Wednesday, September 30, 2020

More on omnicompetence

Spending so much time on the subject of how money influences entertainment and entertainment journalism got me to thinking about Pauline Kael's prescient 1980 essay on the changing business model of the film industry, "Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers."

This passage is a bit off topic for that thread, but it does fit nicely with another, what happens when successful assholes buy their way into an industry they know nothing about, convinced of their own omnicompetence. [Emphasis added.]
There are direct results when conglomerates take over movie companies. Heads of the conglomerates may be drawn into the movie business for the status implications—the opportunity to associate with the world-famous. Some other conglomerate heads  may  be  drawn  in  for  the  women,  too;  a  new  social  life  beckons,  and  as  they become  social,  people  with  great  names  approach  them  as  equals,  and  famous  stars and producers and writers and directors tell them they’ve heard from other studios and about ideas they have for movies. The conglomerate heads become indignant that the studios they run have passed on these wonderful projects. The next day, they’re on the phone raising hell with the studio bosses. Very soon, they’re likely to be directors and suggesting material to them, talking to actors, and company executives what projects should be developed. How bad is the judgment of the conglomerate heads? Very bad. They haven’t grown up in a show business milieu—they don’t have the instincts or the information of those who have lived and sweated movies for many years. (Neither do most of the current studio bosses.) The corporate heads may be business geniuses, but as far as movies are concerned, have virgin instincts; ideas that are new to them and take them by storm may have failed grotesquely dozens of times. But they feel that they are creative people—how else could they have made so much money and be in a position to advise artists what to do? Who is to tell them no? Within a very short time, they are in fact, though not in title, running the studio. They turn up compliant executives who will settle for the title and not fight for the authority or for their own tastes if, in fact, they have any. The conglomerate heads find these compliant executives among lawyers and agents, among television executives, and in the lower echelons of the companies they’ve taken over. Generally, these executives reserve all their enthusiasm for movies that have made money; those are the only movies they like. When a director or a writer talks to them and tries to suggest the kind of movie he has in mind by using a comparison, they may stare at him blankly. They are usually law school or business school graduates; they have no frame of reference. Worse, they have no shame about not knowing anything about movies. From their point of view, such knowledge is not essential to their work.Their talent is being able to anticipate their superiors’ opinions; in meetings, they show a sixth sense for guessing what the most powerful person wants to hear. And if they ever guess wrong, they know how to shift gears without a tremor. So the movie companies wind up with top production executives whose interest in movies rarely extends beyond the selling possibilities; they could be selling neckties just as well as movies, except that they are drawn to glamour and power.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Revisiting a post from 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

There will be safe seats. There are no safe seats.

In 2017, we have a perfect example of when not to use static thinking and naïve extrapolation.

Not only are things changing rapidly, but, more importantly, there are a large number of entirely plausible scenarios that would radically reshape the political landscape and would undoubtedly interact in unpredictable ways. This is not "what if the ax falls?" speculation; if anything, have gotten to the point where the probability of at least one of these cataclysmic shifts happening is greater than the probability of none. And while we can't productively speculate on exactly how things will play out, we can say that the risks fall disproportionately on the Republicans.

Somewhat paradoxically, chaos and uncertainty can make certain strategic decisions easier. Under more normal (i.e. stable) circumstances it makes sense to expend little or no resources on unwinnable fights (or, conversely,  to spend considerable time and effort deciding what's winnable). The very concept of "unwinnable," however, is based on a whole string of assumptions, many of which we cannot make under the present conditions.

The optimal strategy under the circumstances for the Democrats is to field viable candidates for, if possible, every major 2018 race. This is based on the assumption not that every seat is winnable, but that no one can, at this point, say with a high level of confidence what the winnable seats are.

Monday, September 28, 2020

I have to admit, it’s kind of a pleasant change to be making fun of trivial things again…

And you don’t get much more trivial than the Emmys.

First off, any show with Eugene Levy or Catherine O’Hara is doing god’s work and having the two work together is going above and beyond. I haven’t gotten around to Schitt’s Creek yet, but I have no doubt it’s a deserving show which certainly makes this a feel good ending:
In 2020, the sixth and final season was nominated for 15 Primetime Emmy Awards. This broke the record for the most Emmy nominations given to a comedy in its final season. During the 2020 Emmys, the show became the first-ever comedy or drama series to sweep the four acting categories (Outstanding Lead Actor, Outstanding Lead Actress, Outstanding Supporting Actor, Outstanding Supporting Actress) and one of only four live action shows, along with All in the Family, The Golden Girls, and Will & Grace where all the principal actors have won at least one Emmy Award.

If anything, this understates how unprecedented the sweep is. If you look at the other shows mentioned here (All in the Family, The Golden Girls, and Will & Grace), you’ll see that they had Emmy wins or nominations every year they ran. Schitt’s Creek had never won a single statue before this year. Until 2019 (note that date), it hadn’t even gotten a nomination. The Television Academy is notorious for playing favorites. To go from nonentity to “honor just to be nominated” to powerhouse in two years goes against the industry’s laws of nature.

The sudden rise in popularity is often credited to a “Netflix bump” from when the streaming service picked it up in January of 2017 (another date to note). Left out of almost all reporting on these bumps is the role of marketing and PR. Netflix spends billions a year on promotion and while it prioritizes its “originals” (which brings up other interesting points), it still has enough for some fairly generous “Now on Netflix” campaigns.

That said, shows getting a ratings boost from syndication has been a recognized and well-documented phenomenon since the business model was established in the seventies. There’s no question that Schitt’s Creek got a bump, but just how big was it? Though not perfect, Google trends can provide a pretty good picture of the interest in a show.

Post-Netflix numbers were certainly better but after settling down, they remained relatively flat for well over a year then, around the fourth quarter of 2018, at which point they started a remarkable climb. On a related note
In [May] 2018, Debmar-Mercury, a division of Lionsgate, acquired the U.S. syndication rights to Schitt's Creek. The series is scheduled to debut in syndication on Fox Television Stations throughout the U.S. during the Fall 2020 television season. The series is also began airing reruns of series on Comedy Central on October 2, 2020.

Despite its low cool factor, television syndication remains a tremendously lucrative business. For a fairly obscure cable/Canadian show like Schitt’s Creek, awards and media buzz can greatly increase marketability. It would be shocking if Lionsgate, a company with billions in revenue and a substantial PR budget, didn’t launch a major campaign and, given the Q2 acquisition and time to plan the campaign, we’d expect the money to start flowing in October, 2018.

In 2020, this PR push was followed by an aggressive Emmy campaign.

I don’t want to get carried away – this is just one metric (a noisy one at that) and some anecdotes – but the standard narrative (check this Vanity Fair piece for an example that adheres strictly to the form) doesn’t really fit we we see here, neither with the Netflix bump nor with finding an audience. Instead, we have another example of how PR departments shape things like awards and media coverage, and unfortunately not just on trivial matters.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Mono-causal explanations

This is Joseph

One thing that drives me a little nuts is how people want to have things happen due to a single cause. In most of life, things are never so simple. Mark noted this in a previous post. Many things can contribute to an event occuring, in a combination of necessary and sufficient causes.

The triggering event for this was a tweet on oral anti-diabetic medications suggesting that diet and lifestyle should be tried. I think that everyone prescribing medications would prefer that lifestyle changes would be wonderful. But the real world is complicated. For example, if it is Type 1 diabetes there are no lifestyle changes that will help -- before the development of insulin this was a certain death sentence.  Even for Type 2 diabetes, where the medications are most likely, it will not always be the case that lifestyle is sufficient to cause remission. Instead a combination of lifestyle and medications, together, are likely to be more effective than either alone. 

But this concept applies to all sorts of other conditions. For example, when a person leaves a job there are almost always a series of causes. Some of it could be salary whereas location or family could matter more for others. As a result you can never infer anything about a workplace from a couple of people leaving, but a string of attrition looks like a bad sign. 

As Mark noted, this also comes into play with all sorts of political systems. People like single explanations for why a specific person wins a race. The truth is that there is probably a wide range of motivations for specific votes -- ranging from random chance to fierce interest in a specific policy. 

But more important, we should discipline ourselves not to conflate risk factors with causes. Obesity might increase the risk of a deep vein thrombosis, but many non-obese people have these events. The counter-factual person (same person just not obese) might well have had one regardless of obesity. 

Looking for a simple explanation always suggests you are missing important information. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Still working my way through Deadwood, though

I was going through some old posts and I came across this reply on the subject of manipulating crime statistics.

Or watch the Wire

Well, it took me ten years, but I did get around to it and the show lives up to the hype. It still comes in second to NYPD Blue for me (Almost impossible to match the combination of Sipowicz's arc and Franz's performance stretching over a decade), but it's close to the top of my list and this is coming from someone who has watched way too much television.

And yes, statistics and their abuse are a huge part of the story, particularly in the police department and the schools (having taught in high poverty schools, urban and rural, I can tell you this is possibly the best depiction I've seen). Campbell's law rules here.

Lots of familiar voices in the opening credits, including Steve Earle, who has a small but important recurring role on camera.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

“There was only one good thing about the fire. It made people talk about the things that really concerned them.”

Recent events have got me thinking about the Ross MacDonald novel the Underground Man which takes place against the backdrop of a massive wildfire and gives us some idea how Californians thought about fires fifty years ago.

Though critics now tend to hold MacDonald's late Fifties books in higher regard, this novel and its predecessor, the Goodbye Look represented the peak in the author's literary standing. Friend and admirer Eudora Welty wrote this in her review in the New York Times.

Time pressing, time lapsing, time repeating itself in dark acts, splitting into two in some agonized or imperfect mind— time is the wicked fairy to troubled people, granting them inevitably the thing they dread. While Archer's investigation is drawing him into the past, we are never allowed to forget that present time has been steadily increasing its menace. Mr. Macdonald has brought the fire toward us at closer and closer stages. By the time it gets as close as the top of the hill (this was the murder area), it appears “like a brilliant uniform growth which continued to grow until it bloomed very large against the sky. A sentinel quail on the hillside be low it was ticking an alarm.” Then, reaching the Broadhurst house, “the fire bent around it like the fingers of a hand, squeezing smoke out of the windows and then flame.”
Indeed the fire is a multiple and accumulating identity, with a career of its own, a super character that has earned it self a character's name—Rattlesnake. Significantly, Archer says, “There was only one good thing about the fire. It made people talk about the things that really concerned them.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

West Coast wildfires -- Marketplace gets it right

At first glance, this shouldn't be that difficult. You just have to hit the following points clearly and emphatically.

1. While climate change contributes to the wildfire crisis, the much larger and more immediate cause is the result of decades of excessive Western fire suppression.

2. We desperately need to address this crisis as soon as possible, primarily through controlled and managed burns.

3. The scientists studying forests are in absolute agreement on both these points and have been warning us about this crisis for years.

4. However, a combination of governmental inaction, perverse incentives and the short-sighted self-interest of various parties has kept us from avoiding catastrophe.

Not one in ten articles on the subject meets these standards, but perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised. Telling a story that grows out of the facts, fighting the urge to bend it to fit popular narratives, keeping the focus on the genuinely important. These are things that require journalists to have both skill and courage.

Which is part of the reason why Marketplace is the best daily news show on public radio.

Monday, September 21, 2020

And it's hard to get more boring than charcoal

Sometimes it feels like the more practical and promising an approach to addressing global warming is, the less interest it generates. Personally, for this and most other urgent problems, I'm pretty much only interested in boring solutions based on existing technology.

I'm not sure if there's a way to scale this to address our twin crises of  too much fuel in our forests and too much carbon in our atmosphere, but it's an intriguing thought.

From Wikipedia:

 The burning and natural decomposition of biomass releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane to the Earth's atmosphere. The biochar production process also releases CO2 (up to 50% of the biomass); however the remaining carbon content is stable indefinitely. Biochar presents a stable way of carbon storage in the ground for centuries, potentially reducing or stalling the growth in atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. Simultaneously, its presence in the earth can improve water quality, increase soil fertility, raise agricultural productivity, and reduce pressure on old-growth forests.

Biochar can sequester carbon in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years, like coal. Such a carbon-negative technology would lead to a net withdrawal of CO2 from the atmosphere, while producing consumable energy. This technique is advocated by prominent scientists such as James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, for mitigation of global warming by greenhouse gas remediation.

Friday, September 18, 2020

More important, none of the new tunneling machines are as cool as the Sigafoos.

Today in Hyperloop non-developments
The “incremental changes” currently being made in tunnelling technology will not be enough to generate the reduction in costs needed to make hyperloop tunnels affordable, according to a new British Tunnelling Society (BTS) report.

The Hyperloop Challenge report – authored by tunnelling consultant Bill Grose – says the changes will continue to be made but more needs to be done.

“Current proven tunnelling technology will not in itself generate the savings that are necessary to meet the wished-for step change in tunnelling costs that is thought to be necessary to make hyperloop in tunnels economically viable,” the report says.
Which gives me an excuse to repost more cool Turn of the Century tech.


The Sigafoos Tunneling Machine

With all this discussion of hyperloops and tunneling technology, I thought this would provide some interesting context (and an excuse to post a couple of cool pictures). I found the last paragraph particularly interesting. Notice how even more than a hundred years ago, people recognized the tremendous potential of fast, cheap tunneling.

Like the poor, new ideas for tunneling through rock and doing away with drilling and powder and dangerous blasting, are forever with us. Since 1853 there have been no less than sixty-nine patents granted on tunneling machines, and of this number but three have progressed beyond the blue-print stage. One was constructed and used with some slight success in the East, but owing to lack of funds or disputes among its builders, all progress was stopped. The second was built in Colorado, and at the present time is installed in a tunnel near Boulder. This machine does the work claimed for it, but the cutting is very irregular, numerous breakdowns are constantly happening, and in the course of over six months the machine has penetrated but a few hundred feet.

The third machine, here illus­trated, was invented by Mr. Sigafoos, of Denver, long associated with many eastern manufacturers until of late, when he turned his mind and labor toward western mining fields. Mr. Sigafoos built his first model three years ago, and until the present day it is on exhibition in his offices. Even this little working model, barely two feet long, has eaten through solid granite quite as easily and determinedly as a hungry earthworm.

Early in January of this year the first regular-sized machine was constructed in the East and shipped complete to Georgetown, Col., where the first contract was let and its behavior eagerly watched. The utmost secrecy was observed, for the first trial, and the author was extremely fortunate in being allowed to witness the test. In every instance the rotary proved its value, and came up to the highest expectations. Mr. Sigafoos stands ready to take contracts with his machine, in any and all rock, and will guarantee to cut five feet an hour, twenty-four hours a day.

It may not be amiss to state that the famous Moffat road will probably use these large rotaries in cutting its great tunnel through the mountains. In places today where the road ascends and descends mountains, it is expected within a short time to eventually bore through them, cutting down the time from coast to coast fully twenty-four hours. The contractors, before learning of the new machine, allowed ten years for the completion of this gigantic undertaking; but today, with a sufficient number of tunnel rotaries at work, two years will not be an impractical limit. The immediate uses to which this machine can be put to work are innumerable. Subways that formerly took five years to construct can now be run for half the expense in one-tenth the time. Water in unlimited quantities can be brought through the mountain walls, and the vast arid areas of the deserts will be made to blossom as a wonderful garden. If the claims made for it continue to be substantiated in practice, Mr. Sigafoos may well be considered a world's benefactor in giving us this marvelous rotary tunnel machine. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

OK, I'll admit it. The post I was working on is taking a bit longer than expected.

So here's a video recommendation to fill your time.

Trailers from Hell is a mixed bag, sometimes diverting, often disappointing. John Landis can be counted on to deliver entertaining comments with a nice mix of irreverence and knowledgeable affection, but their best presenter is probably the wry, erudite and perfectly named Brian Trenchard Smith.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The wildfire conversation we need to have right now.

In the longer run the question of global warming is the biggest environmental threat we face, but in the immediate term here in the West, our highest priority has got to be returning our forests to their natural equilibrium, which means finding a way to start burning off tens of millions of acres starting as soon as possible.

The conversation now needs to focus on finding the best, fastest and safest way to burn this fuel off, and on identifying and addressing the obstacles preventing us from taking action.

From Nature (Published: 20 January 2020):
Barriers and enablers for prescribed burns for wildfire management in California
Based on interviews, personal and public concerns regarding prescribed burns create risk-related barriers that prevent potential burners from beginning the burn planning process (Supplementary Table 3). First, all interview groups stated that liability laws place financial and legal responsibility for any escapes on the burners, resulting in a risk-averse culture that needs legal changes. Private landowners concerned about potential bankruptcy thus avoid burn-ing on their property. Within the federal government, interviewees described an absence of praise or rewards for managers who used prescribed burns, but punishment for any escapes. Second, fed-eral and state government employees claimed that negative public opinion remains a challenge, although opposition diminishes with education. Non-profit representatives believed that public tolerance for smoke or escapes is limited, and avoiding burns entirely can pre-vent any complaints (Table 2).

Additionally, according to interviewees, resource- and regula-tions-related barriers create an implementation gap between acres planned and subsequently burned across landowner types (Fig. 3 and Table 2). First, the USFS, with its large, uninterrupted swathes of land, dedicated fire crew and agency approval of prescribed and managed burns, could burn hundreds of thousands of acres annually (Supplementary Table 4). However, wildfire suppression has historically diverted federal funding from wildfire prevention. Federal government employees and academics recommended stra-tegic resource allocation between wildfire suppression and preven-tion. Non-profit representatives listed inconsistent funding for fuel treatments and an emphasis on private mechanical thinning as limitations on prescribed burns in national forests. In many areas, overgrowth demands mechanical thinning pretreatments before prescribed burns, although financial constraints may limit follow-up burns. Second, interviewees across non-state government groups recognized a need for federal workforce rebuilding and training pro-grammes. Active burn programmes have ended when experienced burn managers retired. An ageing federal workforce without newly trained burners has limited the use of prescribed burns. On the reg-ulations side, the California Air Resources Board may establish nar-row burn windows based on local weather conditions, restricting when or how many acres landowners can burn. Changing weather conditions may result in less burning than planned because burns cannot continue safely over consecutive days. 
Across interview groups, interviewees reported that land managers and air boards blamed each other: land managers claim that air boards do not offer enough burn days, but air boards claim that they offer more burn days than are used (Table 2). Similarly, federal government employ-ees, legislative staff and non-profit representatives noted that local air boards may prohibit burning that would exceed air quality stan-dards based on local weather conditions. These barriers remain. 
State and private burners face two distinct resource- and regu-lations-related barriers identified by interviewees that contributed to a gap of 4,138 acres (6.86%) that were planned but not burned in PFIRS between 2013 and 2018 (Table 2 and Supplementary Table 4). First, all interview groups agreed that limited burn crew availability and prescribed-burn training or certification pro-grammes restrict when and where burns can occur. Before 2018, California had no official prescribed-burn training or certification programme. Private landowners therefore had few opportunities to practice burning safely, exacerbating liability apprehensions. Many CAL FIRE crews are seasonal rather than full-time employees hired during the worst wildfire months rather than the best prescribed-burn months. CAL FIRE can divert crews from conducting planned burns to extinguishing wildfires in other regions of the state, limit-ing the use of VMP contracts. 
Second, interviewees from all groups except academics identified state and cross-jurisdictional regula-tions as slowing or preventing fuel treatments. Burners receiv-ing federal or state funds must undergo environmental reviews mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act or the California Environmental Quality Act. Burn managers who miss the window of approval by these potentially expensive and time-consuming reviews must redo the process, preventing an otherwise planned burn from occurring. For example, VMP contracts may expire before plans receive CEQA approval. Interviewees com-plained that these laws, intended for determining environmental impacts of major projects or actions, are not applicable for pre-scribed burns, which should occur regularly. These barriers broadly remain, although a new state-level training and certification programme may increase private burning.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Welcome to the post-Gawker world

One of the reasons why things got as fucked up as they are today is that the establishment, particularly the parts of the establishment that are supposed to stand watch have become corrupted with complacency and arrogance. No where is this more true than with the New York Times.

Gawker and the publications it spawned were a gang of bomb throwers who took great pleasure in in calling out bullshit and afflicting the comfortable, whether it Silicon Valley billionaires with god complexes or venerable institutions like the NYT.

When the comfortable came for Gawker, the New York Times decided it was important that Peter Thiel had a chance to tell his side of the story. In case you've forgotten, Thiel is a reactionary so extreme that he has argued against women's suffrage.

We can't say for certain but if the respectable mainstream media had put aside the times Gawker had hurt their feelings, had instead stood in defense of journalism, things might be different today.

Here's Josh Marshall (one of the journalists who actually did stand up):
I just started reading this Buzzfeed article about Facebook board member and Trump backer Peter Thiel’s relationship with racist fringe groups. Thiel seems like an outlier in Silicon Valley because of his high profile support for Trump. But he is actually part of a rising tide of neo-authoritarian thought in the tech world which argues that democracy has failed and must be replaced. This reminded me of something I’ve been coming back to again and again with greater clarity and understanding its greater significance as the years have gone by.


If the case really had just been Hogan suing out of anger and embarrassment perhaps it would have ended there with impact and significance not much beyond Gawker itself. But Thiel had greater ambitions. And Donald Trump had a lifetime of secrets to hide, money and starting only a few months later unimaginable power.

So of course it didn’t end there. The lawyer Thiel found for the job was Charles Harder. It was Harder who adopted a novel legal strategy which destroyed Gawker, an end-run around much free speech jurisprudence. Before the Hogan suit, Harder’s gig had been representing wealthy celebrities in invasion of privacy suits – ones in which the defendants are seldom terribly sympathetic characters. The Hogan suit was also nominally an invasion of privacy case. But the formal similarity betrayed a critical difference in purpose. And from Gawker onward Harder shifted his business to helping the very powerful overawe and destroy news publications. And he found a new number one client: Donald Trump.

And not just Donald Trump but Melania Trump, Jared Kushner, Roger Ailes. Harder became the go-to lawyer for the Trump family and coterie around him threatening ruinous lawsuits and trying to prevent the publication of books. It was Harder who went to court nominally on behalf of Trump’s late brother Robert Trump to prevent the publication of niece Mary Trump’s recent memoir about the Trump family. Notably, the Trump campaign’s biggest legal expenditures hasn’t been to campaign or campaign finance lawyers – how campaign’s normally spend money on lawyers. It’s been to Harder’s firm – to sue publications as part of an organized strategy of disciplining critical coverage.

Has all of this had any real effect? Many of these suits and threats of suits – some against The New York Times and CNN – have been obviously frivolous. Some never progressed beyond high profile threats and press releases. But is it more than that?

I can tell you: yes. It’s made a big, big difference, a veritable sea change in First Amendment law. How do I know this? Partly just as someone who follows the journalism because but much more as the owner of a news publication and as someone who frequently talks to libel lawyers to evaluate risk.

In the libel, journalism and risk world there’s the pre-Gawker suit world and the post-Gawker suit world. Some of difference is actual changes in case law. But it’s not mostly that. It’s also the climate of uncertainty created by the outcome of the Gawker case – a major publication really was sued out of existence without even the ability to appeal the judgment or get a review on the law. The case was funded by a billionaire who wanted to retaliate for coverage he didn’t like. It is also because of novel legal strategies and the increased willingness of the extremely powerful to use the courts to get the press to heel.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Given that we need to burn off an area of California roughly the size of Maine, this would seem to be an important finding

The fires are coming. The question at this point is how to burn off these acres while minimizing the impact on public health and the economy.  The consensus among scientists and forestry experts has long been that we need more controlled burns. This 2019 article by Kurtis Alexander makes that case even stronger.
California’s efforts to prevent dangerous wildfires through controlled burning have long stumbled on the issue of smoke, with residents, doctors and pollution regulators worried that such burns create too much unhealthy air.

A first-of-its kind study published Thursday, however, suggests this may not be the case. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine report that the health impacts of controlled fires are less than those of wildfires that rage out of control.

The study found that children, who are among the most susceptible to the harmful effects of smoke, were exposed to lower levels of pollutants during prescribed fires, and had less subsequent harm to their immune systems and fewer allergy complaints.

While many have always suspected that smoke from controlled burning is less noxious than from unchecked wildfires, the authors hope their new findings will help advance the case for prescribed burns in California, where it is far less common than in some parts of the country.

“What are the alternatives?” said Dr. Mary Prunicki, an instructor of medicine at Stanford and lead author of the paper. “You can’t keep having these out-of-control fires.”

Friday, September 11, 2020

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Labor Day Tweet -- 3 days too late

Hoover, of course.

I have a feeling something's about to break with Tesla, between competition across the price range and scandals propagating, but you should always be reluctant to count out the staying power of the myth of Musk.

And the Teslaish

Data "Science"

Crime and Politics

If the girl is black, it's 62 cents.



And finally...

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Probably a good time to dust off this discussion of self-selection and volatility

This piece was pure speculation eight years ago. We now have actual data (if you're into that sort of thing.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Life on 49-49

[Following up on this post, here are some more (barely) pre-election thoughts on how polls gang aft agley. I believe Jonathan Chait made some similar points. Some of Nate Silver's critics also wandered into some neighboring territory (with the important distinction that Chait understood the underlying concepts)]

Assume that there's an alternate world called Earth 49-49. This world is identical to ours in all but one respect: for almost all of the presidential campaign, 49% of the voters support Obama and 49% support Romney. There has been virtually no shift in who plans to vote for whom.

Despite this, all of the people on 49-49 believe that they're on our world, where large segments of the voters are shifting their support from Romney to Obama then from Obama to Romney. They weren't misled to this belief through fraud -- all of the polls were administered fairly and answered honestly -- nor was it a case of stupidity or bad analysis -- the political scientists on 49-49 are highly intelligent and conscientious -- rather it had to do with the nature of polling.

Pollsters had long tracked campaigns by calling random samples of potential voters. As campaign became more drawn out and journalistic focus shifted to the horse race aspects of election, these phone polls proliferated. At the same time, though, the response rates dropped sharply, going from more than one in three to less than one in ten.

A big drop in response rates always raises questions about selection bias since the change may not affect all segments of the population proportionally (more on that -- and this report -- later). It also increases the potential magnitude of these effects.

Consider these three scenarios. What would happen if you could do the following (in the first two cases, assume no polling bias):

A. Convince one percent of undecideds to support you. Your support goes to 50 while your opponent stays at 49 -- one percent poll advantage

B. Convince one percent of opponent's supporters to support you. Your support goes to 50 while your opponent drops to 48 -- two percent poll advantage

C. Convince an additional one percent of your supporters to answer the phone when a pollster calls. You go to over 51% while your opponent drops to under 47%-- around a five percent poll advantage.

Of course, no one was secretly plotting to game the polls, but poll responses are basically just people agreeing to talk to you about politics, and lots of things can affect people's willingness to talk about their candidate, including things that would almost never affect their actual votes (at least not directly but more on that later).

In 49-49, the Romney campaign hit a stretch of embarrassing news coverage while Obama was having, in general, a very good run. With a couple of exceptions, the stories were trivial, certainly not the sort of thing that would cause someone to jump the substantial ideological divide between the two candidates so, none of Romney's supporters shifted to Obama or to undecided. Many did, however, feel less and less like talking to pollsters. So Romney's numbers started to go down which only made his supporters more depressed and reluctant to talk about their choice.

This reluctance was already just starting to fade when the first debate came along. As Josh Marshall has explained eloquently and at great length since early in the primaries, the idea of Obama, faced with a strong attack and deprived of his teleprompter, collapsing in a debate was tremendously important and resonant to the GOP base. That belief was a major driver of the support for Gingrich, despite all his baggage; no one ever accused Newt of being reluctant to go for the throat.

It's not surprising that, after weeks of bad news and declining polls, the effect on the Republican base of getting what looked very much like the debate they'd hoped for was cathartic. Romney supporters who had been avoiding pollsters suddenly couldn't wait to take the calls. By the same token. Obama supporters who got their news from Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews really didn't want to talk right now.

The polls shifted in Romney's favor even though, had the election been held the week after the debate, the result would have been the same as it would have been had the election been held two weeks before -- 49% to 49%. All of the changes in the polls had come from core voters on both sides. The voters who might have been persuaded weren't that interested in the emotional aspect of the conventions and the debates and were already familiar with the substantive issues both events raised.

So response bias was amplified by these factors:

1. the effect was positively correlated with the intensity of support

2. it was accompanied by matching but opposite effects on the other side

3. there were feedback loops -- supporters of candidates moving up in the polls were happier and more likely to respond while supporters of candidates moving down had the opposite reaction.

You might wonder how the pollsters and political scientists of this world missed this. The answer that they didn't. They were concerned about selection effects and falling response rates, but the problems with the data were difficult to catch definitively thanks to some serious obscuring factors:

1. Researchers have to base their conclusions off of the historical record when the effect was not nearly so big.

2. Things are correlated in a way that's difficult to untangle. The things you would expect to make supporters less enthusiastic about talking about their candidate are often the same things you'd expect to lower support for that candidate

3. As mentioned before, there are compensatory effects. Since response rates for the two parties are inversely related, the aggregate is fairly stable.

4. The effect of embarrassment and elation tend to fade over time so that most are gone by the actual election.

5. There's a tendency to converge as the election approaches. Mainly because likely voter screens become more accurate.

6. Poll predictions can be partially self-fulfilling. If the polls indicate a sufficiently low chance of winning, supporters can become discouraged, allies can desert you and money can dry up. The result is, again, convergence.

For the record, I don't think we live on 49-49. I do, however, think that at least some of the variability we've seen in the polls can be traced back to selection effects similar to those described here and I have to believe it's likely to get worse.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

"California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire"

The sky here in LA has taken on that distinct orange tint. Just as the heat has started to let off, the air is turning bad. Another large fire has broken out in the Angeles Forest. [Emphasis added]

The rugged terrain, access and triple-digit temperatures created difficult and dangerous conditions for firefighters. During a Monday afternoon press conference, officials expressed concern that winds in the coming days would change the direction of the flames, pushing them down the mountains toward foothill communities in the San Gabriel Valley.

If that happens, authorities said the communities that would impacted first would be Monrovia and Duarte. Residents in those areas are being urged to be prepared to evacuate. Bradbury, Azusa, Arcadia and Sierra Madre could also potentially see either evacuation warnings or orders.

"Directly coming into Monrovia or Duarte, no, that area has not burned in 50 to 100 years in some places, so the fuel-loading is high and there is not a natural break from the fuels from previous fires," said incident commander Steve Goldman.
As Elizabeth Weil explains in her Pulitzer-worthy Propublica piece (which we discussed earlier here), this is not just a dangerous but an unnatural situation. [again, emphasis added]
Yes, there’s been talk across the U.S. Forest Service and California state agencies about doing more prescribed burns and managed burns. The point of that “good fire” would be to create a black-and-green checkerboard across the state. The black burned parcels would then provide a series of dampers and dead ends to keep the fire intensity lower when flames spark in hot, dry conditions, as they did this past week. But we’ve had far too little “good fire,” as the Cassandras call it. Too little purposeful, healthy fire. Too few acres intentionally burned or corralled by certified “burn bosses” (yes, that’s the official term in the California Resources Code) to keep communities safe in weeks like this.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire.


[Deputy fire chief of Yosemite National Park Mike] Beasley earned what he called his “red card,” or wildland firefighter qualification, in 1984. To him, California, today, resembles a rookie pyro Armageddon, its scorched battlefields studded with soldiers wielding fancy tools, executing foolhardy strategy. “Put the wet stuff on the red stuff,” Beasley summed up his assessment of the plan of attack by Cal Fire, the state’s behemoth “emergency response and resource protection” agency. Instead, Beasley believes, fire professionals should be considering ecology and picking their fights: letting fires that pose little risk burn through the stockpiles of fuels. Yet that’s not the mission. “They put fires out, full stop, end of story,” Beasley said of Cal Fire. “They like to keep it clean that way.”

Monday, September 7, 2020

Happy Labor Day Repost

Look for the Union Label

The ILGWU sponsored a contest among its members in the 1970s for an advertising jingle to advocate buying ILGWU-made garments. The winner was Look for the union label.[9][10] The Union's "Look for the Union Label" song went as follows:

    Look for the union label
    When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse,
    Remember somewhere our union's sewing,
    Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
    We work hard, but who's complaining?
    Thanks to the ILG, we're paying our way,
    So always look for the union label,
    It says we're able to make it in the USA!

The commercial featuring the famous song was parodied on a late-1970s episode of Saturday Night Live in a fake commercial for The Dope Growers Union and on the March 19, 1977, episode (#10.22) of The Carol Burnett Show. It was also parodied in the South Park episode "Freak Strike" (2002).

Friday, September 4, 2020

Is age a cause?

 This is Joseph.

Inspired by this twitter thread

This question is amazingly complicated when you look at it closely. Age is an odd cause for discussion in public health because chronological age is not something you can directly intervene on. When you look closely, age is actually a bundle of concepts:

  • There are direct causal age effects due to social rules based on age. Criminal justice (e.g. minor versus adult sentencing), age limits on movies or alcohol purchases, eligibility for school or daycare, medicare eligibility, and other such exposures
  • Age is a proxy or marker for biological aging processes (e.g., puberty, baldness, biological entropy)
  • Age is also a convenient way to adjust for cohort effects (e.g., exposure to lead gasoline, educational changes)
So it is super clear that age is a cause of the first set of exposures, in that it changes the frequency or level of some consequent outcome (e.g., length of jail sentence, access to alcohol). 

It is also pretty clear that the second definition of age is important to de-confounding observational associations. For example, without adjusting for age (or sex), would baldness be associated with death? It would, but not in any causal way (as older males have both less hair and a higher risk of death). The idea that age is not a common cause of the exposure and outcome seems odd, even if the measure (chronological age) is imperfect. But I don't know of a generally better measure of biological entropy, and certainly not one that is so widely available. 

The last (cohort effects), it seems to me, is a case where a lot of the cohort effects would be best directly measured (if feasible). Unlike biological aging, there is a huge risk that there is effect measure modification by factors like geography. It is quite clear that exposures to leaded gasoline may vary based on car ownership of an area and the proximity to roads. 

So the most surprising thing is how age is actually a vague concept when discussing causality. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The truth about Western megafires is the narrative no one wants to hear.

Every few years, some journalist will do a solid, deeply reported story on Western megafires. (This Propublica piece by Elizabeth Weil is excellent. I also recall a good series from NPR a while back.) These articles always say basically the same thing about the scientific consensus, the severity of the problem and the steps we need to take. They are always persuasive, always told with a great sense of urgency, and always ignored. This is what happens, at least these days, when a crisis and its solutions break with conventional narratives and  require great political will to address.

The doomed California genre plays both to very real environmental concerns and to a longstanding Eastern schadenfreude, the epicenter of which is located in the editorial offices of the New York Times. The Golden State is supposedly burning for its environmental sins but in reality this is not primarily a climate change story. While increased heat and more severe droughts exacerbate the situation, we would still be having megafires without them.
A seventy-word primer: We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.

Megafires, like the ones that have ripped this week through 1 million acres (so far), will continue to erupt until we’ve flared off our stockpiled fuels. No way around that.
Fires are an essential part of the life cycle of these forests. Controlled burns return the forests to a more normal equilibrium. If we listened to the scientific consensus, they would be the main weapon in our arsenal. Unfortunately science is not the main consideration here.

By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.

“One thing to keep in mind is that air-quality impacts from prescribed burning are minuscule compared to what you’re experiencing right now,” said Matthew Hurteau, associate professor of biology at University of New Mexico and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab, which looks at how climate change will impact forest systems. With prescribed burns, people can plan ahead: get out of town, install a HEPA filter in their house, make a rational plan to live with smoke. Historical accounts of California summers describe months of smoky skies, but as a feature of the landscape, not a bug. Beasley and others argue we need to rethink our ideas of what a healthy California looks like. “We’re used to seeing a thick wall of even-aged trees,” he told me, “and those forests are just as much a relic of fire exclusion as our clear skies.”
In the Southeast which burns more than twice as many acres as California each year — fire is defined as a public good. Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.” For over a month this spring, the U.S. Forest Service canceled all prescribed burns in California, and training for burn bosses, because of COVID-19.
In my more pessimistic moments, I think we are in a post-solution America, a country that talks a better and better game but has lost its taste for actually solving problems. Lately, those pessimistic moments have become more frequent.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Bad predictions

 This is Joseph.

Early on in the pandemic, one of the worst takes is that the "stay at home" orders would result in a baby boom. This was a terrible take.  Let us consider the countervailing forces:

  1. Harder to meet partners, so this "baby boom" is mostly among people already living together
  2. Those living together are under tremendous stress, which is not good for marriage. Obviously, if you are considering a divorce that is poor timing for children
  3. There is suddenly a ton of financial uncertainty. 
  4. We got to see childcare collapse and schools turn into an unreliable form of childcare. If you are having trouble with two jobs at the same time due to unreliable (or no) childcare, that seems like a bad time to add children to the mix
  5. Who wants a ton of medical center encounters during an actual pandemic?
  6. In the United States, health care is linked to employment (the thing that the economic uncertainty also influences) and who wants to take risks with that? 
The actual baby boom occured after the period of uncertainty and suffering was over (World War 2) and in the context of an economic boom. Sure, after years of deprivation, the sudden appearance of opportunity is going to make many people consider children. But going into conditions worsening, birth rates were already at record lows

Now I am not saying that it is necessarily bad to have a falling birth rate. There are a lot of complex issues that go into whether or dropping birth rates are a net positive. But this was definitely one of the predictions that seemed to look at very surface effects and make a very naive extropolation.

It is a different post, but I think there is huge confusion between "working at home under normal conditions" and "working at home in a pandemic": if nothing else, there is a lot less focus to had when everybody is trapped in the house all of the time 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

It's a fun show (Tom Ellis is is great) but...

I know we've been over this before (and I do feel bad about picking on the same company) but if you want to work on your skills seeing through PR, there is no better place to start than Netflix, in particular the ownership and shelf life of Netflix originals.

Keep in mind that the justification of the company's market cap rests on two pillars, sustaining dominance moving toward monopoly and building a content library that surpasses Disney/Fox, WB, and all the other majors.

It is difficult to reconcile that second goal with the ongoing practice of spending serious money producing and promoting shows that Netflix has little to no ownership of. It's a list that extends from House of Cards and Orange is the New Black to She-Ra and Avatar. A recent promoted tweet reminded me I've forgotten one.