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Archive for January, 2012

Drunk Science

There is (and has been) a battle raging in New York State over the sale of wine in grocery stores.  In his Table Hopping blog, Times Union writer Steve Barnes linked to an article that supposedly espouses some positive effects of selling wine in grocery stores.  The study in question was conducted by the American Association of Wine Economists, so there could be a possibility of bias.  Just maybe.  In today’s post, we’re going to go through a little crash course (no pun intended) in research methodology to show why you should be wary of this study’s conclusions.

So first off, the goal of any research is to uncover how certain aspects of world work.  What are the relationships between certain phenomena?  In the case of this study, titled “Regulating the Availability of Beer, Wine, and Spirits in Grocery Stores: Beverage-Specific Effects on Prices, Consumption and Traffic Fatalities” it is looking at the relationship between the availability of alcoholic beverages and their prices, consumption and traffic fatalities.  The abstract makes clear that the researchers (from Cornell nonetheless) believe their study demonstrates that higher shares of wine availability are correlated with lower traffic fatalities.  As Steve Barnes’ post indicates, the implied effect of having wine in grocery stores means less traffic deaths.  So imagine you’re a state considering whether or not to sell wine in grocery stores.  You hear about this study, or maybe even read its abstract, and you see that the availability of wine in grocery stores may not increase social problems, but ACTUALLY DECREASE them?  Selling wine in grocery stores is associated with lower traffic fatalities?  Well sign us up!

It’s easy to read a lot of headlines about studies and be mislead.  Most news outlets don’t actually conduct any due diligence on the studies they cite and report on.  Usually they just read the abstract or conclusion section and post that as if it’s the gospel.  But the key to any study is not its results, but how it got its results.  And so here’s where we take a look at how the American Association of Wine Economists came to conclude that if you sell wine in grocery stores, you can decrease the amount of traffic fatalities.

Since I don’t want this post to be incredibly long, I’ll focus solely on the study’s traffic related conclusion.  I think the best way to go about looking at this study’s methods is to brainstorm about how you might go about studying the relationship between wine availability in grocery stores and traffic fatalities.  Here we break down our independent and dependent variables.  Independent variables are the phenomena that have an effect on our dependent or outcome variables.  We can manipulate the independent variables to see how they would change the outcome.  Our variables depend on our research question.

Research Question: What are the effects of wine availability in grocery stores (an alcohol policy) on traffic fatalities (a social problem)?

Independent Variable: To find our independent variable, we need to find some way to measure wine availability in grocery stores.  Now, these policies are state determined and since the policy in question for New York State is at the state level, we should use state-level data.  So our state level variable would be whether a state has wine available in grocery stores or not.  It’s a binary variable, yes or no.  My beef with the AAWE study is not with its independent variables.   They use state level data on wine availability.

Dependent Variable: Now here is where it gets tricky.  We want to measure traffic fatalities by state, since we’re using state level independent variables.  But we simply don’t want to use any traffic fatalities, but rather, ALCOHOL RELATED traffic fatalities.  Why?  Because it doesn’t make sense to think that the availability of wine in grocery stores would have any effect on non-alcohol traffic deaths right?  People don’t drive to the grocery store, buy wine and then crash into other people and kill them because they bought a bottle of wine.  They would crash into other people and kill them perhaps if they had been drinking the wine, therefore making it an alcohol-related death.  So are dependent variable would be a measure of alcohol related traffic fatalities by state.  This data is available through NHTSA.  In fact, the AAWE study DOES get its data from the NHTSA but they don’t use alcohol-related fatality data in their study.  That’s the first reason why their study isn’t convincing.  Who cares about the effect of wine in grocery stores on all traffic deaths?  It doesn’t make any sense to think that there would/should be an effect.

BUT the study says there is an effect?  So doesn’t that mean something?  If the sales of wine in grocery stores has an effect on all traffic fatalities, then isn’t that still a good thing?  Well, it would be, but only if we could say that the wine availability was the reason traffic fatalities decreased.  So what we’re talking about here, are control variables.

What are control variables?  In the criminal justice field, we use the following example to explain them.  Homicides go up as ice cream sales go up.  Does that mean ice cream sales cause murders?  Of course not.  It’s simply that ice cream sales go up in the summer and there are more homicides in the summer.  So the original relationship was said to be spurious, as in there was something else accounting for the relationship, a third variable.  Or maybe more.   The purpose of a control variable is to put these “third variables” into the model that might have an effect on our dependent variable and control for their effect.  If we control for all other possible influences on the dependent variable, then we can say our independent variable did have an effect on the outcome.

The AAWE study does insert some control variables into the study, but not the variables necessary to convince me that they’re really isolated the effect of wine availability.  For example, what could have an effect on traffic fatalities?  Well, I can think of a few things.  The number of cars on the road, the number of young drivers, the number of older drivers, weather conditions, road quality, road lighting, speed limits, you get the picture.  Did the AAWE study control of any of this?  The closest they come is a variable measuring how many miles a vehicle has traveled per driver.  That gets us an imperfect (to say the least) measure of vehicle use but not much else.  So in that respect, the AAWE fails to control for spuriousness as there are MANY other explanations for low traffic fatality rates.

So, in conclusion, what did we learn?  The AAWE study does a poor job of measuring and operationalizing its variables.  It doesn’t control for enough other factors so we can’t be sure that they are really isolating the effect of wine availability in grocery stores.  Finally, even if they did isolate an effect, their conclusions are hard to believe because they didn’t measure the social problem of real concern, which is alcohol related traffic fatalities.  One might argue that alcohol related fatalities are included in overall fatalities, which is true, but measuring the total fatalities includes too many other types of fatalities to make any meaningful contribution.  It would be like analyzing the effect of gun laws on all types of crime.  Sure, there would be measurements of gun crimes aggregated into the dependent variable, but it doesn’t make sense because it would include non-gun related crimes such as money laundering, drunk driving, child pornography possession, crimes that had nothing to do with guns.  There’s too much other stuff clogging up the data.

My opinion on wine in grocery stores remains the same.  Allow wine to be sold in grocery stores.  However, the AAWE study did nothing to influence my opinion and frankly, anyone advocating for wine in grocery stores that uses this study in their argument, is doing a disservice to their cause.  If you want to read the study, you can find it in PDF format here.


Memories of Murder – Movie Review

*Alright, I decided that in addition to keeping track of beers, I’m going to share some movie recommendations.  I’m lacking a cool name for the series, but for now I’ll just call it “What You Should Watch.”  The idea is to share some ideas on gems you If you have any better ideas for a series title, shoot ’em my way and maybe I’ll take your recommendation.  Anyway, the idea is to share with you some movies you might have missed that I think are worth seeing.  They’ll be posted on Wednesdays, so it’ll be “Wednesday’s What You Should Watch” for now.

You should really watch the 2003 South Korean film “Memories of Murder.”  It’s a smart and haunting police procedural about a small town police department in the 1980s that attempts solve a series of brutal killings.  The only catch is, the department has no procedure to follow because they’ve never dealt with a serial killer before.  It would be wrong to compare it to a film like “Silence of the Lambs” because there are no experts involved in this story, no secret informants who know all there is to know about the evil mind.  The detectives are lost, under pressure, and ready to snap.  If you liked “Zodiac” you would like this movie.  It’s not about action and chases, but about the effect of not being able to come up with answers to incredible problems.  For a Korean movie about the chase for a killer, it’s relatively light on violence compared to other thrillers coming from the same country.

The director, Bong Joon Ho, went on to direct the sci-fi smash “The Host” as well as another subtle murder story “Mother”.  You may recognize one of the detectives Song Kang-ho from “The Host” as well as the films of Park Chan Wook.  The film was the most watched film of 2003 in South Korea, but only grossed about $15,000 in the United States when it was shown in 2005.  It’s worth using a Netflix DVD rental on, as the final scene (filmed in broad daylight) provides the perfect closure for a film with the title, “Memories of Murder.”


The Artist – Movie Review

The Artist” is a courageous and wonderful film about the life of a silent movie star and the power of pride and love.  But even more simply than that, it is a movie that simply reminds of why we enjoy movies.  Movies are different than any other medium because they tell stories through moving images.  They don’t require sound effects, dialogue, or explosions.  Just watch “Wall-E” or the opening sequence of “Up” and you will know what I mean.  “The Artist” uses tricks of the trade such as montages, symbolism in shot composition, musical score and great acting to tell a simple story that we all can relate to.  This is a great film because of all that it evokes and HOW it evokes that through its storytelling.

I would highly suggest that you go see this inside a movie theater.  Why?  It’s a spectacle that deserves to be seen in a dark room, with a large screen taking up your vision.  Don’t worry about weirdos in the movie theater.  The people paying money to see this in the theater probably don’t even know how to text and those who are paying that do are cultured enough to know movie etiquette.

“The Artist” succeeds because of three things: acting, music, and fun.  First, the cast is first rate.  Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin in a way that makes us truly believe we are watching a silent film stare.  His smile, eyes and facial expressions are first rate.  Berenice Bejo (who reminds me a lot of Rachael McAdams) has a great style and her face conveys and incredible amount of emotion.  Because it’s a silent film the actors have to rely on facial expression and body language to the point that they had to overexaggerate their movements and behavior.  Anyone who has acted in a school play knows how key this is.  It’s here where “The Artist” truly shines because its cast does a tremendous job of playing their parts.   This is probably what I most enjoyed about the film.  We are so used to actors and actresses garnering praise for playing characters in which they mimic the voice, manner of speech, and behaviors of famous people.  But what about a film in which the actors don’t speak at all?  The cast of “The Artist” aren’t simply playing silent film stars, they become silent film stars in a magical way.

The score of this film could almost be considered another actor in this film.  In a silent film, the score tells us very obviously what we should be feeling.  It’s not a criticism at all, it’s just the way the movie operates.  The score fits this film perfectly, from the dramatic and dark, to the upbeat and peppy.  There’s a reason it won the Golden Globe the other night.

Finally, the movie succeeds because it loves film, it loves the golden era of movies.  It loves to have fun and uses all of its tools at its disposal.  There are great moments of humor that make us laugh out out with no dialogue, just subtle physical and situational comedy.  It uses quick montages that remind of us the modern romantic comedies as well as the famous family shots of “Citizen Kane.”  There are great shots of symbolism, the great use of sound cue cards during a silent car chase, and an overall sense of enchantment about how the movie unfolds.

You owe it to yourself to see this film.  In a film world now dominated by emo vampires, action movies in which heroes simply shout obvious phrases like, “Get down!”, or serial killers who have to explain to their victims and the audience just what the hell is going on, it’s a refreshing and fun dose of entertainment.  It’s a “popcorn” movie, but in a totally different way.


The Christmas Shoes

Okay, this post is NOT about the awful Christmas Shoes song by the group “Newsong“, nor is it about the awful movie that they made based on it with Rob Lowe.  And it’s not about Patton Oswalt‘s comedy routine about said song (although it is awesome and you need to look it up and watch it before finishing this post).  It is about a pair of shoes that I purchased recently, on the 7th of January to be exact, that are so awesome, it feels like they were a Christmas gift.  What magical shoes are these?

As the Joker once said, “Ta-da!”  I present to you, the New Balance Minimus Trail Shoes.  I keep wanting to type “minibus” even though that’s obviously wrong and has nothing to do with these shoes.  Weird.

So these are my shoes, exact same color and everything.  They even magically float in the air like that so you can see the side of one and the bottom of the other.  For $108 you’re damn right they do that.  Anyway, I won’t bore you with the technical aspects of them, you can read all about that here.  But what I will do is talk about how awesome they are and why I love them.  Then maybe you might considering buying them or something.  Not that I have stock in New Balance or anything, so buy whatever the hell you feel like.  But if you’re considering buying new shoes, or minimalist shoes, then you might want to consider what I have to say.

First, these shoes are LIGHT.  My old shoes began to feel very heavy recently and it just seemed like a giant pain in the butt to even move my feet.  Not anymore.  These feel like practically nothing and because of their lightweight nature, I feel a lot lighter on my feet when I’m running.  Because they are minimalist shoes, there’s no extra cushioning, or gel, or hard sores to soften the blow of foot on ground.  There’s almost nothing there and it feels like there’s almost nothing there.

Second, (and this goes along with the first) these shoes allow your foot to feel everything.  To some people, that might be a bad thing, but I am in love with it.  In my old shoes I felt like each time I struck, it was my shoe hitting the ground and not my foot.  I couldn’t really be sure of what part of my foot was hitting the ground, except it usually wasn’t my heel.  These shoes really allow your toes and sole of the foot to feel each strike, to feel how you are landing and pushing off, and where your toes are each time you hit.  It’s amazing because it allows me to adjust with each stride and know exactly what my foot is doing, and it’s cutting down on my pronation in a big way.

Third, they do an awesome job of encouraging a mid-foot strike.  My mechanics feel super good in this shoe.  I am nowhere close to landing on my heel and it seems quite effortless to land mid-foot, whereas because I had to make more of a concerted effort to avoid landing on the big heel of my old shoes.  There’s a certain feeling you get when you are really hitting a good stride and it usually takes me about 4 miles to get there.  In these, I feel like I am that much closer to that point when I start out.

So overall, I’m really hoping this shoe gets me a PR in Pittsburgh because I am having a great time with it.  Granted, I have yet to log any long runs, but I feel that if my form is improved then logging more distance won’t be a problem.  I’ll probably post every month or so with updates, but at this point in time, I’m giving these 5 stars on Netflix.


Beer #4 – Long Trail Hibernator

Vermont is a pretty awesome state.  It’s got nice wilderness, a great city in Burlington, good skiing and mountain biking, and a bunch of good breweries.  Long Trail Brewing Company isn’t my favorite Vermont Brewery, but it’s up there because they make nice variety of ales.  They’re also quite environmentally friendly, which is always a plus.  Since it’s winter time, I thought I’d pick up their seasonal ale, the Hibernator.  It’s an unfiltered Scottish Ale, so it has the yeast still in the bottle and when pouring you should be careful to not pour the yeast into the glass, but rather pour rather vigorously to get the full aroma.

Hibernator, Long Trail Brewing Company
Vermont, United States of A
Unfiltered Scottish Ale, 6.0% ABV

Aroma: Rich caramel malt aroma with some nice spice notes.

Appearance: Nice head, rich dark amber in color, yeast sediment visible.  Very nice lacing on the glass as I drank it down.

Flavor: Nice toasted malts on the finish, with caramel sweetness lingering on the back with the tiniest hint of hops.

Mouthfeel: Very nice crisp carbonation, medium body.

Overall: Nice winter ale with good malt character.  I wish I could’ve tasted a little more flavor on the initial sip, as most of it comes on the finish.  Quality ingredients from a reputable brewery.  It’s a nice example of the style that could be a good winter session beer if you are looking for something lighter than a stout or porter, but still with flavor.


A Brief History of Time*

*Or rather, an upcoming post is going to talk about my new running shoes, so this is a post about my history of running, to set the stage for that future post.  Thus, a brief history of the time that I’ve been loving/hating running.

I started “running” when I was in high school, preparing for junior varsity soccer tryouts.  A friend of mine who had been there and done that, told me that the first week was running intensive, so I knew I had to get into running shape.  We lived near a cemetery back in Syracuse and my dad mapped out a 1 mile route to train on.  I absolutely hated it.  I was really self conscious of looking stupid while running, even though the only people who would see me were other people running in the cemetery or people there visiting their deceased loved ones (who probably wouldn’t even be looking at me anyway).  Regardless, this didn’t last long as I quit every run short and would be so angry after/during that my head was spinning.  Weird right?

For years, I didn’t get back into any recreational running.  The only running I did was during soccer, which was almost all sprinting and interval style work, which suits my style more than endurance running.  I’m pretty stocky and my frame isn’t build for long strides but rather quickness and agility.  I think I ran on a treadmill about 5 times during my college career.

Fast forward to post college and my three best friends start seriously training for half marathons and marathons.  I resist and the extent of my running is 5 miles of the Buffalo Half Marathon and then walking the rest with my friend who had an injured knee.  Then somewhere along the line I decided I actually wanted to run the Pittsburgh half marathon while my friends did the full.  So I decided to invest in some real running shoes and bought a pair of ASICS after having a friend look at my stride while she worked at Pacers.

The Marathon was in May of 2009.  My training for the half consisted of 6-7 mile runs every other day of the week with a final long run of 10 miles a few weeks before.  I finished in around 2:07, which wasn’t bad for someone who “hates running.”  That was the extent of my racing for a long time.

Me in the red, crossing a bridge during the half marathon. I'm not sure which one. There are a ton of them.

Flash forward to July 2010 when I ran the Saratoga Firecracker 4 and the Utica Boilermaker.

Post Firecracker 4

Post-Boilermaker

I did a 10k that August and realize I don’t really like running, but I enjoy the rush of racing, if that makes any sense.  But I ended up running a few 10ks, a few 15ks, and then got the idea that I wanted to run the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2011.  I got really psyched up for it and then got a brutal ankle injury in the spring that basically ended my marathon training.  So I settled for the half instead and finished two minutes slower than my first time.

After the half I hit a rut and didn’t plan for any more races.  I ran a half during the summer in Lake George and that was basically it.

Before my half in Lake George

Most of my athletics still focused on soccer, but I started getting into biking more.  I ran a few more times in the summer/fall, but didn’t feel right and started to get a pain/numbness in my left foot.  This foot had been giving me other problems earlier in the year, when my little toe started to scrape against the toebox and I got larger shoes so I wouldn’t lose the nail.  This pain caused me to basically cease running.  It was okay with it at first because I was enjoying biking.  But then it got too cold to bike outside and I started heading to the gym.  There are a limited number of bikes at the gym and almost unlimited treadmills, so sometimes I stood there waiting for a bike and wishing I was running.  But something was holding me back.  As lame as it sounds, it was the shoes.  Sound too easy?  Too good to be true perhaps?  I wish it was, or rather, I don’t.  I started running again on 1/10/2012 and am feeling better than ever.  How is this possible?  Stay tuned for my shoe review.


Beer #3 – Samuel Adams Boston Lager

So I first saw the Sam Adams commercials before I really got into beer.  They were actually made pretty famous by the Samuel Jackon parodies made by Dave Chappelle.  It took my a while to try them actually (which maybe says that their marketing campaign didn’t work as well as they would’ve liked) and I’ll admit that they aren’t my favorite brewery out there.  That’s not to say that they are bad, but until recently, their beers were pretty safe, meaning, they made a lot of session beers that had wide appeal.  In no way is this a bad thing overall, since they really helped put craft brewing on the map in the United States (although they of course were not the only ones that had a hand in this).  But recently, I feel like Sam Adams has felt the pressure from other craft brewers who are now pushing the envelope in terms of flavors, styles, and alcohol content.  In what seems to me like an effort to reclaim a place among the craft brews, they are releasing their Imperial Series, Barrel Room Collection, and other series.  Some of these are quite impressive and I think it’s a good move by the company.  But today, I’m reviewing an oldie, but goodie, the original Boston Lager.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Boston Beer Company
Boston, MA, United States of A
Vienna Lager, 4.9% ABV

Aroma: Nice malt sweetness, hint of hops, sort of piney.

Appearance: Amber color, small head, nice carbonation.  Some nice lacing on the glass.

Flavor: Malts up from with quite a bit of hops actually on the finish.

Mouthfeel: Light to medium, present carbonation gives it a nice crispness.

Overall: I respect the brewery and what they have done for brewing in America, but after having other lagers, this one isn’t near the top of my list.  It’s a little light and lacks the complexity of other lagers I’ve had.  Better than the mass-market lagers, but I feel it could offer more.  However, for its style of a Vienna Lager, it’s a pretty decent example.  My lager preference is for more malts and complexity.