Archive for January 31, 2010

What Does the Federal Budget Freeze Look Like?

The first part of this post is just an overview of the data I used to make this video, so if you don’t care about that, you can skip over it to the part where I talk about what the budget freeze means.

First, I’ve got a new video up called “What Does The Federal Budget Freeze Look Like?”

Here is the data summary of this video:

I got the budget numbers (budget, discretionary, mandatory) from the overview of the 2010 budget which includes projections for 2011. I did this because the 2011 budget is not available yet (although I understand that those projections are a bit low and the real budget will be bigger than the projection).

That gives us the following numbers:

  • 2011 Federal Budget – $3.7 trillion
  • Mandatory portion of federal budget – $2.322 trillion
  • Discretionary portion of federal budget – $1,380 trillion

I’ve seen it consistently reported that the freeze will affect $447 billion of the budget, although I imagine that number is subject to change. The amount saved from this freeze has been consistently reported as $15 billion in the first year and $250 billion over 10 years.

The stimulus funds as reported by at the time of this post are:

That leaves:

  • $195 billion in tax cuts that have not been applied
  • $202 billion in contracts, grants and loans that haven’t been spent
  • $121 billion in entitlements (what a creepy name) that haven’t been spent

If we left the tax cuts in place, but canceled the rest of the spending, we’d save $323 billion… which is a shade less than what I said in the video. Apparently, that is the result of some rounding errors in my spreadsheet, but the $4 billion comes out to about one and a half teaspoons, which isn’t enough to make a difference in the visualization.

As for the water part of it… If we assume that the budget is 192 ounces of water that we’ve split into 4 oz cups, then all the math in the video works out. I actually under-counted the unspent stimulus (it would be 17 ounces instead of 16). I measured my ice cube tray and found that each ice cube was 1.5 ounces and I used 1 and a half tablespoons of water to measure out the .75 ounces that would be equivalent to $15 billion.

<End of Boring Math Things>

OK… now to comment on what I think about the budget freeze to anyone who cares what I actually think.

First of all, I hate the “we’re saving $250 billion over 10 years” line. It is a piece of crass political rhetoric and I’m disappointed that the administration would use it. If they actually implement a three year freeze on the portion of the budget they’re talking about (which is a big if, but let’s assume the best), why measure the effects in the space of 10 years?

The answer is “To make the freeze look bigger”. They’re basically just basing the extended savings off of projected interest payments and “savings” due to the fact that the baseline on that portion of the budget hasn’t moved. It is setting a dangerous data precedent where politicians realize that all they have to do is calculate a projection out as far as they need in order to get the numbers they want. It would be like giving an employee a $5,000 bonus, but saying that you gave them a $8,000 bonus based on a 5% return of that investment over the course of 10 years.  They might as well say that they’re saving a trillion dollars over the next 25 years or a hundred trillion over the next 300 years. It is a data statement designed to trick people.

Second, I hate the “We’re saving all this money by not spending it” line because it is similarly political. If a future politician wants to play this stupid numbers game, all they have to do is “project” that they will spend like a crazy person next year and when the next year comes, they decided to spend like a half crazy person. Then they can claim that they have “saved” all this money because they “reduced” their projected spending.

As a slapdash example, a politician could project that they will increase spending by 5% next year and then decide at the last moment to increase it by 3%. They could then spin that decision to increase by a smaller amount as a decision to “cut” their spending (which wasn’t real spending, only projected spending) by 2%.

Last, my attempt to visualize the scale of the budget freeze does not mean I don’t support it. I really like to see cuts to the budget and I personally think this is not an insignificant one.I think it is worth our energy to do exactly what the Obama administration seems to be doing…freezing increases and looking around for crappy programs to cut.

Keep in mind the hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle. The Republicans are hypocrites for claiming that this is a totally inconsequential budget cut. In 2005, George W. Bush proposed a 1% cut (not a freeze, a cut) in discretionary spending that wasn’t Department of Defense or Homeland Security. Translated to today, Bush’s cuts would have “saved” $33 billion using the calculation metric for the current freeze; more than twice the amount that this freeze would save us. At the time, John McCain called it a “very austere budget” and Dick Cheney went out pushing their credentials as cost cutters. I find it strange that they were ecstatic about saving the equivalent of $33 billion but think that $15 billion is a drop in a bucket.

Of course the Democrats blasted Bush’s cuts as a gimmick too small to make a difference, but seem to have lost much of their skepticism over these new, smaller “cuts”.

Overall, it looks like both sides are more interested in political gain than in having a frank discussion about the numbers and what they mean. This should surprise no one, but I confess to finding myself somewhat dismayed that the Obama administration, for all their hype about being pro-science and pro-data, has no problem spinning the numbers in a way that decreases clear comprehension in order to increase message potency.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-01-31

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11 Most Overrated Directors of All Time – Alternate Title: Ben Shapiro Wouldn’t Know Good Filmmaking If His Robot Brain Suddenly Came To Life And Made Him A Real Boy

Alternate Alternate Title:

Shapiro vs. Shapiro – The Deathmatch

Normally, people saying stupid things on the internet just rolls off my back because I have so little energy for fighting with people over things in general. But I haven’t been able to get Ben Shapiro’s “Top 10 Most Overrated Directors of All Time” out of my head due to the sheer magnitude of its inanity. It’s at least an 8.3 on the inanity scale. It’s the kind of inanity that shakes buildings and causes car alarms to go off.

It also causes Mark Steyn, lover of all things Tarantino, to go into convulsions. And that will not do.

So, in order to redeem the surname (we’re both Shapiros… so, just in case you were wondering, yes I AM actually part of the secret Zionist cabal. We meet on Tuesdays. I bring cookies shaped like the blood of the innocent.)… where was I?

OK… in order to redeem the surname, I’ve thrown together a coherent list of the most overrated directors of all time. My goal is to reveal how Ben has managed to cause waves by simply naming a bunch of directors that people like and then blasting them with his ignorance cannon.

11) David Lynch

I tried to move David Lynch up the list, but everyone else was so much worse that I just couldn’t do it. And I wanted to give Ben props for getting one right (Lynch is his #5). Lynch is the epitome of the stuck-up artsy type who is smart and knows it. One the one hand, if you can’t recognize the surreal genius that is Eraserhead, you’re missing out on a whole genre of abstract filmmaking. (Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to enjoy a film that is good for it to be good… a distinction that Ben seems to ignore.) But I feel that Lynch got too puffed up with himself and started throwing things at the screen, seeing if it sticks and calling it art. His last few films have been all but unwatchable. Mulholland Drive was a TV pilot that he turned into a movie and it feels like it. I’ve been trying to wash the taste of it out of my mouth for years.

10) Lars Von Trier

von Trier is one of the filmmakers who started the short-lived (thank God) Dogme 95 movement, the absurd anti-Hollywood concept that eschewed sound design, lighting, tripods, and genres. Which is kind of like writing a novel without nouns.  von Trier made Dancer in the Dark, which is a movie that was good in concept, but executed in an almost painful manner. Then came his “I hates me some America” trilogy in which we are informed that intolerance and racism, unknown to the non-America world, are rampant in a country that von Trier has never visited and apparently knows only from movies by other self-important directors.

9) John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer was the blind squirrel that found two nuts in his long career. He made the The Manchurian Candidate and Ronin . Ronin is simply a “fine” movie rather than a “good” movie. It’s the one with all the car chases… none of them as good as the one in Bourne Identity. And The Manchurian Candidate survived despite Frankenheimer’s ham-fisted attempts to inject some “Political Stupid, X-tra Strength!” into the movie. Dear God, people! Not every movie has to be a metaphor for something political. Calm the hell down.

8 ) Gus Van Sant

Every once in a while Gus Van Sant stumbles across a screenplay that even he can’t mess up. When he does that, the screenplay wins “Best Original Screenplay”. See Good Will Hunting (good, but overrated) and Milk (I defer to Ann Althouse, who crosses herself and says a short prayer of thanks to the movie gods whenever she thinks of that movie). Outside of that, he loves to play in the genre of “nothing is happening, but let’s just hold this shot for far too long and call it art because it’s slow”. This is his standard stuff when he’s not doing something that is just transparently stupid, like refilming Psycho shot by shot. Why? WHYYYYYY!?!?

7) Edward Zwick

Edward Zwick has a knack for taking a great concept and tripping over himself until a movie comes out. All his movies look and feel like they should be good, but something just isn’t clicking. Oh yeah. It’s the director whispering “Give me an Oscar” in the background. Glory , Legends of the Fall, The Siege, The Last Samurai … all could have been great movies in the hands of someone with a deft touch. Zwick isn’t that person.

6) Robert Redford

Now we’re getting into the meat of it. Robert Redford won Martin Scorsese’s Best Director Oscar in 1981 with Ordinary People and I’ve never forgiven him for it (even though my age was still being counted in months at the time). His movies always feel like they want so hard to be deep, rich dramas, but end up feeling contrived. His pretentious Lions for Lambs commits the great failure of the “strawman conservative politician” being totally pwned by “plucky journalist”. Yawn.

Note to Redford: If you’re not good enough to even replicate your opponents’ argument, you’re not good enough to make a movie about them. You want an example of how smart you aren’t? Look at Aaron Sorkin, who can write a classic and powerful speech for a character with whom he vehemently disagrees (Colonel Nathan Jessep played by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men). I maintain that Redford didn’t know the cameras were running when he said to Paul Newman “You just keep thinkin’ Butch. That’s what you’re good at.

5) Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes is probably the most boring director out there. He seems obsessed with making movies about how terrible middle class American life is (see American Beauty , Revolutionary Road, and (I’ve heard) Away We Go… I haven’t seen the last one, but it looked much like the same thing). But that ship sailed.. what? Forty years ago? A little late to the party, aren’t we? His main talent seems to be the ability to hire really fantastic cinematographers, but even his best looking movie, Road to Perdition, took the elegant story from the graphic novel “The Road to Perdition”, yanked out the “The” from the title for reasons unknown, hired the brilliant Conrad Hall to shoot it in fantastic shadows and then stripped it of as much character and grace as they could get away with. Blech.

4) Warren Beatty

Here we have a man of such humility that each of the movies he directed were starring… himself. For the love. And then he gets nominated for an Oscar as either writer, director, or actor for every one that wasn’t Dick Tracy. Speaking of Dick Tracy, someone apparently forgot to inform Beatty that “stoic” is not the same thing as “lifeless”. Beatty’s rendition of Dick Tracy managed to give such a new meaning to the phrase “cardboard acting” that he opened the door to actual pieces of cardboard accepting nominations from the Academy. He was a trailblazer that way.

3) Baz Lurman

Strictly Ballroom, I will grant, was fun for its audacity. But Australia just wouldn’t end. And Moulin Rouge! was entertaining. For about an hour. I kept waiting for the big finale to blow me away but apparently something got mixed up in the editing room and someone put the finale at the beginning of the movie. By the end of the movie, we’re supposed to be sad when the character who coughed at about the 10 minute mark fell victim to some strange illness that involves coughing up blood.

I swear… if I ever make a movie set before 1940, I’m going to have each and every one of the characters cough early in the movie and NONE of them will get tuberculosis.

2) Ron Howard

Look, Opie. You’re not that good. (OK, Apollo 13 was amazing, but… shut up.) At this point I’m just being mean, but Ron Howard’s history of mediocrity is well documented. See Ron Howard’s movie-making flowchart below, stolen from

1) James Cameron

Jim Cameron is the quintessential example of a man who has had success go to his head. He used to be a fantastic action director, popping out such action classics as Terminator, Terminator 2 and True Lies. Although, come to think of it… all those movies starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. Could it be that Scharzenegger is the genius behind all Cameron’s movies? Scary thought.

Cameron is a technical genius, I’ll give him that. But so is David Fincher and that didn’t save The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button from being “Forrest Gump 2.0: Now With 50% Less Logic”.

Cameron’s concept of plot is “The boat sinks” (Titanic) or, when he’s feeling original, “The humans are bad” (Avatar, The Abyss). And yet he is poised to win yet another couple of Oscars this year for a movie in which, without the slightest hint of irony, the protagonist [SPOILER ALERT] destroys the evil technology loving humans with a pile of technology strapped to his chest. [SPOILERS DONE] As a visual effects director, Cameron is the best. As a filmmaker, the man is so overrated that it’s painful.

There. All done. Now, Ben, you can go back to whatever you do. Just leave my movies alone from now on. You’re giving conservative/libertarian Shapiros a bad name. All five of us.

Twitter Weekly Updates for January 24, 2010

I use Twitter too much. I basically use it as an overflow for my brain in order to maintain some consistent history of links that I like and thing that I thought were funny.

But Twitter is really bad if you want to remember something that happened over a week ago, so I’ve started using Twitter Tools to archive my tweets in something hat is a little easier to figure out.
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Speaking Gigs + My Readership Rocks

Thank you so much to everyone who came out and voted for my information visualization presentation at the MIX conference. I was among ten happy winners.

So I wanted to take a moment and let everyone know that I’ll be in three different cities over the next 4 months for conferences, so if anyone wants a “tweet-up“, I’m more than happy to get together and talk. I love meeting new people and I love to pay for beers (although you’ll probably be limited to something cheap due to budget constraints).

Anyway, I’ll be in the following places over the coming months.

CPAC – Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington D.C.
February 18th, 3:00 PM

I’ll be speaking as a panelist on:

Blogging, Tweeting and Other Funny Words That Can Win Elections – Maryland Ballroom

Megan Barth,
David All, David All Group
Matthias Shapiro,
Michelle Oddis, Human Events

Moderator: Dr. Melissa Clouthier, and Take That Radio

I’ve met David All, who is a particularly sharp mind and well worth your time. And Melissa Clouthier is clearly a cyborg with a tweeting application wired directly into her cerebral cortex.

MIX – Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, NV
March 15-17

I’ll be speaking on information visualization and how Silverlight makes it easier and more effective. I might be pressed for time on this one because MIX is my big conference for meeting all the awesome geeks who don’t live near me.

APEE – Ceasars’ Palace, Las Vegas, NV
April 11-13

I’ll be speaking on a panel about educating people on economic concepts with video. Also, I love Vegas.

Google I/O – Moscone Center, San Fransisco, CA
May 18 – 20

I won’t be speaking, but I’ll be learning a great deal about Android development (one of my many, many hobbies).

In any case, if you’d like to meet up with me and talk about politics or stats or just yell at me for something I said while I’m at any of these conferences, send me an e-mail (in the About page) and let’s do it.

Not All Money Is Created Equal

I had a thought last night that, what with tax season coming right on up, it would be fun to do a visualization of income and tax distribution. So I wandered down to the CBO and grabbed this document and turned it into a visualization. Sadly, their latest data is pushing 4 years old, so I’ll probably have to update it sometime soon.

(click for the full resolution image)

If you’d like to use a low res version of this chart in your own blog, this one has just the shapes and very little text, so it scales better smaller more better readability. The information here is kind of blunt… I’m sure there are several variables I haven’t accounted for. But this is a pretty accurate portrayal of the data at the CBO (unless I did a calculation wrong).

I wanted to do this because I get really sick of people who say things like “The top 1% of income earners pay 27% of the taxes.” Unless you believe that someone who makes $15K a year should pay $20K in taxes, that is a very silly statement. If the top 1% of income earners make 27% of all the money, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to pay 27% of all the taxes.

That’s why I wanted to make this chart. I want to be able to communicate in a single image how much the top (and bottom) earners make as well as how much they pay in taxes. The thing I think this chart brings out is that we have a progressive taxation system that does not treat all money equally. (Some may bristle that I just called our taxation system progressive, but I’m going to stick by that description. It may not be as progressive as some wish it was, but it is progressive.)

If you earn between the 80th and 90th percentile, you’re the closest we come purely equitable income taxation. That group makes 14% of all the money and pays 14% of all the income taxes.

A tax system that treated all money equally (like a flat tax) would look something like this:

In this system, dollar number ten million and one made by a hedge fund manager would be taxed at the same rate that a dollar made by a single mom earning minimum wage at a fast food restaurant. Every new dollar made would be “created equal” under the tax law. Such a system would probably reduce compliance costs as well, although I imagine it wouldn’t be particularly popular. “Let’s tax the poor more so that we can tax the rich less!” doesn’t sound like a winning campaign.

And, just for fun, I created the “pure socialism” model of this chart as well.

Of course, pure socialism is pretty silly, so this would never happen. Reason one is that, if everyone made the same amount of money, we wouldn’t have quintiles or “the top 1%”. It would just be a blob.

And it wouldn’t make any distinction between people who work hard and people who are lazy. As Penn Jillette has stated (I’m paraphrasing), “laziness is a perfectly valid life choice”. Life gives us all sorts of things to trade off with. Some people trade money trough (or the potential of earning money) for hanging around the apartment playing video games. Nothing wrong with that. But I don’t mean to get off on a “socialism is really silly” tangent.

I just hope that these charts are helpful and fun. Feel free to steal (with proper attribution).

Blatant Self-Promotion

Someone had suggested that I shared this on this blog so, even though it’s over 2 months old, I’m posting it. It’s apt, seeing as how job numbers came out today.

The Political Power of Data Visualization

It’s funny… I got my start in information visualization with an Ignite presentation on data visualization about a year ago. (For those who don’t know, Ignite is a get together of geeks and artists where people give a 5 minutes presentation on something they love with 20 slides where the slides auto-progress every 15 seconds.) About a month later, I posted my first political infoviz and that started the hoopla that led to this blog.

And I just found another fantastic Ignite presentation on “The Political Power of Data Visualization“. This one is done by Alex Lundry (Twitter: @alexlundry), who actually works in the field with Target Point Consulting. (I don’t work in the field… I’m just a hobbyist.) That means if you want Info Viz done for your company or think tank, you should go to him.

Alex makes the exceptionally important point that visual communication and thinking (especially with info graphics) is THE wave of the future for policy communication. Let me be as clear as possible about this:

If you talk, you lose. If you show, you win.

Period. Showing people something makes them feel like they discovered it. It is THE way to convince people.

Visual thinking. Infographics. Data visualizations. Make them. Use them.

By the way, here’s my original Ignite presentation for anyone interested (skip the first 20 seconds, it’s embarrassing).

A Free Way to Support Political Math

Vote for me!

Over the last few months, a number of people have asked how they can support me. I know that, for most people, times are tough and money is tight, so here is a fantastic way to support what I do.

This is not my “real” job… it’s just a hobby. And a hobby that is not particularly profitable. In my “real” job, I work as a software designer and my big conference of the year is coming up. The cost of going to the conference is fairly steep (in the $2000 range) but I can get nearly all those costs covered by Microsoft if I speak at the conference.

The conference has an “Open Call” for sessions and the winners will be determined by an online vote that is open from now until January 15th. I’ve submitted a session where I’ll talk about creating information visualizations and if my session is voted in the top 10, I get to go. So, please, go and vote for me.

The process is simple. Click on the link, click “Add to Ballot” and then click “Submit Your Ballot”. It’s like donating directly to my bank account at no cost to yourself. You can also vote multiple times from different computers. And your friends can vote.

I don’t like to bleg… I know that my readers are not here so that I can get cool things. But I would appreciate the token, if you can spare a minute of your time.