Old commercial

Something else from the year I was born. Interesting how the story is told with no words — you read the whole thing in the actors’ faces.

Fifty years on

As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I’ve become interested in learning more about the era I was born into. David Halberstam’s The Fifties was a good starting point, but recently I’ve come across two separate books claiming that the year I was born was a pivotal one: 1959: The Year Everything Changed and 1959: The Year That Changed Our World. The year was certainly important to me, but I wonder — was it really a turning point in human history?

I rather doubt it. Important things happen every year. We fail to realize how important some events are until we have the perspective of history. I imagine 50 years is just the right amount of perspective, so it’s not surprising that such books are coming out now. Perhaps in ten years time we’ll see a similar spate of books about 1969.

The years following my birth were quite eventful as well. Here is a very interesting essay about the early 1960s. Excerpt:

To read through the bound volumes of the newsmagazines Time and Newsweek, issue by issue, from the late ’50s onward, is to be struck, sometime around the beginning of the 1960s, by the sudden proliferation of the word new. Society was newly open, popular culture newly experimental, religious institutions (in the words of one contemporary observer) “newly irenic.” There was even talk among Vatican II-influenced, reform-minded Catholics of a “New Church.” A new national order was under construction: After three centuries, it appeared that America was at last beginning to confront its racial divisions and inequities and move toward greater unity and fairness. And there was a new world order, or at least a “New Europe,” as headlines of the day frequently put it.

Read the whole thing. It’s well worth it, whether you remember that era or not.

Amazon recommendations

Netflix famously offered a million dollars to improve its recommendation system. I don’t think it would cost that much to improve Amazon’s system. What they have now seems really bad. Has anyone ever received a good recommendation for a book from Amazon? I haven’t. Every time I look at the things they recommend for me, it’s the same collection of old jazz CDs and technical books. The recommendations never seem to change.

When I go into a bricks and mortar store, I usually see an interesting book and wind up buying it (either at the store itself or later on Amazon). I know which sections of the store to look in, and even which shelves. But with Amazon, the selection is too big. There’s no way that I know of to find interesting books. And that’s too bad. I like buying things from Amazon. I would probably buy more if it were easier for me to browse.

Smoking and early death

8AmericsIn the Eight Americas study, researcher Christopher Murray (Harvard School of Public Health) and colleagues present mortality data for various ethnic groups in the United States. The data on median age at death by US county was rather shocking given the wide variation.

The figure at left is for white males only; unfortunately the paper does not contain a figure with aggregate data for both sexes and all ethnic groups. Suffice it to say that charts for women and other ethnic groups look very similar, giving new meaning to the term “Red States”. Since I live right in the middle of that crimson gash, I wondered what causes people here to die so young, compared to their fellow citizens in other areas of the country.

Does the chart below explain it? I used Google Charts to produce this figure. It shows the rate of cigarette smoking by adults, with purple being the lowest and red the highest (I haven’t figured out yet how to put a legend on a Google Chart, so please bear with me).

Of course, cigarette smoking may not be the only cause of early death in the South. But the correspondence between the two figures is striking.

Note, just by looking at the lower graph, you would expect to see a lower age of death in Nevada than in surrounding states (the stench of cigarettes in the casinos was unbearable to me the one and only time I went there). And sure enough, you look at the upper figure and there it is.

Slow News Day

Don’t get me wrong, I love the New York Times. Not enough to actually buy it anymore, but it’s practically my homepage. That’s why I feel I am justified in questioning whether this is really front page news.

Coin Flips Are Not Random

At least not according to this article in the Washington Post. Here is the academic article (Dynamical Bias in the Coin Toss) by Persi Diaconis, Susan Holmes and Richard Montgomery that the Washington Post is reporting on.

Medical Bayesian Kiosk

I don’t know why, but I find it exasperating to talk to machines. When the voice on the phone says say or press three, I always press the button. Maybe that’s why I found this video to be so spooky. Imagine having to talk to Max Headroom every time you want to see your doctor.