Sunday, December 31, 2017

Should we care that the congestion tax is regressive?

This is Joseph

Over at Vox, Matt Ygelsias very nicely hits on one of my pet peeves about people calling congestion taxes (and similarly gas taxes) regressive:

Again and again, one hears the objection that congestion fees are regressive, but I think this is doubly mistaken. Analytically, it's true that congestion fees let the rich off relatively easy, but it's also the case that it's poor people who are disproportionately likely to not own cars and to benefit from faster buses.
But more to the point, it's easy to alter your overall tax system to make a congestion charge clearly progressive. The two main options are either to use the revenue to finance a sales tax cut (sales taxes are extremely regressive) or to pay out a "congestion dividend" to all the city's residents.
 I think that the current conversation about taxes has poisoned people's ability to be objective about these things.  Every time there is a new source of revenue, there is a push to cut progressive taxes (like the income tax).  The recent cut of the top income tax bracket is a case in point.

But raising revenue can be used to provide income support and social services.  It is a two step process, although I can understand the confusion about this given how we seem to focus only on a "taxes are bad meme".

But Matt is completely correct that poor people don't always have cars.  And if good (i.e. fast and reliable) bus service made it possible for more families to live car-free then that would be a big win, both for road safety and pollution.  Or maybe safer roads make bicycles work (even greener and cheaper).  Now this requires a commitment to good public transit services (or bike lanes), but I remain puzzled as to why this is remotely controversial.

I also want to note that the people making this argument seem to have no trouble with regressive taxation in other contexts.  The payroll tax is more regressive than the income tax.  Want to bet which one we just cut? Sales taxes are regressive, but they show no signs of being targeted in favor of an increased capital gains tax (which is progressive).  I am not saying that there are not other considerations, but I always find it puzzling how regressive is brought out in this context and not any other.

I will become much more sympathetic to the "regressive" objection when it is applied more broadly.  At the margin a congestion tax can finish a family financially.  But so too can sales taxes, which could make the difference between sufficient and insufficient income.  So if we are going to discuss regressive taxes, can we start with the elephant in the room. It's really an astonishing example of details are just not thought through.  If this is the standard then I don't see regressive as a serious problem with a tax that can be a) remedied with the right spending decisions and b) has positive social consequences.  So can we drop this point? 


Friday, December 29, 2017

The Last Jedi and narrative risks *major spoilers*

This is Joseph

The last Jedi is visually amazing and has some great character moments.  The plot is not the best, although that has rarely been a strength of Star Wars movies.  But I did want to comment on how the plot was, in a very odd way, just as safe and conservation as the Force Awakens. 

Needless to say: SPOILERS

REALLY, no kidding, SPOILERS

The Force awakens was basically the plot of a New Hope rehashed for a new group of heroes.  It is not necessarily the wrong artistic choice -- bringing a series back to the basics can create a fertile ground for exploring new paths forward.  Unfortunately, the Last Jedi seems to have managed to mangle the plot. 

The main conceit of the new series is that they reverse expectations at every step, often just to reverse them:

  1. Luke is a grumpy old man and not a wise Jedi master
  2. The plans that the heroes try cost lives and don't save them (Finn's expedition leads to the death of most of the surviving members of the resistance)
  3. Poe's reckless actions make things worse, not better, and being a hot shot ends up being counter-productive
  4. Snoke is killed immediately
  5. Turning on his master doesn't redeem Kylo Ren
  6. Rey falls for Kylo not Finn
  7. Heroic self-sacrifice is stopped by another character, with no viable plan to prevent everyone from dying
I could go on, but the trick seems to be to reverse expectations at every turn and try to make it fresh and original as a result.  But what struck me is how they somehow managed to avoid all of the real narrative risks that they could have taken with the story.

And we end up with the status quo.  A resistance against an empire that is overwhelmingly strong and is led by a person strong in the dark side is being led by a small group of heroes.  None of the new people died.  Luke becomes a force ghost, just like Yoda. The situation at the beginning is exactly like the end and we don't really have new plot angles that take us in a new and fascinating direction.

If you are going to invert expectations then you should create new paths forward.  Instead we get the same set up and very little narrative payoff.  Maybe that isn't the main thing in a Star Wars movie, but it definitely detracted from the otherwise very beautiful piece of film.  

Robots reanimating dead musicians

From NPR (May 28, 2007)
Pianist Glenn Gould's classic 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations has never been out of print. Yet this week, Sony Classical will release a brand-new recording of it.

It’s actually a recording of a "re-performance" of the music, designed by a North Carolina software company called Zenph.

The idea is simple: Old recordings sound old. Decades of amazing musical performances are hidden behind the limits of audio technology at the time they were recorded.

The Zenph "re-performance" process isn't a remastering — that is, trying to fix an existing recording with equalization or noise reduction. Instead, it's a new recording of a performance that scientifically matches the earlier one. Zenph uses a Yamaha Disklavier Pro, an actual acoustic piano that can, with a computer's help, play back with microscopically accurate timing and sensitivity.
Zenph will be turning to jazz next, with a recording of “re-performances'” of Art Tatum, including a live concert performance they hope to re-create, with no one at the piano, at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

And you think we're shrill

Ad running in Scientific American, 1905.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Merry Muskmas to all

[I've been going back and forth as to whether or not some of this is meant to be read as parody. If I missed some subtle wink from the author of the piece, pointed out in the comment section I will amend this post.]

I've been on the Elon Musk beat for quite a while now, and I thought I had a pretty good idea where the upper bound was for hype and journalistic credulity, but this Rolling Stone cover story by Neil Strauss really does set a new standard.

Musk will likely be remembered as one of the most seminal figures of this millennium. Kids on all the terraformed planets of the universe will look forward to Musk Day, when they get the day off to commemorate the birth of the Earthling who single-handedly ushered in the era of space colonization.
“Musk is a titan, a visionary, a human-size lever pushing forward massive historical inevitabilities – the kind of person who comes around only a few times in a century”

And that's pretty much the level of critical scrutiny you can expect from the entire piece.  It's not just the lack of skepticism – – we've seen plenty of that – – but the obliviousness to the need for skepticism.  Up until now, most reporters for major publications have at least acknowledged that some level of skepticism would have been appropriate. True, many of the disclaimers are little more than lip service, but the journalist on those stories understood that they should do at least the bare minimum.

Strauss is the first writer I can think of who addresses proposals like the Hyperloop completely without any mention of its critics and the serious questions about its viability.

The article even has a photo caption that reads 'Inspecting the Hyperloop, which will transport people from city to city in record time.' Not "may" or even "will probably," but "will" despite a widely held consensus among transportation and infrastructure experts that this is unlikely to be viable as anything more than a glorified amusement park ride in the foreseeable future.

We may come back to this article. There's a great deal of unintentional journalism here, insights into Musk's real and extraordinary gifts for motivation and promotion, talents that have led to some truly amazing accomplishments. There is also an interesting cautionary tale in the way Strauss lets his subject steer the narrative away from these genuinely important and impressive points and toward unquestioning acceptance of a self mythologizing narrative.

For now, though, I'm just going to let it stand with this. Frankly, reading a puff peace this inflated takes a lot out of me.

Kids and Cars 2

This is Joseph

At some point I thought there was a comment on my last post asking about walking to daycare.  It's actually closer than I thought in terms of time: 3.8 miles which Google maps thinks will take me 79 minutes.  With a jogging stroller this would work if I only did one pick-up or drop off a day. 

But I still wonder why it is such a huge deal to have daycares located near places of employment; does it make me a socialist to wonder why the extra commute works (and I am happy to pay marker rates of mid-twenty thousand per year -- it's the price of a kid). 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Kids and cars

This is Joseph

Duncan Black has another post up about how nice it is to live in a city, and have a lot of options to avoid driving.  I lived this way for much of my life.  But now I am trying to get a child into daycare.  After discovering that daycares in some cities (like mine) have wait lists that are years long (not a joke), the question of why don't you get a daycare near your house rather answers itself.  I am not sure why the coordination is so poor, but it makes a big difference.

So I decided to look at a commute from home to a daycare it is possible to get into (not easily) and then to work (and back).  Note that these times assume normal and fast flowing traffic (ha!), which can influence both buses and cars.

Home to daycare by car: 12 minutes
Home to daycare by bus (normal morning): 34 minutes

Daycare to work by car: 14-20 minutes (google maps gives a range)
Daycare to work by bus: 37 to 44 minutes (plus time to wait for a bus)

Presuming one spends 15 minutes doing kid drop-off and that you have exactly a median wait time for the bus on the way to work (15 minutes, as they typically come every 30 minutes) plus needing to be ten minutes early for the bus in the morning (because the bus coming early is an extra 30 minute wait) then the time to do a morning drop-off and get to work:

By car: 41 to 47 minutes
By bus: 111 to 118 minutes

Now, remember that this is doubled because you need to repeat it all at the end of the day.

A car is about 50 minutes and will likely be an hour with traffic and parking.  It's more expensive but it means that if I leave the house at 7 am then I can get back home at 6/6:30 pm or so, and have worked a full day, and have a buffer in case I am delayed so that I don't have to pay overtime rates at the daycare.

By bus, that's really 2 hours each way. This assumes that all of the buses come -- one bus that doesn't adds 30 minute increments. It is common at peak times of year for buses on campus to be full and not pick up any passengers.  In these cases, I might have to use a taxi occasionally, which definitely makes the cost savings seem less optimal (but noting compared to late fees).  If I aimed for opening of the daycare I would leave the house at 6 am, struggle to get to work at 8 am (see buses being 30 minutes apart and occasionally they get behind) and have to leave a 4 pm to make sure that I could make it all work (and not be late to daycare).  No lunch break is possible and now we have a 4 to 5 hour daily commute.  It's not that any leg is insane, it is that public transit needs to be exceedingly well designed to make it efficient to do a two location trip twice a day.

Now, you might ask about daycare at work.  It's at least a 3 year wait list for infant care and you get routinely bumped by priority groups (making 3 years very optimistic).  I guess some people are able to plan this well enough . . .  or are lucky enough to not be staff.  

Now, of course, an employer could make this a priority and get that waitlist dropped.  But that seems so . . . alien . . . to the way that places are run these days that I struggle to see it.

But so long as daycare is a requirement (and I am not wealthy enough to have either nannies or the ability to make one salary easily work) then it's really going to drive car ownership.  If you want to improve car reliance, then this seems like a very pertinent problem and a key place to start putting in some creative thinking.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Greetings from Slumberland

From the great Winsor McCay.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Nine out of ten technomages recommend DNA-aligning essential oils for your essential oil needs

I've got more to say about this excellent New Yorker piece by Rachel Monroe (and about what Monroe does that other journalists should emulate). Her deep dive into the world of essential oils illuminates one of the most interesting corners of 21st century pseudo-science, the medical quackery that somehow appeals to the audiences of both Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop and Alex Jones' InfoWars.

For now now, though, I'm just going to highlight this beautiful example of magical heuristics, using the language of science to conceal fundamentally mystical thinking. [Remember to rub your screen three times clockwise before reading, unless using an Apple product, in which case it's counterclockwise.]
Disillusioned by Western medicine, Cohen began exploring other options. She studied with multiple healers and shamans; she read books with titles like “The Body Toxic” and pursued a massage-therapy license. As part of her training, she took a class on a massage technique called “raindrop therapy,” which incorporates essential oils—aromatic compounds made from plant material. At the time, essential oils were not well known, but Cohen was drawn to them right away. “From the very first moment with those oils, I noticed something was firing that hadn’t been firing,” she said. “I was deeply moved.”

Today, Cohen puts frankincense oil on her scalp every morning; when she feels a cold coming on, she downs an immune-system-boosting oil blend that includes clove, eucalyptus, and rosemary. On days when she has to negotiate a contract on behalf of an organization that she volunteers for, she uses nutmeg and spearmint to sharpen her focus. She earns the majority of her income working as a distributor for Young Living, a leading vender of essential oils.

Cohen is middle-aged, with a friendly, open face framed by graying curls. Though her house, in Long Beach, is full of New Age trappings—a statue of Ganesh, huge hunks of crystal—she speaks with the quick clip of someone who once gave a lot of corporate presentations. As we sat at her kitchen table, a glass globe puffed out clouds of tangerine-scented vapor.

Cohen offered me a glass of water enhanced with a few drops of an essential-oil blend called Citrus Fresh. “It helps the body detox,” she said. “Not that you’re toxic.” The water was subtly tangy, like a La Croix without the fizz.

Cohen went into her treatment room and came back with a small vial labelled “Clarity.” She put a few drops in my left palm. “This is good for getting your mind clear,” she said. “Rub it clockwise three times. That activates the electrical properties in the oil, and aligns your DNA.” Following Cohen’s instructions, I cupped my hands around my nose and inhaled deeply. The smell was heavier than that of perfume, so minty that it was almost medicinal. Cohen looked at me expectantly. “I feel perkier,” I ventured.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A few more words about the official game of Kružno, Slovakia*

While the gift-giving season is still upon us...

Back when I was teaching high school math, I got very much into games and puzzles as a way of teaching both specific concepts and more general skills like problem-solving and strategic thinking. In addition to all the standards (chess, checkers, etc.) and some interesting historical games, I started developing some of my own, mostly played on 6 x 6 x 6 hexagonal boards that I printed out and taped together.

I was particularly happy with the way one of these games, Kružno, turned out. It played well. The underlying dynamics were, as far as I could tell, unique, and it was what I like to call an elegant game, with very simple rules (it takes a bright seven-year-old about five minutes to catch on) supporting a reasonably high level of complexity and challenging play.

I ran off a small batch and tried my hand at selling them both individually and as part of a hexagonal game set (the 6 x 6 x 6 board can be used for dozens of contemporary and historical games). I sold a few and got some good feed back but realized I didn't have the risk-tolerance to take the business to the next level.

I've been working on an online Kružno. The logic's been worked out and I'm planning on getting it up and running next year. In the meantime, I'll keep the Amazon store up for a while longer. Check it out. I think you'll have fun with it.

* No, really.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

As if you didn't have enough to worry about

[This is another one of those too-topical-to-ignore topics that I don't have nearly enough time to do justice to, but I suppose that's why God invented blogging.]

There's a huge problem that people aren't talking about nearly enough. More troublingly, when it does get discussed, it is usually treated as a series of unrelated problems, much like a cocaine addict who complains about his drug problem, bankruptcy, divorce, and encounters with loan sharks, but who never makes a causal connection between the items on the list.

Think about all of the recent news stories that are about or are a result of concentration/deregulation of media power and the inevitable consequences. Obviously, net neutrality falls under this category. So does the role that Facebook, and, to a lesser extent, Twitter played in the misinformation that influenced the 2016 election. The role of the platform monopolies in the ongoing implosion of digital journalism has been widely discussed by commentators like Josh Marshall. The Time Warner/AT&T merger has gotten coverage primarily due to the ethically questionable involvement of Donald Trump, with very little being said about the numerous other concerns. Outside of a few fan boys excited over the possibility of seeing the X-Men fight the Avengers, almost no one's talking about Disney's Fox acquisition.

It didn't used to be like this. For most of the 20th century, the government kept a vigilant watch for even potential accumulation of media power. Ownership was restricted. Movie studios were forced to sell their theaters (see United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc). The largest radio network was effectively forced to split in two (that's why we have ABC broadcasting today). Media companies were tightly regulated, their workforce was heavily unionized, and they were forced to jump through all manner of hoops before expanding into new markets to insure that the public good was being served.

In short, the companies were subjected to conditions which we have been told prevent growth, stifle innovation, and kill jobs. We can never know what would've happened had the government given these companies a freer hand but we can say with certainty that for media, the Post-war era was a period of explosive growth, fantastic advances, and incredible successes both economically and culturally. It's worth noting that the biggest entertainment franchises of the market-worshiping, anything-goes 21st century were mostly created under the yoke of 20th century regulation.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Our annual Toys-for-Tots post

[running late this year but there's still time]

A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's the season to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or thirty bucks at Wal-Mart or Costco;*

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);**

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

*I previously used Target here, but their selection has been dropping over the past few years and it's gotten more difficult to find toys that meet my criteria.

** I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but when the batteries die, the toys live on, still powered by the energy of children at play.

From the back of the Scientific American -- the ads they'd like you to forget

From June 19, 1909

From November 21, 1908

From February 2, 1902

Friday, December 15, 2017

Megan McArdle is worth reading today

This is Joseph

I want too outsource today's comments to Megan McArdle.  I don't agree with everything in her piece, but I think that she highlights the consequences of not working out due process for these issues.  The real underlying issue, which I think that she omits, is that powerful people have been protected by position of great privilege from facing the consequences of loathsome behavior. That has led to some justifiable rage, after years of torment and this needs to be thoughtfully considered.  But let's make sure that the path forward is developed on solid ground, because it would be a pity for this forward progress to be lost. 

"All that lava rushing 'round the corner" – – A musical accompaniment for the post-Moore GOP mood

We've been hearing a lot about growing Republican anxiety over a possible electoral "tsunami" in 2018. Without getting into the likelihood of this particular scenario, I would like to suggest a different natural disaster metaphor.

Note to AI researchers: why don't you forget about chess for a while

[Another game post brought to you by Kruzno.]

By digging into the rich history of board games (and possibly doing a little tweaking) I suspect we can come up with other abstract strategy games of perfect information that put humans and machines on a more equal footing, and more importantly, provide as or more interesting fields of study for AI. Of course, there's always go, but wouldn't it be fun to do something different for a change?

Whenever you need to make a survey of games, the best place to start is almost always David Parlett (followed by Sid Sackson but more on that later). Lots of promising potential candidates both historical and modern. To get things started, how about the medieval game that for a while rivaled chess for popularity, rithmomachy?

From Wikipedia.

Very little, if anything, is known about the origin of the game. But it is known that medieval writers attributed it to Pythagoras, although no trace of it has been discovered in Greek literature, and the earliest mention of it is from the time of Hermannus Contractus (1013–1054).

The name, which appears in a variety of forms, points to a Greek origin, the more so because Greek was little known at the time when the game first appeared in literature. Based upon the Greek theory of numbers, and having a Greek name, it is still speculated by some that the origin of the game is to be sought in the Greek civilization, and perhaps in the later schools of Byzantium or Alexandria.

The first written evidence of Rithmomachia dates back to around 1030, when a monk, named Asilo, created a game that illustrated the number theory of Boëthius' De institutione arithmetica, for the students of monastery schools. The rules of the game were improved shortly thereafter by the respected monk, Hermannus Contractus, from Reichenau, and in the school of Liège. In the following centuries, Rithmomachia spread quickly through schools and monasteries in the southern parts of Germany and France. It was used mainly as a teaching aid, but, gradually, intellectuals started to play it for pleasure. In the 13th century Rithmomachia came to England, where famous mathematician Thomas Bradwardine wrote a text about it. Even Roger Bacon recommended Rithmomachia to his students, while Sir Thomas More let the inhabitants of the fictitious Utopia play it for recreation.

The game was well enough known as to justify printed treatises in Latin, French, Italian, and German, in the sixteenth century, and to have public advertisements of the sale of the board and pieces under the shadow of the old Sorbonne.

Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

If we are going to talk about games, everyone should probably read this first.

[Brought to you by Kruzno]

I've long been an advocate of board games (particularly the abstract strategy variety). They're wonderful for both recreation and education, they can provide intriguing examples of mathematical and logical concepts, and, of particular relevance these days, they can be a great testing ground for AI research.

All of these purposes would be better suited if people were familiar with a wider range of games and knew more about their history. This brings us to the game designer and historian, David Parlett and his indispensable Oxford history of board games. I'll be coming back to this book in the future, but for now, this is just a general recommendation. If you're an educator, a researcher, or just someone with an interest in the topic, you should definitely try to get your hands on a copy.

The powerful combination of effective marketing and a product that's literally addictive

[The New Yorker piece, "The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe is an extraordinary piece of longform journalism and you should take the time to read the whole thing, particularly if you have any interest in scientific research, healthcare, and the second coming of the gilded age. I'm not going to attempt any kind of comprehensive summary (like I said, just read it), but I am going to do a few blog post highlighting some points that jump out at me.]

If you've ever wondered what would happen if you crossed an unscrupulous ad man with an unscrupulous pharmaceutical executive. 

Arthur [Sackler] helped pay his medical-school tuition by taking a copywriting job at William Douglas McAdams, a small ad agency that specialized in the medical field. He proved so adept at this work that he eventually bought the agency—and revolutionized the industry. Until then, pharmaceutical companies had not availed themselves of Madison Avenue pizzazz and trickery. As both a doctor and an adman, Arthur displayed a Don Draper-style intuition for the alchemy of marketing. He recognized that selling new drugs requires a seduction of not just the patient but the doctor who writes the prescription.

Sackler saw doctors as unimpeachable stewards of public health. “I would rather place myself and my family at the judgment and mercy of a fellow-physician than that of the state,” he liked to say. So in selling new drugs he devised campaigns that appealed directly to clinicians, placing splashy ads in medical journals and distributing literature to doctors’ offices. Seeing that physicians were most heavily influenced by their own peers, he enlisted prominent ones to endorse his products, and cited scientific studies (which were often underwritten by the pharmaceutical companies themselves). John Kallir, who worked under Sackler for ten years at McAdams, recalled, “Sackler’s ads had a very serious, clinical look—a physician talking to a physician. But it was advertising.” In 1997, Arthur was posthumously inducted into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, and a citation praised his achievement in “bringing the full power of advertising and promotion to pharmaceutical marketing.” Allen Frances put it differently: “Most of the questionable practices that propelled the pharmaceutical industry into the scourge it is today can be attributed to Arthur Sackler.”

Advertising has always entailed some degree of persuasive license, and Arthur’s techniques were sometimes blatantly deceptive. In the nineteen-fifties, he produced an ad for a new Pfizer antibiotic, Sigmamycin: an array of doctors’ business cards, alongside the words “More and more physicians find Sigmamycin the antibiotic therapy of choice.” It was the medical equivalent of putting Mickey Mantle on a box of Wheaties. In 1959, an investigative reporter for The Saturday Review tried to contact some of the doctors whose names were on the cards. They did not exist.

During the sixties, Arthur got rich marketing the tranquillizers Librium and Valium. One Librium ad depicted a young woman carrying an armload of books, and suggested that even the quotidian anxiety a college freshman feels upon leaving home might be best handled with tranquillizers. Such students “may be afflicted by a sense of lost identity,” the copy read, adding that university life presented “a whole new world . . . of anxiety.” The ad ran in a medical journal. Sackler promoted Valium for such a wide range of uses that, in 1965, a physician writing in the journal Psychosomatics asked, “When do we not use this drug?” One campaign encouraged doctors to prescribe Valium to people with no psychiatric symptoms whatsoever: “For this kind of patient—with no demonstrable pathology—consider the usefulness of Valium.” Roche, the maker of Valium, had conducted no studies of its addictive potential. Win Gerson, who worked with Sackler at the agency, told the journalist Sam Quinones years later that the Valium campaign was a great success, in part because the drug was so effective. “It kind of made junkies of people, but that drug worked,” Gerson said. By 1973, American doctors were writing more than a hundred million tranquillizer prescriptions a year, and countless patients became hooked. The Senate held hearings on what Edward Kennedy called “a nightmare of dependence and addiction.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The dark magic of the market – – OxyContin edition

[The New Yorker piece, "The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe is an extraordinary piece of longform journalism and you should take the time to read the whole thing, particularly if you have any interest in scientific research, healthcare, and the second coming of the gilded age. I'm not going to attempt any kind of comprehensive summary (like I said, just read it), but I am going to do a few blog post highlighting some points that jump out at me.]

One of the most pernicious ideas of the past few decades is that markets are both magical and moral, that simply removing government oversight and unleashing market forces would always, automatically improve everything. This is, at best, a questionable approach, but it becomes absolutely disastrous when selectively applied. Removing certain regulations while keeping in place anticompetitive rules and government granted monopolies such as patents and copyrights produces a worst of both worlds scenario (at least for the consumer).

While the roots of this philosophy are complex and long-standing, its success can be explained in large part, perhaps even almost entirely, by the way it was subsidized by interested parties. Industries that stand to make windfall profits and billionaires with an ideological ax to grind (huge overlap in these two) pour stunning amounts of money into biased and often worthless academic research, fake institutes and think tanks that start with their conclusions and work backwards, and propaganda/lobbying operations that build themselves as educational foundations. You would have to put scare quotes around every other word to do this justice.

In this particular instance, the single-minded pursuit of optimal profit, rather than serving the social good, corrupted the process and inflicted a huge toll.[emphasis added.]
A 1995 memo sent to the launch team emphasized that the company did “not want to niche” OxyContin just for cancer pain. A primary objective in Purdue’s 2002 budget plan was to “broaden” the use of OxyContin for pain management. As May put it, “What Purdue did really well was target physicians, like general practitioners, who were not pain specialists.” In its internal literature, Purdue similarly spoke of reaching patients who were “opioid naïve.” Because OxyContin was so powerful and potentially addictive, David Kessler told me, from a public-health standpoint “the goal should have been to sell the least dose of the drug to the smallest number of patients.” But this approach was at odds with the competitive imperatives of a pharmaceutical company, he continued. So Purdue set out to do exactly the opposite.

Sales reps, May told me, received training in “overcoming objections” from clinicians. If a doctor inquired about addiction, May had a talking point ready. “ ‘The delivery system is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug,’ ” he recited to me, with a rueful laugh. “Those were the specific words. I can still remember, all these years later.” He went on, “I found out pretty fast that it wasn’t true.” In 2002, a sales manager from the company, William Gergely, told a state investigator in Florida that Purdue executives “told us to say things like it is ‘virtually’ non-addicting.”

May didn’t ask doctors simply to take his word on OxyContin; he presented them with studies and literature provided by other physicians. Purdue had a speakers’ bureau, and it paid several thousand clinicians to attend medical conferences and deliver presentations about the merits of the drug. Doctors were offered all-expenses-paid trips to pain-management seminars in places like Boca Raton. Such spending was worth the investment: internal Purdue records indicate that doctors who attended these seminars in 1996 wrote OxyContin prescriptions more than twice as often as those who didn’t. The company advertised in medical journals, sponsored Web sites about chronic pain, and distributed a dizzying variety of OxyContin swag: fishing hats, plush toys, luggage tags. Purdue also produced promotional videos featuring satisfied patients—like a construction worker who talked about how OxyContin had eased his chronic back pain, allowing him to return to work. The videos, which also included testimonials from pain specialists, were sent to tens of thousands of doctors. The marketing of OxyContin relied on an empirical circularity: the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Model Decay, Causal Mechanisms and Townhallophobia

[Now with title.]

I know I've been going to the well a bit too often recently in terms of old posts. I'll admit there's an element of laziness here, but I also think it's useful and even important to review old arguments in terms of new developments.

This also gives us a chance to dig a little deeper into pertinent related topics. For instance, despite living in a data obsessed age when every journalists feels the need to pepper reporting with graphs and statistics and models and algorithms (and frequently models mislabeled as algorithms), there are still a number of fundamental analytic concepts that generally evade even the more sophisticated data journalists.

A notable example is model decay. With the exception of the physical sciences, even the best models tend to lose explanatory and predictive power over time (though in the life sciences, the changes can be very slow). This is particularly true in the social sciences where people quickly adapt to conditions, sometimes specifically in response to awareness of the very models in question.

Model decay can happen slowly or suddenly and there's no simple procedure for seeing how well things are standing, but there are red flags you can look out for.

Though I may get some pushback on this, I think most good modelers and researchers at least implicitly have a set of plausible mechanisms in mind when they propose a causal relationship. (If a researcher can't think of any plausible mechanisms that might cause the relationship he or she is seeing, that's probably cause for concern.) For example, let's say a study found that people who purchased a gym membership and did not make serious use of it saw their body fat tend to increase. The researcher might hypothesize that the subjects were rationalizing bad dietary choices based on the belief that they would work off the pounds.

Though these plausible mechanisms are just good guesses, it is a good idea to keep them in mind when considering model decay. If we have reason to believe that the mechanisms for a particular model no longer function in the same way, we also have reason to believe that the model may no longer be viable. Going back to our previous example, imagine that a certain unnamed financial institution buys a health club chain and starts signing up customers without their knowledge. We definitely have reason to believe that the relationship between unused gym memberships and body fat will break down.

With the rise of data-based political reporting, we've also seen an uptick in simplistic A-then-B models. Writers will often explicitly acknowledge that conditions are completely different then turn around and insist that the same relationships that held before hold now.

Consider the incumbency advantage. There's obviously a relationship here, but what are the plausible mechanisms behind it? We could always reach out to political scientists or dig into relevant studies and polling data, but we can also make some pretty good common sense guesses. It's entirely reasonable to suppose that the advantage is at least partially dependent on incumbents being responsive to their constituents' wants and needs and maintaining a strong connection with the people back home through regular contact via multiple channels.

When politicians take stands that are unpopular with their constituents and then abruptly and publicly cut off these channels of communication, there is reason to believe that assumptions about the incumbency advantage may no longer hold.

Here's what we were saying about this ten months ago.

Though, to be perfectly fair, Tennessee has always been a hotbed of leftist radicals

We have all heard the statistics about how difficult it is for a Congressional representative to lose his or her job. This is partially because of things like gerrymandering and spigots of campaign cash, but it also reflects a process that does a pretty good job allowing a reasonably competent and dedicated legislator to keep the constituents fairly happy in his or her district. A big part of that process is the maintaining of good relationships and lines of communication with voters and communities. Many political career has ended when voters felt someone had "lost touch with the people back home."

In this context, stories like the following from Talking Points Memo's Allegra Kirkland take on a special significance.
Constituents requesting that Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) hold a town hall on repealing the Affordable Care Act aren't being met with a polite brushoff from staffers anymore. Instead, Duncan's office has started sending out a form letter telling them point-blank that he has no intention to hold any town hall meetings.

“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” the letter read, according to a copy obtained by the Maryville Daily Times. “Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them.”

In the first weeks of the 115th Congress, elected officials dropping by their home districts were surprised to find town halls packed to the rafters with concerned constituents. Caught off guard and on camera, lawmakers were asked to defend President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and provide a timeline on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Now, many of them are skipping out on these events entirely. Some have said large meetings are an ineffective format for addressing individual concerns. Many others have, like the President himself, dismissed those questioning their agenda as “paid protesters” or radical activists who could pose a physical threat.

Voters turning out to town halls are pushing back hard on this characterization, arguing that they represent varied ideological backgrounds and have diverse issues to raise. Constituents unable to meet with their elected officials over the weekend told TPM that they’re not attending town hall events to make trouble. Instead, they say they want accountability from the people they pay to represent them.

Kim Mattoch, a mother of three and event planner, told TPM that she tried to go to a Saturday town hall in Roseville, California with GOP Rep. Tom McClintock but couldn’t make it in. The 200-seat theater hosting the event was quickly filled to capacity, leaving hundreds waiting outside.

“I’m a constituent of McClintock and a registered Republican in a very Republican district—though I don’t really align very well these days with the Republican Party,” Mattoch said in a Monday phone call. “So I wanted to go to the town hall because I legitimately had questions for the congressman.”

Mattoch said the protesters waiting outside had a wide range of “legitimate concerns.” She personally hoped to ask her representative about how the GOP was progressing on repealing and replacing the ACA and why House Republicans last week voted to kill a ruling aimed at preventing coal mining debris from ending up in waterways.

Yet McClintock told the Los Angeles Times that he thought an “anarchist element” was present in the crowd outside his event, and said he was escorted to his car by police because he’d been told the atmosphere was “deteriorating.”

Ramon Fliek, who attended the McClintock event with his wife, told TPM on Monday that police “were kind enough to block the whole road” to make space for the overflow crowd, and that he overheard protesters thanking law enforcement for “doing their jobs.”

“If you look at the videos from the event, you can’t get any notion that it was aggressive,” he said. “There was an older woman with a poodle that ran after him and it’s like, okay, the older lady with the poodle is not going to threaten you. I understand that he might want to give that impression, but it was very pleasant.”
Admittedly, it is a long time until midterms, but possibly not long enough to repair this kind of damage.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Consequences of budget deficits

This is Joseph

Paul Krugman via Mark Thoma:
For budget deficits are going to soar thanks to Republican legislation — probably by even more than the official scorekeepers say, because the legislation creates so many new loopholes. And offsetting those deficits will require going after the true big-ticket programs, namely Medicare and Social Security.
Oh, they’ll find euphemisms to describe what they’re doing, talking solemnly about the need for “entitlement reform” as an act of fiscal responsibility — while their huge budget-busting tax cut for the rich gets shoved down the memory hole. But whatever words they use to cloak the reality of the situation, Republicans have given their donors what they wanted — and now they’re coming for your benefits.
I am actually a big opponent of "deficits don't matter", even when spouted by the left.  I totally understand the need to invest and that low interest rates that right now is a fine time to run deficits if there is a good reason.  But, in the long run, deficits either need to be paid or are going to act in an inflationary way.  What is saving us, for now, is that the rich are so rich that there are a shortage of secure investment opportunities so rates are low. 

But, in the long run, to spend is to tax.  All that reducing taxes now is doing is moving this taxing off into the future.  Or shifting the tax burden around, by future defaults on bonds (for example), which might target specific segments of the population. 

What I find hard to swallow is how the deficit language is swallowed by the media as if they are not able to follow the basics of the structure of the arguments.  If we use the (imperfect) household analogy, we are saying that we should reduce our income (taxes) and then discover that we need to reduce expenses, in world where there is plenty of income available. 

Now you could make a first principles argument for why social security and medicare are bad ideas (or perhaps defense, the other large item).  But that should be done in parallel with the cuts in income and not afterwards because of the cuts.  If a family decides that they no longer need a car, and thus can work less, the correct order is deciding to ditch the car and then deciding to cut back on work.  Not waiting for a crisis. 

I really wish that the reporting on this issue was more explicit. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Adam ruins lab nice

Given the number of readers with relevant experience in this field, perhaps someone would like to weigh in on this.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


I'm a big fan of abstract strategy games, particularly those played on hexagonally-tiled boards (such as the ones you can purchase here). One of my favorites is Agon. It's a challenging but easy to learn game that's deserves a much bigger following. Here is the write-up I did of the rules a few years ago.

Agon may be the oldest abstract strategy game played on a 6 by 6 by 6 hexagonally tiled board, first appearing as early as the late Eighteenth Century in France. The game reached it greatest popularity a hundred years later when the Victorians embraced it for its combination of simple moves and complex strategy.

The Pieces: Each player has one queen and six pawns a.k.a. guards placed in the pattern indicated below
Agon Start

The Objective: To place your queen in the center hexagon and surround her with all six of her guards.(below)


Moves: Think of the Agon board as a series of concentric circles (see above). Pieces can move one space at a time either in the same ring or the ring closer to the center. In the figure on the left, a piece on a hexagon marked 4 could move to an adjacent hexagon marked either 4 or 3. Only the queen is allowed to move into the center hexagon. The figure below shows possible moves.


Capturing: A piece is captured when there are two enemy pieces on either side of it. The player with the captured piece must use his or her next move to place the captured piece on the outside hexagon.
If the captured piece is a guard, the player whose piece was captured can choose where on the outer hex to place the piece. If the piece is a queen, the player who made the capture decides where the queen should go.

If more than one piece is captured in one turn, the player whose pieces were captured must move them one turn at a time.

If a player surrounds the center hexagon with guards without getting the queen into position, that player forfeits the game.

Dilation and contraction.

Our standard narrative is deeply invested in the idea that progress is ever accelerating and that we are always on the cusp of an unimaginable leap forward. One of the favorite devices used to sustain this belief is dilation/contraction. The rate of technological change and its impact on society in the past is underestimated (particularly when describing the periods of the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the postwar era) while the current rate of change is overestimated, often wildly so when it comes to near-future predictions.

The following by Jim Hoagland is a good example.
Driverless cars and trucks rule the road, while robots “man” the factories. Super-smartphones hail Uber helicopters or even planes to fly their owners across mushrooming urban areas. Machines use algorithms to teach themselves cognitive tasks that once required human intelligence, wiping out millions of managerial, as well as industrial, jobs.

These are visions of a world remade — for the most part, in the next five to 10 years — by technological advances that form a fourth industrial revolution. You catch glimpses of the same visions today not only in Silicon Valley but also in Paris think tanks, Chinese electric-car factories or even here at the edge of the Sahara.

Technological disruption in the 21st century is different. Societies had years to adapt to change driven by the steam engine, electricity and the computer. Today, change is instant and ubiquitous. It arrives digitally across the globe all at once.

It is essential to note that, despite decades of serious and aggressive research and development, none of these technologies currently exist (at least not at the levels implied here) and, with the exception of autonomous vehicles, they probably won't exist a decade from now. Even with AVs, ruling the road will probably take decades unless we start heavily regulating non-autonomous cars.

(As we've pointed out before, there is an important distinction between driverless cars and driverless trucks. While both are coming, the current economic case for autonomous trucking makes far more sense and the technological challenge of driving a relatively small number of routes is considerably less. Long haul truck driving has the potential to go away quite suddenly.)

It's true that outside factors often slowed implementation in fields like electricity in the past. Factories had to be reconfigured. Power lines had to be laid. This meant that the adoption of certain technologies was delayed, particularly in certain localities, but even with this, the rate of technological change around the turn-of-the-century and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the postwar era, was stunning.

More importantly in this case, (barring the special case where a new technology can be uploaded without any kind of change or upgrade of hardware) the same basic issues still apply. Even with AV's, there's still development time, infrastructure and adoption to consider.

The day is coming when you'll be able to say an address into your phone and have your car on its way without ever leaving the comfort of your couch. The prognosis for Hoagland's other just-around-the-corner innovations is considerably less promising. There are daunting problems involved with using AI to take over complex, badly understood tasks that largely lack reliable and agreed-upon metrics of success. While as for flying cars, the obstacles are huge and we have a history of failed promises going back literally a century. Just because some compulsive liar whose primary accomplishment has been getting gullible venture capitalists to write him ginormous checks makes this particular promise doesn't mean you should report it in the pages of the Washington Post as a done deal.

But even allowing for the vanishingly small chance that all of these things do come to pass roughly in the time frame given, we would still be nowhere near the level of technological change that people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had to adapt to in virtually every aspect of their world, from day-to-day living to industry to transportation to mass media to telecommunications to medicine to agriculture and to all the others that I have invariably left off the list.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Insert obligatory what's-a-newspaper? joke here

Another small piece (or, more accurately, medium-size piece of a big piece) of the late 19th/early 20th century technology spike.

Media innovation was a big part of this story, not in the same league as internal combustion and electricity, but still a big player marked with a number of stunning advances.Most of the attention here tends to go to the then completely new developments such as recorded sound and moving pictures, but in terms of impact, advances in printing may have had more of an effect on the period.

I have been going through some old Scientific Americans for material and came across this excellent example from 1896. In the middle of the century, putting out a major metropolitan daily required the equivalent of a medium-size, well staffed factory.

By the last decade of the century, the presses were five times as fast, a fraction of the size, and largely automated.

This and other technological innovations (such as color printing) made publications like the Strand magazine and journalistic events like the Hearst/Pulitzer circulation wars and the rise of the comic strips possible. All of this had an enormous impact on American culture and politics.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Non-belated Tuesday Tweets

Monday, December 4, 2017

Want to see a 19th Century polar exploration balloon? Thought so...

Besancon and Hermite never actually made the trip, of course, but, damn, the illustrations are cool.