Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Brother, Can You Spare a Dork Dollar?

In 1906 a British statistician named Francis Galton went to a country fair in Plymouth. While there he witnessed a contest where people wrote down their estimates of the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox on display. 800 people wrote their guesses on slips of paper. Most of the people who guessed were not butchers, and so had very little first-hand knowledge to guide them. Some of the guesses were wildly high and others were wildly low.
Yet, when Galton totaled the guesses and divided by 800, he found that the statistical mean of the guesses was within one percent of the actual weight of the ox. Nobody in the crowd knew the weight of the ox, but the crowd as a whole was remarkably precise in their estimate. (The ox weighed 1198 pounds—the average guess was 1207 pounds.)

Journalist James Surowiecki wrote a book about this phenomenon called The Wisdom of Crowds and it is a good and fascinating read. Now that so many people have access to the Internet, researchers are designing studies to more clearly delineate just what sorts of questions are good ones to ask the crowd and what sorts of questions are answered better by an expert or two.

Social Psychologist Phil Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania has started an online prediction study called The Good Judgment Project, in which he collects predictions about specific geopolitical questions. There were more than 7000 forecasters signed up for the Good Judgment Project last year. It is being run as part of the Aggregate Contingent Estimation program of the Office of Incisive Analysis at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency. One goal of the project is to find out if average people can make predictions about geopolitical affairs as well as, or better than, experts.

Here are a few sample questions from the many dozens forecasters are currently weighing in on:

At the start of the prediction season, each participant is given $50,000 to invest in various answers to the questions. Obviously, the dollars are not real. (My smartass daughter calls them Dork Dollars.) Some questions are simple yes/no propositions while others offer a range of answers that are often split by date or by quantity. It might not sound like it to you, but this project is totally addictive. 

I am, and always have been, a news junkie.  That is why I love listening to NPR’s WaitWait Don’t Tell Me and it is why I spend far too much of my down time researching obscure topics like the Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems from Russia and the HSBC China Services Purchasing Managers’ Index. 

At least, I used to.
When the season began I was frequently in the Top 20 money-makers in the “league.” Sometimes, I would bounce up into the Top Ten. When I would crow to Isabel and Erica about an especially clever bet, Isabel would give me a withering look and ask how many Dork Dollars I had won.

This all came to an end in January. I came across a proposition that seemed like such a sure thing that I bet every single Dork Penny I had on it. At the time I was ranked in the Top 20 predictors in my league of 359.  The question is this:

When will France deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia?
  • ·      Before 1 February 2015
  • ·      Between 1 February 2015 and 31 March 2015
  • ·      Between 1 April 2015 and 31 May 2015
  • ·      Not before 1 June 2015

Not to bore you with the details of my (so-far) faulty reasoning, but I bet heavily—as in, every stinking Dork Dollar I had—on the fact that the French would indeed deliver a ship before June 1st. But then all hell broke loose in Ukraine and the French decided to punishRussia and to put the delivery of the Mistral-class helicopter carriers on hold.

So, for well over two months I have been unable to withdraw my money from the bet I have made, since to do so would leave me with nothing left—not one single Dork Dollar to my name. And because all of money is tied up waiting for France to make up its mind about these boats, I don’t have any other Dork Dollars to bet on other questions. One of the greatest daily pleasures in my (admittedly-limited) life has been taken from me. This stupid question has been my Waterloo.

I have been reduced to setting up a Google Alert that sends me an e-mail any time a story appears anywhere in the world including the terms “Mistral, France, Russia.” You might not be surprised to learn that these alerts hardly ever come.

The question will not be resolved until either France delivers a ship or June first comes without a delivery.  Until then, I am stuck watching from the sidelines as softball questions come and go—things I KNOW I could nail if only I had some Dork Dollars available. As things stand, I am now in 359th place out of 359 predictors.

Yep—dead last. 

But my bet is so large, if the French do deliver a Mistral-class ship to Russia before June 1st, I will climb to #8.

If you want to help, you can write to Francois Hollande and tell him to let bygones be bygones and deliver that ship!  (To send him a note, click here.) I appreciate any help you can give. Maybe you could spare a few Dork Dollars…?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I lost a friend yesterday

The older I get the more I realize that there aren’t any heroes, there are just people who manage to make it through life with a bit more of their integrity intact than other people do. Which is why I am surprised to hear myself say that one of my heroes died today.

His name is Jeff Jonathan and he is somebody you have probably never heard of. He was the Director of the school I taught at in New Haven. And he was a great man.

Being in charge of a school is not an easy job. Yet Jeff led the school with a strength and a steadiness of purpose that inspired everybody there to be their best—or at least to be the best they were capable of that day. He hired me to teach the oldest kids in a Progressive elementary school even though during the job interview it was clear that I did not even know what the term “progressive education” meant.

He took a chance on me and I grew so much professionally because he did. Jeff made me want to be a better teacher by his example. No matter the situation, Jeff would boil it down to the bottom-line question: what is best for the child in this circumstance? That was always his main concern—what is best for the children?

Jeff put up a long hard fight with illness the past few years.  Each time it looked like he might not make it through, he managed to tap into astoundingly deep reserves of strength and make it back home again. In the midst of his own struggle, Jeff lost his wife to her own fight with illness. I was reminded of Job.

It is easy enough to be kind, honest, forthright, and loving when things are going well in your life. It is a much more difficult thing to remain all of those things when subjected to heartbreaking sadness and unfairness. Jeff Jonathan, though you have probably never heard of him, was a giant among men. He will be missed, but not forgotten.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Getting (Thrown) Off the Beaten Path

Winter is long in Ithaca. It can snow as early as mid-October and as late as mid-May. There are entire weeks when the temperature is below 20 degrees and the sun does not peek through even once. Because of the proximity of Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes we sometimes get these week-long slow motion storms where an inch or two will fall every day and every night and by the time it is all done, we have a foot or 18 inches on the ground.

This week has been one of those weeks. It has been cold and grey and snowy. In January we get well under 10 hours of light in a day, and usually even that is filtered heavily by thick overcast. It is enough to make a person want to stay inside by the fire until June, (well, THIS person anyway.) It takes effort to fight the urge to hunker down and cram myself full of comfort foods (and comfort wine) all winter.

This is where the dogs come in handy. They do not care that it is cold and dark at 6:45 in the morning—they need to get outside. And to be truly happy, they need to get outside for at least 30 minutes off-leash and free to explore.

This is how I came to find myself calf deep in the snow in the dark at Cass Park a few mornings ago. It was 6:20 in the morning, the temperature was 4 degrees, and there were six fresh inches of snow on top of the six inches that had fallen two days before that. The parking lot had been plowed and the walking path was cleared, but that was it. Every other square inch of snow-covered field was pristine and unspoiled. A few places had deer tracks leading from woods, across fields, and back into the cover of trees.

As I got out of the car I glanced up and saw that the sky was momentarily clear. The stars were thick and brilliant.


I didn’t care. I was simply there to get these dogs their 30 minutes and then it would be back in the car, back home, into the warm shower, and off to work for me. I opened the back door, let the dogs out of the car, made sure all my zippers and straps and ties were done up against the cold, and began my forced march down the only cleared path there was.

I spent the first ten minutes clenched against the cold, which was considerable. But slowly, the quiet of the morning, the crispness of the stars, and the obvious happiness of the dogs pulled my out of my clench. I stopped on the trail. I picked my head up and looked around.  The sky to the east was just starting to lighten and the buildings of the Cornell campus were silhouetted up on East Hill. I looked west and was lucky enough to catch a shooting star as it blazed straight down toward the horizon on West Hill. I am fairly superstitious, but only about shooting stars.  I took this as a great sign that it would be a good day.

From where I was standing on the path it was easy to see exactly how I had gotten to where I was. The path all the way back to the car was obvious. The way ahead was also obvious—at least to me.  There was one cleared path in Cass Park—the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, (which is a real municipal treasure in Ithaca,)—and I was going to follow it all the way around and back to the car. This would give the dogs their thirty minutes and me my small bit of exercise for the day.

I was just about to begin walking again when Ginger made it clear to me that she did not want to continue ahead on the trail. She hunkered down a bit and seemed reluctant to come with me. I thought she had to pee, so I waited for a second. Rather than squat to do her thing, she just stared at me. We were stuck.

I could not figure out what she wanted and she could not tell me. So I asked her out loud: “Why are you looking at me like that? What do you want?” And as unbelievable as it may sound, Ginger turned her head toward the wide, snowy field next to us, raised her chin just a bit, and gave a small nod in the direction of the snow. I knew then just what she wanted and I reached down and unclipped her leash right away.

She took off like a shot, sprinted 20 yards out into the field, and then flopped over onto her back and rolled around in the snow for a good 60 seconds before coming up to shake herself off and look around. In the meantime, I had let Lotti off of her leash and she quickly follow in Ginger’s footsteps. The two of them wrestled around in the deep snow for a bit and then went off exploring around the edges of the field.  I followed them out and took their lead.

No. That does not mean that I dropped onto my back and writhed around madly for a while.  I simply followed wherever they went. There was no cleared path, no blacktopped trail to show them the way. I think mostly they were following their noses, though I cannot say for sure what leads a dog where she decides to go. By the time I was too cold to continue, we had made a mess of that field. There were footprints everywhere, a few yellow spots, and several patches were the snow showed signs of their tussles and their further floppings.

To get back to the car, I could have gotten back onto the plowed path, but instead we cut across the field and through some bushes, clearing our own path. It was about at that point that the whole metaphoricalness of the outing hit me.

I have always been a person who sticks to the path I am on until something knocks me off and onto another. I rarely choose to radically change directions of my own accord. It’s not even that I consciously choose to stick with the way things are—I just don’t entertain the idea of changing things. It was Ginger’s idea that we leave the trail and go mini-walkabout. And it was fun. Much more fun than doing our lap and going home.

When we got home I went upstairs to take a shower and get ready for work. There were boxes and furniture in the upstairs hallway. Erica had decided the day before that we need to switch the guest room with the office with the craft room. It was a three-way trade that was going to require a lot of furniture moving, some of it up and down the stairs. In the end, the arrangement of rooms will be much better and much more useful. But that did not matter when she told me. I had reacted with some pissiness, and I was still feeling a bit put out about the whole thing even the next morning.

Once the warm water of the shower hit me and I had time to consider my walk with the dogs, I saw that what Erica was doing with the rooms was the same thing Ginger and Lotti did in the park. She was simply changing direction, looking at what else was possible, and doing something new. She is good at this. And, almost invariably, I react badly. And then I come around.

This morning I told Erica in an e-mail at work how much I appreciate her willingness to change course, to question the way we are doing things, to take a new path. She is willing to juggle possibilities and take risks and do unexpected things and it drives me crazy. But in the end, it makes me a better person, too. What I consider a weakness in me is a strength in her—it’s one way we complement each other. It is also one of the things I have come to appreciate most about Erica, even if it means I sometimes have to carry heavy shit from room to room.

She e-mailed back right away to say thanks. And to tell me she quit her job this morning.  JK  J

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dick Cheney Needs to Go Away

I wish Dick Cheney would just ride off into the Wyoming sunset. But no. He insists on climbing up out of whatever dark hole he has lurked in since leaving Washington, sluicing away the slime and mud, putting on a suit, and appearing before cameras to defend torture.

His arguments, which boil down to “those things we did—they were not torture. (We know they were not torture because our lawyers told us they were not torture.) And anyway, the stuff we learned from the tort…enhanced interrogation techniques--saved American lives.  I would do it all over again.”

Couple of quick points: 
  • Dick Cheney did not “do” any of the interrogations, so he could not do them all over again.  In fact, Dick Cheney is the classic “chicken hawk.” During the war in Vietnam, Cheney applied for and received five deferments. When asked about it, he later said, “I had other priorities in the ‘60s than military service.”
  • Depriving prisoners of sleep for up to a week at a time, force-feeding them rectally for no medical reason, and threatening summary execution can be nothing BUT torture. If any enemy of the United States did that to a captured soldier or civilian, we would call it torture. 
  • The Senate investigation of the CIA’s role in the capture and interrogation of people after the attacks of 9/11/01 found at least 26 prisoners had been taken by mistake, subjected to torture, and then released. Let me repeat that—at least 26 innocent people were captured, whisked away to secret CIA prisons, tortured, and then released. And Dick Cheney would do that all over again. That is simply evil.

In summary, Dick Cheney insists the torture inflicted in my name and your name is not torture. He says it made America safer. I do not think that is true. It is certainly not true for American soldiers who might be captured by Islamic militants. It is only a matter of time before some of these same “enhanced interrogation techniques” are used on our soldiers.

Dick Cheney needs to go away.  Wyoming would be fine. Europe would be even better. People there know he is guilty of ordering torture, (which is a war crime,) and maybe there he would have to face the consequences of his actions instead of strutting around like the aging pathetic chicken hawk he is.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dear Republican Majorities: Do Your Job or Shut the Hell Up

Is there a Republican plan to replace Obamacare? Is there a Republican immigration reform plan? If so, please someone, show me what they are?  Why have I not heard about them yet?

The only Republican Healthcare plan I have heard of so far consists of more than 40 votes in the House of Representatives to repeal Obamacare. While allowing Republican House members to feel good, these votes have been a waste of time and money.

As THE Legislative Branch of the American Government, if you do not like a plan that has tackled a huge national problem, you are in a position to propose an alternative. Nullification is not an alternative plan, it is reversion to the status quo of six years ago—which is not acceptable.

Same with Immigration policy. President Obama has offered to sit and negotiate with House and Senate Republicans for years on Immigration policy and they have not taken him up on the offer.  They have their reasons: They want to keep the issue alive as red meat for their base; they know if they sit with the President they will be Tea Party primaried, and they wanted President Obama to take unilateral action so they could complain about that, too.

Now that the President has acted, the House and Senate Republicans have easy recourse. They can write a law that reforms immigration policy and they can pass the law. If it has enough support, it could even withstand a Presidential veto, (of course, to do that it would have to be moderate enough to convince some Democrats to vote for it. But if it is moderate enough to convince some Democrats to vote for it, it will lose the support of the Crazy Wing of the House Republicans—which is a fairly sizable wing at this point.)

So, in the end, it boils down to this for the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate:  Write new laws or shut the hell up.

I cannot take their whining any more and I hope the President feels the same.  Maybe this most recent electoral walloping will free him up to do the right things on climate, immigration, the Keystone Pipeline, and more.  I certainly hope so.

And again, if the Republicans don’t like it, they should do the job of a lawmaker and actually make some laws. Buckle in, these next two years could be a hell of a ride.