Social Happiness

SOCIAL HAPPINESS....Remember all those news reports from last week hawking a study about how happiness is spread via social networks? Via Justin Wolfers, a couple of spoilsports have done a competing study that looked at a few other characteristics. From their writeup:

As we intended to investigate potential biases in previous methods, we looked at three health outcomes that could not credibly be subject to social network effects and were available in all three waves of the data: self reports of skin problems, self reports of headaches, and height over time.

Long story short, they found network effects for all three of these things even though network effects almost certainly don't exist. The problem, they say, is that shared environments (same school, similar eating habits, etc.) can explain much of the supposed "contagion," but the datasets used for social network studies often don't include enough information on individual environments to allow it to be factored out.

In other words, be careful accepting breathless claims about the spread of this or that via social networks. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't. On the other hand, it can't hurt to have happy friends, can it?

BCS Uber Alles

BCS UBER ALLES....Via Lee Sigelman, apparently this has been circulating virally:

After determining the Big-12 championship game participants the BCS computers were put to work on other major contests and today the BCS declared Germany to be the winner of World War II.

"Germany put together an incredible number of victories beginning with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland and continuing on into conference play with defeats of Poland, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. Their only losses came against the US and Russia; however considering their entire body of work — including an incredibly tough Strength of Schedule — our computers deemed them worthy of the #1 ranking."

Questioned about the #4 ranking of the United States the BCS commissioner stated "The US only had two major victories — Japan and Germany. The computer models, unlike humans, aren't influenced by head-to-head contests — they consider each contest to be only a single, equally-weighted event."

German Chancellor Adolph Hiter said "Yes, we lost to the US; but we defeated #2 ranked France in only 6 weeks." Herr Hitler has been criticized for seeking dramatic victories to earn 'style points' to enhance Germany's rankings. Hitler protested "Our contest with Poland was in doubt until the final day and the conditions in Norway were incredibly challenging and demanded the application of additional forces."

The French ranking has also come under scrutiny. The BCS commented "France had a single loss against Germany and following a preseason #1 ranking they only fell to #2."

Japan was ranked #3 with victories including Manchuria, Borneo and the Philippines.

Time for Obama to get cracking on that college football playoff he says he favors. That would be change we can believe in.

So. Who Will Appoint the Next Illinois Senator?

Pat_Quinn_Photo%20Small.jpg Looks like it is Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, the man on the right. He better have zero uncovered corruption scandals in his past, because the entire national media is going to turn its eyes to him as soon as it's done digesting Fitzgerald's complaint.

Given the track record of Illinois governors, I'm not optimistic. Here's the list of pols who have recently held that position: Blago (2003-present?), George Ryan (1999-2003), James Edgar (1991-1999), James Thompson (1977-1991), and Daniel Walker (1973-1977). Blago is Blago. Ryan was convicted of 16 charges of conspiracy, fraud, and lying under oath and currently resides in federal prison. (Patrick Fitzgerald, apparently the greatest prosecutor walking the planet, was Ryan's prosecutor.) Edgar was indicted (but not charged) with saw his subordinates charged with giving a sweetheart deal to a major campaign contributor. Thompson does not appear to have run into any legal trouble, but the law firm he heads did represent Ryan against Fitzgerald. And Walker was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for his role in a savings and loan scandal after leaving office.

So that would be... four three of the last five Illinois governors charged with some kind of wrongdoing. Excellent work, Land of Lincoln.

* Correction made. Thanks to the commentor.

Malaria Vaccine

MALARIA VACCINE....My morning paper reports some spectacularly good news for Africa:

A vaccine against the parasitic disease malaria cut illnesses by more than half in field trials and could be safely given with other childhood inoculations, two studies have reported.

....Malaria kills nearly 1 million people each year and sickens about 2 million others, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. Most of the deaths are among children younger than 5 in sub-Saharan Africa, the population that the vaccine targets.

More here.

Idiocy in Illinois

IDIOCY IN ILLINOIS....I seem to recall reading somewhere recently that Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has a 4% approval rating. So I guess he figured he had nothing to lose:

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois was arrested on Tuesday morning and charged with corruption, including an allegation that he conspired to profit from his authority to appoint President-elect Barack Obama's successor in the United States Senate, prosecutors said.

As Mr. Blagojevich mulled the Senate appointment, prosecutors say, he discussed gaining "a substantial salary" at a nonprofit foundation or organization connected to labor unions, placing his wife on corporate boards where she might earn as much as $150,000 a year and trying to gain promises of campaign money, or even a cabinet post or ambassadorship, for himself.

A 76-page affidavit from the United States Attorney's office in Northern Illinois says Mr. Blagojevich was heard on wiretaps over the last month planning to "sell or trade Illinois' United States Senate seat vacated by Pres-elect Barack Obama for financial and personal benefits for himself and his wife."

....According to the statement from prosecutors, Mr. Blagojevich told an adviser last week that he might "get some (money) upfront, maybe" from one of the candidates hoping to replace Mr. Obama. That person was identified only as "Candidate 5."

In an earlier recorded conversation, prosecutors say, Mr. Blagojevich said he was approached by an associate of "Candidate 5" with an offer of $500,000 in exchange for the Senate seat.

Jeebus. Is Blagojevich also the world's biggest moron? The evidence says yes.

...And Also the Most Deluded

blagojevich-sucks.jpg Already pointed out that Blagojevich is incredibly corrupt and incredibly ballsy. He's also incredibly delusional. Look at the reasons why he was considering appointing himself to fill Obama's Senate seat. From Fitzgerald's press release:

Blagojevich also allegedly spent significant time weighing the option of appointing himself to the open Senate seat and expressed a variety of reasons for doing so, including: frustration at being "stuck" as governor; a belief that he will be able to obtain greater resources if he is indicted as a sitting Senator as opposed to a sitting governor; a desire to remake his image in consideration of a possible run for President in 2016; avoiding impeachment by the Illinois legislature; making corporate contacts that would be of value to him after leaving public office; facilitating his wife's employment as a lobbyist; and generating speaking fees should he decide to leave public office.

Really? The two bolded sentences didn't strike him as conflicting in any way? He thought, sure, if I can just get past those impeachment charges, I can run for president! I smell a new segment of "Really!?! With Seth and Amy."

Rod_Blagojevich2.jpg The most corrupt politician in America is, apparently, also the gutsiest. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, has been under investigation for three years because of a litany of corruption charges and has the most famous prosecutor in America, Patrick Fitzgerald, circling him — so what does he do? He embarks on an effort to literally SELL the Senate seat vacated by the president-elect. And for that, he is finally in FBI custody.

From Fitzgerald's press release, out this morning:

A 76-page FBI affidavit alleges that Blagojevich was intercepted on court-authorized wiretaps during the last month conspiring to sell or trade Illinois' U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama for financial and other personal benefits for himself and his wife. At various times, in exchange for the Senate appointment, Blagojevich discussed obtaining:

  • a substantial salary for himself at a either a non-profit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions;
  • placing his wife on paid corporate boards where he speculated she might garner as much as $150,000 a year;
  • promises of campaign funds —l including cash up front; and
  • a cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself.
Just last week, on December 4, Blagojevich allegedly told an advisor that he might "get some (money) up front, maybe" from Senate Candidate 5, if he named Senate Candidate 5 to the Senate seat, to insure that Senate Candidate 5 kept a promise about raising money for Blagojevich if he ran for re-election. In a recorded conversation on October 31, Blagojevich claimed he was approached by an associate of Senate Candidate 5 as follows: "We were approached 'pay to play.' That, you know, he'd raise 500 grand. An emissary came. Then the other guy would raise a million, if I made him (Senate Candidate 5) a Senator."

Sounds like some other folks are in trouble as well. Starting with "Senate Candidate 5."

In August of this year, an entrepreneurial webbie bought up a slew of domain names potentially of use to the Obama-Biden ticket (or its enemies) and tried selling them for $100,000. Looks like business wasn't so good, because three of the most useful domains — obamabiden.org, obama-biden.com, and obama-biden.org — are available on eBay now for the greatly reduced price of $1,000. GoDaddy.com and WhoIs.com do not make it clear if the same person was behind both sales.

For Obama, that thousand bucks is loose change, isn't it? Surely he can snag these three URLs before right-wingers arguing that Obama isn't a natural-born citizen make one of them the hub for eight years of conspiracy theories and rumor-mongering?

obama-biden-web.jpg

If you've got someone on your holiday wish list who would like a little piece of Obama web history, you can buy the domains at this eBay auction. You've got roughly 5 days. So far, no bids.

Race and Status

RACE AND STATUS....Blacks are often stereotyped as having lower status than whites. That won't surprise anyone. But does it work in the other direction too?

Apparently so. The LA Times reports today on a study suggesting that people are more likely to be identified as black if their status changes for the worse. In a review of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, in which subjects are interviewed annually (biannually after 1994), a pair of researchers found that people who had been identified by interviewers in one year as white were less likely to be identified as white the next year if they were in jail, unemployed, or impoverished:

"Race isn't a characteristic that's fixed at birth," said UC Irvine sociologist Andrew Penner, one of the study's authors. "We're perceived a certain way and identify a certain way depending on widely held stereotypes about how people believe we should behave."

....For example, 10% of people previously described as white were reclassified as belonging to another race if they became incarcerated. But if they stayed out of jail, 4% were reclassified as something other than white, the study said.

I don't have any special views on the "race is a social construct" question, but this certainly suggests, at the margins at least, that social status does indeed have an effect on how race is perceived. The full study is here.

Co2 To Ploughshares

800px-Farmer_plowing.jpg An ancient method of ploughing charred plants into the ground to revive soil may also trap greenhouse gases for thousands of years. Here's how it works: Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Burning these plants and trees in airtight conditions produces a high-carbon substance called biochar. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell estimates the carbon storage time of stable biochar could be a few thousand years, reports Reuters.

Lehmann's ambitious scenario estimates biochar could store 1 billion tons of carbon annually. That's more than 10 percent of 2007's 8.5 billion tons of global carbon emissions. His conservative scenario prescribes heating without oxygen (pyrolysis) 27 percent of the world's crop waste and ploughing it into the soil to store 0.2 billion tons of carbon a year.

According to the International Biochar Initiative, soils with biochar made by Amazon people thousands of years ago still contain up to 70 times more black carbon than surrounding soils and are still higher in nutrients. . . Two big howevers: We can't cut forests to do this and we can't avoid reducing CO2 emissions at the same time. But we can put all the little fixes together starting now.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.