Who is actually being taxed on the lottery?

March 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm (economics) (, )

Lottery buyers line up to pay a tax


Friday morning, many Americans lined up outside their local convenience stores, hoping to pick the lucky numbers that would win the record-setting $640 million jackpot offered by Mega Millions. The curious thing about this fervor is not that the odds of winning are 1 in 176 million, but rather that in effect, Americans are anxiously lining up to pay a tax, even if it is wrapped in attractive clothing.

A recent article makes the argument that lottery buyers are lining up to pay a tax. 34% of ticket sales goes to the government, so he’s arguing that it’s a tax on people who buy tickets.  The tax is actually on the people who win.

Think of it this way: you invest $1 into a business.  The government takes a 34% cut.  Who loses the 34 cents, you or the business?  The business.  It’s not the person who initially pays that loses 34%, it’s the person at the receiving end who loses it.

Or to put it simply: if 10 people each pay $1 into a lottery and the winner ends up with only $6.60, with $3.40 going to the government, it would be silly to say that the other 9 people were the ones paying the taxes.  Clearly it’s the winner who taking the loss.

Let’s say the 34% government contribution didn’t exist.  It’s not like tickets would suddenly only cost 66 cents.  Tickets would still cost $1, and the jackpot would be bigger.  Lottery winners basically pay a hefty tax on their winnings (probably around 70% total, counting 34% to education plus state/federal taxes).  I don’t think they really care, though.

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50 banned words on New York tests, polling, and cultural bias

March 29, 2012 at 6:53 am (Language and politics) (, , , , )


Piers Morgan examines 50 words that are banned on New York school tests. Here’s the full list:

  • Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological)
  • Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs
  • Birthday celebrations (and birthdays)
  • Bodily functions
  • Cancer (and other diseases)
  • Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)
  • Celebrities
  • Children dealing with serious issues
  • Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia)
  • Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting)
  • Crime
  • Death and disease
  • Divorce
  • Evolution
  • Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes
  • Gambling involving money
  • Halloween
  • Homelessness
  • Homes with swimming pools
  • Hunting
  • Junk food
  • In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge
  • Loss of employment
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling)
  • Parapsychology
  • Politics
  • Pornography
  • Poverty
  • Rap Music
  • Religion
  • Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan)
  • Rock-and-Roll music
  • Running away
  • Sex
  • Slavery
  • Terrorism
  • Television and video games (excessive use)
  • Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters)
  • Vermin (rats and roaches)
  • Violence
  • War and bloodshed
  • Weapons (guns, knives, etc.)
  • Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.

As an educational researcher, I take a completely different approach. One of the main goals of testing is to assess a student’s knowledge and understanding of a particular subject. This can be a very delicate process — the ways in which questions are worded can have a significant impact on the answers given. This is a constant issue in political polling, for example. A recent YouGov poll suggests that a majority of Republicans don’t want to decrease spending to most government programs, but there’s a difference between wanting to cut spending to a government program vs. the complexity of actual issues that concern voters, such as whether additional spending is possible with a budget deficit, whether the funds are better spent elsewhere, or whether a federal program is best suited to implement the program (perhaps it’s better run as a state or local program). People’s understanding of social and economic issues is often much more complex and nuanced than polling suggests.

An infamous case of polling bias happened in 2010, when the Pew Research Center asked, “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or something else?” 34% of respondents said that Obama was Christian while 18% said he was Muslim. Time magazine used different wording: “Do you personally believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?” Given only two options, 47% of respondents said he was Christian, while 24% said Muslim. The choice of wording influences how people answer a question. If the following question is asked: “Do you believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim?” then it’s likely that an even higher number of people will say yes.

When constructing a test, it’s important to remove any bias that may occur from how the questions and responses are worded. In particular, cultural bias may skew test responses. Here’s an example: “John put his hat on the table” vs. “John put his afghan on the divan.” The first sentence would be clear to most people, but the second sentence may be more difficult to understand. The extra effort required to process the second sentence may be too small to measure in individual test-takers, but looking at aggregate scores may yield more significant differences.

I think of it as noise. When constructing a test, you want to make sure that there’s as little noise as possible. Consider the following question: “Charles Manson rode the train for 3 hours. The train was travelling at 60 miles per hour. How far did the train go?” You may spend more time thinking about why Charles Manson is on the train, where he’s headed, or any number of other thoughts. Or the following question: “The farmer killed 3 chickens on Saturday, 5 chickens on Sunday, 2 chickens on Monday, and no chickens the rest of the week. On average, how many chickens does the farmer kill per day?” That question may make some people queasy, but now replace “chickens” with “kittens” and suddenly you’ll see test scores drop. The attitude that you have towards kittens being killed may be the same attitude a vegetarian has towards chickens being killed.

A poorly designed test confuses what is being testing with who is being tested. If a question singles out a particular group of people, that makes test data less reliable. It’s not that educational researchers want to avoid offending people, it’s that offending people creates noise in the data that skews results. Is it enough to make a single person answer a question incorrectly? Probably not. If I ask you the two Obama religion questions from above, chances are your answer will be consistent. However, when you total up all of the answers and compare the two surveys, you start seeing differences emerge that aren’t obvious at the individual level.

Cross-posted on Found in Translation: http://foundintranslation.berkeley.edu/?p=7290

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Corporations, innovation, and wealth

March 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm (economics) (, , , , )


A new role for the 1%

The problem with this scheme is that it works by stifling innovation and competition. The wealthy stay wealthy by extracting value instead of creating it.

Interesting perspective, and he gives a nice historical analysis of the rise of corporations.  I disagree with his argument, though.  Innovation happens precisely because of corporations.  Innovation is risky, and it requires wealth, because a single innovator is typically unable to have the full resources needed to create a new product.  Anyone in the past 20 years who got rich off the internet benefited from the major investments that the government and corporations put into expanding the internet 50 years ago.  Gates, Wozniak, and Jobs relied on companies like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and IBM to invest in and produce technology.  If all we did was “invest in the people and businesses in our own communities” then we’d be living in pre-industrial America.

The only sustainable path forward is to accept that corporations extract wealth, and to create an environment that encourages corporations to reinvest that wealth into technology, productivity, and local/national infrastructure.

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Study: Rich more likely to take candy from babies

February 27, 2012 at 5:15 pm (Research) (, , )

Interesting new study from Berkeley:


Lotta potential holes in the studies:

Candy experiment: people’s perceptions of being rich may not reflect actually being rich.  We’re socialized from a very young age to perceive rich people as being greedy (Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, the old rich men making a $1 bet in “Trading Places”).  I doubt someone who is actually wealthy thinks, “I’m wealthy, what would a wealthy person do in this situation.”  Also, I’d personally take all the candy, because little kids shouldn’t be eating so much sugar unless their parents are ok with it.

Dice experiment: Now this one is interesting.  At face value, it seems that wealthier participants are cheating.  However, if you look into the study a bit, you see that there are 5 rolls, with the total rigged so that it wouldn’t be higher than 12 (so people reporting higher than 12 are cheaters).  12/5 = 2.4, whereas the average roll is expected to be 3.5.  Participants were told that the *highest* roll would win, so a true cheater would want to report a high roll, not an average one.  If participants were reporting average values for rolls (3s and 4s), then they’re not really cheaters, but people trying to “fix” the data.

Pricier cars: people in more expensive cars tend to be older, which may be a better explanation of driving behavior than wealth.  At the very least, it’s a confounding factor.  Also, if the car is flashy then there’s a lot more going on than wealth — I’d say it’s more related to being a jerk than being wealthy (like the last sentence of the article suggests).

What the wealthy are good at is understanding and exploiting a system.  When Romney pays 15% taxes, he’s not cheating the system, he’s maximizing the value of his resources within the parameters of the system.  Wealthy people are also better at anticipating and mitigating risk, which means accumulating more wealth than is needed.  Is someone who takes more than necessary greedy or better prepared?  I think it depends on how you frame the situation.


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A Dictionary of Bay Area Locations with Spanish Origins

February 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm (language and geography, Spanish) (, , , , )

Ever wonder how Mount Diablo got its name?  What the “San” in San Pablo means, or what an “alcatraz” is?

California’s diverse toponymy comes from its rich cultural history — places like Ohlone Park, Sonoma, Solano, Petaluma, Marin and Napa all originate from the indigenous peoples of the area (Ohlone, Coast Miwok, Pomo, Suisunes, and Nappan).   In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries began settling in Northern California (Alta California), which resulted in “San” and “Santa” (saint masculine/feminine) locations  named after Catholic saints, along with Spanish words that described  the land (loma for hill, vista for view, mar for sea) and specific characteristics of a location (alamo for poplar trees, codornices for quails,  los gatos for cougars).  In 1821, the Mexican War for Independence resulted in Mexico gaining independence from Spain, which led to several locations being named after early land  owners or historical figures such as Vallejo, Benicia, Castro, Alvarado, and Peralta.

I’ve compiled a list of Bay Area names with Spanish origins.  This  list is likely not complete, so if you know of a location, feel free to comment!

Alameda County – “a place where poplar trees grow”

Alamo – “poplar” (fun fact: Alamo Ave and Poplar St are a block away from each other in Berkeley)

Alcatraz Island – “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” or “The Island of the Pelicans.”

Alvarado – Named for Juan Alvarado, Mexican Governor of California from 1836 to 1842.

Bonita Ave – “pretty”

Benicia – Named after Francisca Benicia Carrillo, Vallejo’s wife.

Buena Vista – “good view”

California – Likely named after “California,” a Utopian island of the  Amazons described in Las Sergas de Esplandián, a 16th century Spanish  novel. (reference)

Campanile – Italian for “bell tower.”  In Spanish “campana” means “bell” (the large bell tower on the Berkeley campus)

Castro Valley – Named after Guillermo Castro, a soldier in the Mexican army and a rancher.

Castro District – Named after José Castro, acting governor of Alta California in 1835-1836.

Codornices – “quails”

Contra Costa County – “opposite coast,” because of its location  opposite San Francisco, in an easterly direction, on the San Francisco  Bay.

Corona Heights – “crown”

Corte Madera – the imperative command “Chop wood,” as in “Do chop the  wood.”  The area was famous for producing lumber out of redwood trees  which went into the construction of the city of San Francisco. (reference)

El Camino Real – “the royal road”

El Cerrito – “little hill”

El Dorado Ave – “the golden one”

El Sobrante – “leftover”, “remainder”, “extra”, or “surplus”

El Verano – “the Summer”

Embarcadero – Spanish verb embarcar, meaning “to embark.”  Embarcadero itself means “the place to embark.”

Fresno – “ash tree”

Laguna Honda – “deep lagoon”

Los Altos – “the heights”

Los Gatos – “the cats,” referring to the cougars that are indigenous to the foothills in which the town is located. (reference)

Mariposa Ave – “butterfly”

Martinez – named after Ygnacio Martínez in 1824.

Merced – “mercy,” from Merced River, El Río de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (River of Our Lady of Mercy)

Milpitas – “little corn fields”

Miraloma – mira “view” and loma “hill”

Miramar – mira “view” and mar “sea”

Monte Sereno – “serene hill”

Monterey – monte “hill” and rey “king”

Mount Diablo – The conventional view is that the peak derives its  name from the 1805 escape of several Chupcan Native Americans from the  Spanish in a nearby willow thicket. The natives seemed to disappear, and  the Spanish soldiers thus gave the area the name “Monte del Diablo,”  meaning “thicket of the devil.” Monte was later misinterpreted by  English speakers as mount or mountain. (reference)

Peralta – named after Luis María Peralta, who received one of the largest of the Spanish land grants, Rancho San Antonio, a 44,800-acre (181 km2) plot that encompassed most of the East Bay region of California.

Palo Alto – “tall tree”

Point Reyes – “king’s point”

Potrero Hills – “pasture”

Presidio – “garrison”

Rio Vista – “river view”

Sacramento – “sacrament”

San Andreas – Saint Andrew

San Francisco – Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), a Roman Catholic  saint and founder of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans).

San Jose – Saint Joseph

San Mateo – Saint Matthew

San Pablo – Saint Paul

San Rafael – Archangel Raphael, the Angel of Healing.

Santa Clara – Saint Clare of Assisi, Italy.

Santa Cruz – “holy cross”

Santa Fe – “holy faith”

Sausalito – from Spanish “sauzalito,” meaning “small willow grove.”

Sierra Nevada – “snowy mountain range”

Tiburon – “shark”

Vallejo – named after General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in 1851.

Ventura – “luck”

Vista del Mar – “view of the sea”

Yerba Buena – Spanish “hierba buena” literally meaning “good herb.”

Which ones did you already know, and which ones were a surprise?

cross-posted on Found in Translation: http://foundintranslation.berkeley.edu/?p=7078

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The Floral Clock

April 29, 2009 at 5:06 pm (nothing in particlar) ()

In “Philosophia Botanica” (1751), the great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus proposed that it should be possible to plant a floral clock. He noted that two species of daisy, the hawk’s-beard and the hawkbit, opened and closed at their respective times within about a half-hour each day. He suggested planting these daisies along with St. John’s Wort, marigolds, water-lilies and other species in a circle. The rhythmic opening and closing of the plants would be the effective hands of this clock.



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Morse Code

April 27, 2009 at 8:48 pm (nothing in particlar)

So I noticed today that Google had Morse Code on its front page.  “How interesting,” I thought to myself.  It’s Samuel Morse’s birthday — he was the inventor of Morse Code and one of the inventors/developers of the electric telegraph.

I actually learned Morse Code many years ago, when I was a Boy Scout.  That itself isn’t really that interesting.  What is interesting (to me!) is the the system we used for learning Morse Code.  Every Morse Code character was transformed into an ideogram; that is, we used pictures to help us remember the Morse Code characters.  For example, the letter “A” which is represented in Morse Code as dot-dash, was an apple with a worm next to it.  “B” was a bee with three drops of honey.  Note that when “speaking” Morse Code, you don’t say “dot” and “dash,” you say “dit” and “dah.”  I’ll still use dash/dot to represent the characters, but dit/dah to represent the sound.

 An apple with a worm next to it.
 A bee with three drops of honey.
 A Camel.  neck (dash) – hump (dot) – body(dash) – hump (dot).
 A dog with 2 doggie “presents” next to it. 
 An egg
 Imagine a fish.  2 eyes ( .. ) a fin ( _ ) and a tail ( . )
 Two gold bars with a gold nugget next to it.
 The four dots mark the corners of a square, representing the square shape of the letter “H”
 Two eyes.
 The lowercase letter “j” — the dotted top and the stem (picture it sideways)
 Wright Brothers at “Kitty Hawk” — imagine an airplane from the front, the two dashes are the wings and the dot is the propellor.
 The ( ._ ) is a sideways lighthouse (the dot is the top where the light is, the dash is the building) and ( .. ) are two rocks at the base of the lighthouse.
 “Mickey Mouse” — somehow that was enough.
 A in reverse.
 This one is easy to remember, “SOS” is a distress signal (. . . _ _ _ . . .) with S being three dots and O being three dashes.  SOS is a backronym for “Save our Ship” (I’ve seen other variations but that’s the one I learned!).
 Two pea-shooters side-by-side.  Imagine the dot being a pea, and the dash being the pea-shooter handle.
 Similar to “H” and “J” – the dashes form an “O” and the dot is the Q’s squiggle.
 It’s a racecar – looking at it sideways, the dots are the wheels and the dash is the body of the car.
 You remember this from “SOS” (refer to “O”)
 This one was interesting.  “You want some tea?” “duh!”
 A unicorn!  Two eyes and the horn.
 From Veethoven’s (Beethoven’s) 5th symphony – dit dit dit dah! (watch the video and it’ll make perfect sense.  except the v/b part).
 Like the Warner symbol, but in reverse (wow this one is bad)
 Two xylophone sticks pointed at each other.
 Similar to “J” and “Q” – this was a representation of the letter “Y” – the three dashes represent the three “prongs” of the letter, and the dot is the center where they meet.
 Similar to fish and unicorn, this is a Zebra (looking to the right).  Two stripes and two eyes.


Such a method, of course, isn’t unique to learning Morse Code.  As Dave wrote in 漢字が怖いですか。On “The Horror of Ideograms” and jfboy.shieh wrote in Cultural heritage status for complex Chinese characters, we often associate images with characters.  It’s part of how we learn a new language — or how we learn anything, really.  We adapt new conceptual schema to old ones.  Whether it’s Piaget’s Constructivism, Selinker’s Interlanguage, or Lakoff’s theories on Conceptual Metaphors, the idea that learning occurs through the interactions between multiple knowledge systems is well-developed in many fields.

And that is Morse Code in a nutshell.


cross-posted on Found in Translation

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“Making” music

April 23, 2009 at 3:56 am (Language and music) ()

One of the characteristics of “Web 2.0” is the separation of form and content. Back in the 90s, before Facebook and MySpace and Twitter, when social networks consisted of sites like Geocities and you spoke to your friends on IRC, putting a page online actually required some coding know-how. You basically started with a blank index.html and the rest was up to you. Nowadays, making a website is often automated.  Even this blog that you’re looking at only requires a small amount of knowledge to make a post.  You don’t have to know how to code in php or run a database to get your content online (well someone does, but not you) — you can add your content to pre-existing forms to create a website.

For the most part, playing music is the opposite. Form (the instrument) is still intimately tied to content (music).  If you want to play music, one of the biggest obstacles is knowing how to play a musical instrument. You want to play the clarinet solo from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue?  Spend a month or so learning how to play the clarinet.  Spend at least a  few years learning how to play it well.  Want to play Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood”?  Not even guitarists who have played for years can manage such a feat (and no, Guitar Hero doesn’t count!)

Every once in a while, someone tells me that they’re not a musician.   And I think to myself, “Everyone’s a musician!  they just need the right instrument!”  Whistling is a form of music, isn’t it?  And when we whistle, our mouths are the instrument, right?  Think about it.  The principles are the same as any other wind instrument: alter the path of the wind to produce different tones.  The same way a flute player will cover fingering holes on the flute to essentially make the flute longer or shorter (as far as the wind path is concerned), you move your tongue and lips to “shape” the wind. 

So why is it that practically anyone can whistle a favorite tune, or a melody they’ve just heard, but ask them to play it on a piano and most people are lost?

I think that deep down inside, everyone is capable of creating epic musical masterpieces.  Why aren’t we there?  The problem isn’t that we’re lacking musicians, the problem is that for the most part, form and content are still tied together in music.  It’s like those early personal web pages from the 90s — you had to know html before you could put your words online.  As far as most people are concerned, you have to know how to play an instrument in order to make music.

Web 2.0 is reshaping the internet, transforming it into a place where you don’t need a background in computer programming to participate.  How will Music 2.0 look like?

Perhaps it will no longer be about the actual process of making music, but of arranging, synthesizing, even orchestrating music.  Consider the following video which features musicians from around the world, playing separately, yet blended together into a beautiful arrangement:

or the “I can’t play guitar but I do know how to edit video!” genre of YouTube videos:

Should not being able to play an instrument preclude someone from being a musician?

In what ways is technology itself the instrument?  perhaps the first of its kind, the computer as a meta-instrument?






cross-posted on Found in Translation

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Youki – the wound healer

April 12, 2009 at 5:04 am (nothing in particlar) ()

it’s so funny seeing my name on products…





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April 7, 2009 at 9:33 am (nothing in particlar) (, , )

How does freeterminism get no google hits?  A nonce word combining free will + determinism.  Someone somewhere must have thought “free will vs. determinism is a false dichotomy, we need a new word to represent a more hybrid system… like freeterminism!”



p.s. I wonder what kind of person gets a kick out of finding words that don’t exist on google.
p.p.s. I wonder how long it’ll take for this post to show up on google, thus invalidating my post.

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