28 June 2006

Land of the free?

Living in the UK means that I am often forced to listen to people making fun of the United States and its all-powerfull, all-controlling, evil leader, George Bush. I don't even really notice it now, and long gone are the days when it used to get my hackles up. One misperception that does annoy me, however, is the idea that the President controls all policy in the United States. People seem to think Congress is a rubber stamp, let alone the fact that many of the policies they find objectionable are implementedon the State level. So over time I've become somewhat inured to the complaints people make. I even had a conversation along these lines with mharder when I saw him in Seattle. We joked about how the President doesn't have much of an effect on our daily lives, and we mostly go on living the same way regardless of who's in office.

Bearing that in mind I'd like to describe a recent experience that left me angrier than I've been in a very long time; possibly angrier than I've ever been with respect to a political or governmental issue.

My friend Pam came with me on my recent trip to Seattle. She's a visiting scholar from Australia and she was asked to fill in at the last minute along with me (her advisor decided to stay home in Perth). Over the course of the trip she was treated to so much harassment from the TSA that I was literally steaming when we finally exited the country into Vancouver (our stopover for the return flight).

It began right when we arrived in Seattle. I joked that I got to jump in the fast (US Citizen) lane while she had to stand in line with the terrorists. After I had cleared immigration and was still waiting a half hour later I started to wonder what was happening. I looked around the baggage claim area but couldn't see her. Once they finished all of the citizen's line and started taking the dregs from the visitor's line I was really confused because she was toward the front half of that line. When they shut out the lights in the immigration desks and all went for a smoke break I was really worried. I assumed I must've missed her and so I left the baggage area to look for what I expected would be an arrival lounge. Unfortunately I found nothing but a dingy train station without any signage to speak of. I got on the first train since there seemed nothing else to do and debarked at the stop marked "MAIN TERMINAL" as it was the mostly likely candidate for escaping the airport.

After an hour and a half of waiting (and trying to get my useless American mobile phone to send a message to Pam's Australian number) she finally came up the escalator, looking tired, but, remarkably, without complaint. Evidently she had been given a big red card in her passport at the immigration line and shunted off to the interrogation room. Inside one woman was weeping because she was refused admittance and couldn't get in touch with her American husband. Another Canadian gentleman was standing numbly while a TSA agent stamped "NOT ADMITTED" approximately 25 times on his entry form, at which point the two agents started discussing how they were going to keep him in custody until he was deported. I later joked that these were probably hired actors designed to frighten people like Pam into admitting she was a member of Al Qaeda (and now the CIA is wiretapping my blog). After a lengthy bout of questioning about where she was coming from, what she was doing in the country and with whom she was travelling she was sent to another agent to be asked the same questions all over again. Thus was she not only interrogated needlessly, but also in a horrendously inefficient and bureaucratic fashion. Of course when she was at last allowed to leave the country, the TSA agent said, "Enjoy your visit to the United States!"

The way in, however, was a prelude for the way out. We collected our boarding passes for the Seattle-Vancouver flight and headed to the security checkpoint which had a very long line. Whlie waiting in line we discovered Pam's boarding card had a huge blue sticker on it. "Uh oh, I said, this means you're getting the latex glove treatment." I continued to explain how the TSA prints "SSSS" (for Super Super SUPER Security) on boarding passes of passengers flagged for hand search and additional harassment. I also explained how pointless it is, since any well informed terrorist will be aware of this fact (just like you, dear readers) and get out of line if he gets the SSSS of Doom. As I was telling this story we saw that Pam indeed had the SSSS in addition to her flaming blue sticker.

I handed my boarding pass to the attendant who glanced at it and waved me through. Pam handed her hers and she immediately asked, "Are you travelling with anyone?"

"Him," said Pam.

"Grrrrreat," thought I.

"JOHN, LANE 1!" screamed the TSA agent, sending us both over there. Little did I know that this would be great news for me since I did not have an SSSS boarding pass and would be able to shoot right through the Lane 1 checkpoint and actually skip most of the line. Pam on the other hand got immediately pulled into the extra check area. I picked up her laptop on the conveyor belt (I've heard too many stories of people leaving stuff on those things and having it stolen).

"Is that hers?" asked an agent incredulously.

"Yeah it is," said I.

"YOU CANNOT TOUCH HER PROPERTY!" the woman belligerently informed me. Once I put Pam's laptop down she yelled, "Scan this one again, Tom. HE touched it." Meanwhile I of course collected all my belongings and entered the gate area unmolested. Pam was then subjected to a hand search of all her luggage, the bomb-detecting cotton swabbing and what I'm sure was a lovely hand-search from the troll of a matron.

After I had again had to wait half an hour for Pam to catch up to me we had a question about her Visa waiver stub. Essentially they leave a bit of paper stapled in your passport when you enter and then you surrender it when you leave (under penalty of incarceration, as noted on the waiver stub). Nobody had yet collected Pam's so we wanted to make sure someone would do so. We showed it to one of the TSA guys (Pam said, "Let's not show it to anyone who looks likely to arrest me.") and he looked at it like he had never seen it before in his life. Let me remind you that every single foreign national travelling on the Visa Waiver program (that is, every tourist from every friendly nation on earth) has one of these. He gave us directions to some other staff person who could help.

Some of you may realize (I sincerely hope you all do) that every non-US or Canadian citizen entering the country gets fingerprinted and photographed upon arrival. You may also realize that we're the only Western country in the world to treat visitors so disgracefully. I didn't really get it before, but think about it: what is the only circumstance anyone gets fingerprinted in the USA? When suspected of a crime. It's an act that is incredibly freighted with suspiscion of guilt. In essence we're saying to everyone who visits, "We're just going to assume you're a criminal because it's easier that way."

Now, when we find this Homeland Security staffer she's standing in front of what looks like an ATM. She tells us that the HS Department is introducing a plan to take fingerprints and photos when you leave the country too. Unfortunately however, the machine is broken. "If you have time," she says, "you can find another machine in Terminal D." Pam, not wanting to rock the boat, agrees to find the other machine. At this point I'm ready to explode, and Pam, of all people, apologises to me for taking so long.

"It's not your fault, it's my incompetent government that's the problem!"

We find the other machine, with another HS officer who explains how to use it and that it's to make sure nobody has stolen or copied her passport and to help the government track who's in the country and who's left. He also tells us the gate agent should take the visa waiver stub (as it turns out the gate agent looked puzzled when Pam gave her the stub, so she may yet be arrested on her next visit to our fair nation).

Literally that morning, after spending a lovely few hours on the University of Washington campus, I had remarked on how much I missed being in America. I couldn't explain exactly what were the things that I missed, but even in Seattle, a city I had never set foot in before, I felt at home. I felt glad to be back. While sitting near the gate, waiting to board our flight, for the first time in my life I wanted to leave the USA and not come back. I'm proud of being American, despite the ridicule I get for it here. I have an abiding love of the principles upon which my nation was founded and through which it prospered. For the first time ever that was overwhelmed by disgust at how badly misappropriated those principles and that public trust had become.

Remember that all this had happened to a citizen of Australia, probably our closest remaining ally aside from Canada. If we treat our best friends like this we'll soon find that nobody is left standing beside us. Indeed, Congress is moving forward full steam with pointless strict border controls with Canada. The longest unprotected border in the world, a border across which there is more trade than any other on Earth, and soon to be another border where the hassle to cross is so great that it will become as good as a wall.

Every American should be forced to sit through this treatment to see how degrading and, worst of all, utterly pointless it is. How much money are we spending offending and turning away people who want to come to our country and contribute to it? How many people from less friendly countries like China are no longer bothering to apply for Visas to come study in the United States because they are consistently rejected for bogus security reasons? How long will it take before we've shut ourselves off from the world and stagnate into a second rate country? There are real threats to American security, and instead of facing them we're throwing billions of dollars away providing bad solutions to a problem that was relevant five years ago.

Thankfully after all this we entered Canada, which was so incredibly efficient that we made it off our plane, through immigration and into the international departure lounge using only 7 minutes of our 3 hour layover. This gave me plenty of time to get drunk in the Vancouver airport and forget how pissed off I was.

26 June 2006

The Jetlag Blues

Last day in Seattle was really nice. I met mharder and his fiancée in the hotel lobby and we walked to a pretty swanky restaurant for dinner. I was glad to be back in a country where I could safely order a martini and expect something drinkable in return. Putz alums will be happy to know that Harder still likes umbrella drinks, as he ordered a drink called "Shakespeare in Love". For dinner I had some tasty mussels and a piece of halibut that was good enough for Jehovah. After dinner we walked down to the hip Pioneer Square district and checked out Marcus' Martini Heaven. It was a little empty on a Thursday (read: we were the only customers when we arrived) but they made a good dirty Bombay martini (mharder went with something called "The Key Lime"). I have to say that knowing a local or two makes all the difference when visiting somewhere.

I had a few hours to kill on Friday morning, so I took a cab up to the UW campus to check out my possible future surroundings. I haven't spent much time on traditional American University campuses (since MIT is so integrated with Cambridge and the lines between town and University at Oxford are blurred to near nonexistence). I do like the feel, though of having a big sprawling campus that's distinct from the city around it. I also like the idea of being affiliated with a University with some big time sports teams (I won't even bother to explain how MIT lacked these...). The weather was goregous that morning and it was a really nice walk around the campus.

Unfortunately it was nearly impossible to get a taxi in that part of the city, which was a bit worrisome; even after calling a cab it took them half an hour to arrive. Despite having the most inept cabbie ever (he kept yielding at bizarre moments, like going straight halfway through a green light and then abruptly stopping when someone was waiting to turn left across our lane) we made it to the airport in plenty of time. Now I'm hoping to be able to overcome jetlag enough this week to get some work done before flying back across the Atlantic to Boston on Saturday.

23 June 2006

Pacific Northwest

Well, I've finished all my lectures here in Seattle. This afternoon I checked out Pike Place Market, which is basically just a market, but it does have a pretty cool vibe: lots of street musicians, tons of random hippies etc. It was also pretty awesome to check out Puget Sound and to see Mount Rainier looming imposingly in the distance. I just checked out the whirlpool and steam room here at the Grand Hyatt. I'd never partaken of a steam room before, but it's pretty much what it sounds like: hot room, pumped full of steam. Clears out the sinuses well. I'm gonna meet mharder for dinner in a couple of hours, and then I have a few hours tomorrow morning to hang out before flying back to the UK. All told, not a bad city.

17 June 2006

Music to my ears

Headline from boston.com red sox page: "Sox put Clement on DL, call up Kapler."

That's a skraight 5 spot for Theophilus.

16 June 2006


Anybody know anyone cool or anything sweet to do in the Pacific Northwest?

14 June 2006

More Hardball Stats

In response to a RZA comment on the previous entry I have to strenuously disagree that this is a large sample size to make small distinctions. If we split Papi's numbers, for instance by odd innings vs even innings, we get almost as big a difference as the early vs. late split: 0.299 odd vs 0.281 even. I'm not saying Papi isn't clutch, I'm saying that the statistical evidence isn't overwhelming.


I'd like to introduce a new feature here at foonyor.com, the Scottcast. Now you too can listen to a podcast of Scooter's latest rants and raves! You can syndicate the podcast with the "Subscribe to my podcast" link over below my bløgroll.

13 June 2006

Stats and Baseball

After reading this excellent post at Yanksfan vs Sox fan (via 2GD) on the statistical analysis of whether Big Papi is a "clutch" hitter, I can't help but chime in as both a statistician and baseball fan. More than any other sport, baseball fans and pundits alike love to troll through huge quanitites of numerical data to try to find interesting trends and observations about their favourite players.

Unfortunately nearly all such analyses are statistically bogus. In this case, the question is whether David Ortiz is a great "clutch" hitter, that is, he steps up his game in situations that are most important. The author then proceeds to parade a lot of numbers to argue his point. He makes the common mistake of presenting a trend (e.g. someone performs better on Wednesdays vs. Thursdays) without asking whether the data at hand are enough to prove that that trend is significant. In statistics it's all about sample size — whether you have sufficient observations to draw confident conclusions from your data.

If, for instance, I told you that it rained today, a Tuesday and was sunny yesterday, a Monday. Nobody would believe me if I then turned around and said, "It rains way more often on Tuesday than Monday!" In small samples, of course, random chance creates perceived patterns (such as rain correlating with Tuesday) where none actually exist.

In baseball we fool ourselves into thinking that we have enough observations to make all kinds of statements in which we have no confidence. In this specific case of clutch hitting, the author makes a whole series of claims with fairly small sample sizes, but lets look at his best case: batting average with runners on base vs. batting average with the bases empty. Ortiz has had 1861 total Red Sox at bats, distributed pretty evenly between these two scenarios (947 bases empty, 914 with one or more runners). He has had 265 hits in the first case (for a 0.280 average) and 280 hits in the second case (for a 0.306). So he's got more hits in fewer tries, thus the higher average with runners on. Regardless of whether this is a good measure of clutch performance (which is an entirely separate argument) we can ask whether these numbers actually mean something or whether they could've arisen by chance. Does Ortiz hit better with runners on?

In short, these numbers can't answer the question. When performing a simple test of statistical signficance, these values could easily have arisen by chance. We could easily have seen this discrepancy by dividing his at bats into those on where an odd number of fans were in the stadium vs. those where an even number of fans were watching. And this really makes sense when you think about it carefully. Even with nearly 2000 observations we're trying to gain insight into a very tiny difference: 0.280 vs 0.306! In baseball the difference between a guy with a career 280 average and a guy with a 306 is pretty big, but in almost any other circumstance we'd round both of these to an even 30% and call it a day. You would need tens of thousands of observations to demonstrate that Ortiz hits better with men on base with even modest confidence.

Keep in mind that this is actually a pretty big sample size for baseball. Many times people quote some 1-for-10 and say that Pitcher X "owns" Hitter Y. This is an even bigger joke, since a guy hitting .300 is likely to have only one hit in any given ten at-bats! I certainly hope that the guys actually working for ball clubs have a better handle on this than the average pundit.

12 June 2006


So even given the number of options we frivolously wasted at SALT we still have enough nukes to kill everybody in the Czech Republic, right? RIGHT?

11 June 2006


Here's a question for Americans watching the World Cup. Does the TV coverage go straight through each half without commercial breaks? That's standard practice here, but I would imagine it to be anathema to ABC, ESPN and the like.

La Copa Mondial

Most of my readers will be vaguely aware that the World Cup started yesterday, but it's hard to explain how huge a deal it is here in England. Everybody has English flags flying from their car antennas and out their windows. Stores are full of cheesy product tie-ins and the streets were empty for today's first England game of the cup. The World Cup really is the only truly worldwide sporting event. Football's the only sport that has strong professional followings in every inhabited continent and the estimated cumulative TV audience for the month is 33 billion. In what other event could Tunisia, Ecuador, Italy, Iran and more all send quality teams out for?

The first day of the Cup (Friday) featured a game between hosts Germany and Costa Rica and one between Poland and Ecuador. Blanca, Matt and I first went to the Royal Standard to check them out, but it was already full of drunken Brits for the 5PM kickoff. We found a table with a view of one of the screens, but there was a guy there in an England t-shirt blowing nonstop on a kazoo — I don't know what he was on about since it was Germany vs. Costa Rica. We decided to just go to Matt's house to make some dinner and watch the games without the hooligans. We fired up a pretty daecent chicken tikka masala and watched the Germans dismantle the Ticos and then the upset Ecuador victory over Poland.

Today a few people from work and some other hangers on got together for a little five-on-five match this morning before the games started. I haven't actually played football since I was about 12, but it was a good time. Some of the other guys were really good, but it was enough of a free-for-all that I managed to have fun and occasionally execute a good pass in the midst of being burned about a million times by Jordana's husband, Tom. It's been really hot here lately, so we were all pretty sweaty and gross by the time we finished and broke up to go home and shower before meeting at the White Horse for the 2PM England - Paraguay match. When I got there the place was outrageously packed (think Boston bars during the ALCS). I looked around but couldn't find my friends and I wasn't about to stand up in a hot, sweaty bar with a crappy view of the TV to watch a sporting event that I don't care that much about.

I went outside and pulled my keys out of my pocket as I walked toward my bike. At this point a dude and his girlfriend in an Audi in the parking lot yelled, "Hey are you leaving" (in the same tone of voice you'd ask somebody who was heading out of the Cask & Flagon in the 1st inning of a Sox game).

Somewhat confused (why would they really care?) I said, "Yeah."

"Where are you parked?" the girl asked.

I pointed sheepishly to my bike, "Sorry mate."

I hopped on to pedal home and check out the game in my house when suddenly the bar exploded in a roar that nearly knocked me off my bike. Clearly England had scored almost immediately after the game began. I got home and it turned out that the Brits had scored on a deflected Beckham corner kick in the 3rd minute. I made some lunch and watched the first half, but it was fairly boring after that first score. I was tired from running around all morning, so I took a nap during the second half, when the Paraguayans evidently played well but couldn't score.

I was rejuvenated after my nap, so I started making dinner and put on the Sweden - Trinidad & Tobago game. Of all the first round matches this one had the longest odds. T&T were playing in the Cup for the first time and were the smallest country ever to qualify. Sweden is a football powerhouse even in Europe and some pundits had predicted a 6-0 domination. As the first half developed Sweden dominated playing time and the ball was nearly always in the Islanders' half of the field. The Swedes made attack after attack, but just couldn't score. The T&T keeper (who was put in the lineup two minutes before kickoff due to a warmup injury to the starting keeper) made a couple of really awesome saves. At half time it was still nil-nil and the commentators were talking about how impressive it was that the Islanders had made it this far without allowing a goal. They pretty much all thought they'd run out of steam soon, though, and couldn't keep off the Swedish attack.

The second half started with T&T defender Avery John getting a red card for his second reckless tackle and being sent off. Now with the underdogs playing a man short it seemed inevitable that the Swedes would pull off a win. While T&T was indeed pinned back for nearly the whole of the second half, they played some amazing defense and killed time to deny the Swedes a chance to score. On one of the few occasions when T&T attacked their striker fired a beautiful shot from a tough angle that thumped straight into the crossbar. Six inches lower and this could've been a historic upset.

Earlier this week I was listening to some NPR coverage of the Cup and the English guy they were interviewing was trying to explain how a 0-0 draw can be an incredibly interesting match. Of course the American host of the show was making fun of him, but it's really amazing how exciting it can be. The first round of the Cup is round-robin within your group and you get 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw. Even a draw for T&T was thus a huge victory and their fans (way, way outnumbered by Swedes) were going absolutely nuts toward the end of the game, willing their boys to hold off Sweden. I couldn't help but get excited at each Swedish chance that they foiled to clear the ball out and try to catch their breath.

When the game ended in a zero-zero tie, I was shocked at how satisfying a sport-viewing experience it had been. I couldn't muster the endurance to watch the Argentina - Ivory Coast match, but I'm pretty psyched for the next month (although I'll actually be back in America for the final - natch). I will have to go out and watch some of the games in pubs though, to fully experience the hooliganism. USA takes on the Czech Republic on Monday - get jacked and pumped.

09 June 2006

Viva Voce

My friend Matt had his Viva (oral thesis defense) on Wednesday. He was in there from 9:30 until 12:30, which isn't too bad (sometimes they go on for five hours). After passing with minor revisions (about as good a result as one can get) we had some champagne in the office, including accidentally firing the cork into the ceiling, and then went to the Butchers' Arms for lunch. After that a few of us headed down to the river for a punt (it was a gorgeous day). Matt's pictured at left, maneuvering us through some trees.

BbmwebWe gave Matt a t-shirt with some funny quotations he's said on the back and a doctored movie poster on the front (see left). Not perfect, but I think my photoshop skills (The GIMP actually) did pretty well. After the punting Matt's advisor took him and the other people in his group out to what I hear was a very nice dinner. We met up later on at some random Canadian Society drinks night (I'm willing to tolerate some Canadians in exchange for £1 drinks).

After all that a few people decided to go dancing at Jongleurs, one of the scuzzy Oxford clubs. We were all dressed like scrubs so when we got there I asked if they had a dress code.

Mattdrunk"No, it's a student night," said the bouncer. Which was good news and bad news. We could go in but if was even more packed than usual with 18 year olds. It was also insanely hot inside since the English have yet to discover air conditioning. Still, we had a pretty big crew of about 10 people, which made for a quality time. Matt certainly relaxed by the end of the night (see left). The music was really weird, though.;  at first it was standard hip-hop dance tunes, but then they started playing lots of bizarre choices. They first deviated with a little old school House of Pain and then swung into utterly inappropriate music for a club, including "Sweet Home Alabama", which I backed and "Mmm Bop", which I did not.

02 June 2006

We breathe it out. Plants breathe it in.

Wow. The Competitive Enterprise Institute brings you these two awesome TV ads explaining all about how CO2 isn't pollution, it's life.


Very interesting article in Rolling Stone about evidence of voter fraud in the 2004 Presidential election, especially in Ohio. The piece convincingly shows that at the very least the Secretary of State of Ohio, Kenneth Blackwell, went to great lengths to impede voters from casting their ballots and at the worst there was actual ballot tampering and vote falsification. For one thing Blackwell was simultaneously the Chief Elections Officer of Ohio (as part of his duties as Secretary of State) and co-chair of the Committee to Re-elect George Bush in Ohio, which doesn't seem to be a situation amenable to a fairly carried-out election.

The article discusses three distinct happenings in the 2004 election: the difference between exit polls and final vote tallies in several states, the measures taken in Ohio to deny the right to vote to many voters and the shadowy evidence of actual vote tampering in 12 rural Ohio counties. The first part is most interesting to me, because exit polls have generally been refined to the point where they predict final outcome in most elections with a margin of error of a percent or so. In several cases in 2004, however, the predictions and final results were wildly off. The author of the article tries to tie this into the subsequent allegations of GOP vote tampering, but I'm not entirely convinced. For one thing, some of the discrepant counties were swapped in the opposite direction (the final tallies were more heavily Kerry favored than the exit polls predicted). Even though these counties were the significant minority of the discrepancies, one would expect zero such cases if all the error were due to GOP interference. So I'm curious as a statisitician why the exit polls were so far off.

As for the other accusations, they're quite a bit more depressing. There's substantial evidence that Blackwell flew in the face of Federal and State election law to raise illegal barriers to voting. The author makes the case that many of these activities were also targeted to urban areas with mostly minorities (i.e. Democratic strongholds). This evidence is less convincing but certainly not unreasonable. The final discussion of out-and-out altering of ballots is even more worrisome, but not yet fully proven. Still, it is pretty depressing that we can't seem to manage a fair and free election for the most powerful office in the country.