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TMQ Tidbits of the Week

Once again, here is the best of Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on ESPN.com. You can read the football bits here.

A Cosmic Thought A generation ago “exoplanets” — beyond the solar system — had not been found. Now hundreds are known and the list grows weekly.

Recently NASA’s Kepler probe, the first space device specifically designed to look for other worlds, discovered a multiplanet system orbiting a binary star. Since paired stars are more common than single stars like the sun, this increases the likelihood that large numbers of exoplanets exist.

No distant Earthlike world has been discovered. But it seems only a matter of time — this could happen soon, and will be one of humanity’s great moments. If there are other Earthlike planets, the odds rise of other life; plus over long spans of time, the odds rise that genus Homo will live on many worlds.

Last week an exoplanet designated Gliese 163 was discovered. Not far away in galactic terms, seven times the mass of Earth, orbiting a dying red sun — has it occurred to anyone that we’ve found Krypton?


New York Times Corrections on Fast-Forward: In the past six months the Paper of Record has, according to its own corrections page:

• Confused fruit with vegetables, the same mistake made by John Candy in “Splash.”

• Confused Cyprus, the country, with cypress, the tree.

• Ran an article about appreciating the beauty of cherry trees, accompanied by a picture of crab apple trees.

• Erroneously asserted that during World War II, Britain had a marketing slogan.

• Mistook the Jersey City waterfront for the Manhattan skyline.

• Understated the Eurozone bailout by $667 billion. Reporter responsible, would you like to be CEO of the European Central Bank?

• Understated the revenue gain from ending tax cuts for the rich by $798 billion. Reporter responsible, would you like to be on the Republican ticket?

• Understated the likely cost of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act by $1.2 trillion. Reporter responsible, would you like to be on the Democratic ticket?

• In an article about retirement funding, used an estimate that was off by $1.2 trillion. Reporter responsible, would you like to be director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation? (The organization, called a “corporation” though it actually is a government agency, is set up to sound like a free-market enterprise but exists to shift private pensions onto the taxpayer, and is a fiscal scandal waiting to happen.)

• “Misstated the number of presidents with 6 letters in their first names.”

• Unfairly accused the Canadian Pacific Railroad of planning to start a thermonuclear war.

• Erred in describing the circumstances of “free gifts.” What other kind of gifts are there?

Admitted a Page 1 article was based on a substantial error in the use of statistics. Topic of the article? Educational standards. (emphasis added)

• Incorrectly declared that passengers departing a plane from San Juan to New York City must “go through Customs” because they might bring items “to the United States from Puerto Rico.” When writing lyrics for “West Side Story,” Stephen Sondheim believed Puerto Rico was a foreign country. Since 1917, residents of Puerto Rico have been U.S. citizens and since 1952, Puerto Rico has been within the United States. Isn’t it time the mainstream media knew this?

• Clarified that “musical obscurity” is “no longer an honor,” and…

• Incorrectly declared that a bachelor party had been held at Legoland.

TMQ’s occasional New York Times corrections items are not intended to ridicule that paper, widely considered the best in the world. The items are intended to amuse. I use only funny mistakes, not deadly serious errors such as the Times’ 2002 and 2003 Page 1 articles claiming the George W. Bush administration possessed proof that Iraq had atomic weapons. All organizations make mistakes — ESPN and ESPN.com certainly do. Owing to the Times’ reputation for highfalutin stuffiness, its mistakes have amusement value.

And my corrections items are not an attempt to place corrections into perspective. Here is an example of that. Over the winter, The Washington Post ran an article accusing the D.C. Police Department of manipulating statistics to make it seem more murders were being solved than actually were. Later the Post ran a correction admitting the article manipulated statistics to make it seem fewer murders were being solved than actually were. That is, the paper committed the same offense it accused others of.

OK, so The Washington Post made a mistake: Everybody makes mistakes. But the original article damning the D.C. police was on Page 1. The correction was at the bottom of Page 2, under the tapioca heading, “Editor’s Note.”


No “SportsCenter”? The End of Civilization: The new J.J. Abrams sci-fi series “Revolution” premieres next Monday night — across from “Monday Night Football.” “Terra Nova” also premiered across from “Monday Night Football.” Don’t the audiences for football and for sci-fi overlap? TMQ fails to grok why big-budget sci-fi keeps airing opposite “Monday Night Football,” rather than on Tuesday, when there is no prime-time football. You know MNF will not be the loser in any ratings smackdown.

“Revolution” is yet another post-apocalypse premise. An unknown force has stopped all technology from functioning. Cities are overgrown with vegetation — apparently even pruning shears have stopped working. Fighting is done with swords — apparently the chemicals in bullets no longer work. People ride horses for transportation — apparently bicycles ceased functioning. Yet with no electricity and the disappearance of modern products, the babe heroine’s hair and makeup are perfect.

Hollywood loves post-apocalypse movies and TV serials because the costume budget is low: Just buy some old consignment clothes, and rip them.


Unified Field Theory of Creep: Reader Justin Pickering of Fremantle, Australia, reports that on Aug. 23, he saw television advertising for the 2013 Ikea catalog.

Your columnist’s New Yorker subscription runs to March 2016. Last week I received a letter urging me to renew. The envelope was brightly stamped with a red-letter scary notice: SUBSCRIPTION EXPIRATION WARNING.

Kristi Kampmann of Aurora, Colo., notes the proclamation of an actual Unified Field Theory of creep.


Bankrupt Logic: Organizations err, and individuals make mistakes. Trust me, I have plenty of experience! So perhaps vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s boast that he ran a sub-three-hour marathon, when the actual time was more than four hours — followed by his weird statement that the claim of track-star time was “the best of his recollection” — was just a pair of dumb errors.

But there’s so much difference between three-hour and four-hour marathons that this is as if a White House candidate boasted, “I won the World Series with a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth,” then later said, “That was the best of my recollection. I meant to say that I play softball at picnics.” When your columnist was on the dating scene, girls chased me everywhere. That’s the best of my recollection, anyway.

But though to err is human, it is a warning sign when politicians make things up, hoping they will never be fact-checked. In his convention speech, Ryan gave considerable emphasis to his claim that 1.4 million businesses filed for bankruptcy in 2011, far more than the 330,000 that did so in the final year of the Jimmy Carter administration. Turns out 47,086, not 1.4 million, is the correct number for 2011. Ryan drastically overstated, in order to make things sound much worse than they are. But, his campaign asserted, since the correct figure for the final Carter year is 43,694, Ryan’s basic point was right — more business bankruptcies last year under Obama than in Carter’s final year.

How could Ryan have been off by such a gigantic margin? There are 6 million businesses with employees in the United States. If 1.4 million had gone bankrupt in 2011, that would mean 23 percent of American businesses folded in a single year. Calamity! Every fourth store or office you passed would be boarded up. The actual figure represents 0.7 percent of American businesses closing last year. Ryan presents himself to the electorate as a leading expert in economic policy. Yet he was able to read the claim that 1.4 million businesses folded in a single year without saying to himself, “This number cannot possibly be right.” An actual expert in economic policy would have known the 1.4 million figure was way off.

Now think about Ryan’s claim that regardless, his basic point was on target. Since Carter’s final year in office, the U.S. population has grown 36 percent. Other things being equal, we’d expect business bankruptcies to grow by about the same percentage. Instead, 2011 business bankruptcies were 7.8 percent higher than the final Carter year — a decline, relative to population.

Because the population is rising, practically everything sets a record each year. In 2011, there were more haircuts and cheesesteaks than during Carter’s final year, too! Consider the common statement “there are more people today with cancer than ever before,” which like Ryan’s corrected number is true but misleading. What’s important is the rate of cancer — is it up or down per capita? ( It’s down.) In economics, per capita or GDP-adjusted comparisons are what count. Ryan presents himself to the nation as an expert on economic policy. An actual expert would have used adjusted numbers.

Now let’s check the tables of the American Bankruptcy Institute. During the Ronald Reagan presidency, business bankruptcies averaged 67,845 per year. During the Obama presidency, business bankruptcies have averaged 54,975. Adjusting for population growth, business bankruptcies under Obama are 40 percent lower than they were under Reagan.

Probably in both cases, Reagan and Obama, the numbers are driven largely by economic trends beyond the control of the White House. But to the extent presidential policy matters, Reagan was a free-market conservative — the sort of person who believes a failing business should be allowed to fail. Obama is a liberal — the sort of person who believes a failing business should get government help. No surprise, then, that far more businesses failed annually under Reagan.

Ryan denounced the automaker bailout. If government aid to business is bad, as Ryan says, then inevitably, more business bankruptcies will occur. But he also says that’s bad!


Obama Proposes a Department for the Study of Studies: In 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon was spending too much on studies, so he commissioned a study of exactly how much. That study was then scrutinized by the Government Accountability Office, which found the study of studies lacking.

Here’s the kicker. What does the study of the study of studies conclude? More study is needed. The GAO recommends that the Pentagon “take steps to evaluate DOD’s effort to estimate costs.”

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