Data Surfer

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December 31, 2008
Happy New Year!


Silver Creek Dance Hall at 4th and K Streets on New Years 1936. This image is part of the Faces and Places of Sacramento neighborhood history photograph project at the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center. You can search for photos by keywords on their web site.

The turmoil caused by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's defiant pick of Roland Burris to replace Bararck Obama in the U.S. Senate got me to wondering if a complete list of appointed senators exists on the Web. The U.S. Senate itself provides the information. It includes the appointee's party and state, date appointed and the date elected (if he or she ran subsequently).

The list starts in 1913, the year the 17th Amentment to the Constitution established direct election of senators. (Prior to that state legislatures chose them.) The Amendment allows states to empower their governors to fill a vacancy. Most states do, but a few require an immediate special election. In 2003 the Congressional Research Service published an in-depth explanation on how the states handle U.S. House and Senate vacancies.

Here are California's appointed senators:

Thomas M. Storke (D-CA)
Date Appointed: November 9, 1938
Elected: Did not seek election.

William F. Knowland (R-CA)
Date Appointed: August 14, 1945
Elected: Yes, on November 5, 1946.

Thomas H. Kuchel (R-CA)
Date Appointed: January 2, 1953
Elected: Yes, on November 2, 1954.

Pierre Salinger (D-CA)
Date Appointed: August 4, 1964
Elected: No, defeated on November 3, 1964.

John Seymour (R-CA)
Date Appointed: January 3, 1991
Elected: No, defeated on November 3, 1992.

In his Dec. 6 radio address, President-elect Barack Obama laid out key elements of his plan to revive the U.S. economy. One of these is to modernize the health care system by ensuring "that every doctor's office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year."

Coincidentally, the National Center for Health Statistics released this month its latest estimates of the use of electronic medical records (EMR) by office-based physicians. Relying on a mail survey conducted this year, the NCHS found that "38.4 percent of the physicians reported using full or partial EMR systems, not including billing records, in their office-based practices. About 20.4 percent reported using a system described as minimally functional and including the following features: orders for prescriptions, orders for tests, viewing laboratory or imaging results, and clinical notes."

A comparable 2006 survey reported that 29.2 percent of the doctors were using full or partial EMR, and 12.4 percent of them had minimally functional systems.  

Today the Bee reported that a federal agency will investigate Wednesday's natural gas explosion which killed a man, leveled a home and damaged two other residences in Rancho Cordova. The Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials of the National Transportation Safety Board is the body that oversees the transmission and distribution of natural gas.

The NTSB website complies statistics on significant pipeline incidents, which resulted in deaths or injuries and/or sizeable property damage. A year-by-year table summarizes natural gas pipeline events occuring from 1988 to the present. It includes the total number of fatalities, injuries and the total property damage cost for the year. In the past 20 years there have been 1,818 natural gas distribution incidents that killed 321 people, injured 1,325 and cost nearly $1 billion in property damage.

The NTSB also provides a series of narratives describing the most serious pipeline accidents. These cover pipeline transport of crude oil, gasoline and other hazardous materials -- as well as natural gas.

statab.jpgIf a demographer had to choose one book to take on a desert island, it would be the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Well, maybe not. But it is the best general compilation of data about the nation, and the release of the new annual edition is always welcomed by data wonks.

The U.S. Census Bureau began publishing the Abstract in 1878 and makes most of the prior editions available free on the Internet. These web versions are essentially PDF copies of the printed volumes. The latest editions are arranged in thirty sections covering a variety of subjects including demographics, geography, education, health, government, business, economy, transportation and national security. There's also a section for comparative international statistics. Sources of data include the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and many other federal agencies and private organizations

December 25, 2008
Merry Christmas!


The Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center has a number of charming Christmas-related photographs. You can search for images by subject on their web site. Here's a Sacramento Bee print from 1947 showing Santa with some children at the Memorial Auditorium.

December 23, 2008
Numbers in the news

Journalists love statistics. They inject precision, clarity and reality into news stories. Or do they? Author Michael Blastland thinks numbers in the news -- especially really big numbers cited by politicians and the press -- often do more to confuse than enlighten. He observes in a recent interview on the NPR show On the Media:

"I think the problem with that number [$700 billion for the bailout] and a lot of the numbers that are hurtling around at the moment about the American economy is that they just have a heck of a lot of zeroes on the end, and probably most people's facility with numbers disappears as soon as they get to something bigger than their mortgage."

Blastland calls on journalists to explain statistics so they can be understood. For example, it's easier to relate to $700 billion if you express it as about $2,000 for every person in the country. Does that seem like a big burden for each citizen to carry? Blastland asks you to consider that obligation in comparison to the per capita size of the U.S. economy, which is $50,000.

Putting numbers in context sounds like good advice for the media to follow. 

Michael Blastland is co-author of The Numbers Game: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life. He also co-authored the commentary, "The worst junk stats of 2007," a Times of London piece on the the most dubious numbers of the year.

Thumbnail image for PopMech.jpg The Google archiving juggernaut rolls on. Recently the giant Internet company announced the opening of its Life Magazine photo database. Now Google is adding vintage magazines to its growing Book Search collection. You search the full text of scanned articles for keywords, retrieve the journal and view the pages in a PDF-like reader. You can also use the "Advanced Search" option to narrow your research to specific magazine titles and publication dates.

So far the list of scanned magazines is limited to a few dozen diverse titles, including Ebony, New York Magazine, Baseball Digest, Prevention and Popular Science (which goes all the way back to 1872!). More are coming as Google completes agreements with publishers.

I tested the system with the search term "sacramento" and found an article in the Sept. 1922 issue of Popular Mechanics, entitled "United States to have another big ship canal". It describes in breathless detail the proposed 30-foot deep, 35-mile long canal connecting Sacramento to the Pacific Ocean by way of San Francisco Bay. The article notes the huge amount of mining and agricultural products shipped through Sacramento (illustrated by the photo below).

Thumbnail image for Sac Riverfront.jpg

Yesterday Bee business writer Dale Kasler reported that 30-year fixed rate mortgages fell to an average of 5.19 percent, the lowest weekly level recorded since the lending giant Freddie Mac began surveying rates in 1971. The Freddie web site has a ton of historic mortgage data, including weekly 30-year fixed rates back to April 1971.

What was the highest rate during that period? The 30-year rate peaked at a mind-boggling 18.63 percent the week of Oct. 9, 1981.

December 19, 2008
State workforce redux

I appreciate the thoughtful comments regarding the recent I-Tool blog entry on the relative size of the state's workforce. Several folks made the valid point that other benchmarks are better than per capita employees for judging public spending. In particular, "Sumba" refered to the Legislative Analyst's discovery that per capita state expenditures grew 30 percent from 1993 to 2007 in inflation-adjusted dollars. You can see that chart in this LAO report.

Just out of curiousity, I compared California's per capita spending in 2007 to other states by combining state finance and population figures from the U.S. Census. Turns out California ranks 13th with state government spending of $6,390 per capita. Alaska ranks first with $13,448. Texas is at the bottom with $3,791.

Today the Federal Reserve suprised experts by dropping its key interest rate to a record range of zero to a quarter percent. The plunge in the Federal Funds Rate is their attempt to loosen credit and jump-start the ailing economy.

The current situation is a far cry from May 1981 when the Fed raised the credit benchmark to a soaring 20 percent as national bankers struggled to get inflation under control. Here's a handy table showing every change in the Federal Funds Rate from 1971 to the present.


Conventional wisdom would say that college graduates will have an increasingly difficult time finding jobs in the coming years. But a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California concludes that the demand for college-educated workers will outpace the state's capacity to produce them. "California's Future Workforce: Will There Be Enough College Graduates?" predicts that by 2025 the economy will require a bachelor's degree of 41 percent of state's potential employees. At the same time the growth in the percentage of college graduates is expected to slow and the number of workers with a high school diploma or less schooling will exceed demand. The result will be an education gap that will limit California's economic growth and increase social and economic inequality. The study's author calls on state leaders to invest in education now -- even in the face of the current fiscal crisis.

Incidentally, the Public Policy Institute of California is "a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues." An endowment from William R. Hewlett established the PPIC in 1994. 

A recent Bee story reported that demand for subsidized school lunches is outpacing the program's funding, which could run dry at the end of the school year.  So warned state Superintendent of Public Schools Jack O'Connell, who called on the Assembly to increase money for Free and Reduced-Price Meals by $31.1 million. Statewide, schools provided a record 770.6 million meals in 2007-08. That's 28 million more than the year before. About 3.1 million California students, 49.7 percent of the total enrollment, benefit from the program.

The Education Department's Ed-Data website has an easy-to-use database of student statistics on ethnicity and participation in special programs like Free and Reduced-Price Meals. You can search for data on individual schools, districts, counties and the state going back as far as 1992-93.

Here's the 2007-08 breakdown of hot meal programs in our region:

County Number of students Percent of enrollment
El Dorado 6,616 22.3%
Placer 12,593 19.2%
Sacramento 115,880 48.6%
Sutter 9,814 50.1%
Yolo 12,640 42.8%
Yuba 8,451 58.4%


As someone born and raised in Chicago, I'm both embarrassed and intrigued by the latest case of political corruption in Illinois. I'm not alone -- the whole world seems focused on the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich for trying to sell his U.S. Senate appointment and other slimy misdeeds. 

We take it for granted, but one of the miracles brought by the Internet is the easy availability of primary documents in criminal cases, and the Blagojevich case is no exception. You can call up the 78-page criminal complaint with a click of a mouse (warning: profanity included). It's filled with shocking wiretap quotations, like this gem: "I'm going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain. You hear what I'm saying. And if I don't get what I want and I'm not satisfied with it, then I'll just take the Senate seat myself."

Also available online is the U.S. Attorney's press release, press conference transcript and video announcing the Governor's arrest. If you're really obsessed, you can browse Blagojevich's campaign contributions using the the State of Illinois' campaign disclosure database

With California lawmakers grappling with an $11.2 billion budget shortfall this year, Gov. Schwarzenegger is contemplating layoffs of government workers. It's often charged that the state's bureaucracy is too bloated. And it's true the state workforce increased from 321,860 FTEs in 1992 to 387,168 FTEs in 2007. (With an accompanying rise in the monthly payroll from $1.1 billion to $2.1 billion over the same period.)

But how does that number of workers compare to other states? In relative terms, California in 2008 ranks 47th in the number of state employees per 10,000 population (138). Hawaii tops the list with 602 employees per 10,000 population. While the national average is 176, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

JOG.JPGJust in time for the holiday eating season, the Centers for Disease Control released results of a survey estimating the percentage of adults who engage in the minimum amount of aerobic exercise "required to produce substantial health benefits". The study used U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2008 exercise guidelines as a benchmark. Survey respondents are considered sufficiently active if they do at least "150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity".

So how did the nation do? Overall, 64.5% of U.S. adults met the guidelines in 2007, including 68.9% of men and 60.4% of women. The percent varies with such factors as age, race, education, region and body mass.

Incidentally, the HHS web site, Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, provides some practical, non-intimidating advice on ways adults can get healthier by ramping up their exercise.

Today's grim business news is the loss of 533,000 jobs in November. That's the worst monthly drop in 34 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But how do these figures compare to earlier years? Using historic non-farm payroll data, we see five larger monthly declines since January 1939. They are:

Sept. 1945 -1,966,000
Oct. 1949 -834,000
July 1956 -629,000
Dec. 1974 -602,000
Feb. 1946 -589,000

Those post-war numbers are worse than they appear, considering the U.S. workforce was much smaller than today. So I suppose we should count our blessings. (I think.)

Thumbnail image for nixon.JPGOn Tuesday the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration released an additional 198 hours of Nixon White House tapes. These new recordings document conversations held between President Nixon, his staff and others between November and December 1972. (To date, the Archives has made available more than 2,200 hours of tapes with some 1,200 hours still to come.) History junkies can listen to all the new recordings via the Nixon Library web site. There are subject logs to help you navigate the material, but to be honest, they're pretty hard to use.

Much of the news coverage about the Nixon tapes continues to focus on the President's preoccupation with political "enemies". But course Nixon dealt with other matters in the White House. For example, on Oct. 26, 1971 he spoke on the phone with then Gov. Ronald Reagan, who was upset about the United Nations vote to expel Taiwan from the General Assembly. It's interesting that Reagan speaks to Nixon almost as an equal, advising the President to take strong action against the U.N. and to make Taiwan an issue in the next election.

When President Bush leaves office, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will take custody of an unprecedented number of paper and electronic documents generated by his administration. NARA says it's ready to receive the 140  terabytes of information (about 50 times the volume from the Clinton White House), but some groups, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office, have questioned the Archive's readiness to store and catalog the mountain of material.

About 20 terabytes of the Bush records are estimated to be email, but the Administration has been slow to hand over the electronic messages. One national watchdog group, Citizens for Responsiblity and Ethics in Washington (CREW), sued the government for failing to properly store and backup email produced between March 2003 and October 2005, resulting in the potential loss of an estimated 10 million messages. This month a federal judge refused to dismiss the case, allowing CREW to pursue its lawsuit that seeks to force the reclamation of the misplaced email before it becomes irrecoverable.
On the lighter side, check out the National Archive's cool Online Exhibits. These collections include some of the most interesting and important historic documents, photographs, illustrations, audio and video preserved at the Archive. Top of the list is the Charters of Freedom, an electronic exhibit of the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights (complete with high-resolution scans of the documents). I'm also partial to Eyewitness, a multimedia presentation of notable episodes in American history, as seen through the eyes of national leaders and average people. Included are George H.W. Bush's personal account of the last hours of the Nixon Adminstration and Lady Bird Johnson's recollection of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

About Data Surfer

It's all about information -- statistics, documents and data of all types that help us understand the world, make informed decisions and monitor government. It's about empowering citizens with tools and sources so they can conduct their own investigative research. This blog is a place to discuss information that's available on the Internet. What's relevant, useful, valid and accurate -- and what's not.

We know the Sacramento region is home to knowledgeable people who use online information in their respective fields. We want to hear from you. Please tell us what you think of the data we use in stories and post on The Bee's website. And share tips about online resources you think are valuable to this blog's readers. Post comments on this blog or contact Pete Basofin directly at

June 2010

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