It's Fundamental

I'm Sparky and I read too much. Books, articles, magazines, editorials, you name it and I'm generally sticking my nose in it.

Name: Sparky
Location: Bucharest, Romania

30 May 2007

If you want good summer reading...

I've been meaning for too long to do a review of two of my favorite authors. The problem has been that every time I start I start going through each and every book they've written, the post gets too long, and I have to go make dinner. I am working on them and will post them sometime in the coming weeks. In the meantime, go pick up anything by Guy Gavriel Kay (except the Fionavar Tapestry books, I just never got into those) and absolutely anything by Neal Stephenson. Kay moves faster, Stephenson is deeper, and either will put you into one of those "oh-my-goodness-I've-been-reading-for-four-hours-and-didn't-even-notice" type trances. I went on a cruise down Carribbean way and spent the whole time (minus half a day for visiting Mayan ruins) reading two Stephenson books, and counted it time very well spent.

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17 April 2007

I Just Love Baseball

So my girlfriend asks me the other night "How do you calculate games back in the baseball standings?" I give the standard, "well, if they've played the same number of games you just subtract the lower ranked team's win total from that of the higher ranked team" answer. Then, feeling smart and ready to flex my sports-fan chops, I started giving basic guidelines for determining the answer when the teams have played different numbers of games. It worked great, she accepted the answer and I got to move on and lay out the infield fly rule next.

Fast forward to this morning.

I'm looking at the standings after the O's comeback win in Tampa last night and something is nagging at me. It's not the standings themselves: "Baltimore" is above "NY Yankees" so all is right with the force there. I look around a bit and realize that the subconcious calculator and fact-checker is sending up chi-squared signals as it can't justify some of the "GB" (games back) numbers in the standings. See, there's been some kooky weather going around the Midwest and up the East Coast and a lot of teams have missed a lot of games. Two and a half weeks into the season and we have some remarkable games played deltas going on. Take a look at the AL Central where as of this morning, Cleveland is in first place with a 6-3 mark in 9 games played. Kansas City is sporting a 3-10 record in last place after 13 games played (and they were just rained out in Charm City on Sunday preventing the O's from going for a 4-game sweep)(Heh). Between those two bookends are Detroit (8-5), Minnesota (7-5) and the ChiSox (5-6) who have played 13, 12 and 11 games respectively. Despite the games played differential, the Indians and their 66.7% win rate are tied for first place with the Tigers and their 61.5% win rate. Again: the Tigers have a winning percentage 5.2% behind the Indians and yet are zero games behind in the standings. The mental alarm was going nuts for a good reason: I suddenly couldn't figure out the GB situation.

Now, I've been certain that I know how to do this calculation for years, decades even. I add in the half games here and subtract the losses there and I always came up with a good number. Well, almost always, I actually remember (after some soul-searching) just shrugging, blaming lack of coffee, and moving on to the box scores without a second thought when I've failed to produce a mental GB number to match the newspaper standings in prior seasons. It seems that I've been deluding myself, lying to myself, claiming credit for a skill I distinctly lack. I'm shattered, to be honest, and can't live with the situation. I need an answer, I need to retroactively fix this. To the interwebs!

My first find was a blag called Reinke Faces Life. This authoritative looking source showed me why I couldn't do this calculation mentally when it gave the answer (courtesy of the University of Toronto Mathematics Department) as: GB=-(w+L)/2 + √((w+L)^2 – 4wL + 4Wl/2). I'm good at math, really I am, but I don't solve modified quadratic equations in my head. I just don't. Of course, this makes me feel better about getting close but not quite right on my calculations earlier: that's hard stuff, not something I can be expected to do like some sort of particularly geeky party trick, particularly as the answer is completely useless for my fantasy team(s).

Relieved I sit back, relax, and curse as the mental alarm goes off again. I'd let my guard down and looked at the AL West (curse you, AL West! You produce things like 10:30pm EST first-pitches, a team named "the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim" and A-Rod!). Seattle is in first with a 5-3 mark in 8 games (yeah, 8). Texas at 5-7 is in last (behind the LAAofA and Oakland, both at 6-7). A microsecond before glancing at the GB column my stupid brain reported that the LAAofA and the A's are 1.5 games back and Texas is 2 games back. I laughed ruefully at my presumption and looked at the actual numbers on ESPN.

They matched.

Now I know that I didn't run two quadratics in my head in less than a second without trying. Suddenly, in a flash of intuitive brilliance, it hit me: those damn Canucks screwed me! They're sitting around their University of Toronto Math Lab Bar and Grille giggling insanely and drinking Molson as I blindly accept their bloody complicated quadratic formula instead of the less complicated (and, coincidently, accurate) GB = ((WinsA-WinsB) + (LossesB-LossesA)) / 2. Yeah, that's it, two bits of substraction, one little addition, and then halve the product. Easily done by the subconcious. Just what I've been doing for decades without ever thinking about it. Stupid Sparky...

Lessons learned:
1. Don't trust people from Toronto or those who choose to live there;
2. Don't trust blags or the interweb without fact-checking every damn thing first;
3. Do trust my intuition and wait until coffee before wallowing in self-doubt;
4. The Yankees are in fourth place regardless of which formula you use, and that's always a good thing.

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27 February 2007

Editorial Rhetoric

It’s time for a break from books and a slide into the editorial pages of the nations great (and not-so great) newspapers. The Washington Post recently began publishing a remarkably useful tool for newshounds such as myself. They’ve got a new blog by the name of The Editorialist, put together by a fella named Rob Anderson. He goes around and collects links and quick summaries of editorials/columns from the papers, then puts ‘em all in one place, sorted by topic. Updated at least once a day, I’m loving it!

Today he linked to an editorial piece in the Salt Lake Tribune. Titled Simple reform: Flat income tax rate likely would favor the wealthy, this piece discusses the likelihood of the Utah legislature passing a flat income tax rate to replace the “progressive” rate currently in place. It is rather typical of editorials on this topic and, unfortunately, displays a very clear bias on the issue and uses sneaky arguments to make the point. It begins:

“The Legislature seems to be headed toward an income-tax "reform" that would replace the system of deductions and individual exemptions with one of credits based on federal filing status or itemized deductions and personal exemptions. It also would impose a flat 5 percent tax rate. At this writing, that's about all we know. But philosophically, it's enough.”

Now it could be just me, but it seems like one would be better off learning all the details about something as notoriously complex as tax policy before going on the record with specific criticisms. In addition, stating that you don’t need to know the facts because your argument rests solely on “philosophical” merit strikes me as a different way of saying that you’ve got nothing but hot air behind it (particularly since the philosophy in question is never laid out). I’m all in favor of philosophical arguments and justifications but prefer those that operate hand-in-hand with reality rather than independently thereof. I guess what I’m trying to say is, no, that’s not “enough”, “philosophically” or otherwise. That statement, that “But philosophically, it’s enough” statement states quite simply that the editor(s) who wrote this cannot conceive of any justification for a flat tax on incomes and that any details of the plan are irrelevant in the face of a philosophical objection. Sorry, guys, but that’s just not the way things work.

The authors didn’t lay out their philosophy, but even this short editorial has enough snide remarks and implications to allow speculation. Take, for example, this one: “Any system that imposes a flat tax rate is likely to favor the wealthiest taxpayers.” It’s interesting that, despite the assertion that “philosophically, it’s enough”, the editors choose to caveat their disapproval with the weak “is likely to” here. The opening paragraph is supposed to be hard-hitting and to attract interest, sure, but it shouldn’t assert facts that later statements like this deny. As for the statement’s substance (such as it is), here we have an example of an appeal to justice, a kind of logical fallacy. The editors provide no evidence that a flat tax will favor “the rich,” they simply assert it and hope that no one challenges them. A flat tax may be less expensive for “the rich” than the current system (I won’t speak to this until I see the details of the plan) but one could make a very valid argument that the “progressive tax” favors those in the lowest tax brackets. Is it a favor to “the rich” to try and create a tax code that favors no group?

The editors follow that one up with this bit of rhetorical slight of hand: “The U.S. economy is concentrating ever more wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. That would suggest that a disinterested policymaker would make the tax system more progressive, not less.” Translation: “only someone with an unfair bias or a terminal case of stupidity could disagree with a ‘progressive’ tax system.” They don’t say why the relative concentrations of wealth are a good or bad thing nor why someone with nothing to gain or lose would favor an even more “progressive” system, they just present a reference to some statistics, then use this to somehow prove that the world ought to be different. The editors believe very strongly in “progressive” tax rates, we can see that clearly. They don’t, however, clearly make a logical case for their moralizations.

Just wait, there’s more: “Gov. Jon Huntsman and his legislative allies call this tax "reform" because it will be simpler and because they say it will encourage economic development...simplicity and equity are not the same thing. The rich man can more easily afford to pay 7 percent on his second $100,000 than the poor man can afford to pay 5 percent on his second $10,000.” Last I checked, equity has more to do with impartiality than it does with social engineering. The editors have, in this one little bit, tried to ridicule the idea that the legislature is working towards reform by putting it in quotation marks, and used extreme examples and generalizations to create an emotional basis for opposing the flat tax proposal. We can argue over whether or not a tax code that encourages economic development and is easy for citizens to understand would be a reform, but not until we have the full set of facts. Their concept of “rich” may need some fine-tuning, too. I just learned that undergraduate tuition at George Washington University is over $30,000 per year (not counting room, board and fees). A “rich” household making $150,000/year with two or three kids in school might very well find that extra 2% tax rate much more onerous than a single high-school dropout making $20,000/year while living in her parents’ basement. Statements like these add nothing to the public discourse on the topic of taxation policy. They muddy the waters, stir up emotions, disguise facts and nuance, and encourage others to fabricate arguments out of thin air. Not what I’d want from my newspaper editors, that’s for sure.

One more doozy before I sign off: “Besides, an educated work force or infrastructure or quality of life are probably more important to most businesses than the tax rate.” There we go with the prevarications again (“probably”). So much for “it’s enough”, eh? I have no idea what business owners and managers find appealing, I admit it. I’m willing to bet, though, that so many businesses are incorporated in the great state of Delaware not because of the fabulous schools, wonderful scenery, regular maintenance of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and pristine air quality (despite I-95 and the NJ Turnpike), but rather because of favorable policies, tax and otherwise, set up by DE to attract them. I’d be curious to see what the Salt Lake Journal thinks of those.

“Nope, this looks like tax "reform" for the rich” they say in an editorial that looks like “propaganda for the masses.”


15 February 2007

Up Late With The Night Watch

Night Watch
By: Sergei Lukyanenko
Translation By: Andrew Bromfield
Publisher: Miramax Books (Hyperion)(2006)
ISBN: 1401359795

For once I’m writing about a book immediately after finishing (immediately, in this case, being three hours). The woman I adore picked this fun read up recently and recommended it to me. I devoured the 455-page book in two days as new English-language literature is scarce in Bucharest.

Night Watch is, first and foremost, a Russian novel. It’s a little sci-fi, mostly fantasy with some horror and a lot of mystery mixed in, but from start to finish it is very Russian. Lukyanenko fills the book with endless twists and turns, conspiracies, betrayal, and a grim expectation that everything will turn out adequately, maybe, but if it doesn’t, enh, that’s fate. Set in present-day Moscow, the novel follows the adventures of a mid-level operative of the local branch of the “Night Watch”, the forces of Light. Apparently creatures with supernatural powers unconsciously choose either Light or Dark as their powers manifest. For centuries the two camps opposed each other actively and fought long and bloody wars around the world for the right to shape the future of humankind. The conflict being too destructive, eventually the two sides signed an uneasy truce that regulates the behavior of all involved. Thus were formed the Night Watch (Good forces who patrol the world under cover of darkness, seeking out those who break the treaty), and the Day Watch (Evil, though self-centered may be a better description, forces who patrol the world by day, doing the same).

As black and white as the premise seems, Lukyanenko spends the whole novel (and presumably the two to follow) exploring the grey areas that exist even within that stark delineation of action and morality. This approach is nothing new: see George R.R. Martin, The Once and Future King, and countless other classics for other examinations of might vs. right, ends vs. means, and codes of conduct vs. reality. What Lukyanenko does well, however, is hint at grey areas that don’t exist but perhaps should. Despite the dark psychological questions in play, this is a thriller of a book and there are plenty of action scenes and stirring plot twists to keep the reader on his or her toes.

I enjoyed this book very much. It is quite readable and quick to get through, despite its density. It is broken down into three connected but distinct sections and story lines, preventing plot-fatigue and avoiding bogging down. My only real issue with it is that the plot twists and conspiracies, the complications that are the hallmark of Russian literature, didn’t grab me. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, to be revealed, analyzed, agonized over and resolved in 10 pages. By the third section it was just a matter of when the mysteries would appear, not if. I’m used to seeing these things hinted at throughout a book, allowing the drama, unease and suspense to build, but that just didn’t happen in this case. It is a shame as the book is extraordinarily well-suited for such tension, but not a critical flaw by any means.

Overall the book was fun and thought-provoking. It’s not the kind of thing to read on a cruise, but in you’re traveling or snowed in this month give it a shot and you won’t be disappointed. I’m actually guessing that the next volume in this trilogy will be even more interesting, but they haven’t been translated and released quite yet (Day Watch is scheduled for release on 21 March 2007 and Dusk Watch on 6 June 2007). I will grab copies as soon as I can, that you can bet on.

For another look at this book, visit “Simon’s Book Blog”, but be aware that he delves much further into the plot than I choose to.

Coming up (No, really, they are!):
-Just Kick It by Mark St. Amant
-Dies The Fire by S.M. Stirling
-The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth by Benjamin Friedman

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06 February 2007

M-Dub Gonna Knit Ya

The Knitting Answer Book
By: Margaret Radcliffe
Publisher: Storey Publishing (2005)
ISBN: 1580175996 (paperback: alk. paper)

Truth in advertising exists! The sub-title to The Knitting Answer Book reads: “Solutions to Every Problem You’ll Ever Face. Answers to Every Question You’ll Ever Ask.” I can’t speak to the future, but in my (admittedly very limited) past experience with hand-knitting, Margaret Radcliffe’s Answer Book did indeed answer every question I asked and sorted me through every problem I faced. Even better, I was able to consult it: in Bucharest, in the basement at my Dad’s house at 0200 hrs, all over my Mom’s house at all hours of the day and night, while sitting in the Red Carpet Club at the C Gates at Dulles, repeatedly through an IAD-MUC flight on United, and at countless other times over the last year or so. The point being, of course, that this little tome is eminently portable, even for a guy who doesn’t carry a dedicated knitting bag or purse. It lived very happily in the outer pockets of my backpack and jacket with no fuss. Roughly the length and width of my hand and weighing in at about 14 ounces, the book is pint-sized technical support for a knitter.

Now, I’m not a knitter. I’ve knit one complete project and will probably do a few more just ‘cause it’s relaxing and productive and because the woman I adore is rather into the whole yarn and needles thing. I still look at her rubbing some sticks together with string mixed in, see something useful emerge, and consider it a moderately benign form of black magic. That’s why The Knitting Answer Book has been such a find. It covers, clearly and concisely, all the basics of the craft. The illustrations leave little room for confusion and the text is light yet substantive.

For example: I needed to figure out which cast-on to use and…OK, let’s start at the absolute beginning. I needed to figure out what ‘CO 64, join in rnd’ might refer to. I looked it up, nodded sagely, picked up the needles and yarn, looked at them, set them down, picked up the book again and looked up “Casting On”. I then read the section, nodded sagely, set it down, picked up the needles and yarn, looked at them, set them down, picked up the book again and looked up “best cast-on for socks”. Read, nodded sagely, picked up needles/yarn, wrapped yarn around left hand, wiggled stick with right, paused regularly to count, cursed periodically, eventually reached 64, realized that while I had a nice long-tail cast-on (looked it up again to verify, nodded sagely), it did not appear to be “in rnd”. Looked up “rnd”, then “round”, then “casting-on in the round”, then “joining cast-ons”, read all of the above, nodded sagely, set down book, fetched aspirin to soothe soreness in neck from excessive nodding, picked up sticks and string, and joined the ends of my long-tail cast-on into a circle. Looked up “celebrating victory”, found no suggestions, decided my confidence level was high enough at this point to improvise, took two shots of Jack Daniels, grilled steak over coal, ate said steak, sat down again, picked up needles and string, realized I had several hundred rows to go just for the first sock, along with such mysterious procedures as “instep gussets”, “heel flaps” and “toe decreases”. Counted toes, realized I didn’t have enough to handle all the decreases that the pattern called for and looked up “using black magic to conserve body parts”. After a long session of reading, I pretty much determined that knitting is straightforward if you follow directions, don’t worry about Satanic influences too much, and don’t consume Jack Daniels early in the process. I also learned that there are two camps of knitters, English and Continental, whose relationship is roughly reminiscent of the East Coast and West Coast rap clans. Bought gun, renamed self “M-Dub” for increased street cred, and eventually knit two rather nice wool socks. Word.

Answers were available to the most basic and, eventually, more advanced questions I came up with. They were well-indexed, laid out in a sensible manner, and made sense even to a beer-guzzling, fumble-fingered lunkhead like me. When I ran into problems (read: badly screwed up and didn’t notice at the time), the book helped me solve them. When I didn’t have the right tools, it helped me improvise. It was a life-saver and is, in large part, responsible for the successful completion of my project. I strongly recommend it for starting and intermediate knitters, as well as advanced ones who like a little reassurance. Portable, inexpensive and oh-so-comprehensive, this book is a winner.

Coming up:
-Just Kick It by Mark St. Amant
-Dies The Fire by S.M. Stirling
-The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth by Benjamin Friedman

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