... what is the difference between too CLOSE to call and too EARLY to call... probably something about where the exit polls think it is going and how much of the actual vote totals reflect that...

7:35 pm - Indiana too close to call: good.... Virginia Obama behind: bad. Meaningless, of course, because we don't have full demographic breakdown so we can't figure out who's over and under performing. But still, angst ain't fun. Confident I am, but angst.

7:15 pm - Indiana still close... the longer it stays closer, the better Obama's chances

6:52 pm - only 10% in, but Kentucky is close... he ain't going to win, but if he even kept it close.

6:40 pm - 20 minutes to Virginia... A few days ago I predicted that Virginia would be called at 9:16pm, so I guess I'll stick with that.

6:13 pm - I just spent some time checking out various news organizations' websites for electoral results, and's seems the most intuitive to me (assuming you have an updated version of Flash). Quite nicely, you can mouse over a map of the state and, county by county, see the results. This particularly helps when there are urban areas and rural areas and you want to see how they are voting.

6:04 pm - An email is circulating regarding a plea from the Obama campaign in Minnesota urging people to get out and vote, that the race is closer than they expect. While that sounds ominous, let's note that the Senate race is very close, and Obama voters are likely to be Franklin voters.

4:45 pm - Final tally from the Electoral Vote Prediction contest. Average Obama total is 337. Majorities have Obama winning NM, MI, PA, WI, NH, CO, NV, MN, VA, FL, and OH (in that order). Missouri came in at just under 50% for Obama, while NC and IN were predicted to go McCain's way about two-thirds of the time.

4:09 pm - Back from blood, class, and voting. No lines right now (mid-day is a good time to go, not surprisingly). My favorite site,, predicts Obama 349, McCain 189. We're just under three hours away from the polls closing in Virginia. Remember, though, it takes a long time to collect and count all the votes -- I remember the Webb/Allen Senate race, which was very close, not getting called until around midnight, and turnout in a mid-term election is significantly lower than right now. The networks arne't going to make any calls based on exit polling alone, so it will be some time before even the early states get called. From previous elections, I recall that tends to have the best county-by-county breakdown of results, which is very important for determining what the cumulative vote of a state actually means (i.e. if Obama is neck-and-neck in Virginia but most of the DC suburbs haven't reported yet, then that's a good sign).

11:00 am - Off to donate blood (I wonder if I'll bleed Obama blue). If I get one more free Red Cross T-shirt, they will own a majority of my dresser drawer (but still not be able to invoke cloture).

10:01 am - Long lines everywhere today, yet another reminder that we have such a bizarre voting system. There's all this crap about voter fraud and purging of rolls and such. I think a lot of this stems from simple clerical errors (i.e. does your ID list your middle initial but the voter roll doesn't). Also, when you move (which young people do a lot) you need to specifically remember to change your voting address with the board of elections -- why this can't be done automatically when you change your driver's license, IRS address, etc. is beyond me. And why doesn't every state have no-questions-asked early voting? Open up the polls for a week. Yes, it would cost more, but as a fraction of the budget it would be pretty damn tiny.

9:02 am - from Matt Yglesias, a nice statement on the idiocy of Joe the Plumber:
Thus, a white male small-business owner practicing a blue collar trade and earning enough money to be hit by Obama’s tax hikes is nothing other than the Platonic Ideal of a Republican (think Tom DeLay when he owned a successful bug-killing business). Republican crowds go wild for Joe because they can identify with him. But by the same token, the people who identify with Joe are the Republican base. They can’t turn this thing around. And they’re certainly not the people you’re supposed to be talking to in October. It’d be as if Barack Obama were criss-crossing the country with a young, hip lesbian acting as his main surrogate to attack McCain’s health care plan.

8:41 am - Karl Rove predicts 338 Obama, 200 McCain. Of the true swing states, he has Florida and Ohio going for Obama, while Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana stay red.

8:17 am - has its pretty-much-final analysis up, and they have 273 EVs in the 'strong Dem' category, with Colorado putting Obama over the top. They also put Virginia and Nevada in the 'lean Dem' category, giving him 291 EVs. Over 100 EVs are in the toss-up status, all the states you'd expect -- NC, OH, FL, etc.

8:09 am - Votemaster has his prediction up: 353 for Obama, 174 McCain, with Missouri tied (that seems like kinda a cop-out)

6:13 am - My fourth presidential election (making this Election IV: A New Hope). If anything, I think that Obama's support in the polls has been a bit underestimated, due to cell phone bias and a giant surge in black turnout. On a Boston-specific note, I'm really enjoying Dennis & Callahan's attempt to put a positive spin on what's going to happen today. In two minutes of listening, I've heard the word 'socialist' 4 four times and an explanation of why all the polls are wrong. And now Obama is a flawed candidate because he should be up by 20 points -- the American people are stupid, is the issue (but I guess they were smart in '00 and '04).

Monday, November 3, 2008

PUMA no more

Chief Brody of Amity Island, who for a long time was a bit up in the air about Obama's candidacy and certainly didn't drink the Obama Kool-Aid during the primary season, writes in:

So, last Thursday I decided it was about time to start reading The Audacity of Hope, imagining that I would have such a low-key, relaxing weekend that I might finish it by tomorrow... Well... I'm in to the third chapter at least.. but for me, so far, that's enough... Enough to see that Obama really IS different... and that what he's saying is very interesting... And so I have doubts now how you could have been undecided this time last year (Obama or Clinton) ..... having read his book AND heard his speech at the '04 Convention.

Yes, so reading this book is getting me even more excited of the prospect of Obama being president... I am hopeful that he can actually bring the change that he talks about... and, actually, I understand what change he IS talking about now... well more so than before.... I mean, what's interesting to me so far is that he stresses the importance of understanding where other people are coming from... of accepting the fact that not everyone will agree with you or share your views.. and that you might not always be right and should consider other peoples ideas.... So, even though he is a democrat.. even though he might be quite "liberal", that doesn't necessarily mean that all of his policies/programs/etc will be crazy liberal.. And the McCain campaign has sort of capitilized on this idea that Obama is super partisan... that he's never voted outside his party or something like that... So, I wish that the Obama campaign had some how capitilized on that idea better... they may have a bit... but the fact that this was new information to me means that it is probably news to a lot of the swing voters that don't spend as much time reading articles about Obama as I do... granted, I am out of country so I have missed all commercials, etc. that you guys see.. but ya... anyways... I'm excited....

Indeed, Obama has consistently had an appealing message. If you haven't gotten the chance to read "The Audacity of Hope" I highly recommend it -- try it on audiobook for a real treat, as it is read by Obama.

I honestly think the last time I was this excited about anything in the world-at-large (as opposed to my personal life) was the '04 Red Sox, but even then only when they were up by a bunch of runs in game 7 of the ALCS (way more dread during that whole process). Tomorrow will be the culmination of something I've been following (obsessing over) for several years. And really, when the daughter of a slave can cast a vote for a black man, truly something historic has occurred.

Final chance!

Click on the Election Prediction Contest link on the left to enter your final guesses for how this will end up. Remember, each human can enter up to five times, so if you have a cautious side, an excited side, etc. all your personalities can cast their vote. I'm going to try the same argument at my polling place tomorrow.

We can hear them now

By now we have >95% of all the polling data we're going to have before Tuesday. has a very interesting graph of where the various national trackers have the race. In yellow are pollsters who include cell-phone-only surveys, while gray has landline-only samples. Striking:

If the cell phone only crowd is being weighted properly, then it looks like Obama is going to win the popular vote by about 10 points, which would probably put him close to 400 electoral votes -- it would mean that pretty much every single swing state went his way, including some that aren't really thought of as swing states, like Indiana, Montana, and North Dakota (hell, maybe even Arizona).

Of course, there could be regional bias to these data. Perhaps, the cell-phone-only crowd tends to live in big coastal cities, so what they're doing is not relevant to, say, Montana. But Florida has a lot of big coastal cities. Ohio has big cities. North Carolina has a lot of young folk in cities.

Regardless of where these voters are and how it affects the electoral map, if Obama succeeds in beating McCain by >10 points and breaks the 55% popular vote barrier, he will be the first non-incumbent president to do so since FDR.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

History's 'problem'

One difficulty in studying history is that the further away in time an event occurs, the more easily the outcome of that event can be attributed to overarching narratives and trends, or put another way, credit can be deflected away from the people who took part in that event -- oh, it was inevitable, those historical characters were simply in the right place at the right time.

I think it would be a serious error for political historians to look on the 2008 campaign and assume that Obama won simply because things were bad for Republicans. This is a theme I've written about before, largely in the debate over whether a generic Democrat would be doing better or worse than Obama.

First, the guy is black and has the middle name of Hussein -- Obama had a much smaller margin of error in this campaign than probably any previous candidate (I dunno, maybe Kennedy and the Catholic thing was of a similar scale). Second, he has built -- or at least had the foresight to hire people who built -- an incredible, nation-wide organization. Third, Obama has shown a tremendous amount of long-term vision and patience. He had a plan during the primaries and didn't deviate from it when things looked bad, nor did he deviate from his many-states strategy when McCain rallied during the Palin/RNC time. Other candidates -- say, a generic Dem like Chris Dodd -- might certainly have panicked and pulled all resources out of Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, etc. and invested entirely in PA, OH, and FL. Obama has greatly expanded the electoral map for the Democrats by patiently building a network all over the country.

In short, Obama made some excellent choices along the way, and I think it would be a mistake to view this as an election that the Republicans lost rather than one Obama won.

Polls close in Virgina in 48 hours....

Friday, October 31, 2008

Another weird McCain talking point

Norman Dale of Hickory, IN writes in:
Meanwhile, wondering if you’ve seen any official debunking of McCain’s claim:

McCain: "Frankly, what's disturbing about it is that he signed a piece of paper back when he was a long shot candidate. And he signed it, said I won't -- I will take public financing for the presidential campaign if John McCain will. I mean, it's a living document."

My recollection is that there never was a “signed” document. There was a check box on some survey the candidates all filled out. I believe Obama’s actual comments about this always included a caveat that McCain had to agree to call off the 527 groups etc, which he obviously hasn’t done and never intended to.

Basically, this is a non-issue and I actually think Obama was damn smart not to get head faked into a bad deal. Thank God Schrum wasn’t involved in the campaign.

I've always found this particular McCain attack to be non-sensical. One minute he's complaining about all the wasteful porkbarrelearmarkspending in the government, and the next minute he's blasting Obama for not taking taxpayer money to fund his campaign. Further, Republicans are against these campaign finance reform rules, so he's out of step with his party on this matter. Indeed, George Will just wrote an article about this, blasting McCain:

Why is it virtuous to erect a dam of laws to impede the flow of contributions by which citizens exercise their First Amendment right to political expression? "We're now going to see," McCain warned, "huge amounts of money coming into political campaigns, and we know history tells us that always leads to scandal." The supposedly inevitable scandal, which supposedly justifies preemptive government restrictions on Americans' freedom to fund the dissemination of political ideas they favor, presumably is that Obama will be pressured to give favors to his September givers. The contributions by the new givers that month averaged $86.

So, to answer Coach Dale's question, no, I don't think the Obama campaign has even bothered to reply to this, and I believe you're right, it is not like Obama broke a legal contract when he opted out. There was a deadline for him to decide either way, and while in the past he said he was going to opt in, when he saw that he could instead fund his campaign better with small donations, he opted out. Losing argument for McCain, really.

Lest you panic...

A reminder that Obama needs 270 EVs to win the election. Assume he wins all the Kerry states. But wait, you say, what about New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, might they go McCain? The last five polls of those states:
Pennsylvania: +12, +7, +12, +4, +12
New Hampshire: +17, +4, +11, +13, +18

So forget about those two states, and now Obama has 252 EVs.

Next up, Iowa, with 7 EVs: +15, +8, +11, +15, +10
New Mexico, with 5 EVs: +10, +7, +13, +8, +11

Now he's up to 264. Let's look at Colorado (9) and Virgina (13):
CO: +4, +10, +9, +7, +9
VA: +4, +9, +9, +8, +9

He wins either of those, he wins. And we haven't brought up Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, or Nevada, all of which are looking no worse than toss-ups, and are actually leaning Obama's way.

So fret not when you see a national tracking poll make it seem like it is close. It ain't.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Teaching duties and lab duties collided today, so not a lot of free time to reflect on the political race. But, I did learn of a really, really neat website that Harvard is building. Go to this link and click on "The Inner Life of the Cell." What is remarkable about this movie -- and many, many more that I've seen in the class I'm TA'ing but apparently aren't ready for public distribution -- is that they aren't fanciful cartoons of what is going on in the cell but rather quite realistic depictions of how proteins, nucleic acids, membranes, etc. are going about their business. Every time I see stuff like this I'm blown away by the fact that we're alive.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Joe the Brewer

For those wondering what to imbibe during election watching on Tuesday -- before the obvious champagne toast when Virginia is called for Obama at 9:16 pm -- the Cambridge Brewing Company has a new beer, The Audacity of Hops. I had it at lunch today and can recommend it. Of course, if you don't live near Cambridge, you're kinda outta luck, but if you'd like, I'll throw one back for you, just ask (twist my arm....)

Kerry as Sec. of State?

Many have already moved past the election and are now figuring out who will fill out Obama's cabinet. One named floated for Secretary of State is John Kerry. Are you frickin' kidding me? Obama is no dope, so I seriously doubt this is under consideration -- and maybe I'm viewing Obama as too much of a football coach, but when he says that he's taking this one game at a time, I believe him.

John Kerry would be a horrible Secretary of State, for the same reason that he was a horrible presidential candidate. First, the guy is incapable of speaking naturally. Yes, he did give one good speech during the DNC this year, but overall, he's a bad public speaker, so probably not the sort of guy you want travelling the world as a representative of America. Second, he has the stink of loser attached to him, and Republicans are used to poo-poohing him, so do you really want a Sec. State that half (well, less than half!) of the people in this country generally don't respect?

All things being equal, does Kerry have the brains and temperment to be Sec. State? Yes on the latter, not so sure on the former (he looked smart compared to Bush, but I've never heard Kerry described as a heavyweight intellect -- hell, his report card at Yale was pretty similar to W's). But there have to be more qualified people out there. I'm not saying she was particularly qualified, but who the hell had heard of Condi Rice before Bush tapped her in '00 to be NSA? Cabinet appointments can come from unlikely places.

I think that all this parlor game guessing is merely to fill up the time, and Big Names float to the top due to lack of any real knowledge.

Mac Attack

Obama has a new ad that most would probably categorize as a negative ad, because it talks about McCain instead of Obama. As I've written before I don't think this is entirely fair, or at least not the right thing to focus on. But here's something interesting. Go watch this ad and just listen to it -- doesn't it sound like it is an ad for Apple? Or perhaps Volkswagon? The Obama campaign has been doing this for most of its ads -- it shuns the use of deep-voiced male announcer or anxiety-laced female announcer to attack, but rather plays this fairly upbeat, almost-cheery music.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Weeping and gnashing

For a long time, the Democrats have had the reputation as a group that could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and it is not rare to hear the commentariat worry about complacency on the Democrat side. Oh, Obama's going to win, why should I vote?

I think, if anything, it is the Republicans who have to worry about no-shows this year, and particularly the effect that will have on down-ballot races. By all accounts, Obama is killing McCain in states that allow early voting, so I'm not too worried about complacency on the Democratic side. There has been an 'enthusiasm gap' this whole campaign, with Democrats way more energized to vote Obama than Republicans to vote McCain. If Republicans look at all the polls and say screw it, I'm not standing in line next to vote for a guy who ain't winning, then not only will Obama be able to win with a greater percentage of the popular vote (not sure what this is worth) but he will also likely have an even larger Democratic majority in Congress (worth a lot).

Indeed, it now appears that pretty much every close Senate race is breaking the Democrats way -- Begich will almost certainly now beat Stevens in Alaska, Merkely is pulling ahead of Smith in Oregon, and Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia are all close -- Republican disillusion could certainly tip the balance in many of those states, especially where there are a lot of black people who are incredibly motivated to vote. I don't think that having 60 Senators is as magic a number as people seem to think, as there are certainly going to be Republicans you could peel off for certain votes (Snowe & Collins in Maine, e.g.) and there are going to be Democrats who 'defect' on others (Baucus in Montana, just to name one). Plus, there's Joe Lieberman, who at least for now caucuses with the Dems, but a lot of the base want to see him booted. Finally, I was glad to hear of this report, that Reid is laying the groundwork to replace Byrd as chair of the appropriations committee. One of, if not the most, powerful positions in the Senate, it probably shouldn't be held by a 90 year old guy from West Virginia who's environmental record is, um, quite bad, with WV being a major coal state.

Now +5

Today's the final day to predict the election and receive a 5 point bonus (link on left).

You can still buy shares of Obama for under ninety cents on the dollar at Intrade and IEM. While not a bargain, if you're sure that Obama will win, it is a pretty good way to turn a 10% profit in one week. Better than the stock market, anyway.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Obama is not Clinton

There's an interesting article in New York magazine about what an Obama (or McCain) administration faces, well-worth the read. But I do take issue with this comparison that I've seen time and time again:

It requires no prodigious feat of memory, of course, to see how this dream could come a cropper. Back in 1993, Bill Clinton surfed into Washington on a similar wave of enthusiasm and expectation. Democrats then, too, controlled both the upper and lower chambers on Capitol Hill. The party’s agenda was bold, ambitious, far-reaching. And then everything fell to pieces. In something like a heartbeat, Clinton’s reputation as a Third Way centrist was reduced to rubble. The degree of Democratic political malpractice was so severe that it enabled the GOP, in 1994, to snatch the reins of the House and Senate simultaneously for the first time in four decades.

First, Clinton did not have a similar wave of enthusiasm -- yes, he garned a lot of electoral votes, but only because Perot voters made up almost 20% of the electorate. Clinton received 43% of the vote, which is less than McCain is going to win.

Second, and I'll need some older folks to back me up on this (I was 14 in 1992), but the mood of the country is far more eggy now than it was in 1992. I'd think that if there were ever a time for a more progressive agenda to get passed, it would be in a time of crisis, rather than when things are all swell -- the New Deal, for example.

Third, yeah, Clinton overreached in his first two years in office. But do the temperments of Clinton and Obama seem even remotely similar? Obama is patient, methodical, and probably most important, not too full of himself; Clinton, on the other hand, was an egomaniac who screwed around with women -- a reckless personality.

Dismal indeed

Clark Griswold of Chicago writes in:
This is instructive to me as to why government spending needs to be justified on larger grounds than "well, that sounds like a good idea." (Ignore the theoretical nonsense about incentives to work, i just thought the numbers were eye-opening):

Clark notes, rightly in my mind, that all this incentive to work stuff is total bullshit, but you see economists doing these calculations all the time. Humans don't think like this, nor should we. I work because I enjoy what I do, and sitting on my ass all day, while nice every once in a while, is not really a good long-term plan for my mental sanity. Sure, humans compare offers -- if Job A pays me $X, and Job B pays me $Y, then I can weigh my options. Further, most people don't really control how much work they do anyway -- you get paid a set salary and you have a given amount of work to do, so there's really not a lot of choice in the matter, and certainly not the level of detail of so-and-so's tax plan means I'll work until 4:45 every day, but under the other guy's, it is worth my while to stay until 5:15. You'll work harder if you're motivated (either internally or from fear of losing your job) by whatever you happen to be doing, not by calculations of marginal tax rates.

Jurassic Park was a documentary, right?

Enrico Pullazzo passes on an article from Salon, bashing a recent Palin talking point, that it is idiotic to spend money on research. Now, anyone who remembers even high school biology would be able to tell you that fruit fly research has been a cornerstone of research for a century now -- then again, finishing high school does not appear to be a major emphasis of life in the Palin household.

No surprise that a GOP candidate would find some budget item such as fruit fly research and mock it, but that we're not surprised by this really points to a main cause of the Republican party's collapse: a total commitment to anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, anti-knowing-what-the-flark-you're-talking-about. All that seems to matter is how an idea sounds when yelled from a podium or bantered back and forth on a split screen with some operative from the other side. Whether the idea is factual or wise does not seem to be part of the equation.

The anti-science and technology wing of the GOP is truly dangerous for this country. From the Manhattan Project to the Apollo Program to Silicon Valley, the success of America for the past half century has largely been a product of technological superiority. That we're got a VP nominee who thinks that dinosaurs co-existed with humans is jaw-dropping.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Since the beginning of time, man has yeared to destroy the sun

Or so says Montgomery Burns. Others, however, have learned what plants have known for billions of years, that the sun is a cheap source of energy. One such person is my cousin who, apparently, does this for a living. Here's his 5 minutes in the sun (ha!) on Fox.

On a related note, one benefit of attending MIT is that the alumni magazine, Technology Review, is actually worth reading. I wish I had a longer history of reading this periodical, so I would know if their predictions/hype are accurate harbingers of the future of technology. But if they are, we're not that far from generating a helluva lot of energy from solar. Analogous to computers, look at where we were 25 years ago. I really want to play Pogo Joe again, by the way -- I'm pretty sure there was a board entitled "Tennis, Antibody?" which is just hilarious.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Conservatives & kids

An excellent post by Matt Yglesias on one area where conservative philosophy really breaks down in a way that only the hardest of the die hards would every admit (but, sadly, probably many more think). Here's one part, but if you have the chance, read the whole thing. Indeed, this post gets to a fundamental problem with an everyone for themselves attitude -- through no fault of your own, your parents can majorly screw up your life (mom, dad, this is not an incredibly passive-aggressive attack on your parenting!)
It would be one thing if conservatives had the courage of their convictions and just said, “hey, government intervention in the economy is so terrible that we don’t care if children suffer.” But when you see candidates out there on the hustings talking about how we need to take care of special needs children, well, it makes me mad. Of course we need to take care of their needs. But kids, special and otherwise, need all kinds of stuff. They need decent childcare and nutritious food and they need to see doctors and dentists and they need clothing and they need decently maintained houses that are heated in the winter. They need parents with job opportunities and schedules that are flexible enough to take care of them. Nobody seriously denies that kids need this stuff. But lots of people are just indifferent to the fact that a huge proportion of our children don’t get their needs met. And it’s appalling. McCain says that rather than spreading the wealth around, he wants to have equal opportunity. But what kind of equal opportunity do have when mom’s pulling in $21,500 to support three kids and President McCain is slashing spending on child and family services left and right?


In 11 days, we (well, some of us) will head to senior centers, school gyms, and other places we only go once a year. By any possible reading of polls -- outside of Drudge citing Nickelodeon -- this is going to be a bloodbath. Obama is putting up his best polling numbers of the campaign. When North Dakota and Montana are the toss-ups, and Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina are leaning Democrat, it is over.

Really, this is nothing short of amazing. Five years ago, if I had told you that a black guy with the middle name Hussein would defeat both Hillary Clinton and John McCain in a single campaign, do so without a major scandal befalling either opponent, and expand the Democratic map to include states that were part of Confederacy, you'd have locked me up and thrown away the key. Oh, and his candidacy seems to have caused conservatism to start to tear itself to shreds -- I'd say this is schadenfraude on my part, but there's nothing guilty in my pleasure. The race-baiting, homophobic, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do moralizing, truth-be-damned scumbags who constitute the 'leadership' of this movement are a far far cry from Barry Goldwater (who's granddaughter just endorsed Obama).

Make sure you catch Ferrell on SNL last night. Oops, broken link, now fixed.