Category Archives: opinion

The Golden Globes

Apparently, the Golden Globe awards were presented last night. I didn’t watch. Over the last 10 years, television and movies have mostly lost the battle for my time. There are other things I’d rather do like read, write, and spend time with the family. And besides, award shows were more fun when I lived in L.A.

That said, I noted with delight this morning that Peter Dinklage won for his role in HBOs Game of Thrones. I saw the first two episodes of Game of Thrones before I started racing through the books last year. I suspect that many people like me can picture no one but Peter Dinklage in the role of Tyrion Lannister and that he plays the character perfectly. (Of course, I watched the entire HBO season, despite getting far head in the books.) While the series is excellent (thanks to great writing and acting), Dinklage makes it worth watching, despite the calls on my time. That is why I suspect that when Season 2 comes out, Game of Thrones will be the only show that I am watching. (I’m not watching any shows at the moment and haven’t been since the series finale of Smallville last spring.)

So congratulations to Peter Dinklage, to George R. R. Martin, and to the entire cast and crew of Game of Thrones. Clearly it is still possible to make a show that breaks new ground and sest the bar, rather than the plethora of imitations and remakes that simply try (and usually fail) to reach it.

An open letter to New Scientist’s subscription department

Dear New Scientist,

I received a letter from you today that opens as follows:

Dear Mr. Rubin,

I admire the boldness of your scientific experiment. You wanted to determine how long you could go without benefiting from the insight and intelligence that New Scientist had been delivering to your door in each weekly issue.

The letter goes on for six more paragraphs before concluding with the following post script:

If you weren’t conducting a “nobel experiment,” I’d be grateful to know the reason you’re not renewing your subscription. Please use the back of the renewal form to let us know where we went wrong, and return it in the pre-stamped envelope.

The letter is signed by your editor, Jeremy Webb.

Well, Mr. Webb, the fact is that none of the circumstances listed above apply. I still receive my issues of New Scientist every week, still read them with as much interest as always. The misunderstanding seems to be with how your various systems communicate with one another.

For a year or so now, each of your issues contains a full-page ad for getting New Scientist on the iPad via the Zinio app. Back on May 21, 2011, I finally decided to take you up on the idea of reading New Scientist on the iPad. I subscribed to it via Zinio. Of course, I still received the print issue until my print subscription ran out in October. Certainly you would agree that there is no value in my having both a print and digital subscription, when the digital subscription is perfect for my needs.

It surprises me that a science-minded organization would not have its data-ducks in a row and be able to match digital subscriptions to print subscribers so that when someone switched, you’d know that you hadn’t lost a subscriber, that they had merely changed subscription methods. I don’t think it falls under my responsibility to have to make you aware of this when I do change my subscription methods. I do so here only because I’ve received half a dozen letters asking me why I haven’t renewed. I have renewed, I’ve just renewed digitally.

What is most interesting is that in your letter, you don’t even seems to consider a switch to the digital version a possibility. Instead, you write:

I must assume that your experiment has been “pure”–that you have not been picking up copies of New Scientist at a newsstand.

I have not. I have been getting them through my Zinio subscription. I still read and enjoy each issue of New Scientist. Just not the paper edition.

I hope that future version of this letter will not be necessary because you’ll be able to match data from your Zinio subscriptions to your print subscription. But in the invent that you can’t figure out a way of doing that, at least consider the possibility that some of us like reading New Scientist entirely in digital format.

Sincerely,

Jamie Todd Rubin

Yesterday’s payroll tax deal

At this point, I’d be happy to trade in my $1,000 tax break for a new Congress. One that, you know, has something resembling a spine running down its back and guts that aren’t quite so yellow. One that makes it clear they do what’s best for the people and not what’s best for the next election.

That would certainly be worth $1,000 to me.

Security vs. Freedom

I remember a graph from my political science days which had security on one axis (low to high) and freedom on the other (low to high).  As security increases, freedoms necessarily decrease and vice versa. I was thinking of this as I read that President Obama will sign the Levin/McCain detention bill into law. This is yet another disappointing example of where we seem to value security far more than our freedoms. It makes no sense to me. We are a nation built on freedoms and established in part to get away from persecution without a trial. And yet here we are making laws that allow for just that very thing, all in the name of security.

It seems to me that these kinds of laws are victories for those who oppose the freedoms that we have. I’m really starting to get sick of this. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d prefer a more reasonable balance between security and freedom. We encounter risks every day we are alive. I for one would prefer to live in a world where the risks for my personal security might be higher if that means more personal freedom. It seems that we are slowly evolving to a world which looks gloomily dystopian. I wouldn’t want to live in such a world. Maybe it won’t come to that in my lifetime, but I wouldn’t want my kids to have to live in such a restrictive, paranoid, and backwards world either.

It’s one thing to be vigilant about security. It’s quite another to cough up hard-earned freedoms without so much as a cry of despair. Indeed, it seems to me that more an more we give up these freedoms willingly, gladly, and will continue to do so until the day we realize we’ve given up everything we’ve ever valued and find it very difficult to get them back. We are becoming, much like our politicians, a nation of cowards, afraid of our own shadow and its horrifying to watch.

Maybe New Hampshire’s got it right: Live free or die.

Some remedial math for Capital One bank

Capital One Bank’s latest ad campaign annoys me and it has nothing to do with Jerry Stiller, who I think is a great comic actor and who I loved in Seinfeld.

Capital One’s latest campaign talks about how great their checking account is because it pays 5 times the national average. Five times the national average. That sounds pretty remarkable if you don’t have the slightest grip on even the most remedial math. Furthermore, it is a classic example of how statistics can be deceiving while the underlying statement remains perfectly true.

I suspect that most checking accounts these days pay no interest. A no interest checking account has an interest rate of 0%. Let’s pretend for a moment, therefore, that the national average for checking accounts is 0%. We learn very early in our schooling (about the time we start learning the multiplication tables, what, second, third grade) that zero times any number is zero. With that in mind, Captial One bank pays 5 x 0% which equals exactly 0% interest. Note that the statement, five times the national average is true because 0 times any number is 0.

Of course, there are some banks who pay interest on checking accounts. My bank is one such bank so I checked to see what the interest rate was. It turns out that it is 0.01% on any part of the balance over $2,000. That means I earn no interest on the first $2,000 in the account. On anything beyond that, I earn one one-hundreth of a percent. Put in a way people can better understand, to earn one dollar in interest for the month, I’d need a balance of  $12,000 in my checking account. For one measly dollar in interest.

Okay, so Capital One pays five times the national average. Since many banks pay no interest and some pay 0.01% interest, the national average will be somewhere between 0 and 0.01%. Let’s split the difference and call the national average 0.005%. That’s one five-thousandth of a percent. I multiply this number by 5 and get 0.025%. Exactly one quarter of a percent interest on my checking account. If  I am very luck, I might earn a dollar or two each month. Of course, there are account fees to consider, which would easily wipe out these earnings, so what’s the point?

Mostly, though, my gripe is with how much of a big deal the ad campaign makes FIVE TIME THE NATIONAL AVERAGE seem. When you are talking about such incredibly low interest rates to begin with, while the underlying statement is true, the campaign itself seems intentionally deceiving.

Election Day 2011

So I voted, despite being utterly fed up with the current state of politics and politicians in the country. I would have felt guilty if I hadn’t voted. But the truth it, I completely forgot it was an election day, until I saw the tweets start coming in on Twitter this morning. That’s how much attention I’ve been paying. Maybe that’s pathetic on my part, but I look at what’s going on–especially here in Washington–and I get so worked up by it that it’s all I can do to put it out of my mind.

The elections around here were just local. Representatives, district supervisors, school board members. If I didn’t know anyone on the ballot for a particular office, I skipped it. I wasn’t going to vote for someone I didn’t know anything about. All told I voted for maybe four offices and one issue. The issue was a bond issue for $275,000,000 for improving schools. I voted no because I didn’t really understand what was being asked of me and I don’t particularly trust politicians to be responsible spenders.

I voted, for what good it will do, but my vote was one of complete resigned apathy.

I hear a lot of talk about heroes, especially from politicians. It seems like a lot of hand-waving to me to distract folks from the fact that there are 587 cowards running this country. I’ve said it before, and I’m convinced it is true: if our representatives had spines, they’d find solutions. The solutions might not be easy, but who said politics was supposed to be easy. It takes courage to be a leader and that is exactly why we have no leaders in Washington at the moment.

R.I.P. Andy Rooney

I hate it when I check the news in the morning only to discover that someone I admire has passed away. It wasn’t like it was completely unexpected with Andy Rooney. He was 92 years old. The report that I read said he died of complications following minor surgery.

Most people I know think of Andy Rooney as a curmudgeonly TV personality who, for three minutes every Sunday, offered his opinion on all manner of things, big and small. But Rooney hated the fact that he was a celebrity. He always said he was a writer and that is how I see him. Over the years, I’ve read 5 of Andy Rooney’s books, enjoying them all.

The first book that I read of his in December 1999 was Sincerely, Andy Rooney, his collection of letters he’d written over the years. A few years later, I read his autobiographical book about World War II, My War, which I thought was particularly good. In late 2002 I read Common Nonsense and three years later read his collection of essays from 60 Minutes, Years of Minutes. The last book I read by Andy Rooney was his 2006 book, Out of My Mind. I purchased, but haven’t yet gotten around to reading his book, Andy Rooney: 60 Years of Wit and Wisdom.

Two things came across clearly in each of these books. First was Rooney’s ability to observer the obvious and see beyond what others might see. Second, of course, was his almost dead-pan humor. Reading these books was an exercise in controlling my laughter, while at the same time wondering to myself why I had never considered some of the obvious questions Rooney was asking.

He had his share of controversy, which he tackled head on. I might not agree with every opinion Rooney expressed over the years but I think that he was generally on the right track, asking the right questions, some of them, despite being masked by his sense of humor, difficult to face.

Rooney also had tenuous connections to the science fiction world. He and he wife were friends with Isaac and Janet Asimov.

Andy Rooney is one of those characters for which there won’t be a replacement. We might hear people say, “Oh he’s another Andy Rooney,” but the truth is there will never be another Andy Rooney. More than anything else, Rooney attempted to teach a very wide audience how to think critically, using everyday examples. He taught us that it was okay to question things, that nothing should be taken for granted.

My letter in the Falls Church News Press

A while back I wrote a post–“The flowers on the street corner“–about a fatal accident that took place at a dangerous intersection near our house. The accident claimed the lives of two elderly people and in the time since the accident, there have been a few more accidents at that same intersection. I wrote a letter to my district supervisor, Penny Gross and copied the local police department, but after nearly two months had gone by and I hadn’t heard anything, I decided to write a letter to the editor about the matter.

You can read my letter at the Falls Church News Press website. Scroll down to the letter titled “Seeking Action to Fix Dangerous Rt. 50 Intersection.” Interestingly, as I was getting onto the plane back from Boston yesterday, I found that I had a voice mail message from the captain of the local police department to follow up on my inquiry. I didn’t have a chance to call him back yesterday, but I will call him back today and maybe find out what’s being done to make that intersection safer.

Promoting science: where is the next Asimov, Sagan and Gardner?

With the 2012 Presidential campaigns moving into high gear, we find that science is once again under attack. There are a few voices out there making attempts to defend science. There are people calling the Republican candidates anti-science, and the Republican party the party of anti-science. But science is not Republican or Democrat. Science policy might need defending, but science is science. As I see it, two things are needed in our current political environment:

  1. Science needs vigorous promotion
  2. Pseudoscience needs vigorous denouncing

For many decades we had three champions of science here in the United States:

Isaac Asimov is well-known as a science fiction writer. He was also a professor of biochemistry and from the early 1950s to his death in 1992, he wrote hundreds of book and thousands of essay on science. He made all kinds of appearances in support of science and science eduction. And several of his books and many of his essays vigorously denounced pseudoscience. He made science easy for anyone to understand (including me) and made a clear distinction between science and pseudoscience. He loved the former and would not tolerate the latter.

Carl Sagan was perhaps the most recognizable astronomer in the second half of the Twentieth century. He wrote some extraordinary books on science including Cosmos, on which the TV series was based, and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Dragons of Eden. He also wrote books debunking pseudoscience like his 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

Martin Gardner wrote the Mathematical Recreations column for Scientific American for 25 years. He also wrote numerous books shining a light onto pseudoscience and exposing its follies.

Continue reading Promoting science: where is the next Asimov, Sagan and Gardner?

Props to Dominion Power and Cox Cable

Although the media coverage of Hurricane Irene was awful, I have to give credit where credit is due. We did end up having a power outage. We were lucky. It occurred right around 4am and lasted until 9:30am so its impact on our daily routines and power use was minimal. Between 9:30 and noon, everything was working great–and then the cable went out. With the cable, went our Internet connection and our home phone line. All of that was finally restored around 7pm.

We have Dominion Power as our electric company. I was following them on Twitter (I could stil get Internet access over 3G and we’d charged our phones and other devices over night so there was no problem using those devices during the power outage and Internet outage) and Dominion’s twitter account was making frequent and informative updates on their progress at restoring power. There were close to a million customers without power, but in our area, Dominion restored service quickly and I made sure to tweet them a thank you for their quick work.

Cox Communications is by far the best cable company I’ve ever had. Next to them, Comcast/Xfinity looks like some kind of evil dictatorship regime. They aren’t even close to being in the same league. Cox is particularly good when it comes to customer service, something almost unheard of in the cable company world. They were making frequent, regular updates to their Facebook page. I called once to report my outage and their computerized system already recognized that there was an outage in my area and they were working to resolve the problem. I tried not to sweat it, and indeed, when I flipped on the TV at around 7pm just to see if the cable was back, I was surprised to find that it was!

Both companies deserve props for their quick response to the storm and both companies did a good job in my book.

The uniformly awful media coverage of Hurricane Irene

The media coverage of Hurricane Irene was about the worst I’ve seen for any weather event thus far. Media coverage of weather events have, for reasons that completely elude me, grown increasingly alarmist and outrageous with each passing event. Every major weather event needs some kind of name (“snowmageddon”) and the continuous coverage of sensationalized information verges on parody.

Granted, we watched network news stations here in the metro Washington DC area and we were not in an area that was severely threatened by the storm. But that’s not what I got from the TV. I got that by keeping an eye on weather radar and looking out my window. Someone who was not familiar with the DC area–a tourist, for instance–watching yesterday’s coverage might reasonably gone into a full blown panic for all of the drama the newscasters were adding to the coverage. There were a number of things that bothered me about the storm coverage locally:

  1. It was far more alarmist than it was informative. A combination of looking out my windows and checking weather radar online gave me better information than the reporters in the field. Indeed, when it seemed as if the storm wouldn’t be as bad in our area as first predicted, news outlets seemed to make a point of being increasingly alarmist so as to milk the additional audiences they had for all they could get.
  2. The worst of the storm was always just a few minutes/hours away. No matter how close the storm was we never seemed to get to the worst of it, regardless of where the storm actually was. It seemed like the worse part of the storm was always looming just over our shoulder but never actually manifested.
    Continue reading The uniformly awful media coverage of Hurricane Irene

Rant on the ignorance of the scientific method

There was a letter in the September 5 issue of Time magazine that irked me when I read it today. The context of the letter was in response to an article about autism that appeared in the August 29 issue, in which is was reported that one possible cause might be genetic. Clearly the letter writer was frustrated and I empathize with that, but it was also clear that she did not grasp the concept of scientific method. She wrote:

I was dismayed as I read Judith Warner’s article [“Autism’s Lone Wolf,” Aug. 29]. I’m a parent of a child with Asperger’s and it seems everywhere I turn there are news stories about what causes autism–vaccinations, genes, environmental factors and now perhaps my choice of spouse. Parents of children on the autism spectrum have enough to deal with. Feeling we are somehow responsible for our children’s condition is just a bit too much. I wish less time was spent trying to figure out what causes autism and more time was dedicated to developing therapies to help the children who have it.

I quote the entire letter for context but the italicized portion is my emphasis. Forget for a moment that she is talking about autism. She could be talking about any kind of medical condition. What I find remarkable about this statement is that is reveals a deep lack of understanding of the scientific process, and implies you can put the cart before the horse. How is one supposed to develop therapies for any condition without understanding what causes the condition?

Without understanding that many illnesses were caused by bacteria or viruses, those illnesses would still be treated with all kinds of medieval methods like leeching and bleeding. It took scientists to understand the underlying cause of these diseases–to realize they were not the result of an imbalance of the humours–that finally allowed us to treat them successfully. I can understand the frustration behind the letter-writer, but it is the lack of understanding of the scientific method that I find scary. This, at a time when many state and local governments want to cut back on investments in education. Well, if you are wondering what will happens if we back off education, this letter is a preview.