Gini Coefficient

The Gini Coefficient is a number between zero and one that measures income inequality, or more generally, how non-randomly distributed a sample is. If everyone in the nation made exactly the same amount, the Gini Coefficient would be zero. If one person had all the money, it would be one. It is defined as follows:

Gini Coefficient Equation

In this equation, y is the income and i is the income bin or “slot.” One interesting thing about this is that although this equation converges to zero as all the bin values approach each other, it does not when all the bins approach zero (except one). As the number of bins increase, the equation does converge to one. Or maybe I’m wrong. I’ve checked it a couple of times and ways. I’ll look at it tomorrow with fresh eyes.

Let’s look at a five bin system: US household incomes (the lower bound) in the five quintiles:

  1. $0
  2. $18,500
  3. $34,738
  4. $55,331
  5. $88,030

Putting these numbers in the equation, we get a Gini Coefficient of 0.43.

How unequal is this? In The Great Divergence, Timothy Noah presents some data from 2005. In that year, the United States had a value of 0.37. (It is almost certainly higher now, but the main issue is that I’ve only done a rough calculation here.) There are only three countries out of the 30 in the OECD that are more unequal: Portugal (0.42), Turkey (0.43), and Mexico (0.47).

We’re number one! We’re number one!

Update 30 June 2012 9:18 pm

This has been bugging me all day, but in fact, the equation really does seem to behave the way I said above. (I can post a proof if anyone is interested. Anyone? Anyone?[1]) I got the equation from Wikipedia. In general, Wikipedia is very good when it comes to mathematics. Anyway, if anyone can figure out the error (which is most likely mine), please let me know.

Also from the same Wikipedia page, this amazing graph of income disparity since World War II. My, what is that country with the long positive trend?

Income Disparity Since WWII

[1] From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

Interestingly, as far as I know, Ben Stein believes in supply side economics, otherwise known as, anyone? Anyone? Something D-O-O Economics? Voodoo economics.

Killing Device 13417670

Killing Device 13417670This is the serial number of a piece of debris from a drone strike in Pakistan that allegedly (but almost certainly) killed civilians. Your tax dollars at work. This was reported tonight on The Rachel Maddow Show. In general, I’m not fond of Maddow’s coverage of war because it is too America-centered and far too pro-military. It seems all the time that the reason not to be at war is the thousands of US military deaths rather than the hundreds of thousands of civilians we murder. But this story is worth watching:

Now that’s what I call winning hearts and minds!

I can only hope there is no God, because we will never be forgiven.

Antonin Scalia’s Mental Degradation

Antonin ScaliaDespite my reminder, I’m not sure what I wanted to write about. It may have something to do with the fact that I drank a beer and I am a light-weight in the Teetotaler’s Drinking Olympics. But I’m not so far gone to forget to mentioned that the word “teetotaler” has nothing to do with “tea” as is commonly believed. I know I wanted to talk about the conservative aversion to facts and science, which is the same as talking about conservatives at all.

Take my father, my favorite conservative. He is kind of anti-Christian (somewhat embarrassingly so). And he hates creationists. He just can’t believe that people don’t accept natural selection. He’s also very healthy—he will almost certainly outlive me. He hates cigarettes and the tobacco companies’ long lived claim that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. And yet, he thinks that global warming is a liberal conspiracy.

Recently, he told me that he didn’t know that Obama was born in the United States because he had never seen his birth certificate. I knew that I could get him a copy and that would bring the whole issue to a close. But I felt the need to push where exactly his head was at. So I asked him why he needed to see Obama’s birth certificate when he’d never felt the need to see any other president’s birth certificate. He stared at me blankly. Eventually I learned that he felt the need to see Obama’s birth certificate because other people (wackos, but still) had called it into question.

I have little doubt that this would not be an issue if my father were 30 years younger—he is now about to turn 80. I’ve seen a degradation in his thinking over the years, just I’ve seen one in my own. I don’t begrudge him that—it is just more proof that any god who created us was evil. But I do begrudge Antonin Scalia his mental degradation.

At 76, Scalia is no longer the intellect he once was. What’s more, as with most people, his degradation of intelligence has gone along with a huge rise in arrogance. There is nothing wrong with this in a regular person. But there is something wrong with this when you are a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States with a lifetime appointment.

Antonin Scalia’s opinions have become more bizzare and shrill over the past decade. It used to be that he would at least hide his partisan opinions under a veneer of originalist nonsense. But no more. And I think it is that his mind is gone, which makes him the perfect conservative.

Ben Bradlee and Integrity

Ben BradleeI’m posting this to remind myself of something I want to write later today. But it also happens to be great.

In an excellent column on Wednesday, Eric Alterman wrote Attack Dog Jennifer Rubin Muddies the Washington Post’s Reputation. He tells the story of the Washington Post and their search for a conservative blogger to apease the wacko conservatives in Washington DC. On its third (and worst) try, they have settled upon the repugnant Jennifer Rubin. Read the article, it’s worth the time—I promise.

Towards the end of the article, Alterman relates a story about the Washington Post when it was a great newspaper as opposed to today when it is referred to as “Fox on 15th.”

In his engaging portrait of Bradlee, Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman recounts an incident from 1969 in which two young Post reporters, Leonard Downie and Jim Hoagland, had worked for months on a story about racial discrimination in the Washington savings-and-loan industry. Titled “Mortgaging the Ghetto,” it was scheduled to run over a ten-day period. Just before that happened, a group representing the industry went to Bradlee’s office and told him that if the series ran, they would pull all their advertising from the paper—representing, even then, about $1 million in revenue. What did Bradlee tell Downie? “He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, ‘Just get it right, kid,’ and walked away.”

Integrity. Imagine that!

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Twisted Stretched

TwistedI was recently reminded of Jonathan Kellerman’s novel Twisted. It came up in a conversation about Ayn Rand’s novels. There are many things to dislike about them: bad plots and ridiculous characters come easily to mind. But without doubt the most annoying thing about her novels is how she puts her philosophy in the mouths and minds of her two-dimensional characters. John Galt’s 8 hour long speech is the most striking example of this.

I stopped reading Twisted about 100 pages in because his philosophy was seeping into his characters’ thoughts. It is rare that I just put down a book, but I was very angry. But after mentioning the book, it started to bug me that I didn’t know how the plot ended. The novel started fairly well with an unusual string of murders—a new kind of serial killer. So I set out to find the book and finish it.

Finding the book turned out to be harder than I had anticipated. It turns out that Kellerman has written a gazillion novels, most with similar titles: Rage, Deception, Therapy. And similar plots. What’s more, he has written so many books that people tend to subdivide them by the series: Alex Delaware is the main one, but there are now five in the Petra Connor series that Twisted is part of.

Eventually I did locate the book. And the first thing I noticed was Jonathan Kellerman’s picture on the back of the novel. As a general rule, I hate modern author photos. What ever happened to the somber and serious author? Steinbeck never smiled, but sometimes smirked. Today, they all have smiles as big as their books. This is probably because these writers are paid so well. But Kellerman takes it to new heights: he is clearly wearing make-up. No class.

I got down to the business of reading Twisted. Kellerman is a fast read. He needs to be. I have never read an author who spends so much time on trivial matters. It is as though he really only had a novella and decided to fluff it up into a novel. It isn’t enough for Isaac to find the note in the lunch his mother prepared for him. He has to pick up the lunch, ride on the bus, get hungry, look in the lunch, find the note, get off the bus, and get on a different one. I am not kidding. And it could have been worse, because it was, in other parts of the book. For example, we could have been treated to two pages of Isaac’s experience of eating his lunch.

It is a lot easier to start a novel than to end it. A great example of this is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. Its first part is very good, but the second part is weak and the third awful. It is all about expectations. Peter Høeg set expectations very high and he had no denouement equal to them. I’m sure that even at his best, Kellerman is nowhere near as good as Høeg. Still, he does set some high expectations at the beginning of Twisted.

Isaac has determined that for the previous 6 years, there has been a murder right around midnight on June 28 that all involved a depressed skull fracture. We don’t learn much about these murders once they are brought up on page 32. Then, on page 305 (of a 372 page novel), we learn the reason behind the pattern. And it is neither Isaac nor Petra who figures it out; it is a naughty librarian.

When reading a book like this, part of the fun is figuring out who done it. There was no way to do so in this novel. The author didn’t give you enough information until he gave all the information. What was the key? A 1897 book, “The Sins of the Mad Artist: an Account of the Horrible Deeds of Otto Retzak”—a psychiatric examination of a serial killer. And what was the connection? Retzak was an artist and the killer in Twisted was an artist. That’s it! That’s all the justification Kellerman provides.

What’s more, the plot depends upon Isaac having a gun at the end, so Kellerman provides him with one through a preposterous subplot. There are many other subplots. There is a mass murder that initially seems like the main plot. There is Isaac’s sex life. There is Petra’s sex life. And on and on. It is all filler, and in the end, the whole plot is as well.

I would hope that Kellerman used to be better than he is in this book. Twisted was his twentieth book. But it begs the question: why is he still writing? There is no art in this book. It is pure commerce that starts with the first word and ends with the made-up author’s picture on the back cover.


On page 302, Kellerman writes, “She threw back her head and laughed.” If people threw their heads back and laughed, this would still be a tired description. But I don’t ever remember anyone throwing their head back and laughing. The only reason people aren’t publicly laughing at Kellerman is that this sentence is late in the book in the middle of a lot of poor writing. Had it been the first sentence in the book, it would rightfully be placed in alongside “It was a dark and stormy night” as one of the worst lines of all time.

Speaking of which. Here are three opening sentences that I think are rather good:

These are the times that try men’s souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. —Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer

Daily Show Triples Down on “Fast and Furious”

The Daily ShowThe Daily Show often annoys me. Unlike The Colbert Report, Jon Stewart seems to have at least a couple of “conservative” comedians. Or his otherwise liberal comedians really have to strain when trying to produce comedy from a conservative standpoint. For various reasons, The Colbert Report feels no need to pander. (For one thing, many conservatives like the character in the same way many liked Archie Bunker.) As a result, even though the best episodes of The Daily Show are better, The Colbert Report is far more consistent.

Over the last week, Jon Stewart has done three segments on the BATF’s “Fast and Furious” program. He was clearly happy to have the opportunity to tout his cherished even-handed “just the facts ma’am” approach. The problem is that the “Fast and Furious” program was not what it was sold as. Fortune Magazine has an excellent article about it. In it, Katherine Eban tells how the program worked: suspected straw purchasers were allowed to offload their purchases to other buyers, but the weak Arizona state laws prevented (or at least dissuade) prosecutors from indicted the straw purchasers. This contrasts starkly with the cable news meme that the BATF sold guns to straw purchasers who sent them south where one was used to kill Brian Terry.

The Daily Show made the same mistake it often satirizes news agencies for: not waiting until all the facts are in. Here, they threw out the conservative meme that the “Fast and Furious” program was a conspiracy to gut the Second Amendment, but accepted that the rest of the story coming from the conservatives was right.

Those who get their news primarily from Jon Stewart have now had three opportunities to get the conservative myth about the “Fast and Furious” program. And barring the conservatives doing something even more ridiculous, it looks like that’s all Daily Show viewers will know. After the contempt vote in the House today, The Daily Show will have one more chance to set the record straight. My bet is that they’ll pass.

Little Con in Paper Moon

XXXI don’t tend to think of Peter Bogdanovich as a great filmmaker. But if a man makes a great film, that probably makes him a great filmmaker, right?

The truth is, I haven’t seen a lot of his films. I had always thought that The Last Picture Show was his first film. Instead, he made two really tantalizing pictures before it: Targets and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. I never especially liked Picture Show. The only thing I remember about it is really liking Cloris Leachman, especially when she slaps Timothy Bottoms—something I’d been wanting to see for years.

The only other Bogdanovich film I’ve seen is the film version of Noises Off, while hardly a great film could not be any better.

In my mind, Bogdanovich’s reputation as a filmmaker depends upon Paper Moon. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great deal to say about the film other than that you really ought to see it because it is smart, funny, and real.

One of the most memorable scenes from the movie is this one involving the ten dollar con:

This con is repeated by Addie (the little girl) at the fair.

I’m sure that this con is used to this day. It fools most people, especially if they are sidetracked. It goes like this: the con buys something cheap and pays with a five dollar bill. He adds a one dollar bill to the four just returned to him in change and asks for a five. Thus far, all is above board. But while the mark is still holding the five ones, the con gives her back the five and asks for a ten. He is now up five dollars. Done well, as it is in the film by Ryan O’Neal, it is really compelling.

Interestingly, according to Peter Bogdanovich, Ryan O’Neal never did understand the con. That might explain why he was able to do it so convincingly.

Foxy Grandpa and Walter Johnson

Walter JohnsonI am researching the great baseball pitcher Walter Johnson for a book I’m writing. This involves reading Henry W. Thomas’ Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train, which is the only really good biography of Johnson. The book relates some newspaper accounts of his early years that seem to amuse Thomas, but which are pretty typical of newspaper reporting then and now.

When Walter Johnson was 19, he went to play for a professional team in Weiser, Idaho. Even though Walter was immediately the star of the team, the Idaho Daily Statesman was only interested in the team’s catcher, a 53-year-old, 250-pound former ball player named E. Cornelius “Foxy Grandpa” Uhl. In his first game, Johnson lead the Weiser team to a 17-1 victory over the Boise Senators. Here is how the Statesman covered it:

It was all the fault of “Foxy Grandpa” [Uhl], who did the backstop act for the visitors. There was a time, so the old-times in the baseball world assert, when Foxy Grandpa used to play ball regularly. But some 15 years or so ago, he felt his bones stiffening and he concluded to stop the strenuous life. He moved out to sunny Idaho, and established himself on a farm near Weiser. Just as a reminder of the old times, Foxy Grandpa went to town last Sunday, and saw the game between Boise and Weiser. He was disgusted to think the Weiser team would be beat by such an aggregation as that from the capital. “Huh,” he said, “I am old and fat and grey-headed, but I can play ball enough yet to beat that bunch.” And Monday morning he began training, with the result that he was given a place behind the bat in yesterday’s game. He coached up young [Johnson] until the latter kept his head all the way through. Every time a Boise man got on a base—and there were very, very few—Foxy Grandpa would pull off some sort of an unexpected play and catch the runner napping.

Just to be clear, there are two new players on the Weiser team. One is the best pitcher to ever play in MLB[1], just one year before he does so. The other was a talented amateur in his day 20 years earlier, who was now old and fat. The Statesman chose to highlight the one who had the cool name.

I don’t blame that Stateman for this. For one thing, the article sounds as though it were written before the game. I’ve never known a journalist to do a major rewrite of a completed story. This sort of thing is very common today, especially among opinion columnists. They will write a whole article about how, say, the “Fast and Furious” program is an Obama administration conspiracy. A fact checker will read it and note that the program was started by the Bush administration. Instead of starting over, the writer will add a paragraph about how, yes, it started as a Bush program, but there were major (unstated) changes to the program that make the rest of the column valid. This is generally put at the end of the column so that most people won’t even read it. Hallelujah! One hour’s work saved!

Of course, there was more than just this at work at the Statesman. It continued its fascination with Foxy Grandpa to the end of Johnson’s 7-1 season. Part of this is still the laziness of the reporter. Try an experiment some time. Read all the articles by a particular reporter for a week. You will see that they recycle a lot of material. Few people even notice who writes news articles, so this works out pretty well. The main reason the Statesman continued to focus on Foxy Grandpa was something else, however.

There is a difference between a good story and the truth. Foxy Grandpa had two things going for him. First, there is his name. All things equal, you would rather write a story about a guy with such a cool name. Second, Foxy Grandpa was a local guy; Johnson was a ringer. So it is natural that you would try to push the local guy story. What’s more, there weren’t supposed to be ringers so it was bad for the game to introduce this kind of controversy. To write about Johnson would have required making up a back story for him. And that sounds like an awful lot of work.

Thomas is wrong to think that the reporter at the Statesman was foolish. He was just doing his job as a sports reporter with at least as much integrity as modern political reports do.

[1] Just to be clear, Satchel Paige was almost certainly better than Johnson. Unfortunately (evilly), he was only allowed to play in MLB very late in his career. And at that age (42), Paige was the better pitcher.

The Devil Wears Robes

scaliaScott Lemieux has an excellent article over at The American Prospect about yesterday’s ruling on Arizona’s SB 1070—the “Show me your Papers!” law. He spends most of the article talking about Scalia’s angry dissent. I don’t pay enough attention to the Supreme Court, but even I’ve noticed that Scalia has abandoned reason. Corey Robin has a whole chapter is The Reactionary Mind about how dangerous conservatism is in Scalia’s brilliant mind.

Lemieux explains that, shockingly, Scalia argues that Arizona is a sovereign with more or less equal rights to the Federal government. It is arguments like this that make the Court’s decision on the ACA so dangerous. Scalia has given up any pretense of even following his ridiculous “originalist” doctrine. As we saw in the hearing on the ACA, he brought up the conservative talk radio canard that if the government can force you to carry health insurance, it can force you to eat broccoli. Well, Scalia is still at it:

Amusingly, Scalia has just released a co-authored book criticizing many of his colleagues for not adhering to what he considers the only acceptable consideration that can go into legal reasoning—the text of the relevant document as it was construed at the time of its ratification. I had no idea that the original meaning of the Constitution and federal statutes could be best discerned by listening to The Michael Savage Show.

I often despair about the people I meet on the street. The fact that people like Scalia are in power (And of course people with his kind of personality are in power!) means we are lost—at least for the foreseeable future.

No More Orgasms for Nora

Nora EphronNora Ephron, writer and director of many successful “chick flicks,” died from pneumonia earlier today. That’s sad, she was only 71. But I have never thought much of her work. She kind of epitomized professionalism without depth. I rather liked some of her films in that “watch them in bed while you doze off” way. And I was impressed that she made You’ve Got Mail work as well as it did.

I suppose she will always be remembered for When Harry Met Sally—a film that I think really doesn’t work. How can anyone get to the end of this film and think it is a happy ending? The two are bound to break up and if they are very lucky, their friendship will survive. Or they will get married and end up hating each other. Regardless, it is not a happy ending.

But there is this scene:

Personally, I’ve always hated women who make a lot of noise in bed. It makes me feel vaguely violated and pandered to. “You don’t have to shout, I’m right here! What’s the problem? You got somewhere to go?” I will allow that I wasn’t always so wise.

Rest in peace, Nora; your time on this earth was not wasted. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Moonrise Kingdom Might Be Good

Wes Anderson has a film coming out called Moonrise Kingdom. This is not exactly big news:

What I find interesting is that this film looks good. I think that Anderson has a lot of talent, but the only film of his I’ve liked was The Royal Tenenbaums. I think there is something about his worldview that I just can’t relate to in any fundamental way. There is a kind of hatred for his characters that screams out. Somehow, in The Royal Tenenbaums it works, because all of the characters were so sad and disaffected. Still, Tenenbaums ought to be a great film, and it is not. I suspect that Anderson doesn’t have greatness in him. (This is not a slight; I wish I had his talent.)

Moonrise Kingdom could be another film worth spending some time with. Even at his worst, Anderson still produces films that are a good deal better than almost every other thing that comes to the multiplex.