Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Musings on Pop Culture

Ok, this is really the short and sweet version because I can't process a whole lot at 2:30 a.m. after a few drinks (hey, it's Tuesday! And Mardi Gras!)

First off, what's the deal with grad students and Law & Order? I never expected to be a fan, and it's like I was made one against my will, thanks to my roommate, but now it's something I watch regularly (particularly SVU, as has already been noted... the original Law & Order I find to be more dull, what with all that courtroom stuff... not every episode can match up to all the Grisham I've read). Is it actually a smarter show? And even if it was, then why do I also watch crap like the O.C. and Average Joe? (I not only watch these, but I'm seriously a big fan of OC... so many pretty people!)

Secondly, Wednesday is my favorite day of the week now, partly because I have no class (usually... tomorrow is an unfortunate exception, but I'm rectifying that by not going), and partly because that's the day the new Onion comes out, which I always look forward to reading. And I always love talking about the newest stories and headlines with my friends, and it amazes me that such information has such power over my life, that information in general makes such a difference to everyone's lives. Is it natural that such a thing define you? Is that particular to this century? Has information we know come to have the same meaning as clothing brands do... it denotes what kind of person you are/which crowd you think you belong to? Is that how it's always been? And if not, what the hell did illiterate people talk about 200 years ago? Just gossip? It seems you'd run out of that quickly enough, but then again, I'm biased by the sheer volume of information I filter everyday, and can't imagine a single topic monopolizing my thoughts (well, except for myself, but that is most certainly a part of human nature... if everything you see is only from your point of view, then how else are you supposed to think about your world?).

My last thought is on the phenomenon of music, but I'm not sure how to articulate it. I think our reactions to music are fascinating--it's amazing that sounds are capable of producing such strong emotions and are so much more potent in recalling specific memories and feelings than any other sense (well, smell sometimes has the same effect, but far less often... that may simply be a function of smell not dominating our senses as frequently as hearing and, obviously, vision, do).

Well, time for bed. G'night!

Monday, February 23, 2004


Well, it seems everything's kind of been turned on its head, somehow. Family's never really been a big deal to me--we went on vacations a few times a year and they were the people that I lived with. Our family was never close, it seems, and my relationship with my brother was particularly nonexistent (no wonder, after I picked on him until he was too tall for me to get away with it anymore). Until a year ago, we never even talked, at least never more than a sentence or two. But everything's different now, he's having problems now, and I hate feeling at a loss about how to help, and I'm so surprised that I care when I never did before.

The strangest part about our recent conversations have been when I've discovered how alike we are. I'd never have guessed he was feeling some of the same doubts I did (they aren't the kind that I find to be widespread, like self-image and all that). Like apathy that's overrun your life, or a lack of creativity, or feeling like you just can't cut it in the world you want to be in... or did want to be in. It's rare that such things hit so close to home.

Anyway, it's been a rough day, because I talked to my brother this morning and learned that he's thinking about withdrawing from school this semester. I know it would be the best thing for him, but I wonder what he'll do instead... travel? get a job? play lots of golf? Would living at home really serve him better?

So much to think about. Add to that today's discovery that my car is totaled, which is no small thing... that was my car! My car that drove me all over LA and towed all my crap to Chicago! My car that's seen four different stereos because they kept getting stolen! My first car! My car that I, like, just washed a couple days before Valentine's day!

Thank God I live in Chicago. Everyday I'm at least happy that I'm here. And that losing a car doesn't mean the end of your social life (in fact, one benefit is that I'm now forced to shop at Whole Foods because it's only a block away...that place is f*cking expensive, though).

And it's time for school to be over. Spring break can't come soon enough. Mmmm, pina colada oblivion.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Lessons I've learned this week

Monday: DJ's who've deafened themselves + bar + Monday night = really shitty Monday night bar scene; not redeemed by seeing cute guys, because you can't talk to them. Looking forward to baseball/football season to save us, or at least put those a**hole DJ's out of business.

Tuesday: I suck at ice skating. Peaches don't get as bruised as I do. Also, the people who work at State Farm Insurance are dumber than a bag of hammers (apparently people call in claims, like, never).

Wednesday: Good things can happen on the El! A ticket with $2 was just sticking out of a machine, so I got a free ride; that ride showed up a couple minutes later, because I would've missed the train had it been on time; said ride was very short thanks to the genius of those people at Apple who put games on my iPod.

Thursday: Whatever I did today, none of it made the least impression on my brain.

Friday: Wow, I cannot handle allnighters anymore, particularly without the aid of my good friend Red Bull. However, it turns out you can get away with anything (like sleeping through an important group meeting) as long as you're sufficiently apologetic after the fact.

Saturday: I can cook! Holy sh*t! (Entire worldview suddenly changed; wonder if I must now reevaluate anything else, like my fictional work ethic.)

Also, here are a couple of funny links: ESPN's Page 2 shameless promotion of the new show "Dream Job" has some hilarious results (now that's good advertising); also more from McSweeney's: Confessions of a New Coffee Drinker.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

My Valentine's Day

11:11 a.m. Alarm goes off. Yeah right.

12:30 p.m. Jenny calls and wakes me up, I'm reminded that maybe I really should get up. I start to think that personal responsibility is overrated.

12:40 p.m. Still gossiping with Jenny. Tell her how I moved to Chicago from LA and still managed to meet actor Mike McGlone at a bar. I think I actually said that to him.

12:55 p.m. Roll out of bed. Brush teeth. Get dressed. Get in my car and drive me and my positive outlook to a group meeting at school at 1.

1:10 p.m. Arrive at meeting.

3:10 p.m. Speculate that I may not have contributed any more had the meeting been a little later. Who meets on Valentine's Day, anyway?

3:15 p.m. Zone out in my papasan chair.

3:30 p.m. Get bored doing that and go shower.

5:00 p.m. Decide to go forage for some sustenance. Bring car (it's 20 degrees out, you would too).

5:10 p.m. Break car.

5:20 p.m. Police show up; I overcome my shock and just feel bad for the high school girl who was driving the other car who can't stop crying.

5:45 p.m. Police rule in my favor, tow truck shows up. I say goodbye to my car (maybe the heater will finally get fixed, though).

6:30 p.m. Get home. Call parents, no answer. Call Jenny, puss out on going drinking. Watch Gladiator with my roommate till I can't stay awake.

7:15 p.m. Give in and go to bed. Don't even have energy to go see Barbershop 2, how sad is that?

9:00 p.m. Roommate wakes me up by calling me on my phone from her room. Miss the humor until now.

9:05 p.m. Law and Order SVU

10:00 p.m. Make Shake n Bake.

10:30 p.m. SNL

11:30 p.m. Wow, Kelis really sucks. What else is on? Ooh, Elimidate All Stars.

Midnight. Roommate flips to Anna Nicole Show. Too tired to protest. Give in and go to bed.

Monday, February 09, 2004

If you liked Satan in the South Park movie

Or Saddam, for that matter; here's another fictional side to everyone's second-favorite bad guy.

Another gem from McSweeney's (I should really spend more time there): for everyone who remembers Choose Your Own Adventure and wished someone would spoof it using the writing styles of authors we've actually heard of. Extra points if you've actually read anything by these guys rather than just being the person who nods knowingly whenever their names come up in conversation.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Or it's my WSJ subscription

In reference to my previous post, I just realized that I may be the only one who can actually access that page... below is an abridged form of the article (I may steal music, but I have to arbitrarily step back over that line at least once in awhile):

No Matter the Nominee, One Model
Says the Democrats Just Can't Win

Economically speaking, the Democrats don't have a chance in the November presidential elections.

So says the formula of Yale economics professor Ray Fair, who uses a variety of economic and historical data to predict presidential votes.

Mr. Fair has been tweaking his formula since about 1972 and it doesn't do a bad job of predicting the vote percentage of the incumbent. In fact, the standard error is a pretty decent: 2.4 percentage points. That is, if he predicts the incumbent will get 50% of the vote, the actual percentage is usually between 47.6% and 52.4%.

Obviously, that's a big enough range in a close election to get it wrong. (He used the formula on elections back to 1916; it would have predicted Hubert Humphrey beating Richard Nixon in 1968 with 50.2% of the vote, an error of just 0.6%.) But this time around, the landslide predicted for President Bush swamps the margin of error and then some.

Seriously, it's worth it to spend a minute discussing how the formula is produced and what Mr. Fair is trying to achieve. To start with, Mr. Fair doesn't appear to be on the GOP payroll; he told me recently that the latest results aren't to his personal political tastes. So he seems, pardon the pun, fair and balanced (I'm trying to be sued by Fox News).

Mr. Fair wants to know, if it is "the economy, stupid" when it comes to elections, then how much does the stupid economy matter? And, what economic factors really play a role? And if these factors can be figured out, can outcomes be predicted?

There are four essential elements.

By tinkering and tweaking with a variety of economic data, Mr. Fair has settled on three economic variables. The first is the economic growth rate in the three quarters immediately prior to the election (voters have short memories). The second is the inflation rate during the entire presidential term (they don't forget inflation). The third is what Mr. Fair calls Good News, which is the number of quarters during a presidential term that growth exceeds 3.2% (they have some memory for headlines).

Each of those three variables is then multiplied by its own individual constant and they are all added together (except, of course, the inflation rate is subtracted because it's a negative.) Then, a presidential constant is added that is specific to the president's party, whether he is an incumbent running for re-election and whether his party has previously been in power.

OK, you've all waited long enough. So here's what you get when you plug in, roughly, the consensus economic forecast: President Bush runs away with it, in a laugher, with 58% of the vote.

But you angry Democrats can save yourselves the trouble. I've tried to create a Democratic victory with the formula and it's nearly impossible. Only a complete collapse of the economy even gets you within the 2.4 percentage point margin of error. You'd have to have -2% growth over the next three quarters and a 4% inflation rate to get there.

The reason for this has much to do with the specific presidential constant for George W. Bush. While I can't argue with the statistical reasons for it, this is my biggest gripe with the formula. President Bush is handed 55.57% of the vote before the economy is even factored in.

Looking back at past elections, Mr. Fair has found that incumbency is a very lofty perch. He's also found a slight edge for Republicans. And, it's significant that President Bush is running for re-election after the opposition party (the Democrats) had most recently occupied the White House. You old timers and presidential history buffs are now nodding.

The formula draws on similar situations -- since 1916 -- when an elected Republican president ran for a second term after he took the White House away from the Democrats. Those analogs include Ronald Reagan's manhandling of Walter Mondale, Mr. Nixon's mauling of George McGovern and Dwight Eisenhower's savaging of Adlai Stevenson. Those three Republicans walked away with an average of 59% of the vote. (Calvin Coolidge, as the incumbent, did win a second term in 1924 after replacing Warren Harding, but Mr. Coolidge was running for president for the first time.)

So, if anything, Mr. Bush's constant is, historically, understated. Ten points to the history buff who can find the fourth example.) Even giving Mr. Bush half the vote from the outset, which clearly understates incumbent power, produces a Republican victory using reasonable assumptions of growth.

But what if Mr. Fair's formula suffers from the same economic problem that plagues Mr. Bush? Namely, we've had strong GDP growth with lousy job creation. Mr. Fair uses GDP as a proxy for jobs because usually the two are closely correlated, but this time around, there's been a unique divergence. In the post-war era, you cannot find a time when GDP has been so strong and payroll growth so weak. Mr. Fair might learn, along with an unhappy Mr. Bush, that the two aren't interchangeable and growth that doesn't produce jobs isn't good economics or politics.

Whatever the results of today's jobs report, there's no changing the weak jobs numbers under the Bush presidency. But Mr. Fair notes that voters won't remember the total. They'll look at the current momentum, so job creation from now through November will weigh heavily in Mr. Bush's favor.

The war in Iraq could also hurt. This, of course, would undermine Mr. Fair's entire theory that it's the economy, stupid. But, at the very least, the Iraqi war seems to be motivating Democrats and it remains to be seen if that opposition has any wider electoral appeal. (I have my doubts, given the Nixon landslide amid the much more unpopular Vietnam War.)

Finally, the formula has been badly wrong only once: that was in 1992, when it predicted the incumbent would win with 51.7% of the vote. It was off by 5.1 percentage points. That, of course, was the last time a man named Bush ran for re-election.

-Steve Liesman

Ok, so I suck at abridging. It's kind of a thick line anyway.

It's the BCS, stupid.

I just read this excellent column in the Wall Street Journal. Not only do I feel cool for knowing how the math works, but certain others who are more politically involved than I will probably get a kick out of me acknowledging that their interests bear fruit once in awhile. The article is about using past history (strength of schedule, if you will) and assumptions about the importance of the economy to predict the outcome of this November's presidential election. It doesn't look good for the Democrats; unless, of course, the model is based on erroneous assumptions. You can check it out for yourself here. Unfortunately, the only explanation accompanying it is an exhortation to buy this guy's book, but don't worry, I know plenty about regression and believe me, there is nothing to see here.

Update: there is an explanation, and I wish you luck in understanding it. It includes the data from which the formula was derived, but there is still no reasoning given as to why he chose the variables he did. The equation has a decent track record, however (save for 1992), so I guess we'll just have to wait and see if the predictions will be borne out.

My take: I have my doubts, given how much politics have changed in the last hundred years--I tend to think that voters today act differently and according to much more complex sets of variables than those laid out here. Given that they failed in 1992, and 2000 probably didn't count, misses in more recent years don't bode well for these assumptions. Thoughts, anyone?

Thursday, February 05, 2004


Ok, I know it's been awhile since I've posted, but things have been a tad hectic here (plus I've been playing that penguin game a lot in my spare time--my record is now 319.3, apparently I lack Chris and Tom's skillz, but then again, they each own an X-Box). First there's all the snow, which makes you want to do nothing but stay in and eat lots of soup (or in my case, mexican food) while you watch Law and Order SVU or stupid teen movies. It also makes you want to book Caribbean cruises for spring break, but I took care of that today, which means I now have to really mean this whole working out more than once a week thing. And I have to lay off the mexican food (so bad, and yet soooo good).

Oh yeah, and then there's school and stuff. It tends to take a back seat to going out and drinking, but I figure I have to balance out the large number of type A's in my program. Everyone's been in such a bad mood this quarter! So many people sound like they're at boot camp or something and have taken the "I'll just get through this but I'm not gonna be happy about it, dammit" mindset. Very disheartening. It makes me wonder if I'm missing something, but if I am, my grades have yet to reflect it.

One of the best parts about this week has been my return to reading short stories before bed. I love fiction, and O. Henry writes some of my favorite stories. They don't take the energy to read that funny stories do (which rules out favorites Mark Twain and David Sedaris) and kindle the perfect feeling to have right before going to sleep with flannel sheets and a cold world outside. The twists make them more than boring, run-of-the-mill stories, though. Anyway, if you've never read O. Henry, I highly recommend picking up a "best of" book of his.

Just thinking about those stories has put me in a better mood--I was going to mention the chaos going on at home (another set of people laden with problems that feel so far away from me), but why ruin my mood... I need all the help I can get as I start into the writeup I have to do this evening.

Whole27: Seven (Eight?) Months Later

Breakfast this morning was cinnamon rolls. In fairness, I'm sick right now with something resembling that monster flu--hopefully it...