Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Trump Presidency and a Glimmer of Hope

When I realized that Trump had been elected as the 45th President of the United States, I fell into a deep despair.  I wasn't ashamed of being an American, but I was angry, sad and frightened for America. Our ignorance is appalling, and I'm not saying this simply because my candidate lost. Trump won this election because the majority of the electorate believed all of his lies, despite the abundance of unbiased fact-checking that was available to them. They just didn't care enough to read.

What happens next?  Pundits like Bill Maher believe that this is just the beginning of a "slow right-wing coup" in which Trump, once he gains control, will not give it up.  A year ago such a statement would have been laughable.  After last night, though, anything is possible.  At this point you're probably wondering "Where the hell is that glimmer of hope?" Read on.

There are two characteristics that epitomize Donald Trump: his huge ego and his skill at lying.  He is such a good liar that he received over 80% of the white evangelical vote, despite the fact that he has been married three times, has admitted to committing adultery, has been caught on audiotape making incredibly misogynistic statements, and has been accused of sexual assault by at least 12 women, one of whom has accused him of raping her in 1994 when she was 13.  Why "in God's name" would evangelicals support this man?  Because he promised that, if elected, he would appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade.  That's it.  That's all it took to lock up the white evangelical vote.  But will Trump actually follow through on this promise?  This video from 1999 would suggest otherwise.  In it, Trump characterizes himself as "pro-choice in every respect" and states that he is not even in favor of banning partial birth abortions.  It's impossible to know what Trump truly believes but the "glimmer of hope" is that he will not follow through on most of the promises he made in order to win the election. No wall, no Muslim ban, no repeal of Obamacare, no repeal of Roe v. Wade.

And then there's the Trump ego.  Everything with Trump has to be the best. The best steaks.  The best University.  The best hotel.  The second "glimmer of hope" is that he truly wants to go down in history as the best President of the United States.  If that's the case, he can't preside over a 4-year train wreck and then leave saying "I was the greatest President ever!" Trump may be the master at controlling our malleable media but he can't control history.  Even he knows that.  So for Trump to truly be the greatest President he is going to have to do a complete about face, work harder than he ever has in his life and lead this country to the "greatness" he has promised.  And, to be honest, with Republican majorities in the both the Senate and the House and with a favorable Supreme Court in the near future, Trump will be in a much better position to do this than Hillary would have been had she been elected last night.

As I said, though, this is only a glimmer of hope, one that will keep me functioning for the next few days.  If Trump appoints Chris Christie as his Attorney General, Rudy Giuliani as head of the FBI, and Sara Palin for Secretary of the Interior, then all is lost. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why I'm Special

Everybody's special, right?  Isn't that what your Mom always told you?  Finding out what makes you special, though, isn't always easy.  I'm proud to say that I finally figured it out.  

Today is my birthday, June 22.  (Thanks for the card!)  As a kid I always equated my birthday with the first day of summer, otherwise known as the summer solstice.  Whenever I mentioned this to other people, though, I was almost always told, "No way kid, the summer solstice is on June 21st", and that would be the end of that.  I didn't care enough to dig into it further. 

A couple of days ago, though, I read that this year's summer solstice (in the northern hemisphere) was on June 20th.  That was two days ago!  How could I have been that wrong as a kid?  There's no way I was off by two full days.  It was time to go down the Internet rat-hole and investigate.  

It was a quick investigation.  My first stop was, of course, Wikipedia, which authoritatively stated that, "depending on the shift of the calendar, the summer solstice occurs some time between June 20 and June 22 in the northern hemisphere".  It also displayed the table shown on the right which provided the dates of the summer solstice between 2010 and 2020. If you click on that graphic, though, you'll notice that June 22 does not appear anywhere.  What gives?  At this point, Wikipedia does a fairly poor job of explaining, citing simply the "leap shifting in the Gregorian Calendar" as the cause.  In a nutshell this refers to the fact that the Gregorian Calendar is slightly out of sync with the Astronomical Calendar, requiring corrective measures like leap-days and leap-seconds.  There's undoubtedly a much more academic discussion of this phenomenon somewhere on the web but I'm not interested in searching for it and you sure as hell aren't interested in reading it.

But here is something that is interesting and what makes me so special.  This website contains a table showing the exact date of the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere from the years 1600 to 2400.  In that 800 year span, it occurs on June 22 exactly 87 times.  And -- you guessed it -- one of those times was in 1955, the year I was born.  Yes!!  I win the game!!   I was born on the summer solstice!!!  

One other thing.  Since my birth, the summer solstice has occurred on June 22 only five times, the most recent being in 1975.  Amazingly, it won't happen again until the year 2203!  So from a slightly skewed viewpoint, I'm not 61 today.  From a Gregorian/Astronomical Congruence viewpoint, I'm only 5, and I won't be 6 for a very, very long time.  Naturally, birthday cards and presents will be graciously accepted on a Gregorian basis.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"Alright boys, let's get two!"

Just when I was pretty much convinced that Facebook was nothing more than collection of pet pictures, baby photos and fabricated news, a guy that I barely knew posted a photo of my 1967 Little League team, Western Printing.  I'm the little kid with the huge baseball glove in the bottom row, second from the left.  This simple photo has caused me more introspection than I would have thought possible.

Why do I have absolutely no recollection of this photo?  According to the guy who posted it on Facebook, it was taken after Western Printing had just won the 1967 Poughkeepsie Little League Championship!  If so, this photo almost certainly would have found its way into the sports section of the Poughkeepsie Journal.  My mother would have clipped it out and preserved it somewhere.  As a 12-year old kid who loved watching the Yankees, this should have been a huge moment for me, but I have nothing but a blank slate.

While many of the faces in the picture look vaguely familiar most of their names have been lost to the fog of time, with one notable exception.  The big kid with glasses standing behind me was named Sam Forman.  His father, also named Sam Forman, was our manager.  He's the guy standing in the back.  Sam Jr. was one of our pitchers (I think) and our first baseman.  He wasn't much of an athlete at the time and slow as hell, but the ball would go a long way whenever he made contact.  I wonder how he turned out?  A 12-year old kid can change a lot.

Sam Sr. was a nice, easy going man who was generous with his time.  He was probably one of those guys who watched a lot of baseball but never really played it.  During practice, his big thing was to hit grounders to us while saying, "Alright, boys, let's get two!".  For anyone not familiar with that phrase, it means to scoop up the grounder and throw the ball to the guy covering second who would then relay it to first for an imaginary double play.  It didn't matter that I was a right fielder, he always wanted me to "get two".

Why do I have such a big smile on my face in that photo?  I hated playing Little League.  I was a tiny kid, probably about 4'8" and 75 pounds at the time.  There are kids smaller than me in this photo but they were probably 9 or 10 years old.  I was 12 years old, the oldest you could possibly be and still play Little League.  I was a pretty fast runner but I couldn't hit worth a damn, probably because I was deathly afraid of the ball.  Pitchers like Scotty Coleman and Skippy Allen could throw a baseball at least 80 mph.  Scotty inspired much more fear than Skippy, though, because he had much less control of where his pitches were going (think Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham").  Every time I stepped into the batter's box I had visions of getting hit in the head and ending up like poor Tony Conigliaro of the 1967 Boston Red Sox. As I recall I got about 3 or 4 hits all season with about 30 strikeouts. 

So, based on all of this, why is it that I still have that old baseball glove?  As an adult, I played in softball leagues every now and then, but I never used that glove.  My kids played T-Ball and baseball, but they never used that glove.  My grandkids will probably never use that glove. My daughter is a pack rat and I'm always trying to get her to throw stuff away, but as I sit here typing this blog I know that I'll never throw away that glove.  Why am I so attached to it?

Although I hated playing Little League, I loved going up the street to Putnam Park and shagging fly balls with my brother, Tom.  It has to be one of my best childhood memories.  One of us would stand in the batter's box, toss a ball in the air and hit it as far as he could.  The other would play the outfield and try to catch the ball before it hit the ground.  After 10-15 fly balls, we'd switch places and continue hitting fly balls until it was time to go home.  I suppose I could say that I'm hanging onto the glove in memory of my brother, but that wouldn't be true.  I had already been hanging onto it for over 25 years when Tom died in 1993, so I must be hanging onto it because of the memory of shagging those fly balls.  I've forgotten a lot of my childhood (and my adult life, for that matter) but the memory of tracking down a fly ball while running full speed up that hill in left-center field is still as clear as a bell.

Putnam Park, now Bartlett Park

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Tree Falling"

After almost 40 years of research I now have definitive proof that a Supreme Being exists, that it communicates with its creations in a purely random manner, and that it has an excellent sense of humor.  All was revealed to me a few weeks ago when I finally began to convert my old home movies from VHS to digital.

It's a project that has been gnawing at me ever since I retired in 2012.  According to the experts, VHS tapes can degrade by as much as 20% within 10 years due to magnetic decay alone – and that's if they are stored properly.  Improperly stored tapes can become brittle and totally unusable within 20 years.  My VHS tapes were inexpensive Scotch T-120's, over 30 years old, and haphazardly stored in a dusty bookcase.  Lord knew what condition they were in, and since He wasn't talking to me (yet), I decided to find out on my own.

I began by purchasing a VHS capture and conversion product from Amazon called Diamond One-Touch.  It promised "easy to use capture by the touch of one button" and Windows 10 support. Neither claim was true.  Fortunately (or was it Divine Providence?) I still had an old Windows 7 computer that had been gathering dust for the last 10 months.  I cleaned it off and powered it up, making damn sure to keep it off the Internet.  After installing the conversion software and hooking up my 1990's-era Zenith VHS player to my computer (using the cable shown above) I managed to figure out how to capture a video despite the valiant effort of the instruction manual to prevent me.  Certain religions would no doubt claim that getting this far was a full-fledged Miracle, but much more definitive proof of the Divine Hand was awaiting. 

After testing everything out with a videocassette containing nothing of significance, I bit the bullet and tested the conversion process on one of my precious home movies.  Before beginning, though, I fast-forwarded the tape for a few minutes to make sure that there were no mechanical problems and that the tape moved freely within the VCR.  I then stopped the tape and captured this video.  I'll give you a few minutes to look at it.

From a production standpoint, it's a pretty horrible video.  It's grainy and shaky and there are instances where the audio is almost unintelligible.  But, by sheer luck, it captured an iconic phrase that is a Mullen Family touchstone, the origin of which I had completely forgotten.  While I knew that Dave (while under a bit of stress) had randomly called something "tree falling", I had no idea that it was his bike and that we had the event on film.  While this incredibly chance discovery caused chills to run down my back, it still didn't smack of Divine Intervention.  What happened next, though, rolled the stone away from the tomb.

Like any responsible parent in this day and age, I uploaded this video to YouTube.  As part of the upload process, YouTube selected a random frame from the video and assigned it as the video's thumbnail photo. The frame that was "randomly" selected is shown at the top of this post. Yep.  It's Dave at the exact nanosecond that he begins to say "Tree Falling"!  Since the video is 2 minutes and 39 seconds long and was captured at 30 frames per second, the odds of that particular frame being selected by chance are astronomical.*  

There is only one reasonable explanation.  The Supreme Being saw this video, rolled on the clouds laughing (ROCL), and felt compelled to give it a stamp of celestial approval.  The seemingly "random" thumbnail photo that He assigned to this video is as clear to me as that burning bush was to Moses. 

*  Well, maybe not astronomical; more like one chance out of five thousand.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Powerball: Your Patriotic Duty!

I’ve always detested the lottery.  So after last week's national frenzy over the $1.4 billion Powerball drawing, I decided to write a scathing exposé of the lottery system: how it's a hidden tax on the poor, an incredibly inefficient way of funding important social programs and a source of false hope to millions.  I expected this blog post to write itself.  After all, I'm "that guy", the person that never joins office lottery pools.  I always decline saying, "No thanks. When you guys win, I'll be that guy, the guy featured in the news who could have been a millionaire but refused to join the office pool".  Sometimes I’d explain why I thought the lottery was a national disgrace but, for the most part, I let them have their fun.  I ended up getting a T-shirt in the bargain.

After a week of trying to write this post, though, it was clear that I was getting nowhere.  Try as I might, I couldn't put together a convincing argument for why the lottery is a national disgrace.  

It’s Gambling!
"Ya got trouble ... right here in River City! 
With a capital 'T' that rhymes with 'G' that stands for Gambling!"

I've known for some time that I was born with a less than full complement of the male genetic code.  I rarely spit, try not to swear, can't grow a decent beard, don't smoke cigars, enjoy reading "Pride and Prejudice", and hate every movie written or directed by Seth Rogan.  I also dislike gambling, but I'm hardly an anti-gambling crusader.  In fact, I've done a bit of social gambling myself; things like “50-50” raffles,  Super Bowl pools, the March Madness bracket, and duck-racing on Cranbury Day.  I always admired my brother's skill at taking other people’s money (legally) while playing poker, and my own mother used to play bingo at the church on Friday nights!  The fact that the lottery is a form of gambling hardly qualifies it as a national disgrace.
It's a sucker's bet!

The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are approximately 1 in 292 million, which translates into 0.0000003%. You can improve your odds by buying more tickets, but even if you bought 3 million tickets your chances of winning would still be under 1%.

At a casino, the odds are with the house regardless of the game.  Craps, a game played by simply rolling a pair of dice, gives you one of the best chances to win.  One way to win is to roll a natural (a 7 or an 11) on your first roll.  The odds of doing that are 8 out of 36 (22%).  The odds of doing that twice in a row are (8/36 x 8/36) or about 5%.  The odds of doing that ten times in a row is equal to about 0.00003%, or about 1 chance out of 3.4 million.  Probably no one in the history of casino gambling has ever done this, but it is still almost 100 times easier to do than win the Powerball jackpot.

For Powerball to be a sucker's bet, though, the astronomical odds against winning would have to be hidden (or at least non-evident), and that's not the case.  Last October the lottery system openly publicized the fact that they were making the Powerball jackpot even harder to win by increasing the number of balls from 59 to 69, thereby decreasing the odds of winning the jackpot from 1 in 175,223,510 to 1 in 292,201,338. As expected, the media had a field day with this, announcing that it is more likely to be struck by lightning twice while drowning than to win the Powerball jackpot.  It should be clear to everyone that the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are pretty stupendous.

It’s an inefficient way to raise money!

It’s difficult if not impossible to defend lotteries as an efficient way of raising funds.  As shown in the chart below, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, in 2011, state lotteries generated over $18 billion in profits.  That sounds pretty good until you realize that it required $54 billion of ticket sales to do it.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Here’s how NBC News broke down state lottery sales in 2012: 
"About 72 cents of every state lottery dollar goes somewhere else. About 60 cents goes to the winner. Some goes to run the lottery. A piece of it goes to a private, Italian-based conglomerate that operates lotteries and slot machines in 50 countries around the world.  Depending on what state you live in, that leaves as little as 11 cents left to pay for the government services these games were created to help."  
And in September of 2015, recently reported the following statistics regarding New Jersey lottery ticket sales: 
Ticket sales have topped $3 billion for the first time, but New Jersey’s lottery expects to send only $930 million back to the state to help fund social service programs — the lowest rate of return in nearly four decades.”
While these statistics are true, they don't pack that big of a punch.  The lotteries may be an inefficient method of raising money but, without them, important social programs throughout the nation would have had $18 billion less funding in 2011.

It's a tax on the poor!

Whenever I have railed against the lottery, this has been my go-to argument: 
"Rather than raise everyone’s taxes to pay for needed social and infrastructure projects, the federal and state governments have opted instead for lotteries in which participation by the poor is much higher than the rich.  This has the effect of making the lottery a de facto tax on the poor."
For years, that was the conclusion by almost every study on lotteries.  Below are three representative examples:

While these analyses were undeniably true at the time, a landmark study in 2004 by Emily Oster of Harvard University examined the "regressivity" of the lotteries; that is, whether they place a heavier tax burden on the poor than on the wealthy. Her conclusion [with a phrase emphasized by me] indicated that, while lotteries were definitely regressive, the situation could change:
"The regressivity of lotteries has become an increasingly important issue in the U.S. as the number of state-run lotteries has increased. Despite this, we still know relatively little about the nature of lottery regressivity.  I use a new dataset on Powerball lotto sales to analyze how regressivity varies with jackpot size within a single lotto game.  I find that these large-stakes games are significantly less regressive at higher jackpot sizes.  An out-of-sample extrapolation of these results suggests that the lottery becomes progressive at a jackpot around $806 million. This suggests that concerns about regressivity might be allayed by concentrating lotto games to produce higher average jackpots."
At the time of this study, a jackpot of $806 million was almost unthinkable.  But thanks to the Multi-State Lottery Association (MUSL), jackpots of this size or larger will almost certainly become the new norm.  MUSL was created to manage national lottery games like Powerball and Mega Millions.  It was MUSL that, probably unwittingly, followed Emily Oster’s advice by decreasing the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot, thereby causing jackpot sizes to increase.  Make no mistake about it: MUSL was not motivated by concern for the poor!  They were motivated by pure capitalism, as reported in the USA Today on July 6, 2015:   
"Robert Williams, executive director of the [New York] state Gaming Commission, said the new odds are scheduled to launch nationwide on Oct. 4 for the Oct. 7 Powerball drawing.  "The proposed rule is intended to increase the odds of winning any prize while decreasing the odds to win the jackpot," Williams said.  The move is aimed at boosting jackpots as sales have slumped since 2013, the last huge payout.  Powerball sales declined nationally by 19% last year because there was no huge jackpot."
The impact of this change was everything that MUSL could have hoped for, and then some.  The chart below shows Powerball ticket sales going through the roof as the recent Powerball jackpot grew in size, culminating in record ticket purchases immediately prior to the drawing on January 13. 
With this many tickets being sold it is clear that an incredibly high percentage of Americans are now buying Powerball tickets.  If Emily Oster's model is correct, Powerball is no longer a regressive tax on the poor.  It could even be progressive.   

So what does this all mean?
I still dislike gambling and I still think lotteries are an incredibly inefficient way of raising money for social programs. The state and federal governments should be using their taxation power rather than the lottery system to raise any money needed to support their programs.  All that being said, I have to recognize the following truths:
  1. People love the lotteries.  Actually, most people simply love to gamble.  For some, it's the thrill of taking a risk; for others, it's a social event like Friday night poker or playing fantasy football; for still others it's the desire to escape poverty.  Whatever the reason, lotteries are ingrained in our society and won't be going away in my lifetime.
  2. Lotteries are simply another form of taxation.  Since our elected officials are deathly afraid of raising taxes, the lottery system is a godsend for them.  It allows federal and state governments to generate the necessary funding for social programs by simply convincing their constituents to play a game, albeit a losing one.  
  3. Without lotteries, billions of dollars needed for social programs would be lost. The federal and state governments currently depend upon the lottery to fund programs for parks, education,  elderly care, emergency responders, veterans and more.  If the lottery system was shut down, these programs would have to be cut back (probably) or taxes raised (not bloody likely).
  4.  Everyone must play the lottery!  If only the poor play and lose, the lottery is nothing more than a regressive tax.  For it to be a fair method of taxation, everyone must play and lose.  
Based on the graph below created by CNN Money, Americans spent $70.15 billion on lottery tickets in 2014, more than they spent on music, movies, books, video games and sports tickets combined! Based on the estimated population of the U.S. in 2014 (320 million), that comes to about $220 per person.  

Graphic:  CNN Money
So, in order to perform my civic and patriotic duty as a tax-paying citizen of the United States of America, I must buy $220 worth of Powerball tickets each year. That equates to approximately one $2 ticket for each of the twice-weekly drawings.  I cannot fulfill my patriotic duty by simply donating an extra $220 each year to my favorite charity. Until it becomes outlawed, I must support Powerball so that it remains a non-regressive tax.  

Yes, black has become white and up has become down.

"We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."