Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mega Millions Breakeven?

For those interested in the numbers, the Mega Millions jackpot stands at $540 million. That’s the estimated nominal value of the annuity payout over 25 years (26 payments, the first one is immediate and the rest are at the end of the year). That annunity is calculated based on the current cash prize pool of $389 million.

If you won that cash prize, the federal government’s tax bite would be about $136 million, based on the top marginal tax rate of 35%. (And really, the top bracket is all that matters for this kind of money.) There could also be a state income tax, depending where you live. For those of you here with me in Illinois, that’s another 5% or about $19.5 million.

That leaves you with a mere $233 million after time-value-of-money and tax calculations. Given the 1 in 175,711,536 odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot, this means that each Mega Millions lottery ticket you purchase has a mathematically expected value of $1.33.

That’s right, for the first time I know of, the Mega Millions lottery is above the breakeven point. It could actually make some kind of financial sense to buy a ticket.

Of course, that’s only if you’re completely risk-blind, since the most likely outcome by far is loss of all your money. By comparison, synthetic CDO’s backed by residential mortgages were a much safer investment even during the crash.

If you have a handy $175 million in cash, it might make sense to use it to buy all 175,711,536 possible lottery tickets, which would guarantee you a $58 million profit.

Well, that’s not quite true. You see there’s one thing these calculations didn’t take into account, which is that someone else could also pick the winning number. I don’t know the odds of that happening — it depends on how many people buy tickets — but if even one other person wins, it will cut your prize in half to about $117 million, for a net loss of $59 million.

Because of this possibility — multiple winners splitting the prize pool — even at a jackpot of over half a billion dollars, the Mega Millions lottery still might not actually be at breakeven.

Krugman’s Silly Stand

Paul Krugman has a strange take on the Stand Your Ground law:

Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law, which lets you shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution, sounds crazy — and it is.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law may or may not be crazy — the devil is in the details — but Krugman’s description of it misses by a mile. The legal principle that lets you “shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution” is plain old self-defense.

Krugman tries to make this sound sinister by using the deceptive phrase “consider threatening” which implies that the standard for opening fire is weak and highly subjective. In general, the standard is stronger than that: It’s not self-defense unless a reasonable person in the same situation would fear for his life. Typically the defendent would have to prove that the person he shot had the means, opportunity, and intent to do great bodily harm. Also, the shooter has to have clean hands: You can’t generally initiate a confrontation with someone and then shoot them if they fight back.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, and there is a lot of state-to-state variation in the details of how these laws are written and interpreted. For all I know, Florida law may enact a frightenly broad definition of self-defense. But that’s not what Stand Your Ground laws are about:

The distinguishing factor of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which have been under renewed debate since George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, is a simple concept: The rule was that a person had the duty to retreat if he can safely do so rather than use force against an aggressor in proportion to the force being used against him. “Stand your ground” laws eliminated this duty.

You may or may not think that’s a good idea, but in either case, you’d be thinking more clearly than Krugman was.

Also, I don’t know enough about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to know if Krugman’s description is accurate, but Krugman’s link to Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) sounds like nonsense:

But where does the encouragement of vigilante (in)justice fit into this picture? In part it’s the same old story — the long-standing exploitation of public fears, especially those associated with racial tension, to promote a pro-corporate, pro-wealthy agenda. It’s neither an accident nor a surprise that the National Rifle Association and ALEC have been close allies all along.

I’m not saying that CCA doesn’t participate in ALEC — it does — but it’s hard to see why a private prison corporation would back a law that puts fewer people in prison.

Update: And then there’s this line:

And if there is any silver lining to Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is that it might finally place a spotlight on what ALEC is doing to our society — and our democracy.

So, Trayvon Martin was shot to death…but there’s still a “silver lining” because some semi-shady public/private thinktank will get bad publicity. Good to know.

Take Off the Hoodie!

I’m sure you’ve all heard that Geraldo Rivera has diagnosed the problem in the Trevon Martin shoooting: He wore a hoodie!

Geraldo’s case is, well, not entirely insane.

People do react to the symbols you wear. Ask any ex-hippie from the ’60’s if he was harassed about his long hair. That’s not an entirely crazy response to long hair either: Hippies wore long hair as a statement, and some people were offended by the statement. Then other people started wearing long hair just because it seemed cool. They weren’t trying to make a statement, but that didn’t keep them from being treated as if they were.

No one controls the meanings of symbols — not even the symbols of language, as the internet has taught us with its fast evolution of new words (“LULZ”) or old words with new meanings (“trolls”) — and no one controls the meaning of an article of clothing. Which can have unexpected consequences.

American businessmen have sometimes run into this problem in England. In the clip above, Geraldo is wearing a striped tie. His tie looks mostly grey, but these striped “rep” ties come in all colors, and a lot of businessmen in America like to wear them. So do a lot of businessmen in London, but in London, these ties mean something.

To English men, striped ties are symbols of their affiliations. The patterns are specific to each organization. There are ties for schools, ties for clubs, and ties for military regiments (which is probably where the tradition of such ties began). It sometimes rubs them the wrong way to meet with an American businessman who shows up wearing a tie that represents a school that he didn’t attend, or a Royal Army regiment he couldn’t possibly have served in.

I’ve heard that kids in America’s inner cities run into a similar problem with more tragic results when they unknowingly wear some element of gang colors — just because they thought it was cool — and then run into gang members who aren’t pleased to see their colors disrespected, or find themselves in the territory of a rival gang, when they’re not even in the gang.

In any case, just as the backwards-facing ball cap stopped being a gang symbol about the time parents started wearing them on outings with their kids, I don’t think the hoodie is really much of a sign of a miscreant any more. My wife and I are both middle-aged white folks, and we’ve been wearing hoodies for years.

On the other hand…

A few weeks ago. My wife and I were returning home on a Saturday evening when, over a period of about three minutes, we saw eleven Chicago Police cars go flying by with the full light show. Curious what was going on, I downloaded a police scanner app to my phone, and we listened in on the radio chatter.

As we listened for the next 90 minutes or so, we learned that it was a manhunt for some people who had shot (without success) at a police officer. The police had only a sparse description, but it was enough to catch at least one of them as we listened: Two males. Wearing hoodies.

And Now Some News From the Alabama Judicial Races

Imagine how awesome it must be to live in Alabama, where voters get to choose their next Chief Justice on the Alabama Supreme Court.

On the one hand, there’s the Republican candidate, Roy Moore. He had the job before, at least until a few years ago when he was kicked off the bench. He’s the judge who insisted on having a copy of the Ten Commandments displayed in his courtroom. When a federal court ordered it removed, he refused, and the Alabama Court of the Judiciary responded by removing him from the post.

Moore is also not too fond of teh gay:

To disfavor practicing homosexuals in custody matters is not invidious discrimination, nor is it legislating personal morality. On the contrary, disfavoring practicing homosexuals in custody matters promotes the general welfare of the people of our State in accordance with our law, which is the duty of its public servants… The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle… Homosexual behavior is a ground for divorce, an act of sexual misconduct punishable as a crime in Alabama, a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.

So that’s the Republican.

Then there’s his opponent, Democrat Harry Lyon, who favors mandatory random drug testing for all high school students, in public and private schools. Also, one day while discussing the illegal immigration problem, this came out of his mouth:

“My idea is to bring attention to the problem and let the Legislature [and courts] decide,” Lyon said. “I’d give them 90 days to make arrangements to make them leave and if after that, you’d have to go to public execution.”

He also gave an interview, partially transcribed here:

Tim Lennox: “‘It would only take five or 10 getting killed and broadcast on CNN for it to send a clear message not to fool, or not to step foot rather, in Alabama.’ Is that an accurate quote?”

Harry Lyon: “That’s an accurate quote. You have have to get tough on things like this. We’re losing 35 to 50 soldiers a day in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a tough proposal, but the legislature would have to approve it.”

Lyon: “If I were an illegal alien in Alabama and I read that in the newspaper, I wouldn’t wait around for laws to be passed, I would be going back to my homeland. They broke in here, they violated our laws. It’s no different than breaking into your house.”

And then somewhat later:

Lyon: “Now, I can assure you that proposal would fly right through the Alabama legislature is one of these illegal immigrants were to blow up the Galleria, OK?”

Lennox: “Well, but there’s no indication that any immigrants in Alabama, illegal or otherwise, have done anything along these lines–“

Lyon: “Well, there’s no indication about 9/11 until the buildings came down.”

Lennox: “I mean, are you suggesting that this is a real concern of yours?”

Lyon: “Absolutely. These people are not here legally, they are here illegally. What do they care about the laws of Alabama, or the United States? Slap in our face.”

He now claims he was being facetious (see the comments), but you can watch the actual interview (starts around 6:00, the second part comes around 19:50) and decide for yourself.

Roy Moore’s campaign page is here (warning: plays audio on load).

Harry Lyon’s criminal defense firm web site is here (although I wouldn’t recommend him if you’re worried about collateral immigration issues).

(Hat tip: Ed Brayton)

I Feel a Bit Funny About This

Today I did something that probably would have disappointed my father if he were still alive: I voted in the Republican primary.

My father was a yellow dog Democrat. Oh, there were a few Democrats he wouldn’t vote for — such as Tip O’Neill, whom he considered corrupt — but he would never have voted for a Republican. In his declining years, he hated George W. Bush most of all. Whenever I took him to the VA hospital, he always insisted I position his wheelchair in the waiting room so he wouldn’t have to see Bush’s portrait on the wall. I was glad he lived to see Bush depart the Whitehouse.

Of course, as regular readers could probably guess, I voted for Ron Paul. His positions on several issues differ from mine in some important ways, but he comes a lot closer to my views than anyone else in the Republican party, and I long ago lost all respect for the current occupant of the Whitehouse. Paul hasn’t got a chance in hell of winning, but I hope he’ll have more influence after this. More importantly, I hope his libertarian ideas of freedom will become more popular, and that future candidates will make more of an effort to win the votes of people who hold libertarian values.

I also just like messing with Republicans.

I don’t know if I could explain my vote in a way my dad would have understood. But I do know that the reason my dad hated George Bush so much is because he got our country into these painful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Barack Obama has turned out to be every bit the warmonger Bush was. I don’t think my dad would agree with many of Ron Paul’s other policies, but I’d like to think he’d be okay with me voting for the only candidate of either party who wants to end the wars.

Even if he is a Republican.

Statistical Quality Control Meets the NYPD

I once heard a story — I’m not sure where, but it seemed reputable at the time — about a Ford automotive plant where one of the assembly line workers realized, after some time assembling cars, that he had been doing it wrong. He told his boss, and Ford had to pull hundreds of cars from the delivery process and re-work them to fix his mistake, at a cost of over a million dollars.

So what did Ford do to this employee who made such a costly mistake? They gave him that month’s award for quality improvement. After all, he’d prevented a lot of defective cars from being sold.

Some people who’ve heard this story have called it idiotic to reward an employee who caused so much damage. What was Ford thinking? To understand, let me tell you another story. This one comes from W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis.

A company was looking at ways to improve quality at one of its factories, when they noticed something funny about the monthy defect reports. The monthly reports clustered around an average, as expected, but the deviations from that average were lopsided.

On the bottom edged, with fewer defects, they trailed off as expected — some months were a little better than average, a few were much better, and occasionally they had a really good month. But on the top edge, some months were worse than average, but never too bad. Above a certain cutoff point, there was noting. Not a single month had a defect rate higher than this cutoff number.

What really spelled it out for the quality team was that the monthly quality figures showed a spike of reports just below the cutoff. The defect rate tailed off away from the average and then spiked just before cutting off completely. In a quality reporting data set, this almost certainly means that someone is faking the numbers. When the real defect count was below average or not too high above average, they were getting the honest defect report. But whenvever the real defect count went above the cutoff, someone changed to to a number just below the cutoff, causing the numbers there to spike.

The quality team eventually figured out what was going on. Word had gotten around the factory that the company’s managment were planning to shut that factory down if its defect rate got above a certain number. (It’s not clear from the story if this the truth, but it’s what everyone at the factory believed.) So the quality assurance person responsible for that factory was hiding defects when the count got too high. From his point of view, he was saving thousands of jobs.

This is exactly what Ford was trying to prevent. By rewarding a worker who reported a massive screwup, they hoped to reassure everyone that they would not be punished for reporting their own mistakes or for giving management bad news. This is because one of the early lessons learned by statistical quality control experts is that you can’t punish people for giving you bad news if you want accurate news.

Which brings me to the New York Police Department, Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, and a recent investigation into how the CompStat program was run, as reported by the Village Voice:

For more than two years, Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded every roll call at the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn and captured his superiors urging police officers to do two things in order to manipulate the “stats” that the department is under pressure to produce: Officers were told to arrest people who were doing little more than standing on the street, but they were also encouraged to disregard actual victims of serious crimes who wanted to file reports.

Arresting bystanders made it look like the department was efficient, while artificially reducing the amount of serious crime made the commander look good.

The NYPD tried to stomp all over Schoolcraft, even having him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward, but under pressure from outside, they also ran their own investigation, and the Village Voice got a copy.

Investigators went beyond Schoolcraft’s specific claims and found many other instances in the 81st Precinct where crime reports were missing, had been misclassified, altered, rejected, or not even entered into the computer system that tracks crime reports.

These weren’t minor incidents. The victims included a Chinese-food delivery man robbed and beaten bloody, a man robbed at gunpoint, a cab driver robbed at gunpoint, a woman assaulted and beaten black and blue, a woman beaten by her spouse, and a woman burgled by men who forced their way into her apartment.

“When viewed in their totality, a disturbing pattern is prevalent and gives credence to the allegation that crimes are being improperly reported in order to avoid index-crime classifications,” investigators concluded. “This trend is indicative of a concerted effort to deliberately underreport crime in the 81st Precinct.”

Remember, as Radley Balko points out, this was at the same time as the NYPD was arresting people in bogus marijuana arrests in which officers stopped people and tricked them into pulling small amounts of marijuana out of their pockets. (Possessing small amounts of marijuana is not a crime in New York, but displaying it in public is.) This allowed officers to pad their arrest statistics with the kinds of crimes that are discovered and cleared at the same time.

John Eterno, a criminologist at Molloy College and a former NYPD captain, says that what was happening in the 81st Precinct is no isolated case. “The pressures on commanders are enormous, to make sure the crime numbers look good,” Eterno says. “This is a culture. This is happening in every precinct, every transit district, and every police housing service area. This culture has got to change.”

As for Mauriello, he’s no rogue commander, says Eterno, who has published a book about crime reporting with John Jay College professor Eli Silverman. “Mauriello is no different from any other commander,” he says. “This is just a microcosm of what is happening in the entire police department.”

Indeed, it is clear from Schoolcraft’s recordings that Mauriello was responding to pressure emanating from the Brooklyn North borough command and police headquarters for lower crime numbers and higher summons and stop-and-frisk numbers.

This is a standard recipe for disaster in quality control — and CompStat is at heart a statistical quality control program. Take a bunch of people doing a job, make them report quality control data, and put pressure on them to produce good numbers. If there is little oversight and lots of pressure, then good numbers is exactly what they’ll give you. Even if they’re not true.

The entire Village Voice article by Graham Rayman, “The NYPD Tapes Confirmed,” is filled with a lot more information and disturbing examples.

in Police

Marc Randazza – First Amendment Badass

I think I first heard of Marc Randazza when one of the other bloggers around here started calling him a “First Amendment Badass,” and that’s how I always think of him.

I didn’t really encounter him, however, until Jon Katz posted this bit about Randazza a few years ago. I took the opportunity to poke fun at Marc in the comments about the absurdist severity of his blog’s terms and conditions. I suspect that much of it is unenforecable, and he knows it, but it looks like he had fun writing it. For example, he’s got a wonderful blacklist of people who aren’t allowed to quote from his blog, including any member of the KKK, Stormfront, or the Nazi party, a bunch of politicians, the American Family Association, and a variety of named persons he finds annoying, include Joe the Plumber.

Marc responded in the comments, poking fun at me for some of the things in my blog’s Terms and Conditions. We then exchanged a few emails, in which he gave me a little free legal advice and offered to help me register the Windypundit trademark. (I haven’t actually taken him up on that, however, because one or another of us has always been busy. I should probably get around to it.)

Now, he might not like me suggesting that Marc Randazza will help you for free but, well, he just might. For example, Randazza and Ken-at-Popehat recently teamed up to give free help to a science blogger who was being hassled by a quack.

The fun thing is that Marc Randazza doesn’t just win cases, he wins them with attitude, as when the copyright trolls at Righthaven were demanding the domain names of everyone they claimed had infringed on their intellectual property. Not only did Randazza beat the crap out of them in court, but his actions forced them to auction off their own domain name.

In case you didn’t notice, today is kind of an informal let’s-celebrate-Marc Randazza day in the blogosphere. Other celebrants include:

So Good Luck, Marc Randazza. You’re my first call if I get sued for anything I write in my blog!

Our Stupid Debate on National Healthcare

I’ve held off writing anything about the whole contraceptives/Sandra Fluke/Rush Limbaugh mess because it’s a classic example of an important political debate turning trivial, stupid, and misogynistic. At the top level, we have the ongoing debate about how to reform the healthcare industry in this country. The current big and controversial plan is the Affordable Care Act, which is either going to save or destroy our medical industry, depending on what you believe.

The first step down toward stupidity is that under the Affordable Care Act every health insurance plan is supposed to include a lot of things that don’t belong under an insurance plan. As a general rule, it’s a bad idea to buy insurance that pays for things you can afford to pay for directly. Insurance is supposed to be a mechanism that protects you against disasters. This is why your car insurance protects you against the risk of major car repairs due to a crash, but not the risk of replacing worn-out tires or changing dirty oil. It’s also why it’s foolish to want health insurance to cover routine office visits and inexpensive medications. It’s cheaper to pay directly.

So why do health insurance plans cover these things? Two reasons, one good, the other bad. The good reason is that some of these things actually reduce your overall healthcare costs, so it’s to your insurance company’s advantage to cover you completely. This is efficient and good for everybody. The bad reason is that your medical expenses are not deductible from your taxes (unless they’re huge) but your employers are allowed to deduct the cost of buying you medical insurance from their taxes. Essentially, you are funnelling payments for your routine medical care through your employer to avoid paying income tax. It’s a complicated and wasteful response to tax policy.

The first step down toward trivia is the discussion over the requirement that all health insurance plans should provide contraceptive pills for women. If this was any other medication, it would hardly be worth discussing. In any serious attempt to reform healthcare, the criteria by which drugs are included in the formulary requirements for the standard insurance plans should be spelled out and applied to all medications. There shouldn’t be any need for Congress to decide these things on a pill-by-pill basis.

That’s where the Catholic Church enters the fray with their insistence that contraception is immoral, and that they shouldn’t have to pay for something they consider immoral. I don’t understand the Chuch’s position on contraception. I’ve heard explanations, but they always make it sound like the Catholic Church thinks that (1) people shouldn’t have sex for any reason other than to have a child, and (2) the way to stop them from doing that is to force them to have unwanted children if they do. Both of those points sound stupid to me, but I was raised as a Protestant, so I might be biased.

This all leads to a confrontation over whether or not religious freedom means the Church should receive special accomodations as a religious institution so that it can sidestep the requirement to fund contraception. Given that I’ve heard that contraception is one of those things which insurance companies like to include for free because it reduces their long-term costs, the Church may actually be paying more for the privilege of refusing to provided birth control to women, which seems stupid and more than a little misogynistic.

Then we get Sandra Fluke’s testimony before congress. It was largely a typical and unremarkable litany of the the difficulties women face from having to pay for birth control. I don’t think there’s any doubt that women’s lives would be better if they received free birth control, just as their lives would also be better if they received free iPads. But the money for either of those things has to come from someone, and I’m sure those other people’s lives would be better if they were allowed to keep the money. There’s an argument to be made here, but Fluke’s testimony was little more than a plea to be given someone else’s money. There was nothing unusual about this, as asking to be given someone else’s money accounts for a large fraction of the reasons people talk to members of Congress.

Then, for some reason. Rush Limbaugh got involved, which did nothing to reduce the stupidity of the discussion and really cranked up the meanness. He did some radio bits where he tried to portray Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” who wanted to be “paid to have sex.”

For some reason I don’t quite understand, out of all the outrageous things that Limbaugh says, this one really upset people, to the point that they are organizing boycotts against his sponsors. My co-blogger Ken tells me it’s because Limbaugh didn’t just call her names, he really laid into her during a lengthy series of degrading tirades.

Maybe. I haven’t heard Rush Limbaugh’s show for any length of time since 1994, but I distinctly remember he used to go into a lengthy series of tirades about everything — although mostly, it seemed, about what other people were saying about him — and I somehow doubt this was any different. Just bad luck on Rush’s part, I guess.

Some of Rush’s defenders responded by reminding everyone the Bill Maher called Sarah Palin some bad words. And thus the debate on national healthcare has degenerated into an argument over which side has meaner talk show personalities.

And then, as I was writing this, I found out that Gloria Allred is trying to encourage a Florida State Attorney to press criminal defamation charges against Rush Limbaugh for “falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity” because “his reference to Ms. Fluke as a ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ were baseless and false.” I think somebody needs to explain to Ms. Allred that there is a hell of a lot of territory between “slut” and “chaste.”