Lies, Damns Lies, and Herbert London

I am grading the final projects of my class, I am trying the clear the backlog of publishing all the class notes, I am way behind on my STOC reviews, and in two days I am taking off for a complicated two-week trips involving planes, trains and a rented automobile, as well as an ambitious plan of doing no work whatsoever from December 20 to December 31.

So, today I was browsing Facebook, and when I saw a post containing an incredibly blatant arithmetic mistake (which none of the several comments seemed to notice) I spent the rest of the morning looking up where it came from.

The goal of the post was to make the wrong claim that people have been paying more than enough money into social security (through payroll taxes) to support the current level of benefits. Indeed, since the beginning, social security has been paying individuals more than they put in, and now that population and salaries have stop growing, social security is also paying out retired people more than it gets from working people, so that the “trust fund” (whether one believes it is a real thing or an accounting fiction) will run out in the 2030s unless some change is made.

This is a complicated matter, but the post included a sentence to the extent that $4,500 a year, with an interest of 1% per year “compounded monthly”, would add up to $1,3 million after 40 years. This is not even in the right order of magnitude (it adds up to about $220k) and it should be obvious without making the calculation. Who would write such a thing, and why?

My first stop was a July 2012 post on snopes, which commented on a very similar viral email. Snopes points out various mistakes (including the rate of social security payroll taxes), but the calculation in the snopes email, while based on wrong assumptions, has correct arithmetic: it says that $4,500 a year, with a 5% interest, become about $890k after 49 years.

So how did the viral email with the wrong assumptions and correct arithmetic morph into the Facebook post with the same wrong assumptions but also the wrong arithmetic?

I don’t know, but here is an August 2012 post on, you can’t make this stuff up, Accuracy in Media, which wikipedia describes as a “media watchdog.”

The post is attributed to Herbert London, who has PhD from Columbia, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relation and used to be the president of a conservative think-tank. Currently, he has an affiliation with King’s College in New York. London’s post has the sentence I saw in the Facebook post:

(…) an employer’s contribution of $375 per month at a modest one percent rate compounded over a 40 year work experience the total would be $1.3 million.

The rest of the post is almost identical to the July 2012 message reported by Snopes.

Where did Dr. London get his numbers? Maybe he compounded this hypothetical saving as 1% per month? No, because that would give more than $4 million. One does get about $1.3 million if one saves $375 a month for thirty years with a return of 1% per month, though.

Perhaps a more interesting question is why this “fake math” is coming back after five years. In 2012, Paul Ryan put forward a plan to “privatize” Social Security, and such a plan is now being revived. The only way to sell such a plan is to convince people that if they saved in a private account the amount of payroll taxes that “goes into” Social Security, they would get better benefits. This may be factually wrong, but that’s hardly the point.

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Ancient wisdom

[I sneeze several times and then the following conversation happens]

J.Z.: In China, we say that if you sneeze once, it means that someone is thinking of you. If you sneeze twice, it means someone is cursing you.

Me: and what does it mean when I sneeze three times or more?

J.Z.: it means you have a cold.

They are perfect for each other

Now that Ted Cruz has chosen his running mate, everybody is wondering: who is going to be Trump’s pick for vice-president?

It would make sense if, to mitigate his negatives, Trump chose a person of color and someone who has a history of speaking out against income inequality.

He or she would have to be someone who is media-savvy and with some experience running a campaign, but definitely not a career politician. And of course he or she should be someone who endorsed Trump early on, like, say, in January.

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七夕快乐!

Happy Qi Xi festival, everybody. This is the “Chinese Valentine’s day,” which falls on July 7th on the lunar calendar, which this year is August 20th. The festivity relates to a story that, like many Chinese stories, is a pretty long story.

The gist of it is that the (seventh) daughter of a goddess at some point came to earth to live as a mortal and met a cowboy (as in, a guy whose job is to herd cows). The two fell in love, got married, had two children (I told you, it’s a long story) and they were pretty happy, until the goddess mom realized what happened.

As is mothers-in-law’s wont, she did not approve, and she recalled the daughter to heaven, where she is now the star Vega. The guy was desperate, but then one of his cows suggested that he kills it, and then use its skin to fly to heaven (don’t ask) and reunite with his wife.

He does so, and it works, so that he is now the star Altair, but then the mom-in-law found out again. So she created a river, the Milky Way, to separate them once more. And now they are forever separated, except that, every year, magpies (which are a kind of crows) fly to heaven and use their bodies to create a bridge over the Milky Way, so that the two lovers can use it to meet. And this happens on the 7th day and the 7th month of the year.

unary communication

When Twitter started to become popular, I remember thinking that the premise of its service, that its distinguishing feature was its limitation, was ridiculous. (Remember never to ask me for investment advice.)

At the time, I thought that it would be really fun to create a parody site where you could only post one bit messages. Clearly, the site would be called bitter, and when you log in the prompt would ask “Are you bitter?” and if you answered yes your post would be a frowny face, while if you answered no your post would be a smiley face. I went as far as checking that this didn’t seem too hard to pull off in Drupal, to make sure no such parody site existed already, and to see if bittr.com or bittr.net were available. (Of course they weren’t!)

Anyways, I was mistaken in thinking that two possible messages, and hence one bit of information, was the end of the road. Indeed, it is possible to have only one possible message, and this is the insight pursued by yo, which, apparently, is not a parody and has received one million dollars in funding.

there are three things that are alike, alcoholism, homosexuality, and … oops!

“I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that – and I look at the homosexual issue the same way”

(Rick Perry, Governor of Texas)

So, if I understand Perry’s point, he may have a genetic inclination to be gay but he forces himself “not to do that”?