(Rated) PG-13 for Ugly Cast

December 2, 2011

PG-13 for Ugly Cast is a blog created and maintained by my son, Ben.  I encourage you to check it out.  It’s very funny.  If you like it, tell a friend.

The title of the blog is an illustration of how he begins his reviews movies.  It means that the movie received an MPAA rating of PG-13 because its cast is ugly. Ben describes the purpose of his blog as follows:

On the “Mosque” Near Ground Zero.

August 23, 2010

I think that I understand both sides of this issue.  For those who oppose the building of an Islamic community center near ground zero (it’s closer to being a YMCA than it is to being a mosque), their most vivid memory of Muslims is the attack on 9/11.  They feel that it is insensitive of the builders of the community center to remind them (and families of those who were murdered on 9/11) of this attack on the World Trade Center by building the community center so close to ground zero.

For Muslims, they are sensitive to being conflated with those who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9/11.  They are also sensitive to the many lies that are being told by those who oppose the community center.  (Contrary to the false claims, it is not a mosque.  It is not on ground zero; it is two blocks from ground zero and not even visible from it.  Imam Rauf, who has advocated the building of the community center, is a moderate Muslim who traveled with members of the Bush administration to improve relations between the Muslim world and the US. )  They are also sensitive to the anti-Muslim hatred that is being revealed in so many different parts of the U.S.

So, on one side, there are the sensitivities of those who have so little personal knowledge of the Muslim religion that they automatically think of 9/11 when they think of Muslims.  They don’t even think of the 10s of millions of Iraqis or Afghanis for whom we are fighting, let alone the Muslims who were among those murdered on 9/11.   On the other side, there are the Muslims (especially, moderate Muslims) who are sensitive to being constantly compared to terrorists.

I think that the Muslims have a much better case on this one.

The solution is not to treat both types of sensitivities as morally equivalent.  Rather, Americans should try to understand their Muslim neighbors better and overcome any misinformed associations that they may have.  With 1 billion Muslims in the world, it is possible (and preferable) for Americans to have a much more nuanced position than to think that all Muslims believe the same thing.   We especially should not associate Muslims with Al Qaeda, which is hated by a majority of Muslims around the world.

As for politicians who have deliberately inflamed this situation for narrow personal or political interests (Newt Gingrich, I am especially referring to you), they provide support to those radical Islamists who want to convince others that Americans hate Muslims; and they have made this world a more dangerous place.    They bring dishonor and shame to themselves and to the United States.

Joe Barton on “misconstruing the misconstruction”

June 19, 2010

After a recent meeting with Boehner and Cantor, Joe Barton took back his apology to BP and his accusation that Obama had shaken them down for $20 billion.  The transcript of the conversation was just released**, and I print it here without alteration.

Boehner.   Joe, you know why I’ve asked you to meet with Eric and me.  We want you to apologize to the people of the Gulf coast for apologizing to BP.

Barton.   No, I don’t understand.  Yesterday, both of you accused Obama of shaking down BP by asking them for $20 billion.  You told me it was perfectly OK for me to apologize to BP for Obama’s actions.  You even encouraged me to do it.   Why is today different from yesterday?

Cantor.   Joe, you missed the most important part of the message.  We said, “Apologize in private.”    The point was to make BP believe that you cared more about them than you care about the citizens of the Gulf Coast.

Barton.  But I do care more about BP than the citizens of the Gulf Coast.

Cantor.  And so do we, but that’s not the point.  We also like winning Congressional seats in those states.   You can believe what you want, as long as you vote and talk the way that we want.  And we want you to apologize to the Gulf Coast for apologizing to BP.

Barton. I hate apologizing. If I had to apologize every time I said something stupid or offensive, I’d spend all day every day apologizing.  Besides that, I’m no good at it. What if I refuse to apologize?

Boehner.   You know how you are the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.  It would be a shame if you lost that position.   You might no longer be the top recipient of donations from oil companies in the Congress, and you wouldn’t have nearly as much political power.

Barton.   This sounds like you are “shaking me down.”

Boehner.   We never shake anyone down.  That’s for bad people or Democrats.  But I repeat myself.   (Audible laugh from all three).  We just reason with people, and occasionally make them offers that they can’t refuse.   That’s why Republicans almost always vote the way we want.  And that’s why businesses give us so much money.  We’re very persuasive.

Cantor.   Anyway, it’s easy to apologize.  All you need to do is to apologize that people are too stupid to understand what you said.   It helps if you say it in a way that is confusing.

Barton.  How about if I said this?  “And if anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction.”

Cantor.  It’s a start, but I’d get some help from a speech writer.  After all,  you don’t want to sound like a complete idiot.

**   For international readers, it is worth noting that this is entirely made up, with the exception of Barton’s last quote, which is accurate.

Unified Artificial Intelligence

April 3, 2010

Noah Goodman and others at MIT have recently developed an A.I. based program for determining who would send e-mail to whom at a fictitious company.  However, it’s not the application itself that is of interest.  It’s the way that they carried out the computations.  The program relies on probabilistic rules that get updated over time.  It combines some of the original ideas of expert systems (using rules and implications) with the probabilistic approach that has been successful in recent years.

The research team admits that it doesn’t have a final solution on how this should be accomplished.  It currently is too computationally intensive.

Here are some random thoughts on this issue.

  1. This sounds like an ideal topic for O.R. researchers to get involved in.  We also have expertise in logic and probabilistic reasoning.
  2. Humans are terrible at dealing with probabilities but we are pretty good at forming categories and recognizing patterns.  Perhaps the A.I.  system could be improved by using “flawed human reasoning.”  For example, the system could be overconfident, just as humans are.  It could rely too heavily on recent information.  It could use very simple rules for updating probabilities.  It could rely heavily on other program’s expertise, just as we rely on what other people think.
  3. Perhaps the best way of developing a “unified approach” is to concurrently use several approaches to arrive at conclusions, and refer to each approach as “an expert.”  Then use a unifying approach that takes the expert opinions and arrives at a group opinion.  I think that this is already done, but perhaps in slightly different ways than I am suggesting.

An Open Letter to CNN

April 2, 2010

Dear CNN,

Your prime time shows do not attract nearly as many viewers as Fox News and not as many as MSNBC.  How should you react to this bad news?  I think that you should treat this as a great opportunity to reinvigorate your brand and your offerings.  Here are some suggestions for CNN television news.

  1. Aim high! Whatever you do should be aimed at “excellence”, not judged by the number of viewers (although this is important) but at the quality of the presentation both in terms of form and content.  You should aim to be the most trusted name in news and information by those who are most knowledgeable. The rest will follow.
  2. Figure out what is worth doing, and then do it well. In this Internet age, you should figure out what your network can best accomplish.   Is your best choice really to present the news of the day over and over again?  You have Headline news for that and you also have the Internet.
  3. Be a thought leader. There is so much misinformation that circulates around, some of it caused by Fox News.  You should confront what is false and point out that it is false.  You should take stands when thoughtful people should agree.   
  4. Generate light, not heat.  Generate confidence, not fear. Too often, you have generated heat and fear.   When there are problems, confront them directly.  But most problems can be dealt with.  It is always possible to provide a balanced report that is useful.  Personally, I think that Wolf Blitzer is one of the worst hosts of those who are still on the air.  His natural inclination is to generate heat and fear.  My favorite host of yours is Fareed Zakaria, who is incredibly knowledgeable and a very interesting commentator and interviewer.
    STOP the practice of interviewing the people from both extremes on a viewpoint (or worse yet, take a viewpoint that is widely accepted and then interview the nutcase who disagrees with it).  It is much better to interview a thoughtful and knowledgeable person who is “center-left” and another who is “center-right.”  And don’t shy away from times when they agree.
  5. Add more information content that is not “news.” OK.  You are CNN News.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have shows dedicated to history, or science, or business, or sports, or even Operations Research.  (That is my discipline.  It is an engineering and scientific approach to improving managerial decision making.)  The important thing is that whatever you do, it should be thoughtful and well done.
  6. Innovate. Your primary goal should be to present news and information that helps views to become more thoughtful and informed citizens.  But you also should try to be as interesting as possible within that framework.  Personally, I think that filling prime time with news hosts is getting old.  It’s time to have much more variety in your prime time programming.
  7. Be fearless. If you listen only to those who only want to increase ratings, or who only want to improve revenue, you will only do incremental things, and you will copy formats from other shows.  This is a time to think big and do something important.

The Health Care Debate and Basic Research

March 24, 2010

There are two fundamental issues dealing with health care in the U.S.:  coverage and costs.  Currently, far too few people are covered by health care plans, and the costs of health care delivery is very high and increasing rapidly.

In the recent health care debate, the Democrats focused almost entirely on coverage issues, while making efforts to “do no harm” with respect to costs.   They developed an imperfect bill, with many flaws, but which is a very good step forward in dealing with the issue of coverage.  On the other hand, the Republicans were not responsible in their approach to this issue.  They appealed to people’s fears in ways unbecoming of the opposition party.  They talked about “killing grandma, the loss of freedom in America, and killing babies, all of which were based on lies.  They pretended to be the defender of Medicare, which showed amazing chutzpah on their part.  They also focused on secondary issues such as complaints about the process, lack of bipartisanship, complaints about the length of the bill, and so on.  Although they did talk about serious policy issues such as tort reform and increasing taxes, the serious issues were lost in the fog of their secondary complaints and their fear mongering.

Hopefully, we can come together and address the issue of maintaining costs in a serious and productive manner.  Everyone is affected by the costs, which are increasing much faster than inflation.    Operations Research can definitely help with this issue.  O.R. has a long history of improving the efficiency of systems, including many efforts in health care.    But I think that we can do much more, especially when we work closely with those outside of our field.

Serious efforts require serious funding.   I propose that the government spend from $5 billion to $10 billion per year in research   that is dedicated to reducing the cost of health care while improving health outcomes.  This reflects a .5% to 1% proportion of our federal government’s spending on health care.   A one-time 1% sustained reduction in health care costs would pay for this program in perpetuity.   A much larger reduction is likely.

Here are some questions that the government funding agency may wish to consider?

  1. What can government do to reduce the costs of bringing an important drug to market?  If they dramatically reduce the cost of bringing a drug to market, how can they ensure that the drug companies will keep the costs of the drug reasonably low?
  2. How can hospitals be run much more efficiently?
  3. What less expensive alternatives are there to hospitals for people who do not require hospital care, but do require monitoring and help?  How effective are these alternatives?
  4. How can electronic medical records be maintained at a low cost while ensuring the right level of privacy?
  5. What medical screening tests can be developed that will dramatically reduce the costs of current testing procedures?  Here I am thinking of tests that are cheap, and have few false negatives.  People who test positive would be given the more expensive and more reliable tests.  People who test negative would need no further tests.   This would improve costs dramatically if the diseases were rare and if most test results were negative.
  6. How can we reform our tort system while ensuring that patients who receive harmful and incompetent care are compensated for losses?  How can we ensure that incompetent doctors lose their license to practice?

The list can go on and on.   Health care offers so many opportunities for improved efficiencies.  I hope we will take full advantage of these opportunities.  We certainly need to.

It’s not hypocrisy. It’s lying.

February 22, 2010

Democrats and many in the media are accusing the Republicans in Congress of hypocrisy in opposing the stimulus package and then asking for money for their districts from the stimulus funds.  This is not actually hypocrisy on the part of the Republicans and can be viewed as reasonable.  One could argue that it is a bad idea for the US to go into even more debt to create temporary jobs; but given that the US is going to go into more debt, everyone wants their share.  Wanting a share of money that shouldn’t be spent at all is as American as apple pie.  (However, it is hypocritical for a Congressman to consider any government spending to be wasteful unless it is in his or her district or state.  But this type of hypocrisy is so common in Congress that it is hardly worth mentioning.)

On the other hand, many Republicans in Congress are arguing that the stimulus bill did not create any new private sector jobs at the same time that they are going to ribbon cutting ceremonies and touting their role in getting stimulus money that leads to new jobs.  This position is not hypocrisy.  It is lying.  They are either lying to their constituents at the ribbon cutting ceremonies or they are lying when they say that the stimulus is not working.  Possibly, they are lying both times.

On a side note, ex-Governor Mitt Romney said that the stimulus “did not create any net new jobs other than in government.”  He was not lying.  He was just being totally sleazy by inserting the word “net” where it did not belong and where it would cause confusion.  This is not to say that Romney doesn’t routinely lie.  It is just to say that he prefers being sleazy to lying when given a choice.

The game theoretic advantage goes to the Republicans

February 8, 2010

Pundits have asked themselves why it is so difficult for the Democrats to get things done even with 60 votes in the Senate, whereas the Republicans seem to do just fine with 50 votes in the Senate.  I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this.  But one reason that deserves mentioning is that Democrats believe in the importance of the federal government, and Republicans believe in the importance of thwarting Democrats.

Consider the following table, which illustrates the values to Democrats and Republicans when the Democrats are in majorities in Congress.

When Democrats control congress

keep government going

gridlock

Republicans 1 9
Democrats 9 1

The numbers are made up.  But the key element is that Republicans would rather see nothing done at all than seriously compromise with the Democrats to pass legislation.

On the other hand, consider the reverse situation in which Republicans are in charge.

When Republicans control Congress

keep government going gridlock
Republicans 7 3
Democrats 7 3

Here the Democrats really don’t want government to shut down, and they are willing to go far more than half way to meet the Republicans.  In this case, even the Republicans are willing to compromise a little.  For example, the Republicans were willing to greatly increase the National debt under Bush rather than having permanent gridlock so long as the wealthiest Americans could get a tax cut and Bush was able to start two wars; however, on other important issues such as having two ultra-conservative judges appointed to the Supreme Court, they stood by their principles and were even willing to get rid of filibusters.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, except perhaps that is sucks to be a Democrat.

Random thoughts on the Massachusetts election

January 20, 2010

Yesterday, Scott Brown (a Republican) defeated a Martha Coakley (a Democrat) for the Senate seat in Massachusetts.  The Senate seat was generally known as Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat because Kennedy was the Massachusetts Senator since 1962.   I have a number of thoughts on the election.  Here they are, in somewhat random order.

  1. The election of Scott Brown will kill the health reform bill because it will give Republicans 41 Senate seats, enough to filibuster any bill.   Most Americans will be grateful, with notable exceptions including those who can’t afford health insurance, those with preexisting medical conditions, and those who are very sick and are being dropped from their coverage by private insurers.
  2. The election confirmed the adage that Republicans are much better at getting elected than they are at governing.   My suspicion is that Republicans are so good at campaigning because they are largely unencumbered by shame (think of Mitt Romney), whereas no matter how hard the Democrats in Congress try, they still let shame get in the way of unadulterated hypocrisy.
  3. Coakley was up in the polls by 20% a month before the election.  It’s pretty clear that Coakley lost in large part because her campaign was “asleep at the switch,” especially since there were no external events in the last month that made much of a difference.  It didn’t help that Coakley came across as arrogant and unwilling to do what it took to get elected.
  4. Scott Brown is a bad choice for Massachusetts.  While I disagree with many of his positions, the most important aspect is the fact that he will support the Republicans in the Senate, who are filibustering almost all Democratic initiatives.   Brown claims to be his own person, and he will vote against the Republican Senate leadership if he disagrees.  Perhaps he is much more independent than all the other Republicans in the Senate, but I doubt it.   I dare him to prove me wrong.  (OK.  If I am wrong, I won’t claim that he accepted my dare.)

The Senate is broken!

January 7, 2010

US Citizens strongly believe in the United States Constitution and support it wholeheartedly.  This is somewhat paradoxical since most Americans cannot name the three branches of government (on the brighter side, 3/4 can name the three Stooges :)

I could go on about how little Americans know about the Constitution, but I really want to address a different point.   The U.S. Senate is broken.  Paul Krugman articulated this point well, and I fully agree.  Here are three ways that it is broken:

  1. Because of the incredible overuse of “filibusters”, Democrats need 60 senators to get any bill voted on.  This has given enormous power to some Senators who least deserve it, such as Lieberman and Nelson.  It is also undemocratic and unfair, and it is not what the writers of the Constitution intended.
  2. The Senate is absurdly slow in confirming appointments for the Executive branch.  Obama is in charge of 519 appointee nominations.  After Obama’s first year in office, the Senate has approved only 58%.   Nominees are rejected for trivial reasons (the media encourages this approach), and the vetting process is so burdensome as to be deemed out of control.  Worse yet, a single Senator (let’s call him Senator D-bag) can prevent a nominee from being considered just because the Senator is a D-bag.  If you prefer, you can call him Senator Vitter.
  3. The Congress is largely corrupt, and most of the corruption is fully legal.   The corruption comes from the following huge conflict of interest.  Congress needs to rely on industry for massive campaign contributions, and then votes on issues that strongly effect these industries.  In other countries this is called “bribery.”  In our country, it is called “private funding of election campaigns.”

All three problems are fixable, and they don’t even require amendments to the Constitution.  The US might have a chance of addressing these issues if the US press focused on governance issues rather than on whether the President is using the word “terror” enough or on news about some couple named “Jon and Kate”.   But I understand why the press does not want to focus on governance issues.  After all, most Americans cannot even name the three branches of government.


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