Little Church Of La Villita

I’m not a huge proponent of organized religion, but I’m a sucker for churches.

The Little Church at La Villita, in San Antonio, is a gem.  Built in 1879, its clean lines, stone walls, and modestly proportioned stained glass window create a setting of simple beauty.  It’s well suited for quiet contemplation after a stroll on the River Walk — and it’s cool inside, too.

Poll-Axed

So much of political reporting these days is poll-driven.  A new poll about “likely voters” comes out, and news broadcasts first report on the poll, then report on reaction to the poll, and finally feature a panel of talking heads to blather about “momentum” and “the dynamics of the race” based on the poll results.

But how accurate are those polls, anyway?  Should Hillary Clinton supporters be suicidal because a poll shows Donald Trump ahead in Ohio?  It seems like a new poll or two comes out every day, and the results are all over the map.

screen-shot-2012-10-30-at-11-36-17-pmThe New York Times blog The Upshot decided to conduct a clever experiment to test the role of pollster judgment in analyzing and reporting the results of polling.  The goal was to eliminate the effect of the “margin of error” that we always hear about, and instead focus on the behind-the-curtain decisions pollsters make.  So, The Upshot took the raw data from an actual poll of 867 Florida voters it conducted with pollsters at Siena College, gave that same raw data to four different respected pollsters. and asked them to report the results they drew from the data.

The results of the experiment showed a five percentage point swing in the results reached by the different pollsters, ranging from a four-point advantage for Hillary Clinton to a one-point advantage for Donald Trump, even though the pollsters were reviewing identical data.  Why?  Because the pollsters reached different conclusions about the demographics and characteristics of “likely voters,” and those decisions had dramatic effects on their announced results.  How do you determine who is a “likely voter,” anyway?  Rely on their oath that they’ll be casting their ballot this time?  Make your decision based on their voting history?  Tinker a bit with the breakdown of Democrats, Republicans, and independents, and change the mix of Hispanics, African-Americans, and whites in the “likely voter” population, and you’ve got substantially different results.

My own sense is that this may be the toughest election ever from a polling standpoint.  You’ve got a group of Clinton supporters who are loud and proud in their support for HRC, an apparent mass of ardent Trump advocates lurking below the radar, and then a huge group of disaffected people who really don’t like either candidate and are deciding what to do.  You’ve got lifelong Republicans who are saying, right now, that they won’t vote for Trump, and young people who just aren’t energized by Hillary.  Who among the mass of disillusioned people frustrated by an awful choice is going to vote come November — and for whom?  Based on my interaction with friends and colleagues, most of whom really don’t want to talk about the election, I just don’t see how pollsters can decide that key question with any degree of certainty.

Poll results are interesting, I suppose, but I wouldn’t take them as gospel — particularly in this historically anomalous election.

Avoiding The Squirrel Distraction

Sometimes it’s hard to really figure out what is happening in the country.  During the glitz and glimmer of a presidential campaign, the American public, and most of the news media, is like a dog in a yard, sniffing this and that and always ready to be distracted when a squirrel goes capering by.  That’s why we focus, briefly, on stories that appear for a day and then vanish into the mists of time.

imageUnderneath that surface glitz and glimmer and the ginned-up controversies it produces, however, is the serious stuff.  It’s the stuff that harder to follow, and more boring to read.  It’s the stuff that the talking head pundits on the “news” shows don’t want to address, because they probably don’t understand it themselves and because it can’t be reduced to a funny one-liner or a clever tweet.  From time to time, though, a real journalist will tackle the serious stuff and produce an article that serious people really should read if they want to get even a glimpse of the challenges that our country is facing.

Mary Williams Walsh of the New York Times wrote one such article recently, about the American public pension system — and how its liabilities are legally, but chronically, underreported.  Told in the context of one tiny pension plan, for California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, the article relates how public pension funds keep two sets of books — one that is officially reported, and one that reflects the “market value” of the pensions and that is kept hidden from the public eye.  The officially reported numbers paint a much rosier picture than the latter.

And that’s where the real problem lurks.  For California’s Citrus Pest Control District No. 2, which covers only six people, the official books showed a large surplus.  The market value books, however, showed that the pension plan in fact had a deficit — and when the plan decided to convert itself to a 401(k) plan, Calpers, the giant California public employee retirement system, required the pension to make a totally unexpected, and large, payment to satisfy the market value of its liabilities.

The different bookkeeping is all about how the pension funds discount their future payments to present value.  It’s the concept of the time value of money — that a dollar today, which can be invested and earn a rate of return, is worth more than a dollar 10 years from now.  Future payments, like those made by pension plans, always get discounted to their present value.  The key issue, though, is what interest rate you use to do the discounting.  Using smaller, more conservative rates will show a higher present value of future payments, whereas using a higher, more aggressive rate will produce a much lower present value — and perhaps even show a surplus.

In the case of the Citrus Pest Control District, the officially reported present value was calculated using the assumed annual rate of return on investments — which is 7.5 percent.  Using that discount rate showed the little pension had a large surplus.  Of course, anybody who does any investing knows that a constant, 7.5 annual percent rate of return achieved over the course of decades of pension payments would be a fantastic rate of return.  Anybody who lives through the down markets of 2008 and 2009 also knows that it’s just not a realistic, long-term assumption.

The upshot is that we’ve got a serious problem in this country with public pension funds that are terribly underfunded.  One of these days, someone is going to have to pay the piper, as Citrus Pest Control District No. 2 did.  But at the presidential debate next week, will anyone ask Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about this important issue, which could bankrupt many of our local government entities — or will we get questions about pneumonia, hydration or whether it was wise to use the word “bomb” before knowing that a bomb was in fact used in the New York City dumpster bombings?

Look, a squirrel!

The Technology Of Fighting Terrorism

Officials say that Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in the New York City dumpster bombing that occurred on Saturday night, was captured in part because of an array of security cameras.  Several cameras took footage of Rahami lurking near the site of the bombings, and the photos and a license plate reader allowed officials to track and eventually apprehend Rahami.  As part of the process, authorities also sent out an alert to NYC cell phone users identifying Rahami as the suspect and asking for help in finding and capturing him.

57e06ccb130000930639d159The security cameras that took pictures of Rahami are part of a system of 8,000 cameras in Manhattan.  Officials call it the “Ring of Steel.”  Footage from the cameras, which are both government and private owned, is fed into the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, where it is monitored by police.  And the camera system apparently will only grow more extensive — New York is considering installing cameras in every street light, too.  There also are more than 200 license plate readers in New York City that can triangulate information with GPS systems to allow help officials track and capture suspect vehicles.

Other technology weapons deployed in the fight against terrorism in NYC include biological, chemical, and radiation sensors, “shot monitors” that detect gunfire, a system that collects alerts on suspicious packages or persons, and computer systems that analyze and organize the mass of information being received.

8,000 cameras already, and more on the way.  Real-time video feeds.  License plate readers.  Cell phone alerts.  Countless monitors.  GPS systems.  Vast computer data storage and analytic programs.  It’s the 21st century, folks, and we’ve got the high-tech law enforcement technology to prove it.  And don’t forget, too, that everyone you encounter on the streets has a device in their purse or pocket that will allow them to take a picture or video of anything interesting, too.

New York City must be the most photographed, monitored, analyzed place on Earth.  People who are concerned about the erosion of privacy — like me — can bemoan a future where innocent people are being routinely photographed, videotaped, and monitored by law enforcement as they go about their affairs, but whether we like it or not it’s the reality of the modern, terrorist-fighting world.  This time, the systems worked.

Beer Wars

A few months ago, the Ohio General Assembly passed legislation, signed by Governor John Kasich, to eliminate the alcohol limit on beer brewed in the Buckeye State.  A few weeks ago, local breweries were permitted to start selling the more high-octane suds to customers.  Breweries had been restricted to beer that was no more than 12 percent alcohol by volume.  Now, the sky’s the limit.

cookies-9Interestingly, the change was made to try to make Ohio more competitive in attracting craft breweries.  The beer business has been booming, and although Ohio already is home to many excellent breweries, lawmakers were worried that some companies were limiting their operations here because of the brewing restrictions.

When the bill was passed, its sponsors emphasized that the high-alcohol beer wasn’t designed for sale to people who wanted to chug, saying it was a “sipping beer” that was an “extension of an art form.”  According to press reports, one of the beers that is now brewed and available for sale is a triple oatmeal Russian imperial stout, which is 13.8 percent alcohol.

I like to have a beer now and then, and when I’m ordering at a brew pub I pay attention to the alcohol information about the available options.  My tastes tend toward lighter, lower alcohol beers, because I’m looking for refreshment and particular kinds of taste.

I don’t think I would even want to try a super dark beer that was 13.8 percent alcohol — which would really pack a punch.  It doesn’t sound like the kind of beer you’d drink while eating a cheeseburger.  But if eliminating the alcohol limit allows Ohio breweries to cater to people who do crave that kind of concoction, I’m all for it.

In Titletown

This morning finds us in the City of Champions — Cleveland.  UJ, Russell and I came up yesterday afternoon to watch an early edition of October baseball as the Tribe beat the Detroit Tigers, 1-0, in a brilliant display of bullpen management by manager Terry Francona.  It was a fantastic nail-biter that ended in triumph.  Then we walked to a nearby pub to learn that, thanks to a well-timed rain delay, we could watch the entirety of Ohio State’s epic beat down of Oklahoma.  

Today we’re going to swing by Octoberfest on Public Square, then it’s off to see if the Browns can resemble a professional football team against the Ravens.  Can we complete the Cleveland-Buckeyes trifecta?  Or will we learn, as Meat Loaf once sang, that two out of three ain’t bad?