Friday, August 31, 2007


A few weeks ago we got back from an extremely relaxing vacation to California. I think I'm still feeling the residual good vibes from the trip. So here are some pictures of blue sky and other good things.

The primary reason for the trip was to attend my Grandma Mary's 90th birthday party and my Grandma Quinn's 85th. My parents also snuck a small baby shower into the schedule. It had been way too long since we had seen some family friends and some branches of the family tree. Here's my Dad with two of his siblings.

My Aunt Kathleen chatting with my Mom's tennis partner Charlene.

After two days of non-stop partying, we retreated up to the mountains and proceeded to sit on our butts for two whole days, drink beer, eat chips and salsa and stare at the beauty of nature. Which was absolutely perfect.

Before heading back, we dropped in on a few friends up in the Bay Area and gathered them together for dinner.

Here are Le and I, modeling our sweet EJ t-shirts.

Cathy stretches!

On our way back across the continent, we parachuted down into Mount Vernon, Iowa for Laura Jean to officiate her cousin Peter's wedding. I'm pretty sure we were in Iowa for less than 24 hours.

Here are Jesse and Amy, looking pleased...

... and Peter and Mardi looking happily married.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunday Data Blogging (08/26/07) - Employment

While digging around at work looking for something unrelated, I stumbled across this data table (PDF) from the U.S. Small Business Administration (data courtesy of the U.S. Census) and I thought it was pretty fascinating so I thought I would share. It tabulates total employment, payroll and number of firms for businesses of various sizes (more data here). Here's a plot of total employment for different-sized businesses (from 2004, in 23 bins of varying sizes, plotted on a log-scale).

First off: binning data in uneven bins (i.e. comparing 5-9 against 400-499, or whatnot) seriously distorts the distribution and is a no-no. Total employment from the largest firms dominates everything else, which may or may not be the case. I couldn't find the raw data to do it better, but we can at least plot the cumulative distribution of the given data, which solves the binning problem to a certain extent:

This is a much more useful plot. From this we can see that the 5.8 million businesses with less than 100 employees (which I would colloquially define as "small") account for about one-third of the employment in this country. Similarly, businesses with more than 2,500 employees (which I would colloquially define as "gargantuan" and of which there are only 3,500 nationally) are also about one-third of employment. Again, even the cumulative plot isn't perfect in this case; it would be better to break that final >2500 data point down even further to see what the trend really looks like. Still, most of us work for pretty big companies, and only a really small portion of the workforce works in Mom 'n' Pop joints.

For me, the plot raises the question: what is the socially optimal distribution of employment? And what did this plot look like historically? In a lot of ways, smaller is better when it comes to creating healthy communities (or at least that's my bias), so what policies can we implement that might foster more smaller, community-friendly businesses and fewer corporate behemoths?

I don't know, but I thought it was worth thinking about. Yay data!

Correct Beliefs

Sean over at Cosmic Variance often wonders about religious belief and morality:
People sometimes argue back and forth about whether religious belief is a good thing, because it induces believers to be moral or charitable. In a big-picture sense, I think arguments of this form completely miss the point; beliefs should be judged on whether they are correct or incorrect, not on whether they cause people to do good or bad things.
I generally agree with some of the things he says on this topic, although I am often puzzled by his focus on "correct beliefs" and the idea that you actually can judge beliefs on whether they are correct or incorrect. Also, I don't get a lot of utility out of telling people that their religious beliefs are wrong and that mine are correct (although plenty of people on the internet seem to find this quite enjoyable) so I suppose I fall into the camp of those who are quite happy to have people religious people in the world and don't generally see that they are more or less moral than the non-religious.

Generally I place politics over epistemology. I don't really care what people believe -- because, let's face it, people believe some crazy stuff and no one really agrees with anyone else -- but because I do have to share the planet with other people, I am concerned about what they do. Religious folks who share my values and are out there doing good in the world are pretty damn awesome in my book and I am happy to work with them to make a better and more just world. This isn't to say that non-religious folks aren't doing good work, just that there are a lot of religious people who undoubtedly are.

What's more, I have serious doubts that most beliefs are even falsifiable - i.e. that there is even a framework for deciding correct vs. incorrect. Leaving religion aside, not every belief conforms to the high standards of scientific discourse, even for people who are working scientists. Honestly, most political beliefs (right, left, up, down) are more about values than rational appraisal of evidence and thus fall into this category.

Anyway, I agree with Sean that it's pointless to try to measure the aggregate good caused by religion and compare it against the aggregate evil, but I'm also suspicious of the idea that our all of our beliefs can or should be judged by scientific standards. I'm sure this makes me an "appeaser" in the eyes of the New Atheism Movement, but the only people I've ever met who claimed to be "totally rational in every facet of their life" were Objectivists. And that just ain't cool.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Just got back from over two weeks of (mostly) travel -- a week in Cali, a few days of work and then a weekend in Philly. So, lots to blog about, but not tonight. Instead, have some music.

Yay pixellated squirrel! Fun song too -- more music at their mySpace page.