Monday, June 29, 2009

BOOKS: The Drunkard's Walk

CalTech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, in his book "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives", offers a fascinating lesson on the development of our understanding of probability and randomness, and how randomness is widely misunderstood and underestimated even today. The core chapters of the book present a sequence of concepts in probability theory, but rather than just present dry theory, Mlodinow takes the much more interesting approach of presenting the concepts by way of the history of their development, making it not only the story of the development of ideas, but of the colorful characters who contributed to them. Along the way, we meet a Renaissance doctor who made more money at games of chance than treating the sick, a Swiss dynasty and full-scale soap opera of mathematicians, and a mathematician who experienced a religious conversion and made a probabilistic argument for the existence of God. He does a good job of carefully explaining the concepts with good examples. Many of the examples are surprisingly counter-intuitive, such as the "Monty Hall problem", supporting the point that our brains tend to be wired counter to correct probabilistic reasoning. The book begins with a discussion about how much we may underestimate and underrecognize the role of randomness in our lives, and at the end returns to the theme of how much we misattribute success or failure to our own efforts while neglecting the role of chance. He touches on a wide variety of applications, from baseball (home run records and world series outcomes) to movie industry executive performance and mutual fund management success, illuminating how much of such outcomes are random. And he discusses some surprising psychological experiments that expose our innate tendency to find patterns in random "streaks" and to attribute intentional control over things we don't actually control (even when we know better). Not only does Mlodinow succeed in making mathematical theory and history quite fascinating, but he demonstrates the applicability of randomness in our lives in ways that will make you ponder.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

FILM: The Brothers Bloom

To Catch A Thief as written by Lemony Snicket...
On the spur of the moment, I decided to check out The Brothers Bloom, a dark quirky con man / relationship comedy. Picture something like Paper Moon or The Sting, as if they were written by Lemony Snicket. The whole film has that slightly dark and vaguely surreal quality of Lemony Snicket (or the TV show Pushing Daisies), with characters, costumes, and some elements that seem very a-hundred-years-ago mixed in with modern cars and other contemporary elements, which makes it hard to put your finger on exactly when the film is set, at the same time as it makes it easier to accept the fantastic bits. Certainly there are no characters in real life like the ones in this film, but the film succeeds in making you believe, at least for a couple of hours, that there could have been. There's also an overlay of fairy-tale quality that starts with the title, is launched by having a narrator, and by the Dickensian childhood of the brothers, and is maintained by a series of timeless settings including a Newportesque mansion, steamer ships and trains, and the city of Prague. The lead actors are all superb, starting with Rachel Weisz as Penelope, a fantastically multi-talented and fantastically rich but slightly autistic hyper-eccentric heiress. Not having ever encountered such a person in real life, it's hard to make claims about authenticity, but if such a person ever existed, Weisz's Penelope was absolutely her. Adrian Brody is charming as the broody younger Bloom who's been conning so long that he longs for his own authentic life but doesn't know if he's capable of one. And Mark Ruffalo is perfectly elusive as Stephen, the mastermind of the brothers' cons, who may or may not love his brother beyond pulling off the next con job. Rinko Kikuchi adds spice and humor as the enigmatic Bang Bang, and Maximillian Schell and Robbie Coltrane add mysterious shady characters to the mix. Penelope is the ultimate prey of the brothers, but she adds an element of unpredictability, and as Bloom may be developing real feelings for her, you just really don't know who's playing whom and how. The scenery and overall visual texture are marvelous, and I found the quirky story engaging to the surprising end.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hyperventilating Over Smelt

Many gay Americans have been starting to wonder when our "fierce advocate" in the White House is going to start delivering the change that we can believe in. And today, salt was rubbed in the wound of Obama's inaction by the Justice Dept filing a brief in a federal case defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And in a painful irony, this comes not only during Pride month of the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, but it comes on the anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision ending miscenegation laws in the US. I first learned of this from Andrew Sullivan's blog (my first read nearly every morning), who linked to John Aravosis, and based on his diatribe, I was outraged. The brief was characterized as egregious anti-gay rhetoric and religious right arguments, comparing gay marriage to incest, and more.

Now this evening, I've had a chance to read what a lot of bloggers have had to say about it, but more usefully, I had a chance to read the actual DOJ brief, and I'm a lot more sanguine about it than others. Some of my observations, and reasons for calming down and taking a deep breath.

First, the case itself, formally known as Smelt v. US, is not the recently-filed case against Prop 8 that Olson and Boies are representing. This case comes from a gay couple in Orange County who have, against the advice of pretty much every gay advocacy group, been filing federal marriage-related challenges for the last few years. In fact, several gay advocacy groups have filed briefs against Smelt's cases, because they think they are very ill-advised, likely to lose, and likely to leave very damaging precedents on the books. They don't seem to have a very good lawyer representing them, and from a legal standpoint, their particular case is weak and overly broad in its claims and redress sought. While I don't begrudge anyone the right to go to court and press their claims, it is in the best interest of our larger cause if this case would just go away.

Fortunately, that's very likely to happen. The first part of the DOJ brief argues some legal technicalities about jurisdiction and "standing", and those arguments seem to me to be fairly strong. A court will always consider these types of arguments first, before considering the "merits" of a case, and I predict this case will get tossed out on the technicalities, without the court even having to look at the merits.

Meanwhile, there is a much, much stronger and better advocated case being brought in Massachusetts challenging DOMA, and there is the Boies/Olson challenge against Prop 8.

As for the rest of the DOJ brief, I think much of it is legally sound, and I did not find the rhetoric nearly as "egregious" as I was lead to expect. This was definitely not a brief written by the likes of the Prop 8 proponents. They rightly pointed out the reasons why this case is on weak legal footing. For instance, this particular case is not about a right to marry, it is about a "right" to get certain federal benefits. In these sort of constitutional challenges, you always want to show that a fundamental right is implicated, or that a suspect classification is involved, or best, both. In this fact pattern, the fundamental right claim is hard to sustain. It's only the suspect classification prong where there's any traction to be had, and even that is an uphill battle against precedent.

The DOJ brief is weakest where it defends against the suspect classification charge, and it does make some dodgy claims, which have been rightly pounced on. "DOMA does not directly or substantially interfere with the ability of anyone, including homosexuals, to marry the individual of his or her choice. … DOMA merely clarifies that federal policy is to make certain benefits available only to those persons united in heterosexual marriage, as opposed to any other possible relationship defined by law, family, or affection." While this sounds very much like the "both gays and straights have an equal right to marry someone of the opposite sex" canard, it's not exactly saying that. It's also admitting very clearly that the classification is one of sexual orientation, which nicely sets up the argument as to whether that is a justifiable classification.

It makes the novel argument that through DOMA, Congress is maintaining "neutrality", such that citizens of some states are not forced to subsidize marriages that go against their public policy just because another state approves of those marriages. But this seems a little odd after an earlier part of the brief went into detail about how state marriage laws differ, and that can and should be tolerated. If this "neutrality" were to be taken seriously, then the federal government wouldn't recognize first-cousin marriages because that would force the people of Arizona, who are appalled by such things, to subsidize the first-cousin marriages of New Mexico. Likewise, the federal government wouldn't recognize the marriage of 16-year-olds in Indiana because it wouldn't be fair to New Jersey, who insists on age 18. (Alas, this "neutrality" is just the sort of nonsense that is allowed to pass the "rational basis" test, if that what's the court decides is appropriate to apply.)

The DOJ brief also cites Loving v. Virginia, but with a very bizarre reading of it. According to this brief, the decisive factor in Loving was that the Virginia statute was lobsided, in that it outlawed only whites from marrying other races. Thus, it clearly treated the races differently, whereas the "neutral" DOMA does not. On this reading of Loving, it seems that the Virginia miscegenation statute might have passed constitutional muster if it had prevented all races equally from intermarrying. (The DOJ attorney here is either being disingenuous, or gets poor marks for reading comprehension. I suggest he mark the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia by re-reading the opinion more carefully. While that was certainly part of the opinion, it was by no means all of it.)

There's been much discussion about whether Obama's DOJ should have chosen not to defend DOMA, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. Having the Justice Dept pick and choose which laws it defends seems awfully similar to Bush's "signing statements" that so many of us were (rightly) unhappy about. Especially if the constitutional issues are not completely clear cut. (In my amateur opinion, I think that while DOMA part 3 should be tossed on equal protection grounds, DOMA part 2 may well be constitutional.) I don't think Obama has ever actually said he believes DOMA is unconstitutional, he's said he believes it's bad policy and should be repealed. Now it would just make us all feel better if he would get on that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

BOOKS: The Shack

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about The Shack by William P. Young, so I figured I ought to read it. I thoroughly enjoyed this very fresh, creative imagining of what it might be like to meet God and grapple with the thorny question of how an omnipotent loving God can allow bad things to happen to innocent people. The book takes the form of a personal story, and even though I already knew the outline of the story going in, I was still swept up in it. While the story is clearly a vehicle to deliver some creative theological musings, its earnestness caught me up, and I was holding back tears in many parts of it (not good to cry while driving, you know). The vision Young presents of God is amazing and original, and the spiritual journey of Mac (the protagonist) is like a Divine Comedy for our age. To depict God at all is audacious, and to depict Him the way Young has is especially so, but it is as apt as it is surprising, which is appropriate. God should be bigger than our expectations and imaginings. God should surprise us. I won't give away too much, but this depiction of God and of Heaven reminded me of the beautiful tapestries at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, showing the community of saints as a wonderful mix of men, women, and children of all races, rich and poor, famous and unknown, ancient and modern, side by side. Through Mac's journey, Young presents some intriguing ideas. I liked his metaphor of God-as-man choosing to limit himself when interacting with humans, just as an adult can choose to limit themselves when talking to or playing with a child, in a loving way that honors the relationship. The love of a parent for a child is a powerful metaphor that is richly mined throughout. Mac's encounter with divine judgment is astonishing and brilliant. Some of the ideas are provocative, especially the disdain for much of organized religion. According to Young's God, religion, along with politics and economy, forms the real axis of evil. This God is all about loving relationship, and submission to God's love and God's life as opposed to human independence from God. In this view, organized religion is just another human power structure, an attempt to grasp control over our own security, which leads away from God.

The philosophy underpinning Young's theodicy is not new: bad things happen because God allows us our free will, and because of humankind's separation from God after the fall. What is fresh and original here is the beautiful vision of God's intentions for and relationship with the world, a vision woven around that traditionally unsatisfying answer of free will, making the complete picture surprisingly satisfying. The fact that a bigger picture can make an unsatisfactory answer satisfy is, in a way, the point. From our limited point of view in this world, evil is impossible to reconcile, but when you add God and everlasting life to the picture, it can look quite different. "Love never forces," God says, in a line that echoes 1 Corinthians 13, explaining how He always allows us to make our choices, and how He can turn even bad choices to ultimate good ends. And just when it appears God might be causing evil to achieve good ends, He clarifies that grace neither requires evil nor causes it, but it can make use of it where it occurs. In a beautiful echo of Romans 5:20, He explains, where you find evil, you find even more grace.

One pitfall of writing such a sweeping account, taking on such big questions, is that it's hard to resist faulting Young for not providing every answer. For example, while his theodicy powerfully addresses evil human actions, he doesn't really address natural disasters and disease. It's hard to see earthquakes or cancer as consequences of free will, although in one brief tangential comment, he suggests that these may be reactions of the Creation to our irresponsible stewardship of it (ecological sins, if you will). The metaphor of parent-child relationships to model the God-human relationship is beautiful and powerful, but it also raises some troubling questions. Doesn't a good parent stop their child from running out into the middle of the street? A good parent doesn't allow their children unlimited free will. And the goal of a good parent is for their child to become independent; the child is not raised merely to live out the parent's life. But perhaps that stretches the metaphor too far. The question that most haunted me after the story is this: if God so greatly desires to have a personal relationship with each of us, then why doesn't He give each of us a Shack experience?

The best (though not entirely satisfying) answer to that is of course that God has sent us William P. Young. Through a compelling story and amazing imagination, Young confronts some hard questions -- what does God want from us? what does it mean to truly forgive? what is the nature of grace? why is there evil? -- and he confronts them with the same sort of Christian boldness that Pope John Paul II displayed when he met and forgave his would-be assassin. Mac's journey will surprise, engage, and challenge you. If you have a relationship with God, this book is likely to make you rethink it (in a good way). And if you don't have a relationship with God, this book may make you want to have one.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sotomayor and Personal Finance

Among the critics at the Sunday night family dinner table, the issue that weighed most heavily with my brother was what was revealed by Sotomayor's financial disclosure statements. Her finances are rather remarkable for their sparseness. Apparently, she has no stocks, no bonds, no mutual funds, in fact no financial holdings other than a simple savings and checking account at Citibank. (In a way, that's rather smart for a judge, as it avoids any conflict of interest questions.) What's more, her entire savings (the combined checking and savings accounts) was between $50,000 and $115,000 in 2007, and as low as $30,000 in the previous four years. My brother was shocked and appalled that someone who makes $179,500 a year should have so little saved three decades into her career. She may be very bright in some subjects, he conceded, but in the practical matter of personal finance, she is colossally stupid. Top economist Greg Mankiw expressed a similar doubt. However, many have pounced on this.

Economist Brad DeLong estimates the value of her Greenwich Village condo to be about $1 million, and the value of her pension to be about $2.5 million. As far as I can tell, the condo estimate is speculation based on the general neighborhood where she lives, since her exact address and details of her home financing are not part of the public disclosures (although there appears to have been a reference to a home equity loan for improvements a few years ago, at least substantiating that she owns rather than rents). As a federal judge, she can continue working or retire at age 65 as she likes, and either way she draws full salary for the rest of her life.

Statistician Nate Silver crunches the numbers, and figures that her salary affords a very nice but by no means extravagant life for someone living in Manhattan. He notes the high tax rates (including a 3.86% city tax on top of state and fed) and figures $65,000 of her salary goes to taxes. He estimates another $65,000 goes to housing (based on average neighborhood rents for a 2-bedroom apartment in a doorman-building in Greenwich Village, $5400/month). That leaves $50,000 a year for utilities, transportation, food, and everything else. As Silver notes, in Manhattan, that would let you eat out nicely, attend a dozen Yankee games, and take a one-week vacation, and not a whole lot more.

Silver also takes Mankiw to task for missing the basic economics of the situation. He notes there are only four basic economic incentives to save money. First is to protect against a drop in income, like losing your job. Sotomayor's paycheck is from the US Government and short of an impeachable offense, she has job security for life, so that incentive is irrelevant. Second is to save for retirement, but as noted above, she has a guaranteed full salary for life, so that doesn't apply either. Third is to save for your spouse and children, but she is single. Fourth is to save for an expensive purchase, like a home (which she already has) or a nice car (which a Manhattanite doesn't need). Based on rational economics, there's really no incentive for Sotomayor to be saving her money rather than spending it.

Further, as USD law prof (and conservative blogger) Tom Smith has noted, someone in her position "any day she wants to she could walk out of her current job and into a partnership at a law firm in Manhattan or DC and get paid (guessing again) maybe $2 million a year, with the potential for a lot more… She has a guaranteed job for life with very generous retirement and health benefits, and any day she decides she wants to be a millionaire, all she has to do is pick up the phone. She's doing a job she must love and be good at or she wouldn't be where she is..."

Based on the evidence, I'd agree that she is working in a job she loves, has plenty enough money to live the life she wants, and has as close to zero worries about financial security as anyone could possibly have. That doesn't sound very stupid to me. I'd say she's one wise Latina.

UPDATE 6/5/09: In a document submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, as reported by the Washington Post: "Sotomayor listed a net worth of $740,000, consisting primarily of equity in a $1 million condo in New York's Greenwich Village. She reported having $32,000 in cash and bank accounts, and personal property worth $108,000. Sotomayor reported that she owned no stocks, bonds, mutual funds or other non-real-estate investments."

Sotomayor and Reversal Rates

As the old saying goes, there's lies, damned lies, and statistics. Last Sunday, my conservative aunt was scoffing at Judge Sotomayor's reversal rate, pointing out that she has had five of her opinions reviewed by the Supreme Court, and three of those were overturned. Turns out this has been a right wing talking point, with a Washington Times headline crying "Sotomayor Reversed 60% by High Court." I conceded that it didn't sound good, but I determined to look into it.

One of the first questions to ask is what exactly is the statistic that we're looking at. Judge Sotomayor has been on the 2d Circuit bench for 11 years, and in that time has heard nearly 3000 cases. Only in the more controversial cases is a published opinion typically issued, and she has published 232 opinions. Of those 232, five of them have been reviewed by the Supreme Court. And of those five, three have been overturned. So you could say that 60% of her reviewed opinions were overturned, but you could also say that 2% of her published opinions have been overturned, or that 0.2% of her total decisions have been overturned.

The other more relevant question to ask is how her statistics compare with her colleagues. Here it's useful to note that the Supreme Court only grants review of about 1% of the appeals filed, and the Court, in order to use its time wisely, only grants review to those cases where there is inconsistency across the Circuits, or where they expect to clarify or revise the precedent. In other words, the high court is likely to overturn the cases it selects for review, because it selects the controversial ones. According to statistics compiled by SCOTUSblog, since 2004, the Supreme Court has reversed 73% of the cases it reviewed. So it turns out that Sotomayor's 60% reversal rate is better than average. As Rachel Maddow observed, this is comparable to batting averages, where Sotomayor has a .400 "batting average". That's considered quite good. It has also been observed that Justice Alito, at the time of his Supreme Court confirmation, had a 100% reversal rate.

Knowledgeable attorneys observe that a judge's reversal rate is not a very meaningful statistic. In other words, the critics are clutching at straws here.

University of Chicago Law professor Eric Posner has been analyzing other comparative data about appellate judges, including how often their opinions are cited in other opinions or in law review articles (a measure of their influence and respect of their peers) and how often they have dissented in panel decisions (a measure of how inline with their colleagues they are). His conclusion:

the data should put to rest the rumor that Judge Sotomayor is not a competent jurist. She holds her own among a highly respected group... If citations reflect quality, Sotomayor may well be one of the top appellate judges in the country.