Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Things I Learned My First Winter of Home Ownership in Upstate New York

  1. You cannot afford to both heat an old, oil-heated house and eat. You'll probably go hungry to save your pipes from freezing. Using your dog for heat at night isn't as weird as it sounds.
  2. You define the width of your driveway on the first shoveling of the year. The snow will not melt; it simply turns into ice. For every fresh snow, another two inches will be added to your retaining wall of ice bookmarking your driveway. At the point you realize it's becoming difficult to turn into your driveway, it's already game over. That 4-5 feet high frozen entryway that now flanks your driveway isn't shrinking until April.
  3. Remember when you'd only have to walk five blocks to work and mocked your coworkers whose commutes turned into white-knuckled drives of an hour or more? Karma.
  4. If a kid offers to shovel your snow, don't let them. Just give them $5. It's not worth the frustration of paying to have a child just push a shovel around for awhile without actually achieving anything.
  5. Every night your fireplace isn't in use is a wasted night.
  6. Sometimes the pipes freeze anyway. Broken pipes are best fixed with liquor. Don't bother calling a plumber. Just drink. The problem eventually goes away on its own.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Running Forever in Kansas

Went for a run today. Six miles. -11ยบ windchill, with gusts of up to 45 mph and snow largely covering over where exposed sidewalk belonged. It's brutal conditions out there. Yet even this experience felt somewhat sanitized, civilized, and benign. Around every bend a car is waiting to drive past to evidence society. Huddled pedestrians waiting for the bus or scurrying from the coffee shop to work are reminders that you're not that impressive - they're doing it without gloves or physical activity to generate warmth. You can run for miles around here and still be surrounded by houses. You can't get alone. Not like home.

Back home is different. There you can run in touch with some primal ancestor who fought the elements for survival. The land has been conquered, yet still feels primitive and untamed. Heading down the driveway and turning left onto 9, there's nothing. No elevation changes, no turns in the road. You just are. So run flat and straight as long as your legs will carry you. That's the most beautiful thing in the world - it doesn't matter if you run two miles before turning around or you run ten, you've run the same difference. You're in the same place. There are no pressures for pace or mileage or performance. Just flat and straight as long as you want - or as long as you can. Two or ten, it's all the same. There is no change, no time.

Every mile is the opportunity to turn. A country mile. Veer left, and too soon the river forces you to turn around. Choose right, and the descension to connecting with a dead ancestry is enhanced. Sometimes the summers are humid - those times you can't cut wheat until 11 or even noon because the plants become tacky and gum up the combine's machinery. Other years it's bone dry and you can cut all night. Those are the times to appreciate. Waking at five to race the sun out the door, there's already no sign of dew on the grass blades. In the middle of July you can already find yourself surrounded by brown as you head down an old dirt road. While other regions of the country are alive and thriving, the corn here is already racing to outrun death. When my ancestors migrated from the lush fields of Iowa, I wonder what they were trying to outrun? What did the death of a Kansas July offer that made them stop? Maybe they tried to run back, but never got anywhere. The trappings of a flat vortex.

Falling into stride with the fading crops can settle your mind into a peace unattainable anywhere else. Each step kicks up a small plume of dust that lingers in the air a minute or two before eventually settling back down onto the road, waiting for a passing pickup to provide the next disturbance. Someone in town says the rains should come soon and calm that dust down. Should inject some life back into the corn too. We'll see. Until it does, you can just keep running as far as your legs will carry you.

Real-Life Chandler Bing Watches Friends to Learn Who Chandler Is

I watched an episode of Friends once in grad school. People seem to reference it, so I thought it would make me part of their inside jokes. The only thing I remembered was that one of the characters was named Joey - and even that was probably because I'd heard his name referenced in conversation before. But then last night I was sent a link to Buzzfeed's list of 44 Reasons Why You're Chandler Bing. It was me. Uncannily me. Except for the blurting things out in public - that's simply a gimmick for laughs the writers use and doesn't actually occur in real life, right? But the fact that apparently all sarcasm is the default response to all uncomfortable social interactions, and he makes all interactions uncomfortable, is spot on.

The next morning I found myself at the grocery store mocking Minute Rice (something to the effect of, "instant rice: for people who want to make food, but not really.") I looked up to see if anyone overheard me, and then realized I fully embodied whatever traits this list described. Including saying things out loud without full realization at the time of pronouncement. Except for #18 (taking bubble baths) - normal-sized adults don't actually fit in bathtubs. Fact.

So I decided to watch an episode of Friends and compare Chandler's life to my own, as this would be a better metric than Buzzfeed's approach of "let's take funny things he says and boil those quips down to an entire personality." Desiring academic rigor, I placed a few parameters on which episode to watch. The show ran ten seasons, so I'd select something from season five; character has been developed and is properly complex, but not so far along the writer's have become stale or the well has begun to run dry on his identity. Episode one is a reasonable place to start, as the show will be reintroducing Chandler for new viewers. For those keeping score at home, it's entitled "The One After Ross Says Rachel."

:25 - Pausing. I let my dog eat some feta cheese and a rawhide this morning. No, I can't explain the feta. One or both just made him throw up. Have to pick this up before he reconsumes. We're off to a good start.

:30 - Pausing again to make sure I know which character I'm watching for. Did you know that Matthew Perry has been in a number of things I've never seen? Quite the illustrious career.

2:15 - Episode starts with an awkward wedding scene with no context. Chandler suggests the exchange of vows could have been worse, as Ross could have shot Emily during the exchange. Truthful, though not particularly insightful.

2:45 - I think. That may have been Joey. They look generically alike so far. Was probably Chandler because the laugh track suggested the observation was witty.

5:45 - Chandler tells a nice-looking woman in a red dress to meet him in the wine cellar downstairs for some hanky panky. Things that I cannot relate to.

Chandler always explains his emotions while waving a giant spoon.

Trying to be Buzzfeedy. Here's a random screen capture with a remark. Maybe I'll follow it up with a gif farther down.

5:55 - She appears to be an integral part of the show. Wikipedia suggests Monica is a main character. She sets to downstairs to meet Chandler.

6:45 - Chandler reappears and is heaping food onto a plate at the buffet. Nothing happened. That's fair - in comparing what my outcome would have been, different journey, same result.

8:00 - Just a note that no character was ever properly introduced and that I'm as lost with episode one as I would be with episode 15.

10:00 - There appears to be an extensive plot revolving around Chandler and Monica trying to find a place to have sex. So far there have been three failed attempts.

11:00 - Four. How unresourceful is this man that he can't find a private place in a hotel? It's literally a structure of nothing but private rooms. I could find a room in a hotel.

Chandler and Monica gif a la Buzzfeedy format.

15:00 - Chandler flies first class. Elitist.

16:00 - Chandler was going to meet Monica in the bathroom to join the mile high club, but instead engages in conversation with Joey long enough to drink three shooters of liquor. I respect this decision.

18:00 - Is finally alone with Monica in her apartment. Brief, awkward conversation ensues about what they did (it - they did it) in London. They decide it was nice, and then hug. Chandler follows up hug with... a high five. Starting to relate now.

18:30 - Comes back. Scores girl. No longer relating.

Show ends. My introduction to Chandler consists of him running around trying to get laid and ends in success. And it's not that awkward. I am not Chandler Bing. Buzzfeed lied.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Anti-Vaccine Movement as Class Conflict

A small measles outbreak at Disneyland (for more information, turn to this reporting) could reinject (or provide the first injection of) real talk into the anti-vaccine movement currently sweeping the nation. Maybe. Maybe it changes nothing. What's true is that the movement is racist and classist. Truth.

Two groups of people fail to fully vaccinate their children. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the first type have kids that are more likely "to be white, to belong to households with higher income, to have a married mother with a college education, and to live with four or more other children." Suburban housewives? A nice portion of the equation. They also cluster, and probably hate science ($5 says if you know an anti-vaccer, they either don't believe in evolution, or know GMO corn causes cancer. Or both). Why should we care? Aside from the child endangerment they're wantonly engaging in, there's a second group of people who don't vaccinate: poor, predominantly minority families.

Aside from Michelle Bachmanns' crazy ramblings (does she have any other kind?), I was largely unaware that there was actually an anti-vaccination movement. Then this winter I started following IMGUR, and noticed a lot of posts seeking to disprove fallacies pushed by this anti-vaccination agenda. So I started looking into it, discovered these enclaves of anti-vaccer mothers in hippie dippie enclaves like Boulder, Portland, and Seattle, and became frightened. And frustrated. Low-income families have traditionally had issues with proper vaccination. There are a list of problems: low information, cost, transportation access, and a lower likelihood to follow up for a missed appointment due to additional life burdens not found in the cul-de-sacs of Boulder.

When someone brings measles onto a playground, two kids are going to get sick. One has anti-vaccer parents screaming, "bring it on!" Then they take their kid to a well-financed hospital and receive appropriate medical care in a sterile environment. The other kid has access to shit medical care, lives in an unhygienic and overcrowded community, and suffers greater harm. Generally speaking, rich people not vaccinating their kids doesn't put other rich kids at risk. Just the poor ones. Class conflict.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Tragedy of the Commons in State Tobacco Revenue

Following years of battle that consumed millions of dollars in legal fees, "Big Tobacco" signed an agreement with the states in 1998 that promised money to state governments as compensation for the health care costs associated with smoking. The fascinating aspect of the agreement was that it didn't merely cover costs already incurred and some static agreement about the future. Rather, it promised payments to states in perpetuity. An escrow account currently receives 18.8482 cents per cigarette sold, divided among the signatories to the Master Settlement Agreement. Forever.

Here's where your classic tragedy of the commons kicks in: the more cigarettes sold nationwide, the more money an individual state accrues. Yet states often rely on tobacco taxes to help backfill their general funds. And because cigarettes are easily vilified in the political and media spheres in the 21st century, this is just about the easiest tax lawmakers can impose. These taxes, combined with increased health concerns, legally curtailed advertising avenues, and a general shift in societal attitudes, have greatly reduced the incidence of tobacco use in the United States.

It's impossible to know what impact cigarette taxes alone have played in the decline of active smokers. And some of the tobacco tax revenues are dedicated to anti-smoking campaigns. But peel away everything else, and you're left with a classic bit of game theory:
A state can heighten its tobacco revenue by increasing taxes, but but in doing so reduces cigarette sales. A reduction in cigarette sales decreases overall payments to the national escrow account that pays out to signatories of the Master Settlement Agreement. Of course, reduced escrow payments can be compensated for by further increasing cigarette taxes, which further reduces cigarette sales, which reduces escrow payments...

Some lawmakers truly wish to see the elimination of smoking. This desire has led to the proliferation of smoking bans, advertising restrictions, and commercials with people talking through holes in their throats. Others prefer to use tobacco as a cash cow. For these policymakers, there's a fascinating intellectual exercise out there just waiting to be picked: Is there a cigarette tax that maximizes revenues (escrow account receipts plus individual state remittances)? Variations in smoking rates among the states would complicate such a calculation, but there could be an answer. And if every state signed on to an agreement not to raise taxes by more than this amount, they could all be profit maximizers. Of course, it just takes one financial crunch to make a lawmaker in New Jersey propose a $1/pack increase, and then the tragedy rears its ugly head.

*A fascinating development in the public bond market has rendered this idea mute. Several states immediately went out and sold their future revenues for some upfront cash in agreements that made about as much sense as calling J.G. Wentworth as soon as you win the lottery. They've already spent their escrow payments, and have little concern for what happens in the future. Tobacco bonds truly are fascinating - and ProPublica has done a solid job covering them. Click here if you have even the faintest interest in learning more.

The prospectus Bear Stearns sent New Jersey to acquire their tobacco settlement funds.