Monthly Archives: June 2008

Theme Broke

What the fuck? My theme suddenly doesn’t work. I have no idea why this would happen right now?

This will be addressed tomorrow.

UPDATE: 10:53PM – Apparently my theme wasn’t really compatible with the version of WordPress that I’m using. The confusing thing is why it decided to stop working now as opposed to when I upgraded. Any ideas?

Anyway, I found a version that works, so that’s all good. I got all the widgets to work, including my blogroll. I still have to fix the style sheet.

UPDATE: 11:41PM – So the issue was addressed today instead of tomorrow. Everything should be fixed. Leave a comment if something looks funny.

Open Letter: Initial Thoughts on the FairTax

Hi Ryan,

Here are my initial thoughts on the FairTax: The FairTax isn’t a good idea. First, it’s deceptive about the cost to America, and second, it would create a brand new bureaucracy without any pragmatic benefit.

The first point you can do the research to find out. According to FactCheck.org, the FairTax proposes a 23% sales tax, but this wouldn’t be enough to replace all the revenue it’s supposed to replace. Instead, it would have to be around a 34% tax. FactCheck.org is non-partisan and usually reliable; I trust them. You can look into more hard data, but I will defer to their judgment for now.

In my opinion, the proponents of the FairTax are basically lying to the American people about what it would cost. Either you build massive deficits or you cut tons of programs. Undoubtedly, a libertarian would love the latter. However, it remains politically impossible to both implement the FairTax and cut tons of programs.

The second point is that the FairTax is an unnecessary boondoggle. I still adhere to some conservative principles, and this seems to be where they come in handy. FairTax proponents, like Huckabee, will say that they want to abolish the IRS. In truth, the FairTax still requires some type of bureaucracy to handle all it does. What are you going to do? Replace the IRS and institute a new organization? Why would we replace one form of taxation with another if we will still have a bureaucratic mess? Because it’ll make some people feel philosophically more at peace? That’s not a sufficient reason to institute such a radical change. Conservatives rightly resist such change for change’s sake.

If you disagree about the bureaucracy it would create, keep in mind that a sales tax is highly regressive. The FairTax proposes various measures to help out the poor. Someone needs to keep track of who gets what. You’ll find no one promoting a “fair tax” who does not also promote some ways of ameliorating its regressive nature.

In addition, a big sales tax will open up massive smuggling “business opportunities” with our neighboring countries. Either we let all that go, or we crack down on it. If we decide to do any enforcement, guess what? More government.

The FairTax provides no benefit other than some philosophical good feelings, but to implement it would require heavy costs — more than I’ve enumerated here, even. You can’t contemplate the FairTax in abstract; you have to look at what it would cost to actually put it in place. Radical changes require enormous benefits, and that just doesn’t happen with the FairTax. The trade-off isn’t worth it.

As always,
Shawn

JHU Loss in Iraq

I got this e-mail yesterday. Damn this war.

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

We learned late today of the tragic death of one of our own in Iraq.

Nicole Suveges, a graduate student in political science who was working
in Iraq as a civilian, was among four Americans killed an explosion
Tuesday in the offices of the district council in the critical Sadr City
section of Baghdad.

Two U.S. soldiers, a State Department employee, an Italian translator
working for the Defense Department, and six Iraqis also were killed,
according to news reports.

Nicole was in Iraq as a political scientist working in the Army’s
Human Terrain System program, advising the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of
the 4th Infantry Division. A statement from BAE Systems, the company
that employed her, said she helped Army leaders working to reduce
violence in the community and rebuild local infrastructure. Her
intelligence and savvy, combined with her experience as an Army
reservist serving in Bosnia in the 1990s, reportedly made her especially
effective in her work to improve the lives of everyday Iraqis.

I am told that Nicole also was using this second tour in Iraq — she
had previously served there as a civilian contractor several years ago
– to complete field research for her planned dissertation. She was
exploring the process of transition from an authoritarian regime to
democracy. She was investigating especially what that process means for
and how it affects ordinary citizens.

Members of the Political Science Department describe Nicole as an
extraordinarily bright, engaging, kind person, intellectually curious
and outgoing. She also was known as an active citizen of the department,
regularly attending seminars and helping to organize graduate student
activities. As a former Reserve soldier herself and as a person in her
mid-30s, she brought a different and valuable perspective to the
intellectual life of the department.

Nicole was committed to using her learning and experience to make the
world a better place, especially for people who have suffered through
war and conflict. In that, she exemplifies all that we seek to do at
Johns Hopkins: to use knowledge for the good of humanity.

This is the third time in a little over a year that we have learned of
the death in Iraq of a young member of the Johns Hopkins community. Last
year, Lt. Colby Umbrell ’04 and Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh ’03, both
of the U.S. Army, were killed in action there. Their deaths and
Nicole’s diminish us all. But their lives — lives devoted to
service to others — honor us and our university. We are better for
their having been among us.

Wendy and I join all of you in offering our deepest sympathy to
Nicole’s husband, to her family, to her colleagues and to her
friends.

Sincerely,

Bill Brody

Review: Caro’s Book of Poker Tells

I grabbed Caro’s Book of Poker Tells at a store in Las Vegas. The book is a classic piece of poker literature. It teaches the science of tells. In poker, a tell is some type of outward behavior that gives away information about your cards. For example, in the last James Bond movie, Casino Royale, Le Chiffre’s eye supposedly twitches when he’s bluffing. Or, in Rounders the guy eats his cookie a certain way. This book is a lot more sophisticated than that.

It’s very useful right away. The book even provides tons of pictures, which will help you identify the tells when you actually see them. The biggest thing I learned was that strong means weak and weak means strong when someone’s acting.

I have yet to be in a situation where I can utilize the skills I’ve learned, but I already know it’ll improve my game. While reading, I came across some behaviors that intended to trick the opponent. Those were things I’ve fallen for so many times. Now that I’ve learned what those behaviors really mean, I won’t be so gullible.

Review: All Families Are Psychotic

All Families Are Psychotic, by Douglas Coupland, chronicles one adventure of the veritably fucked-up Drummond family. The plot is hard to describe; it veers in many directions. Astronauts, affairs, abortions, AIDS, armed robberies — and that’s just the a’s. Things happen all of a sudden. All in all, it’s an entertaining read, but I didn’t find anything particularly poignant. Nothing really touched me. It was a good piece of escapism, but I didn’t learn anything about the human condition. (No doubt, you’ll hear that exact complaint again and again as I read more books.)

In fact, I found the ending really disappointing. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Somehow they’re magically cured of AIDS, which really messed with my willing suspension of disbelief. The rest of the plot is wacky, but you can go along with it. In addition, I didn’t really see how the characters really changed. The family seemed closer, but then, why do we need them healed? I didn’t get it.

So: Fun to read, quick to read, but you won’t learn anything new about the human condition.

Disappointed about Obama on FISA

I’m disappointed that Obama joined with the capitulators on the FISA issue. Telecoms should not get amnesty for breaking the law, and this bill allows that. Obama said he disagreed with that portion, but he should have shown some leadership and done more than disagree with it after the fact.

That said, of course I’m still voting for him. As an ex-conservative, I never came to this process expecting that a liberal would fulfill all my fantasies about a presidential candidate.

After all the damage Bush has done, it’s going to take a while to restore the laws and values of our republic. Obama’s not our savior, and most of us have figured that out a long time ago. Roll up your sleeves. You’re going to have to do some work too if you want your civil liberties.

Heat

How come heat interferes with your ability to think? What’s the science behind it? I’d look it up, but I wouldn’t be able to comprehend it at the moment; I’m roasting.

Disappeared Links

Alright, all my links on the left disappeared, and I’m not sure when this happened. I think it was probably when I updated to the latest version of WordPress.

I’ll have to go in the code and mess with some stuff. I’m not sure exactly when I’ll get around to it. I’ll probably have it finished within a few weeks. Just wanted to give you readers a heads up.

Father’s Day 2008

For Prince

In the trunk of the prius
was our dog
wrapped in a blanket
dead.
In between the breeze
and my dad’s voice,
I heard the radio dj exhort,
remember to say happy father’s day
when you see your dad.

“Happy Father’s Day,” I said.
“Gee, thanks.”

Short Review: Lost and Found

I breezed through Alan Dean Foster’s Lost and Found, about a man who gets taken hostage by aliens. They are bandits who capture different species and sell them.

I got absorbed by the story pretty quickly. However, I started reading at around chapter 5, instead of at the beginning. The first chapter actually didn’t entrance me as much. In fact, when I jumped back to the first chapter (after I was a few chapters from the end), I noticed that some of it was unnecessarily verbose, which was sometimes distracting. For example, I seem to remember the use of the word “simian” in lieu of person.

Another flaw was that the characters were kind of flat. That’s okay, though. I don’t need complex characters; I enjoy watching sitcoms.

It is interesting to note that after I read this book, I read Man’s Search for Meaning, which talks about the psychology of being in a German concentration camp. After that, I tried to find parallels between that book and Lost and Found. I didn’t really see anything other than “not giving up” is important. This is not surprising, given that I already said the psychology of the characters wasn’t too complex.

Starting to Read About Sales

I decided that sales was a topic that I needed to learn more about. It’s a useful skill for life in general, and I’ll probably need to get better consider I’m going to be selling merchandise for my comic. This was prompted by reading Don’t Send a Resume, which I mentioned in this group of reviews.

My dad gave me a pile of books to take a look at. I started with The 25 Sales Habits of Highly Successful Salespeople by Stephan Schiffman, published back in 1991. It was an easy book to jump into. It lists 25 habits and describes each fairly succintly — a few pages per habit, usually.

I didn’t bother memorizing all 25 because I’m trying to get an overview of things. I got two main points. One, you want to develop a relationship with your client. Two, you want to solve your client’s problem(s) — act like their consultant.

The first point is actually something I wanted to do with Chalkboard Manifesto anyway — that is, develop a relationship with my readers.

The second point puts Don’t Send a Resume in better context. That’s why you show how you’re going to help the company do X, Y, and Z.

One last thing. The habit about taking notes is one I’m going to memorize because I can tie it to a concrete example about how useful it is. Also, I’m about to start a teaching job and I think this will be useful:

Taking notes will encourage the prospect to open up. You may doubt this, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Every time I conduct a seminar, I get further proof of how effective the simple act of writing something down (in this case, on an easel) can be in encouraging communication. When I simply stand in front of an audience and ask, “What was good about the presentation we just heard?” — nothing happens. When I stand in front of an easel and write “GOOD POINTS IN PRESENTATION” across the top, then ask for suggestion — wham! The room comes alive!

Fortune’s Formula

I borrowed Fortune’s Formula by William Poundstone from my brother. It’s a fun read, but has limited real-world utility.

It tells the story of the Kelly criterion. This involves romps through gambling, the stock market, mathematics, and the mob. The connections to the underworld are exciting, and I was really sucked into the story towards the middle of the book, but the beginning starts off very choppy. It jumps from person to person, place to place, and you don’t understand where you are, or where you’re going. You might want to start in the middle, and then read the beginning later.

The book reminded me of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. (Of course, the history of the Kelly criterion is much shorter than the history of zero.) Fortune’s Formula was a story about a concept. It explains that concept, the Kelly formula, in a way that’s pretty easy to grasp, but if you want to know how to apply the Kelly criterion, one would have to purchase a book that goes more in-depth. For example, it says the company Long-Term Capital Management was making tons of small bets, but they weren’t really diversified, so it was like making a few huge bets. How do you know what counts as diversified?

Another good tip one can glean is “Don’t Overbet,” but this must be applied while using the Kelly criterion. This means you must do math. This tip isn’t quite as useful in its general form, as I put it.

This is not a criticism of the book, but a note to those who would purchase the book. If you’re looking for a good story, then read this book. If you’re looking to make money, then do some more research on the Kelly criterion.

I wanted to make one final note. I recently read Why Most Things Fail, which also looks at the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management. The two books diagnose the failures differently, but I don’t think the approaches are necessarily mutually exclusive. Fortune’s Formula says LTCM was guilty of overbetting, and wasn’t able to avoid ruin because of that. Why Most Things Fail showed why the type of dip seen isn’t as unlikely as traditionally calculated. These shocks are endogenous to the system, not one in a million events. The odds weren’t calculated right. But this is just all the more reason not to overbet, and to be conservative, because it’s easy to miscalculate the odds.

More Chalkboard Changes

I set up my RSS feed for The Chalkboard Manifesto so it updates automatically around midnight (actually, like 12:06) on update days. Awesome.

Also, I updated the transcriptions archive, so you can search and find all the comics.

Next on the agenda: handheld stylesheet, and voting incentives. (After that, the store!)

New Archive for The Chalkboard Manifesto

I revamped the archive for The Chalkboard Manifesto. Also, when I was validating the page, I found out that there was an error with the index, and I fixed that too.

I changed the archive because the old one was not very usable. It was just a blob of comic names, and you couldn’t sort out anything. Plus, I think I was using small-caps for unvisited comics, which made it even less readable. The archive should be much easier to read, and navigate, now.

Comments would be appreciated, especially if you find something wrong with it.

McCain’s Crowd

I’m watching McCain’s speech on CNN right now. What really strikes me is the crowd. It’s a small crowd, as opposed to the huge crowds you see for Obama. The crowd consists of old, white people; Obama’s crowds are diverse.

There’s something symbolic about it.

How Close is Obama?

Obama’s close to clinching this, counting delegates and superdelegates. After the Michigan and Florida issue was resolved (barring anything bizarre from Clinton), the new magic number is 2,118.

It’s almost 1PM Pacific time right now. According to the Obama campaign, they are 30.5 delegates away. A bunch of superdelegates are declaring for Obama today, and Montana and South Dakota should push him over the top. There are 16 pledged delegates up for grabs in Montana, and 15 pledged delegates from South Dakota. The last polls close at 10PM Eastern time.

It is important to note that Michigan and Florida superdelegates only get half a vote.

The Obama HQ Blog is probably the best place to get the updates on the superdelegates.

UPDATE – 4:13PM – Obama’s campaign puts him 10 away from clinching, and MSNBC puts him 11 away. That means Obama will clinch tonight, even if he loses both South Dakota and Montana. As I said above, there’s 31 pledges delegates up for grabs and there’s no way he’s losing by the margins staggering enough to deny him the win tonight. Besides, there’s still a few hours left for a few more superdelegates.

Note: NBC says they don’t count commitments until they’re public. I wonder if they counted Carter yet.

UPDATE – 5:06PM – CNN says Obama is only 5 delegates away from winning. That means Obama will win with the delegates from just one state.

Other Signs of Being a Political Junkie

People might think I’m informed. We had lunch with my aunt and uncle the other day, and I was calmly able to destroy all of the arguments Clinton has put forth for her nomination. I’m able to recite numbers from the primaries and caucuses. Yes, I have this specialized knowledge, but it’s not because I’m smart, but because I’m an addict.

At my niece’s birthday party, I was going absolutely nuts. I had no access to the internet. I knew Clinton had won Puerto Rico, but I needed to know the margin of victory. I needed to know the exact numbers. Geeze.

Meeting with Our Enemies

McCain thinks Obama is naive and lacks judgment because Obama is willing to negotiate with our enemies.

Of course, then there’s this from Gallup:

Large majorities of Democrats and independents, and even about half of Republicans, believe the president of the United States should meet with the leaders of countries that are considered enemies of the United States. Overall, 67% of Americans say this kind of diplomacy is a good idea.

Go ahead and make that argument, Mr. McCain. Also, keep saying you want to keep the troops in Iraq. Try and paint Obama as weak because of that. The American people think otherwise.

My Professor in the NY Times

I took a class, at Johns Hopkins University, last semester called Stars and the Universe. I’ve enthusiastically recommended very few classes to my friends, and this was one of them. He’s a great professor who makes the material understandable and entertaining — and even inspiring, at times. I was constantly impressed by his ability to use analogies to help you understand. If you take the class, you’ll learn a lot about astronomy, and you can learn it even if you aren’t a science person (so says the philosophy major). Some of the things you learn about are mindboggling, such as the existence of dark matter.

The professor, Adam Riess, was actually involved in the discovery of dark energy. His thesis involved getting more accurate measurements for the distance to Type Ia supernovae by correcting for dust. He was a member of one of those groups mentioned in this NY Times article about dark matter, which won the Shaw Prize.

Anyway, here’s the part where they quote my professor:

Nor is there any solid evidence yet that dark energy is or is not varying with time — if it is not constant, it cannot be Einstein’s constant. Adam Riess of the Johns Hopkins space telescope institute, a key member of Dr. Schmidt’s team, said, “The biggest thing we could learn is by ruling that out.”

He added, “We have a suspect, but we’re not ready to convict anyone yet.”

Not a huge quote, but cool, nonetheless.