One More Win for George Lucas

Posted by Matt at 8:45 PM Tagged with: , , ,
May 142012

Dear George Lucas,

I never thought I’d say this, but I forgive you for the Phantom Menace.  Yes, even for Jar Jar.  You’re a good man.  Keep up the awesome work.

-Matt

For those of you who think I’ve gone crazy, I direct you to this story here.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here are the cliffs notes:

  • George Lucas wanted to build a big movie studio thingy in Marin County (an especially wealthy area north of San Francisco).
  • The neighbors didn’t like the idea.  Sure, it would bring in jobs, restaurants, development and economic productivity, but they didn’t want the construction noise or extra foot traffic.  They kept agitating and voting to keep it residential.
  • Mr. Lucas finally gave up on the movie studio, saying that even if it did get built, the bad relationships with everyone around it wouldn’t be a good situation.
  • So INSTEAD, he’s using the land to build affordable housing for low-income families or senior citizens on a fixed income.  A project like this would usually be unbelievably costly just to get off the ground, but luckily, Lucasfilm is happy to donate all the technical studies and surveys that they have lying around, unable to use.

Everyone wins.  George Lucas gets a fun project (and can build a movie studio elsewhere); poor people get a place to live in an expensive area they’d normally be priced out of; and the rich neighbors get to keep the land residential.  Everyone wins.

Good Job, CNN

Posted by Matt at 10:28 AM Tagged with: ,
Mar 262012

I make fun of the major cable news networks a lot, sometimes even devoting entire posts to their amusing errors.  I’m also fairly dismissive of the way they put sensationalism and minutiae over real news and events which affect millions of people.  I think it’d be nice if the American consumer demanded more from their news sources.

But in the interest of fair play, I should also recognize when news organizations are doing a particularly good job highlighting big issues, educating the public about the world outside their familiar communities, or otherwise providing high quality journalism that would be impossible to replicate on blogs or Twitter.  There are reasons these organizations are filled with talented professionals and given large budgets–and those reasons are not celebrity obituaries or hours of uninformed analysis about politicians’ wardrobes.

CNN.com has been putting out some really great reporting lately, and I thought it worthy of recognition.  A few examples:

  • This investigative report on the state of slavery in Mauritania is truly exceptional.  It’s well-written, well-researched, and the photographs are as compelling as both the personal stories and larger statistics.  A small team of professionals literally risked their lives to bring to light information about one of slavery’s last bastions on this planet, and I consider their undertaking nothing less than a significant service to humanity.
  • This story of escaped North Koreans provides a badly needed human narrative and perspective to the increasingly important discussion about dealing with dictatorships.  It’s important to remember that an entire country led by a dictator cannot be our enemy.  The United States and the citizens of North Korea have, in fact, the same enemy.
  • And of course, CNN.com continues to be one of the world leaders in Pi Day coverage.
Jan 312012

Time for a little policy news to break up the monotony of a Presidential Primary.

Virginia State Senator Janet Howell has a response to a proposed rule that women seeking abortions be required to have ultrasounds: an amendment that would also require men seeking erectile dysfunction pills to undergo a rectal exam.

She explains: “We need some gender equity here. The Virginia senate is about to pass a bill that will require a woman to have totally unnecessary medical procedure at their cost and inconvenience. If we’re going to do that to women, why not do that to men?” Normally I’d have some comments of my own, but I thought I’d just throw this one out here and ask: what do you think?

(Oh, and Mitt Romney won Florida tonight, in case you come to Policy, Science, Burgers as your primary source of news.)

Jan 112012

A former classmate of mine, and former pirate hunter for the US Navy, has an interesting take on what turns pirate fighting into big news on his blog.  His years spent rescuing hostages and deterring piracy with his own two fists (which I assume he’s named Wawa Orange Juice and Wendy, after his two great loves) gives him a unique perspective.

In other news, Greek policy makers have made a rather stunning move which makes Mitt Romney look like a policy genius and, by comparison, rockets Herman Cain all the way up to “about average.”  The list of disabilities one can have recognized (and for which one can receive financial help from the Greek government) has been expanded to include a number of sexual behaviors.  In Greece, you can now be considered “disabled” in some way, and receive regular checks from the government, if you’re an exhibitionist, a sadomasochist, a fetishist or–and this is what really has people up in arms–a pedophile.  That’s right, pedophilia is now a disability in Greece.

Even temporarily granting that pedophilia is a “disability” (and I think that’s being pretty generous), what’s the argument for financial compensation?  I can see helping people with physical disabilities–if you’re blind or in a wheelchair, you need special accommodations that aren’t cheap.  Certain medical conditions and diseases require monitoring equipment and special diets in addition to traditional medical care.  But pedophilia?  What’s the policy argument for giving pedophiles money?  The only reason I can think of is that they might need expensive psychiatric help (and I’ll grant that), but surely a voucher program for extra therapy sessions would cost less and be more effective than sending cash to pedophiles.  If any readers can think of a reason why this makes policy sense, please drop a note in the comments.

Maybe I’m overreacting.  It’s not like Greece doesn’t have plenty of extra cash lying around.

Anyway, I’m going to let Futurama’s Hedonism Bot have the last word on this (just watch for five seconds).

Last night I basically said that all the major cable news networks were screwing up their online coverage of the Iowa Caucuses, and then I endorsed the New York Times as the best place to get information online.  This morning’s coverage makes me want to clarify: the New York Times is the best place to get information, but not commentary it turns out.  Major cable networks aren’t the only ones putting really weird things that make no sense on the internet.  This quote comes from the main front page article (as of the time of this writing), but even worse, they used this exact sentence as a Facebook headline (posted at 8:29AM this morning).  Ready for it?

The last time the Iowa caucuses produced such a close outcome was in 1980, when George Bush beat Ronald Reagan by two percentage points.

To me, this implies that it was as close or closer in 1980 than it was in 2012.  Or if not that, at least VERY similar in closeness.  But I’m going to make an argument (which I think should be a no-brainer) that the results were MUCH closer than the Times would have you believe.  In fact, as far as I know, this may be the closest primary in history.

Romney won by EIGHT VOTES.  Winning by two percentage points of all votes cast (122,255 according to the New York Times) would be winning by 2,445 votes.  That would make this election roughly 300 times closer than the 1980 election.

If we throw out all votes not cast for Romney or Santorum, we can just look at the fact that Romney won 30,015 to 30,007.  That means Romney received 0.027% more votes than Santorum.  That’s still 75 times closer than 2%, even making conservative assumptions (no pun intended).

So NO, New York Times.  The last time the Iowa caucuses produced such a close outcome was, oh, I don’t know, NEVER.  They’ve never produced such a close outcome.  Not even close, certainly not in the modern era.  Here’s a case where you can learn from your sensationalist brethren in the cable business and throw a little showmanship into your reporting.  After all, what makes a better headline?

Closest Election in 32 Years
or
CLOSEST ELECTION EVER

In this case, the more exciting one is also the only accurate one.

A Fresh Take

Posted by Matt at 3:00 PM Tagged with: , ,
Sep 142011

Sorry I haven’t been posting much lately.  Things have been busy with school starting up again.  Also, I’m sorry for the terrible pun in the title (it’ll become clear in a minute).  Today I just wanted to highlight a good idea.  I don’t have a lot of original commentary on it, but I thought it was worth mentioning.  This kind of good idea doesn’t usually get a ton of press, so I’m spreading the word.

In cities, access to affordable produce can be an issue for many residents in lower socioeconomic strata.  Convenience stores are incredibly expensive, and even at grocery stores (which aren’t always easily accessible in dense urban environments), fruits and veggies are still more expensive per calorie or per serving than items stuffed with sugar and high fructose corn syrup.  The solution to that overarching problem is a complete overhaul of our inane and disparate subsidies (sugar and corn growers get much more government help than producers of apples and carrots).  But in the short run, there’s always this clever idea being tried out in Philadelphia.

It’s a farmers’ market.  Farmers’ markets aren’t exactly new ideas, but the location is a novel one: in the Frankfort Transportation Center.  The Frankfort Transportation Center is a large transportation hub in Northeast Philadelphia.  Many bus lines originate from, or at least run through, this center, and it’s also one of the two terminal points of Philadelphia’s busy “blue line” (a light rail/subway line that runs through the densest parts of the city).  North and Northeast Philadelphia contain some of the least wealthy neighborhoods in the city, and putting a farmers’ market right in the middle of so many daily commutes is a great idea.

People (including myself) usually think of urban farmers’ markets as places to go on a Saturday morning.  It’s time to start reshaping that image.  In 10 years, hopefully the term “farmers’ market” will mean “convenient place to buy cheap fruits and veggies on your way home from work.”

Aug 222011

Some interesting medical advances have been made recently, and I thought I’d share a few headlines with my readers.  These stories are pretty easy to miss.  Even though humans are figuring out cool things all the time, for some reason they don’t make headlines unless someone dies or cheats on his wife in the process.

  • We’re used to thinking of bacterial infections are curable and viral infections as something you just deal with–through riding it out, dying, or simply living with it.  Researchers at MIT think they’ve come up with a novel method that might be able to cure people of viruses (potentially lots of them–or to hear the press distort the claims of the researchers: every virus ever known to mankind will be cured by this one simple therapy).  They call it DRACO (Double-stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer).  I think a catchier, more memorable, and more descriptive name would be: Selective Cell Suicide.  Basically, their technique induces infected cells to shut down before they can be used by invading viruses to breed more virus cells.  Think of it as a microscopic scorched earth policy.  If it works, this could change the world.  If it doesn’t, it’s still a neat step forward.
  • Scientists are my alma mater think they’ve found a new way to treat leukemia.  I’m going to nickname this one the “Teenage Mutant Ninja T-Cell” strategy.  What these scientists have done is extract ordinary T-cells (part of the body’s immune system, which is usually inadequate to beating leukemia on its own) and modify them into superhuman leukemia-fighting mutant T-cells.  Then they take Leo, Don, Raph, Mikey and all their tiny little friends and reintroduce them into the original body.  Think of it as taking a small contingent from your body’s natural defenses and putting them through special forces training.  That’s way more awesome than lab work.  They’ve only tried it on 3 people so far, but 2 of them are in complete remission.
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but German scientists have taught some new dogs an old trick.  This is not the first group of scientists to train dogs to sniff out lung cancer, but hopefully as more studies confirm that canine noses are at least as good as expensive technological equivalents, we’ll see more dogs finding work in the medical sciences.  There are a few awesome implications of this research, but the one I’m most excited about is a future in which dogs in white coats and spectacles are called in for oncology consults in hospitals.

Happy Monday.

Why Does S&P Hate America?

Posted by Matt at 12:38 PM Tagged with: ,
Aug 082011

A couple years ago, I was talking to a group of high school students about the economic crisis.  One of them asked me a pretty simple question: If I had to blame any one person or group for the crisis, who would it be?  Back then I had said the major rating agencies (Moody’s, S&P and Fitch) were probably most to blame, succumbing to massive conflicts of interest and generally doing a poor job.  I thought it was a combination of greed and laziness.  But now I’m beginning to see that there’s no way those two forces alone could be steering these organizations.  Since S&P downgraded the credit rating of the United States of America (for the first time in history), I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re also stupid.  And maybe a little bit evil.  In fact, if I were to adopt the debating tactics of some Fox News pundits, I might go so far as to say:

Standard and Poor’s (S&P) hates America.  S&P also hates freedom.  (Search engines, eat your heart out.)

First some basics: the rating agencies have the job of determining how creditworthy a particular investment is.  They give ratings to everything from mortgage-backed securities to bonds issued by the US Treasury department.  In some cases, we refer to the rating of an entity (for example, the State of Delaware is rated AAA by all 3 major rating agencies).  This just means that when that entity issues bonds, they get whatever rating we’re saying is held by the entity itself.  The ratings places like S&P assign are supposed to reflect how likely it is that an investor will be paid the money he or she has been promised.

Why should we care?  Credit ratings matter.  References to credit quality as defined by these ratings are everywhere, even formally written into some laws and regulations governing how public money can be spent.  Lots of investors rely on them, and portfolio managers often are constrained by them as well.  Almost everyone in the economy is directly affected by credit ratings in at least some small way, and everyone in the world is indirectly affected.  Credit ratings can have an impact on investment availability, investment performance, how easy it is to get a small business loan, how governments manage and raises taxes, rates on mortgages and student loans and car loans…basically everything financial.

How does a place like S&P determine what the ratings should be?  Well, presumably they do a lot of really sophisticated analysis, involving interviews, reading, investigation, and lots of rigorous economic modeling.  In reality, it’s more like reading the newspaper and throwing darts.  Here are some highlights from the past few years.

Real Estate Prices
Rating agencies are often tasked with assigning credit ratings to investments that are tied to real estate markets (for example, mortgage-backed securities).  Before the bubble burst, some of the economic models used to determine these ratings didn’t allow for the possibility of negative price growth.  That is: sometimes it was assumed that real estate prices could stay the same, go up a little, or go up a lot.  But a fundamental assumption built into the very beginning of some of the analysis was: real estate prices don’t go down. Of course those bonds are going to come out with perfect AAA ratings!  They’re tied to investments that can never lose money!

Conflicts of Interest
Pretend you’re a rating agency.  An investment banker comes up to you with a new kind of bond you’ve never seen before.  The way they work is buried in 400 pages of legalese, but they’ll give you a slick PowerPoint presentation that shows how financial wizardry, brilliance and magic turns risk into gold.  You really have no idea how it actually works.  But here’s what you DO know: if you give it a perfect AAA rating, people will buy the investment, and the banker will make more of those bonds.  Every time he sells a batch of bonds, he needs you to put the “AAA” stamp on them, and each time you use that stamp, you get paid $50,000.  If you give his new idea a lower rating, you only get one payment and he never comes back to you.  Don’t you think those bonds are looking like a pretty safe investment?  This is more or less exactly what enabled the subprime markets to get out of control.

If you ask me, stamping AAA on everything that came across their desk was probably the #1 contributing factor to taking down the global economy back in 2008 and 2009.  If the rating agencies has said “No way, these are super risky” things wouldn’t have been nearly so bad.  A move like that would also have been known as “doing their job.”

Slow Reactions
Rating agencies are supposed to be out in front of news.  Ratings are supposed to predict what’s going to happen, how likely an entity is to default.  But in fact, rating agencies are often very reactionary; their ratings reflect the past, not the future.  They downgraded the United States government AFTER the biggest danger had passed.  Before there was a debt ceiling deal, yes, maybe there was a high probability of default.  But S&P basically decided to point out a problem after the worst of it had been taken care of.

Even internally, rating agencies are slow to react to problems.  Remember those massive conflicts of interest we were just talking about?  It wasn’t until after the meltdown that Fitch decided “Maybe we shouldn’t have the guys who give the ratings be the same guys who quote the prices and try to drum up new business.”  I found out this fact from a Fitch employee who was actually BRAGGING about how proactive they were being and how well they were learning their lessons.

General Incompetence
When S&P downgraded the United States of America, they gave the government a preliminary copy of their report.  The government almost immediately found a two trillion dollar error.  That’s “trillion” with a T.  Now, I’d like to think that a group of people making an announcement that will affect the health and actions of the entire global economy would be a little more careful than that.  But if an error was pointed out to them, don’t you think they’d at least have the common sense–or even the basic human decency–to go back and double check things again?  If a two trillion dollar error immediately jumps out of a report (a report which doesn’t even contain all the details and proprietary models), what other mistakes might they have made?  So guess how S&P responded:

They deleted the part of the report with the error and downgraded the United States anyway, according to their original schedule.  And I suppose it bears pointing out that they’re hurting the United States today for reasons that were largely the fault of the rating agencies themselves.  Which prompts me to ask…why does S&P hate America so much?

I can’t tell what the exact mix is between greed, stupidity and evil, but I do have a proposal:

Let’s all band together as a global community and just stop listening to these people.

Or at the very least, I’m going to start my own rating agency which rates the credibility of other rating agencies.  Right now, I’d say Moody’s is in the lead with an F, while S&P and Fitch are neck-and-neck with solid F-minuses.  I’ll give my own rating agency a BB (that is, way ahead of the other agencies, but honestly, it’s all speculative.  I’m just a guy with a blog–but at least I’m an HONEST guy with a blog).

Science Blogging on the Interwebs

Posted by Matt at 3:02 PM Tagged with:
Jul 122011

Readers of Policy, Science, Burgers may be interested to know that CNN has recently launched a science news blog of their own: Light Years.  As the name might suggest, so far it has been very heavy on space, but that’s likely due to the shuttle program’s final mission.  It’s the perfect place to indulge the insatiable curiosity of your inner six-year-old.  I, for one, was fascinated to learn that the asteroid Vesta may have a moon of sorts (also, I can now name TWO asteroids).

I was going to write a big post about the space shuttle program myself, but after seeing this new Endeavour (pun intended) of CNN’s, I thought I’d send you there instead for news and commentary on the subject.  This strategy has two added benefits.  First, I get to share with my readers a cool new resource for science geeks.  And second, it saves me precious minutes of my day, which I am now free to waste unproductively.

For the record, I’m not mad at all that I’m now competing with CNN for stories.  I may even link to them at times.  The more science news out there, the better.  But be warned, CNN: if you try to start a BurgerMap without including me, it will result in all-out war.

Jun 212011

Saw it coming.  No, seriously, I called this one a few years ago.  And you (if you knew me back then) probably laughed at me.

Let’s talk about my favorite thing in the world: incentives.  An increasing number of Americans are uninsured and unemployed.  Emergency rooms provide care, but aren’t very reliable (and aren’t set up for treating anything that requires more than a visit or two–long term care simply isn’t an option).  We do have a few free health insurance programs for people without jobs, but most of them come with an age minimum or maximum.  With one notable exception: prison.  Prisoners get free healthcare, regardless of employment status, age, or anything else.

So what would you do if you have cancer, no job, and no money?  I’d argue that a sane, rational person would commit a crime.  And get caught.  On purpose.

Meet James Verone.  He has a limp foot, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and a mysterious protrusion on his chest that was causing him extreme pain.  So he robbed a bank.  He stole one dollar, and calmly sat in the corner waiting for the police to come and arrest him.  It’s not technically bank robbery (since the dollar amount is so low), so Verone, who has a doctor’s appointment this Friday, won’t be in jail for too long.  His plan is to wait it out in prison with the free medical care until he qualifies for Social Security and Medicare.

In case you were wondering, yes, it’s WAY more expensive to keep someone in prison than to just give them free healthcare on the outside.

Now, there aren’t a ton of James Verones out there.  But there are enough people who are evaluating the risks and rewards associated with committing all sorts of crimes.  If everyone had free healthcare, how many crimes would that prevent?  (Seriously, I’m asking, someone go do a study and come up with some estimates.)

I’m not trying to espouse one policy or another here.  This isn’t a political statement (or at least not one supporting a particular agenda).  All I’m saying is that James Verone robbed a bank for the free healthcare, that something isn’t quite right with this situation…and that I told you so.

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