Thursday, June 30, 2011

It takes one to know one

This morning, little Moe Lane is as delighted as a school boy that Mark Halperin called President Obama "kind of a dick."

First of all, it takes one to know one, Moe. And secondly, the president was not being a dick; you're being a dick, Moe.

Moe Lane's approach to blogging involves a now-familiar combination of assholery and asshattery.

In "Obama’s class warfare… against Obama’s stimulus program," Lane attributes the following statement to President Obama: "I've said to Republican leaders, 'You go talk to your constituents and ask them, "Are you willing to compromise your kids' safety so some corporate-jet owner can get a tax break?"''' Obama uttered these words during his press conference yesterday. (But in what context? More on that later.) Lane's source,, argued that Obama is engaging in class warfare:
If President Obama's news conference accomplished anything on Wednesday afternoon, it underscored, in striking tones, his strategy for winning the debt ceiling fight with Republicans: Make it a clash of classes.
  • Rich versus Poor.
  • Us versus Them. 
  • Those who support children, food safety, medical research and, presumably, puppies and apple pie versus the rich fat cats who don't.
In Obama's world, Democrats are for kids and Republicans are for corporate jets. 
As a sidenote, I should point out that if Obama is engaging in class warfare, it's not as if he fired the first shot. The class war has been in progress for decades now, and the plutocracy is unfortunately winning. Republicans accuse Democrats of engaging in class warfare in order to get public opinion on their side and thereby manipulate Democrats into laying down their arms. In general, Republican politicians think that sacrifices for the general welfare must be borne by the middle class. Do they really expect us to take this lying down?

In any event, if you want to know what Democratic and Republican politicians are for, just look at what they want to spend money on.

Anyway, Lane calls the president "shameless" and "clueless" for making the statement:
It’s shameless because President Obama has only one rhetorical trick, and that’s to demonize everybody who disagrees with whatever faux-Hegelian position he’s ended up taking on any given day.  It’s particularly clueless because what the President apparently doesn’t know is that the latest iteration of the tax break in question was put into place as part of Barack Obama’s own 2009 “stimulus.”
First of all, I actually read most of Hegel's The Phenomenlogy of Spirit, and I have no idea what Lane is talking about. What is a "faux-Hegelian position"? That sounds like pseudo-intellectual bullshit to me. Secondly, how does Lane express factual disagreements without demonizing the people with whom he disagrees? What advice would he give the president? Is Obama being too "uppity" for his taste? Republicans want to cut government programs and hand out tax breaks to wealthy people. That's a fact. Lane needs to learn the difference between challenging Republican positions and demonizing Republicans.

Lane accuses the president of hypocrisy. He cites a Fox News story from February 2009 as his source, though I quote it at greater length than he:
Just a few months after lawmakers scolded auto executives for flying to Washington in private jets, Congress approved a tax break in the stimulus package to help businesses buy their own planes.

The incentive -- first used to help plane makers recover from the 2001 terror attacks -- sharply reduces the up front tax bill for companies who buy assets like business planes.

The aviation industry, which is cutting jobs as it suffers from declining shipments and canceled orders, hopes the tax break in the economic-stimulus bill just signed by President Barack Obama will persuade more companies to buy planes and snap a slump in general aviation that began last year.

"This is exactly the type of financial incentive that should be included in a stimulus bill," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., in an interview. His state lost at least 6,900 jobs at Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft, both based in Wichita. 
So, according to Lane, the president is a hypocrite for supporting tax breaks for businesses that buy aircraft in 2009 and condemning similar tax breaks in 2011.

Has Lane been living under a rock for the past two years? Though many Americans are still hurting badly, the recession is over, and the domestic political focus has shifted from stimulus spending to cutting the deficit. Lane assumes that the present political and economic climate is more or less the same as it was over two years ago. That's just stupid.

Further, Lane seems to assume that if a person supports a tax break at one time, that person must support that tax break at every time or else be a hypocrite. That's also just stupid. The fact that a tax break is appropriate at one time doesn't show that it's appropriate at every time.

For whatever reason, Lane is reasoning like a child or someone who is brain-damaged, not because he himself is a child or brain-damaged, but because it serves his political purposes to simplify this debate.

Lane points out that Republicans did not support the stimulus bill that contained tax breaks for aircraft purchases. So it seems odd to him that the president is scolding Republicans for supporting tax breaks for businesses now. But Republican politicians were against the stimulus then (even though one third of it was in the form of tax cuts) and in favor of tax cuts now because their default position is to be against whatever that black guy in the White House advocates.

Before I finish, I should provide you with the context of the quotation from the president's press conference that Lane is moaning about:
So the question is, if everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that the tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done. Or, we’re so concerned about protecting oil and gas subsidies for oil companies that are making money hand over fist — that’s the reason we’re not going to come to a deal.

I don’t think that’s a sustainable position. And the truth of the matter is, if you talk to Republicans who are not currently in office, like Alan Simpson who co-chaired my bipartisan commission, he doesn’t think that’s a sustainable position.  Pete Domenici, Republican, co-chaired something with Alice Rivlin, the Democrat, says that’s — he doesn’t think that’s a sustainable position. You can’t reduce the deficit to the levels that it needs to be reduced without having some revenue in the mix.

And the revenue we’re talking about isn’t coming out of the pockets of middle-class families that are struggling. It’s coming out of folks who are doing extraordinarily well and are enjoying the lowest tax rates since before I was born.

If you are a wealthy CEO or a . . . hedge fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They’re lower than they’ve been since the 1950s. And you can afford it.  You’ll still be able to ride on your corporate jet; you’re just going to have to pay a little more.

And if we — I just want to emphasize what I said earlier. If we do not have revenues, that means there are a bunch of kids out there who are not getting college scholarships. If we do not have those revenues, then the kinds of cuts that would be required might compromise the National Weather Service. It means that we would not be funding critical medical research. It means that food inspection might be compromised. And I’ve said to some of the Republican leaders, you go talk to your constituents, the Republican constituents, and ask them are they willing to compromise their kids’ safety so that some corporate jet owner continues to get a tax break. And I’m pretty sure what the answer would be.
Look, I'm not in love with this president. He hasn't been as liberal as I would have liked. But Lane is just being a dick. If you read the quotation in context, the president's position on deficit reduction is actually quite moderate: cut government spending, but tax those who are doing extremely well in this economy so that we don't need to cut programs that huge numbers of Americans rely on. The position is obviously more moderate than the Republican position, which appears to be to address the deficit merely by crippling and eliminating whole government programs.

Moe, stop being a dick.

Republicans sense that they now have an opportunity to turn back the clock to pre-New Deal America, and they're attempting to seize it. I think that they're actually making a huge mistake. Even Paul Ryan acknowledges that failing to raise the debt ceiling will result in cuts to "vital programs."  And consider the following diagram:

Everyone knows someone who has benefited from at least one of these programs. I've benefited from three of them. But as the diagram shows, many people don't know that they have benefited from government social programs. One way to inform them of that fact is to start hacking away at their budgets. Do Republican politicians really believe that their party won't pay dearly one day for the kinds of cuts they want to make? Have they forgotten those Tea Partiers who urged them not to touch their Medicare? While their ability to alter our perceptions of reality with political spin is impressive, it is not unlimited.

Update. Here's Andrew Sullivan's reaction to Halperin's (and Lane's) claim that the president was being a dick:
In the negotiations with the Republicans, Obama and the Dems have offered a couple of trillion in cuts. The Republicans have refused even to discuss increasing tax revenues in return. For the president to react with understated anger strikes me as perfectly natural and overdue. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Here's a non-sexist method of giving children hyphenated last names. (You can thank me later.)

My wife and I are having a baby.

The little critter is due on New Year's Eve.

The problem is naming her or him. My wife and I have different surnames. She didn't take my name when we tied the knot, because we both believe that that practice is patriarchal and sexist.

Now, I'm not making the ridiculous claim that people who engage in that practice are patriarchal and sexist. All I'm condemning is the practice itself. Think about it: why should the woman take the name of the man? What is it about having a vagina that explains or justifies this? I haven't a clue myself.

Anyway, my wife asked for advice on some forum for expecting ladies, and not a single person saw anything wrong with the traditional practice. Many of them justified the practice simply by saying that it's traditional, as if that alone would justify it. (It doesn't.)

So this got me thinking. Couples in our position sometimes give their children hyphenated names. But if everyone gave their children hyphenated names, the practice would become impractical. What if John Adams-Bennett and Jane Collins-Davis had a child? What would they call it? Jeff Adams-Bennett-Collins-Davis? And what if Jeff grew up and fell in love with Jennifer Eaton-Fitzgerald-Gardner-Howard and had a child with her? What name would they give it? Seriously? (What's the deal with the names? Did whitey hijack this blog or what?)

Before I became a father-to-be, I never gave this much thought. I simply concluded that this is a difficult problem. But finding a solution to this problem isn't really that difficult, and I've got one. Here it is.

First, some definitions: 
  • A male name is the non-hyphenated name of a father.
  • A female name is the non-hyphenated name of a mother.
Where the parents have non-hyphenated names,
  • the hyphenated name of a son consists in the male name followed by the female name, and
  • the hyphenated name of a daughter consists in the female name followed by the male name.
Where the parents have hyphenated names,
  • the hyphenated name of a son consists in the male name of the father followed by the female name of the mother, and
  • the hyphenated name of a daughter consists in the female name of the father followed by the male name of the mother.
Therefore, in the now usual case where grandparents have non-hyphenated names, a son takes the name of the paternal grandfather followed by the maternal grandmother, and a daughter takes the name of the paternal grandmother followed by the maternal grandfather. 

Consider the following diagram:

I weirdly chose the names of letters of the Greek alphabet to represent surnames. Names in blue are male names; names in red are female names. Boxes indicate gender: names in blue boxes refer to male children; names in red boxes refer to female children. In the diagram, Abel Alpha and Bella Beta have a son whose name is, say, Alan Alpha-Beta. (Since the child is male, the name of the father is first.) George Gamma and Daisy Delta have a daughter whose name is Dakota Delta-Gamma. (Since the child is female, the name of the mother is first.) Alan and Dakota meet, fall in love, enjoy a very special night together, and have twins nine months later. The male twin is named Alec Alpha-Delta. (Alec is given the male name of his father and the female name of his mother. Since Alec is a boy, the male name is first.) The female twin is named Bethany Beta-Gamma. (Bethany is given the female name of her father and the male name of her mother. Since Bethany is a girl, the female name is first.)

This system might strike you as being (1) complicated and (2) weird. Compared to the traditional system of naming, it is both. It also has the disadvantage of requiring that people keep track of which names are female and which male. (If they're in the proper order, this shouldn't be a serious problem.) But it has several obvious advantages. It is significantly less sexist and patriarchal than the traditional system. I say "significantly" since it appears that the father's surnames always come first, and that might seem sexist to some people. (If we remove the requirement that female names for daughters come first, or that male names for sons come first, the problem disappears. But that requirement guarantees that female names come first at least half the time, roughly, and this requirement was itself motivated by an egalitarian impulse.) But even they could not deny that this is an improvement. Female surnames would be passed down, and anyone who bears a child would give at least part of her hyphenated name to her child. The practice of combining names would also become expected of men and not just women.

So, as long as you know your mother's maiden name and your partner knows his, you can put this system in practice the next time you bring a child into the world. So, why not?

The only problem my wife and I have with this system is this: if our child gets a hyphenated name, it could get ugly, and the father's male name is the problem. I guess we should hope for a girl!

(Alternatively, we could adopt the practice of giving male children the father's surname and female children the mother's surname. But that would be simpler than the method I've described and therefore not as interesting!)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why the Weather Channel's TOR:CON index is humbug

I live in the Central Time Zone of the United States where severe weather is relatively common. I have a NOAA weather radio because I do not want to be killed in my bed at night by a tornado. I am also an anxious person. Lately, the focus of my anxiety has been the weather. So I am part of the Weather Channel's key demographic: Persons Who Are Easily Terrified.

Today, there is a chance of severe thunderstorms from Northern Minnesota to Nebraska to Northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Damaging winds, hail, and isolated tornadoes are the "primary risks" for persons living in this large portion of the lower 48. This no mere chance of severe weather: the Weather Channel describes it as a "Weekend Storm Threat." Chances of severe weather are often described as threats in order to make the consumer of Weather Channel products feel more threatened. Those feeling threatened are more likely to compulsively consume Weather Channel products so as to "track" and "stay on top of" any severe weather that may or may not develop.

One Weather Channel product designed for this purpose, I believe, is the TOR:CON, or the tornado condition index. According to the Weather Channel,
The TOR:CON values range from 0 to 10. A value of 4 means that there is about a 40% chance of a tornado within 50 miles of a location in the specified area of severe thunderstorm activity. This also means that there is a 60% chance that a tornado will NOT occur.
I have a habit of freaking out when the TOR:CON values for my area are high. But I've thought about it, and I believe that I have no good reason to, even when the TOR:CON value for my area is a whopping 10, or a 100% chance of a tornado within 50 miles of my location.

A TOR:CON value is really the probability that there will be a tornado within a circular area with a radius of 50 miles. The area of a circle is π multiplied by the radius squared. So such a circular area measures approximately 7,854 square miles. Now, consider a worst-case scenario: a mile-wide EF-5 tornado traversing this circular area through its center and thus on the ground for a hundred miles. The area flattened by this tornado would therefore measure 100 square miles. If we divide 100 by 7,854, we obtain .0127. Therefore, if we assume that the TOR:CON for the area in question is 10, there is a 1.27% chance that a person in the area in question will be in the path of such a tornado. Is this something that a rational person should worry about? I don't think so.

Now, if you tell someone, even someone like me, that there is a 1.27% chance that I will be in the path of a tornado, that person will not respond with the trepidation required to keep him or her glued to The Weather Channel for the very latest updates on a very dangerous severe weather threat that could destroy everything in its path. Why, it could happen tomorrow, you know!

I am neither a mathematician nor a meteorologist. My analysis is admittedly overly simplistic. So, for example, perhaps my line of reasoning erroneously assumes that if there is a tornado in the area in question, there will be only one. But we all know that tornadoes often occur in bunches. What I think my reasoning accurately shows, however, is that the TOR:CON is inherently and deceptively alarmist. In order to get sufficiently worrisome TOR:CON values, one must increase the size of the area in question from, say, the square mile in which my house is located to a 50 square mile area with my house at its center. I think people like me (i.e., mathematically unsophisticated and unusually anxious) make a fallacious inference: for example, we infer from the fact that the TOR:CON value is five that the chance that a tornado will affect our neighborhoods is somewhere around 50 percent. And it obviously isn't.

This is only one of the reasons why I hate The Weather Channel.

Todd Rundgren, "Day Job"

From the outstanding 1993 album No World Order.

Don't quit your day job

A bit wiser and a whole lot older, feelin' bolder
Suckin' up to the last stockholder with a
Golden parachute slung over your shoulder

Another fool got stuck in the whirlpool
Lookin' for a fast break, not enough cake to go 'round
Another brother goes down, and he's out of the gene pool

Day after day, night after night if the money is right
The campaign goes on to make right seem wrong
With computer animation and a hip-hop song

Land of opportunity, this is the
Don't quit your day job

Suckin' up to the aristocracy
Not even sure if you like democracy
Tryin' to establish an american royalty, a personal dynasty

Let the buyer beware, it's a jungle out there
So buy my advice and don't think twice
Then me and your money will go someplace sunny

Kiss and tell, got a book to sell
'Cause you don't excel or do anything well
Since you slipped past thirty, better keep the sex dirty

Mo' money, mo' money, mo' money


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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson