Archive for January, 2009

Betting against the house

January 30, 2009 7 comments

“Prediction is very hard, especially about the future”
- Yogi Berra

With due respect to the esteemed philosopher, that just isn’t true.  Oh, it’s difficult to predict events, but ignoring probabilities is foolish.

Back in 2001 I went to Comdex in Las Vegas.  Because of 9/11 the convention was lightly attended, and I had extra time to visit casinos and other attractions.  For a non-gambler this mostly consists of partaking of delightful food at fire-sale prices, but it was interesting in other ways.  The moment of realization came when I walked through the MGM-Grand building.  It’s a gigantic pyramid with spotlights shining straight up into the night sky.

It’s difficult to describe the scale and opulence of the place.  The main gambling floor was so big that I wished I had a bicycle to get to the other side, where there were several restaurants nearly lost in the distant tobacco haze.  Off in one corner was a lion habitat.  There were actually lions in a pretty good-sized simulated savannah with an incongruous artificial cliff.  I wondered if they used the lions to punish welshers.

Another casino featured a simulated Roman market, complete with a lovely simulated sky that changed with the hour to become night.  It bore the same comparison to a suburban shopping mall as a Bentley does to a Yugo.  Yet another casino featured actual, full-scale pirate ship battles.  Nowhere was there any place to sit down that didn’t involve either food or gambling.

These are not charities.  No wealthy financier said; “Let us entertain the people out of the goodness of our hearts!”  No, these magnificent temples were the product of inexorable, well-studied (by the casinos) probability.  The casino’s reputation depended on the outcome of a single throw of the dice, a single turn of the roulette wheel, or a single pull of the slot machine lever being carefully random.  Their income depends on there being nothing random about the aggregate outcome.

It’s sort of a strange business model, when you think about it.  Most businesses try to make a known profit on each small transaction.  The idea that some random transaction could just up and cost them a million dollars would send their conservative actuaries running for the door.  But that uncertainty is what makes gambling work.  In a way, casinos are the most scientific of all businesses, because science is all about paying attention to the probabilities, as best they can be known.  Science validates itself through prediction.

As the old saying goes; “The battle does not always go the strong, nor the race to the swift, but that’s the way to bet.”  Yet casinos are full of people betting against the house.  Somehow it does not occur to them that the size and opulence of the casino is testament to the likely outcome.  The idea of prediction is held out of sight.

Holding prediction out of sight was faith-based strategy for the last eight years.  One of my favorite quotes from the Bush administration is; “Nobody could have predicted the failure of the levees.”

Riiiight.  Nobody except the Army Corps of Engineers, National Geographic, Scientific American, the New Orleans Times Picayune, and even Mister Bill.  But there’s no reason the Bush administration should have been able to see it coming.

The “nobody could have predicted” defense has a long, disastrous history. There is something in the human mind that makes us want to believe everything will turn out OK.  So people in authority don’t give adequate consideration to the possibility that it won’t.

Nobody could have predicted that the space shuttle Challenger would blow up if launched in weather that was colder than it was designed to be launched in.  (Except the engineers who designed the thing.) Nobody could have predicted 9/11 (Except the intelligence analysts who did, and were dismissed by Bush).  Nobody could have predicted that Iran would want nukes if a superpower invaded countries on two of its borders.  (Except pretty much everyone.)  And who would have guessed that massive deficit spending plus lower taxes would result in an economic meltdown?  And above all, nobody has any idea what will happen from global warming.  Nope, that’s in God’s hands, nothing we can do about it.

Well except for scientists who have been analyzing actual data.  And some of them have been saying; “We’re screwed. We waited too long.  It’s time to start thinking about geoengineering.”  In a strange way, this message is a comfort to wingers.  At last, says the winger, the environmentalists will throw up their hands and let the rest of the world get on with the important business of making sure future generations will be strengthened by the struggle to survive on a plundered and ruined planet.

Classy.  There’s an alternative message, for those not willing to give up the ghost just yet: it is not only still worth doing something about it, but more important than ever.

Christianists are fond of yawping about how prophets in Old Testament times were killed if they made any mistakes.  Yep, they had to have a perfect record.  Which they accomplished by being vague, as I certainly would if my ass were on the line.  But the prophets were neither scientists or actuaries, and their prophecies were not evidence-based.  That was excusable back in the days before we knew what we know now, but if you confuse events like weather with aggregate outcomes like climate, how is that responsible?  If you ignore clear warnings from qualified sources, how is that good governance?  Why should anyone take you seriously if you bet against the house?

Or we could just keep believing, and keep pulling the lever.  God’s watching over us.

Categories: Uncategorized

Trouble! with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Blagojevich… UPDATE

January 29, 2009 3 comments

Our state senate impeached Blagojevich today, and he testified nonsensically in his own defense for 47 interminable minutes.  He invoked the elderly and the children, and freedom and all the reasons why it would just be a cryin’ shame to boot him out.

And he reminded me of… something, some con-artist I’d heard somewhere.  Then it hit me:

Well, Blago is no Robert Preston.  But it was pretty entertaining all the same.

BONUS UPDATE! I noticed this newspaper box on the way back from lunch today.  Take a look at the teaser image on the bottom of the box… newspapers can only be this blatant when they know the guy hasn’t a friend left in the world.

(Click the pic to download high-res.)  And I think Dana saw this one coming..  Also you might enjoy Ed Brayton’s description of Blago’s incredibly ridiculous defense.  Sounds like the title of a children’s book, doesn’t it?

Categories: Politics

Thank you for smoking

January 26, 2009 3 comments

I bought a copy of “Thank you for smoking” at Wal-Mart yesterday, and the checkout guy, who was about my age, was prompted by his cash register to ask me; “Are you at least seventeen?”  and then we both burst out laughing.

Thing is, this movie is rated R because it has naughty words in it, and also a little bit of sex though hardly in a heroic context.  But kids under seventeen are exactly who should see it. 

Hell, sixth-graders should see it.  Oh, they might pick up a naughty word or two, in the spectacularly unlikely event they have not heard them before.  But I think it might reduce the chances they’ll ever light up a cigarette.  Certainly more effective than the carefully-crafted “anti”-smoking messages funded by the tobacco companies as part of various court agreements.  Or if not, it’s just a very funny movie, a comedy whose main character is a tobacco company lobbyist.

Update: On the other hand, i did enjoy this message from RoboCop; “Thank You for not smoking”.

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The passive voice and web accessibility

January 25, 2009 13 comments

The grammatical rule against the passive voice always mystified me; sometimes it’s the only elegant way to express a thought.  Yet there’s Microsoft grammar checker with its squiggly green line, bothering about the passive voice. 

But the passive voice can be overdone.  (See?  Try that sentence in all active voice.  You wind up bending it into a pretzel.) I’m reading Sarah Horton’s Access by Design; a guide to universal usability for web designers, and she wallows in it:

When information is displayed on a printed page, its content and presentation are inextricably bound.  The expression of the information is tied to its visual design, and the reader must be able to access and interpret the information as presented.  When access is subject to requirements such as 20/20 vision, the information is bound to be inaccessible to some readers. (p. 44)

That’s ok in small doses but Horton wrote the whole book that way.  Here, I’ll take a crack at it:

Displaying information on a printed page inextricably binds content to presentation – in this case, the visual design of the page.  The user must correctly understand that presentation in order to access and interpret the information it contains.  If the presentation requires that the user have 20/20 vision, for example, some users will be unable to overcome it.

A real writer could certainly do better, but I gots to start paying attention to overusing the passive voice.  I’ve heard Sarah Horton speak in person, and on a separate occasion, her Web Style Guide co-author Patrick Lynch, and hadn’t realized what a leavening influence Lynch had on her writing. 

But no, this does not mean I’ll be turning on Grammar Checker.  The grammatical mistakes you read here are mine, dammit, and won’t be tainted by advice from any dunderheaded software program.

Otherwise, the book is pretty good.  I have not decided yet if I agree with all her conclusions, to the extent I can “access and interpret” them in all that passivity.  So far I’m much more enjoying another book, Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cederholm.  Maybe it’s just me; I tend to prefer the style of a detective novel or ideally, a comic book.

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Don’t feed wild animals

January 24, 2009 3 comments

I went out to the garage to do some stuff today and this little critter wouldn’t leave me alone.  He stayed under my feet while I was looking for some lumber, and I was afraid that I’d step on him.

From his behavior I’d guess that MrsDoF has befriended him (or her – I didn’t look that closely). 

The title of this post may be overly broad; lots of people have bird feeders, and that’s usually OK.  But some critters can be a big problem so it’s a bad idea to feed them.  Squirrels, raccoons, mice, crows, geese, all fall into this category.

He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I gave him a granola bar.

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Renewing America open thread

January 21, 2009 3 comments

I’m still a bit off the beam right now but this condition is controllable with exercise and I’m doing plenty of that.  Meanwhile, our new president had a busy first day in office, dropping anchor on some of Shrubbie’s last-minute vandalism and ripping open the curtains to throw some sunlight on the machinations of government for the first time in eight years.  And that’s a good feeling, whatever my malfunctioning nociceptors report.

What was your favorite part of inauguration day? (Check out this awesome satellite image and be sure to download the high-res) What do you think of Obama and Roberts doing the oath again? How do you suppose the Ford Focus-driving, gas-saving Obama likes his new tank car? How about changes to our country – what’s the most important change that should be made?  The hardest change?  The change that, in the grand scheme may not be top on either list but is important to you personally?  Have at it folks, I’m hitting the sack.

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I didn’t watch the inauguration

January 20, 2009 4 comments

I did help set up streaming video in our atrium and two classrooms, and my boss sent out instructions for how people could watch in their offices.  But I am exhausted and today I just tried to keep up and not be grumpy; my head is full of the noise of pain.

Life goes on in myriad ways even as history is made.  last night I was in too much pain to sleep and drugs weren’t helping.  I tossed and dozed fitfully until about 4 when my cat plastered himself against my chest and began to purr.  I went to sleep until 6 when i was awakened by a pain dream.

Now the intertubes are full of insightful, beautifully-written posts by my favorite bloggers, but I can’t make sense out of them. I marked them for later attention in myu rss feed and am off to do some cardio and shower.  Our new president is at the helm and I can hear the ship creak as it begins to change direction.  It’s a good sound.

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Tracks of winter

January 19, 2009 Comments off

Above, anyone know what made these tracks?  They go past our house, and make me think of one critter dragging another critter.  I’m not exactly Daniel Boone, so I don’t know what they are.  Our neighborhood is frequented by cats, dogs, squirrels, possum, raccoons, fox, and the occasional deer. 

At right, the reason bikes have fenders.  That slushy deposit would cover the taillight and stripe right up my backside, were it not for the fender.

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The Martin Luther King Day before Obama

January 19, 2009 2 comments

How do you spend Martin Luther King day?  I spend it, every year, in mixed feelings, and the sense that there’s more I don’t know about race relations than I could ever claim to know.

I used to comfort myself with the delusion that our country is pretty much post-racial, that the civil rights movement had liberated all but a few backwoods examples of the American soul from the hatred and discrimination of the past. It was easy to think that, insulated as I am in a prosperous, majority-white community.

The candidacy of Barack Obama was like switching on the lights in a bug-infested kitchen.  The realization of a credible black candidate for president galvanized racist America, brought them out into the open, and made it impossible to believe in the happy delusion anymore.

Obama won by a small but comfortable margin, against a man so obviously wrong for the office and our moment in history that I must consider racism as one reason the margin was not a landslide. 

Oh! what we saw when we switched on the lights! Obama waffles, Obama monkeys, David Duke describing Obama as a “visual aid to White America that we are losing control of our country.”  Duke is exceptional; very few people will admit to racism.  Some aren’t even aware of it.  Our country is deeply screwed-up over race, truly the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons and the sons’ sons.  It cannot be wished away.

Obama said something very hopeful in his landmark speech on race, which followed the Rev. Wright debacle.  He said;

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

(Do I even need to say that it is worth going on to read the whole speech?  Jon Stewart described the event as; “An American politician spoke to the American people about race, as if they were adults.”)

About that progress:  I do not personally remember the crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.  Briefly, following the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board Of Education, a federal order to desegregate schools was defied by the governor, who sent in National Guard troops to keep nine black students from attending classes.  Think of it! Brave men with guns holding high school students at bay; I think I know who showed the real courage.

President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the rule of law, and thus protected, the students walked past white protesters threatening every manner of mayhem against the children and their families.  The school district, with the governor’s blessing, closed all its high schools for an entire year, rather than integrate.

That was only fifty-one years ago.  Did we really expect everything to be all-good by now?  Like a kind of spiritual lead-poisoning, oppression pollutes the soul of the oppressor. Sometimes it truly is only the children in which we can find hope.  As parents, we try not to pass prejudice on to our kids.  Or at least, we should try; some of our institutions seem to have been chartered for the very purpose of handing down our spiritual poverty to the next generation.

Watch this extraordinary BBC interview with Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the original Little Rock Nine and today the CEO of a management-consulting firm.  See him describe three generations of progress, and reflect on what will happen tomorrow.

Injustice echoes back and forth across the expanse of time; we’re not free of it yet.  But tomorrow we’re going to do something we should have done eight years ago; inaugurate an intelligent person as president of the United States.  And we’ll do something else which we should have done much longer ago: change the picture that all our children receive from us, of who may take part in the destiny of our country.  We will say to history, “There is not a white America and a Black America, but a United States of America”, and try to put aside our illusions and continue the work to make it true.

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the couple from Normal

January 18, 2009 Comments off

I write about one poem a year, and that of quite questionable quality.  Here is 2009’s:

There once was a couple from Normal
Who drove out to Barnes & Noble
On a Saturday Night
The Cheesecake was just right
But the coffee was abom’nbly horr’ble.

Actually the cheesecake, and the coffee, were both mediocre, but that’s a different limerick.  And now for your enjoyment, a poem from the Digital Cuttlefish, who writes sometimes more than a poem a day, and has gotten damn good at it: Reading this just increased your carbon footprint.

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