Bing Has More Images!

Bing NoI swear, this is the last time I’m going to write about Bing. But they advertise so much, it is hard to keep it out of my mind. And one thing I noticed was that whenever they showed a screen shot in a commercial, the side that won (the Bing side, of course) had a lot more images. That got me thinking: maybe all Microsoft is doing is providing more images on their search pages. That would probably be enough to convince people. After all, I’ve already noted that Bing is a much improved search engine; it isn’t as good as Google, but it’s close. It seemed likely that “almost as good as Google” plus lots of images would make most people think the results were better.

So I took the Bing It On test. And unlike last time, I took it many times: between five and ten times. And all I did was choose whichever search results had the larger number of images. And the results were pretty clear: Bing won 80% of the time. Now obviously, I can’t say for sure that Bing is generally winning these head to head challenges simply because it includes more images. But one thing is certain: even the most charitable judge would have to admit that Bing is not distinctly better than Google. Thus, why would Microsoft risk embarrassment if it were measuring opinions of search results which are vague at best?

As it is, the test filters out a number of display attributes. It could have filtered out images as well. But that would have likely produced a tremendous number of null results. So I suspect they did a lot of research to figure out how they could beat Google in such a test, created pages that would appeal to people, and then put out the “challenge.” This is not about search results.

Afterword

Don’t get the impression that I’m a big fan of Google. I have major problems with the company. And I am forever looking for search engines that are better. Thus far, nothing is close. Microsoft has the resources to compete with Google. But rather than, say, increase their database to Google size, they try to play this game and convince people that they are a better search engine. I will dump Google in an instant if something better comes along. But Bing is not it. Not yet, anyway.

Killing Lincoln Again

Lincoln - Bullet to the Head

I saw this sign a couple of months ago at our local movie theater. At the time, I didn’t know what to think. Did the theater management think that it was was cute: putting Bullet in the Head right below Lincoln? Or were they just clueless? At this point, I lean toward “clueless.”

I’m curious if any of you have any ideas on the issue. But remember: this is Santa Rosa.

Bringing Up Howard

Howard HawksThat humanitarian award guy Irving Thalberg was born on this day in 1899. Voice actor Mel Blanc was born 1908. Benny Goodman was born a year later. Playwright Joseph Stein was born in 1912. Planet of the Apes director Franklin J. Schaffner was born in 1920.

Star Trek guest star, Michael J. Pollard is 74 today. Not Brian Piccolo, Gale Sayers is 70. Here is the maudlin theme from Brian’s Song, “The Hands of Time”:

Actor and playwright Stephen Tobolowsky is 62 today. Another Star Trek alumni Colm Meaney is 60. The Clash drummer Topper Headon is 58. (I wrote about him earlier today without even knowing.) And Moon director Duncan Jones is 42.

The day, however, belongs to director Howard Hawks who was born on this day in 1896. He made so many great films, it is hard to list. Here are just a few: Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But he also directed one of my very favorite movies—one that I often watch to cheer myself up: His Girl Friday. For all I know, he was a horrible human being. But barring some genocide I don’t know about, his work makes up for everything. That sounds bad. I don’t know anything bad about him. Really.

Here is the trailer of His Girl Friday:

Happy birthday Howard Hawks!

Another Republican, Obama?

James ComeyI have had major problems with the nomination of James Comey to head the FBI. But now I’m not sure. You see, today Glenn Greewald wrote, “James Comey is far from the worst choice to lead the FBI.” That’s probably about equivalent to most people saying, “James Comey is the best person we could realistically get.”

Of course, Greenwald wrote that after an article blasting Comey for two very troubling actions while working for George W. Bush. The biggest one is that Comey was the guy who signed off on the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program. You probably remember that. It was big among liberals at the time. I was outraged. Of course, the Obama administration has been no better. In fact, the Obama administration followed the Bush lead by giving all of the phone companies immunity. Well, it was Comey who signed off on that, claiming that it was legal.

Also of concern: Comey signed off on the use of torture. Of course, he was against it and repeatedly said so. But in the end, he did it. That doesn’t exactly speak to the mainstream narrative that he’s a guy who stands up for principle. I’m sure you know the story of him fighting with Alberto Gonzales over something that was so illegal even Comey disagreed with it. If not, here is Rachel Maddow last night gushing about it:

But my problem with James Comey doesn’t have to do with any of this. I figure Comey probably isn’t a bad choice for the job. But just like with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “Is no Democrat good enough?” I understand that as often as not these days, Republican bureaucrats are more liberal than Democrats. But I don’t like the optics. And I especially don’t like them with regards to security and military positions. It makes it look like Republicans really are better at these things than Democrats. In a fundamental sense, this means that Obama really doesn’t care about his party. And that’s a bad thing at a time when Republican politicians care only about theirs.

Real Corporate Tax Reform

E. F. SchumacherAh, corporate tax reform! Pundits all around love to talk about it. Those on the right love to shout about how we have the highest corporate income tax in the advanced world. (They never tell you that we have one of the lowest effective corporate income taxes in the advanced world, but we’ll leave that for now.) Liberals love to opine about how we could replace the corporate income tax with something that was fairer. But it gives me a snorgasm or worse! Whenever I hear the words “tax reform” put together, I think, “Lower taxes on the rich and raise them on the poor.”

There is a fundamental problem with corporate taxes. Corporations have lots of money that they can spend (Tax free!) on accountants and lawyers who work to find ways to avoid paying taxes. It has always seemed an unsolvable problem. But not all the really smart people are working to reduce taxes on corporations. Some time ago, the great economist E.F. Schumacher came up with a great idea. Dean Baker explains:

Suppose we give companies the option of giving the government an amount of non-voting stock (I would suggest something like a 30 percent stake) which would be treated exactly like the company’s common stock, except without the voting privileges. This means that if the company distributes profits to the shareholders through dividends, then the government’s shares get the exact same dividend. If it buys back 10 percent of its shares, then it also buys back 10 percent of the government’s shares.

This is brilliant. There is no way for the corporation (and by extension it owners), to avoid paying taxes. Anything the corporation could do to avoid showing profits would anger the share holders. If they are going to get paid off, there is no way to avoid also paying the government. That’s the kind of system that we need. If you think about it, it is a way to approach corporate taxes the same way we approach regular employee taxes: when payment is made.

Of course, I can imagine what conservatives would say about this. “This is a government takeover of business!” But it isn’t. These would be non-voting shares. It is just a mechanism that allows for the efficient collection of taxes. And that’s the real reason that conservatives would hate it: because big businesses would hate it. Note that the current corporate tax system is worst for small companies, who generally do pay the 35% even while the average rate paid (because big companies often pay little or nothing) is only 12%. But there is perhaps even a bigger problem with the plan: its simplicity. Simplicity puts accountants and lawyers out of work. And to some extent, it puts politicians out of work as well.

As Baker says, “It is something for the rest of us to think about.” But this is very frustrating. There are a lot of really good policy ideas that are perpetually off the table. We can’t have anything that would upset the status quo. And so we are stuck with a government that represents the cutting edge of two centuries ago.

Sardoodledom

Victorien SardouLadies and gentlemen: Victorien Sardou. He was a very popular playwright of the end of the 19th century in France. I have not read any of his plays, but as far as I can determine, he was good at his craft. But I can well see why other playwrights might not like him. He understood the art form perhaps a little too well. And that can get in the way. I often feel that way about Steven Spielberg, who understands the art of film making so well that he produces a lot of really effective dreck. Sardou was know for his big dramatic climaxes. He wrote them first. Then he figured out what conflict would lead to that. Then he wrote the play. It isn’t the most organic approach to narrative art, but it is used to one extent or the another by all practitioners.

One playwright who didn’t like Sardou was George Bernard Shaw. He wrote of Sardou’s play La Tosca, “Such an empty-headed ghost of a shocker… Oh, if it had but been an opera!” That’s not a compliment. And indeed, the plot of the play is melodrama at its worst. And within 3 years of its premiere, Giacomo Puccini wrote an opera based upon it, Tosca.

Later, while reviewing another of Sardou’s gems, Marcelle, Shaw coined a new word, “Sardoodledom.” Most people will react to this word as this young spelling bee contestant did:

I’ve found two competing definitions for the word. The first is from Merriam-Webster (it is behind a pay wall):

Sardoodledom: mechanically contrived plot structure and stereotyped or unrealistic characterization in drama.

That does seem to be what Shaw was getting at. But Wikipedia provides a broader and probably more useful definition:

Sardoodledom: well-made works of drama that have trivial, insignificant, or morally objectionable plots.

I find the “morally objectionable” aspect of this particularly interesting. Sardou focused most of his attacks on the middle classes. Maybe that is to be expected, he was himself middle class. But I don’t get much of a sense that he ever went after the rich. Maybe that’s just self-preservation. But later in his career, he was at liberty. Regardless, I don’t think that was the problem that Shaw had with Sardou. But you’ve got to hate a man a lot to coin a term to describe his work that is as silly as “sardoodledum.”

H/T: Sarah Kliff

Family Guy Rush Limbaugh Whitewash

Brian - Family GuyI recently came upon a 2010 episode of Family Guy, “Excellence in Broadcasting.” It tells the story of Brian (the dog) and his transformation from a liberal atheist to a Rush Limbaugh sycophant. What most offended me at first was the whitewash of Limbaugh himself, who does the voices for his own guest starring character. I’m really tired of this kind of thing. Conservatives are unacceptably offensive when talking to their fans. But the moment they get into the mainstream, they pretend that they aren’t really the bigots that their fans love. That’s totally understandable. People like Limbaugh live in a strata of the country where people may be economically conservative, but where sexism, racism, and homophobia (all linchpins of Limbaugh’s appeal) are unacceptable. What is not understandable is why liberals like Jon Stewart and Seth MacFarlane allow conservatives to run their cons.

But after thinking about it, the worst thing about this episode was not Rush Limbaugh. It was Brian. The denouement was that Limbaugh explained to Brian that he wasn’t really a conservative. Brian, like all liberals, has to be for the underdog and so when Obama got in power, Brian felt compelled to become a member of the now minority party Republicans. This is too offensive regardless, but coming from a “liberal” show it is shocking.

The theme here is one that Rush Limbaugh pushes on his show every day: conservatives think but liberals just feel; conservatives have reasons for what they believe but liberals are just touchy-feely; conservatives are fact based and liberals pretend the world is something that it is not. And indeed, in the episode, Brian is all of these things. He apparently dislikes Rush Limbaugh but has never heard his show or read any of Limbaugh’s books. He just somehow has the feeling that Limbaugh is bad, I guess because of all the bad portrayals of Limbaugh on TV. (Like this one on Family Guy.)

Clearly, Brian has no intellectual mooring. So even if the Republican Party is still controlled by a bunch of really wealthy and powerful people, Brian has no problem thinking that they are the underdogs. What’s more, we know from other episodes that Brian is quite liberal. Obama is far more conservative than he is. So the natural liberal position for Brian to take would be to start screaming that Obama is too conservative. In other words, Brian should be like me.

It’s always a mistake for shows like Family Guy to try to do something that is politically even handed. It ends up whitewashing people who really are vile. It denigrates one of their most appealing characters. And it makes a farce out of the actual political conflict discussed.

End the Filibuster Now!

FilibusterThere is a story that is probably apocrypal that The Clash drummer Topper Headon told Joe Strummer, that if he (Headon) weren’t in the band, he might be able to kick his heroin addiction. So Strummer fired him.[1] The point of the story is something along the lines that Headon was asking for some bitter but necessary medicine. Although I doubt that was the right medicine for the situation, I think it is often the case that good behavior is encouraged by a lack of options. For example, being ugly makes monogamy much easier.

I bring this up because of the Senate filibuster. It will eventually be eliminated. And it must be. This has nothing to do with partisanship. The Senators simply cannot control themselves when it comes to this minority tool. Just look at this graph:

Filibuster by Party

There is a psychology to this. When Republicans are in the minority, they push up the use of the filibuster. When the Democrats are in the minority, they tend to continue filibustering at the previous Republican level. This will not end. But even more important, I believe the Republicans have now taken the filibuster to the point where it cannot get worse without effectively shutting down the Senate. And that means that the moment the Republicans are in the majority, they will end the filibuster.

I’ve argued this before. But what I think is important now is that the Senate has become post-norm. It has become all about rules. The filibuster is from a time when norms ruled—when a handshake agreement meant something. But now, we have a Republican Party that will do anything the rules allow. And we have a Democratic Party that accepts whatever the Republicans do as the new normal. There is no way that this gets wound back up.

For the good of both parties, we must remove the filibuster temptation. It is like a drug. And that is especially true of the Republicans. What’s more, it impedes their efforts at reform. As long as they can get their way with dwindling minorities (this goes along with gerrymandering and voter-ID laws), they won’t worry about appealing to the majority. We must end the filibuster.

Afterword

Norm Ornstein wrote an article over at National Journal, Parties Prepare to Reverse Rhetoric on ‘Nuclear Option’ for Judicial Nominees. He argues that the best thing would be for the Republicans to return to regular order. I agree! My problem is that this kind of pie-in-the-sky talk only delays the inevitable. The Senate cannot handle the power of the filibuster. At some later time when normal order has returned, then the Senate can look at using the filibuster. But now it is all bad.


[1] This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Headon was a member of the band through its most popular period. Financially, he was set up for life. On the other hand, Strummer was kind of an asshole, and it does sound like him.

Reinhart and Rogoff Whac-A-Mole Game

Reinhart and RogoffBack in April, I reported on the best work yet regarding the famous Reinhart and Rogoff (R&R) paper that purported to prove that government debt over 90% was catastrophic for economic growth. The work was done by the brilliant young economist Arindrajit Dube. He took the R&R data for high government debt periods, and found that economic growth was slow before the high debt periods, not after. In other words, slow growth causes high debt, not the other way around.

The reason all of this is big news and the reason that many of us are so angry is that R&R have been engaged in a kind of intellectual Whac-A-Mole game. Their paper was very careful not to claim causation: they never said that high debt caused slow growth. This in itself is a problem, I think. If there is no causation, who cares? Especially given the paucity of high debt events. In addition, when politicians all over the world used their research as though it proved causation, R&R said nothing. But R&R did have the intellectual cover (which they have used time and again) that their research, while uninteresting, was not incorrect—at least until the spreadsheet error was discovered. But then Ken Rogoff went all around talking up the causation that they had absolutely no proof of. When anyone points this out, R&R respond that they never said there was causation. Hit Rogoff here, R&R pop up over there. It is very frustrating.

Matt Yglesias puts it well:

They had an empirical result that did not shed any evidence whatsoever on the direction of causation. They knew that it shed no evidence whatsoever on the direction of causation, because the paper is carefully worded and says that. But instead of following the paper up with subsequent research that was designed to shed light on the direction of causation, Rogoff in particular started writing op-eds and testifying before congress and doing high-profile speaking gigs that relied on a causal interpretation of his research that he knew perfectly well was not supported by the research.

Now, two researchers at the University of Michigan, Miles Kimball and Yichuan Wang has redone Arindrajit Dube’s work a bit more carefully. While Dube did find a little causation, Kimball and Wang present a very provocative conclusion, After Crunching Reinhart and Rogoff’s Data, We’ve Concluded That High Debt Does Not Slow Growth. Of course, they do hedge a bit. Miles Kimball and Brad DeLong have been going around on this issue and they both seem to think that there must be some effect of debt on growth, but Kimball’s point is that the data simply don’t show it. I suspect that is because there really is an effect but it is so small that it is wiped out by the noise in the data.

Of course none of this will matter. The Whac-A-Mole game will continue. I doubt that R&R will even respond to this. Everyone knows, after all, that they never said there was causation. Except when they did. But it wasn’t in the paper. So they are not only innocent, they are right. There really should be a way to impeach academics. (Note: I wouldn’t impeach Reinhart who hasn’t behaved too bad. But Ken Rogoff: no professorship for him!)

Afterword

I was bothered that Kimball and Wang did not mention Dube’s work. I know that they haven’t published a real paper as of yet. But the introduction should go something like this: R&R did research that implied forward causality; Dube did research showing the causation was the other way; here is a more rigorous analysis.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply