Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Respect for Knowledge(?)

While mentally preparing some ideas for this blog, I did a Google search for "respect for knowledge". Amazingly, the second item on the list referred to an  "(e)xcerpt from a talk with two leading comrades of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China" from 1977 (see complete item here). I know that Google's rankings change over time, but that they allegedly do give us some measure, however imperfect, of what the web-literate masses value.  But for the 2nd on the list to refer to a 35 year old discussion between two Chinese politicos? Doesn't anyone talk about "respect for knowledge" in our current American culture?

Maybe we don't talk about it. After all, the FIRST item up in my Google search was a link to a document (click here) that stated "(t)here is simply no respect or admiration for intelligence or knowledge. Bill Gates is often held up as an example of someone who is RICH and didn't even go to college!...as if the American Dream includes making huge sums of money with little or no effort."  I think Bill Gates is smart enough to realize that the key to his own success was luck. I believe he has even said so in interviews.

My thoughts for this blog began when I read yet another article about  the University of Florida re-signing its coach to a one year extension to an original 5 year contract that had been worth $13.75 million (see this). I then did a search for data on the University of Florida's general salary structure. I found a spreadsheet with information from 2008 (see this). Admittedly, it is not current, but it is from early in the football coach's contract.  It isn't pretty, if you are hoping to see that intelligence and education and knowledge are valued as much as football.

After this it hit me that our culture, through its media and through its politics, has clearly demonstrated that it just doesn't care about "being smart" or "getting smart".  Just estimate how much time your local TV stations dedicate to activities of the brain vs sports. 

The debates here in New York State about teacher evaluations and Tier VI give more evidence: there is more concern about being cheap than about being good.

I have finally realized that unless and until our society as a whole begins to value and respect knowledge and education and intelligence (and not just give it lip service) we will continue to lag economically, culturally, spiritually, and physically.

Over time I will have to rework and clarify my thoughts, but I have to start somewhere, so here it is.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tier VI?

Some people in our fair state, including Governor Cuomo, appear to be viewing a new pension tier as a step in alleviating the current budget crisis.  To aid in an analysis of pension costs in New York, it helps to be aware of how the pension is funded. As reported by the New York State Teachers' Retirement System (see this) the employer contribution rates over the past 28 years have varied from a high of 23.49% of salary to a low of 0.36% of salary. Here is a graph showing the years 1974-1975 through 2010-2011.

What many people do not realize is that during the years when this contribution rate was dropping, what seemed like "free money" appeared to district negotiators, and the result was a span of time when contract settlements were good from the teacher's perspective. Teacher's received good wage settlements, and the districts could make it happen without raising taxes. In essence, the districts agreed to pay the teachers more because the cost of paying the teachers was dropping. In addition, over this span of time the NYSTRS shifted from Tier I to Tier V, resulting in a less lucrative retirement options, Tier I having been the "gold mine." Later tiers also included mandatory employee contributions to the system. I, for one, was paying 3% of my salary at the time my employer was paying 0.36%.

During this time New York initiated several retirement incentives, acknowledging that one way to lessen costs was to jettison the older employees who, on average, were also the most highly paid. A major impact of these incentives was that they encouraged people to shift from the "public pool" of salary income to the "pension pool" of retirement income.  Those people, with the higher incomes, also had the higher pensions, and by retiring a bit early would tend to be on the pension payroll a bit longer.  What the state actually did was shift the burden to the retirement system.
I hope to expand on these comments in the coming days, but in the meantime I encourage all New Yorkers to seriously analyze a new Tier VI. Especially since every change that has been made over the years was made to "solve" funding problems. I guess, as that saying goes, a good solution is sometimes just in need of the right problem.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Numbers can be impossibly simple

While watching the evening news over the last week or two, I have become somewhat benumbed by the overwhelming use of polling and numbers in general in defending, opposing, or explaining away some political candidate or philosophy. Sometimes I get the feeling that the networks think they are broadcasting to a highly numerate and statistically literate population. Or do they?

I highly recommend that, if possible, you read The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Public Opinion Polls, by Russell D. Renka of Southeast Missouri State University. In the equivalent of a few pages he explains many of the concerns that people should have when reading or hearing about polls, and when being asked to participate in a poll.  If I were to attempt to do justice in this blog entry....

Speaking of numbers and numeracy, here is a very simple situation:
Take a whole number. If it is odd, triple it and add 1. If it is odd, divide by two. Repeat as needed.

The above rule will generate sequences of whole numbers. Some samples are here:
3, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1
5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1
7, 22, 11, 34, 17, 52, 26, 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2 1

These three samples all end with the number 1. If the rules continued, an unending sequence of 4, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1,.. would result.  So we stopped at 1.

Your task today is to identify a number to start this sequence so that the sequence never gets to 1: wherever it ends up, if it ends, it just isn't the number 1.

Good luck.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Self Checkout?

In July of 2011 it was reported (click here) that Albertson's LLC was getting rid of self check-out lanes in all its markets. Later in the year I heard that Big Y was going to do the same.  I hope they did it.

I wish stores in my area would do it. Yesterday we were grocery shopping at a local Pricechopper market. The store had at least 14 checkout isles. Two were designated as express lanes. One was open for full service. Then there was self check-out. That is all. With six full carts in line at the full service station, we decided to go to self-service. Never again.

During the time we were performing our chores checking out, the entire line of 6 shoppers cleared the full service line.  What with scanning glitches and the machine chirping "place the item in the bag" when that is exactly where it already was, both of which happened constantly, it took forever to check out. Even so, there had to be an employee monitoring the 4 self-service stations.  Even if only one person is at one station, the employee has to be there. I suspect whoever is covering that "look out" over the self-service stations finds that more nerve-wracking than taking care of a regular register.

While doing a bit of web searching on the issue of self check-out, I found a number of people who love it, since there are never any lines.  They are probably right, since people with a full cart are probably shunning the self-service options.  Perhaps stores should use them primarily as a choice among express lines.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I will not go through the self check-out again unless the store provides a solid discount on my bill.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

So Happy

Oh I am so happy. MSG and Time Warner settled their spat, so now I can finally watch FUSE TV and probably pay more for my cable. Oh am I happy!!!

The only way I can avoid dealing with the results of this settlement is to cancel my cable TV subscription.

Actually, when I get a computer and TV that do integrate well enough, and when the shows I watch are all available streaming, I can then cancel my cable.  But... my cable is from the same company that supplies my internet, and my phone... if I cancel one, the cost of the other two will go up.  They got me.

I could use a different provider. I could use my local phone company with their DSL for internet. But... with DSL the internet streaming will be minimal at best, lousy at worst... got me again.

Basically, I've got a situation that could be called a "Catch-22": the solution to the problem continues the problem.  Unless... I could give up TV and read more. I already read more than most, I suspect. I started logging my reading a while back, at Library Thing.  With my Kindle I can get hundreds of classics that have been on my must-read list for years.  There is also a Kindle lending library, and the e-books from the local library. All I need to make that all work is... broadband internet. Got me again.

I guess I'll just go play golf.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I just read through a web article called Sucker: How Cable Companies Make You Pay For Channels You'll Never Watch on http://www.alternet.org/ right after reading an article in our local paper about the "battle" being waged between MSG and Time Warner Cable. I made reference to this battle back on January 8, and during the time since then I have become less enchanted with how cable companies operate. The article "Sucker" did make a plea for “à la carte” programming, which was fairly well slammed in another article in The New Yorker of January 25, 2010. (Click here).

The consumer benefit of  “à la carte” programming is slammed as being potentially more like a "bait and switch" tactic in an article at www.itworld.com (Click here for the article).

However the MSG-Time Warner struggle ends up, I feel that one guarantee is that my wishes and the wishes of most customers will be only marginally considered. To them I am just one blip on a radar screen, and their only concern is how much the blips pay them as a group. One blip is irrelevant, or so their actions make it seem.

The prime method a consumer has in taking issue with a product is to boycott it. Yet, with cable TV and its lack of strong competition, a mass boycott is not likely to happen. Or is it?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Does Randomness Rule?

A few days ago I finished reading Leonard Mlodinow's “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives”.  Sunday I watched Phil Mickleson defeat the field, including Tiger Woods, in the ATT Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament. the juxtaposition of those two items did bring me to realize that my route on a golf course is quite frequently just a "drunkard's walk'. Not due to any booze, however: the stroll is largely due to the randomness that is evident whenever I swing a golf club.

The most fascinating aspect of Mlodinow's book is that he makes it clear that randomness is ever-present in what we may perceive as our ordered structured lives. He makes you realize that all the effort and energy that one puts into their strive for success largely consists of attempts to swing the odds in our favor. Subconsciously, we all probably know that. How many times do we say (out loud or to ourselves), "just give me a chance".

In September 2010 I had my first hole-in-one on a regulation golf course. Despite playing for over 40 years, it was my first ace.  Some people have several. There is a web site dedicated to hole-in-one records. (Click here.) One person is claimed to have 59.  No matter what you say about holes-in-one, they do not indicate skill. Where skill comes in is in increasing your chances of an ace. Actually getting one is pure random luck. Just consider all the factors that come into play after you hit the ball: wind, grass clippings on the green, bugs in the air or on the ground, moisture in the air or on the ground, general speed of the green, etc. Add those to the factors in play before you hit the ball, and you should quickly realize the impossibility of knowing, let alone controlling, all that would be necessary to ensure an ace.

Getting back to Pebble Beach:: I wish I could listen carefully enough to Nick Faldo, Jim Nantz, David Feherty, and all the other announcers, to determine if they even verbally acknowledge the randomness that is evident in the game of golf. They do mention a change in wind speed or direction on occasion. They even acknowledge when a ball lands in a divot. But do they give randomness its due?

Speaking of a ball landing in a divot: is there any golfer who tries to make that happen? That event alone gives life to the randomness theory of golf.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Long Time No Write

Just back from a 12 day Caribbean cruise out of Bayonne, NJ.

A couple quick comments:
1) If you get the chance to see a super bowl in a cruise ship theater, do it.
2) If you are ever on a ship that gets Norovirus, and goes into "sanitation mode", figure out why they have an attendant insistining that evrybody sanitize their hands before going into the dining room, but do nothing about ensuring that people have clean hands while leaving the restroom. Although I did not count, I am pretty sure that at least one-third of those I saw in restrooms left without washing their hands. To me that's disgusting.

More later.