Monday, November 30, 2020

Please make it stop: deficit edition

 This is Joseph

So, I know that inflation is a potential menace and ignoring debt has gotten many an advanced nation into trouble. These are all reasonable things to be concerned about. But, via Yasha Levine, I want to bring your attention to the views of the frontrunner for incoming treasury secretary:

So, there are several issues all bundled together here. First, can we stop putting Medicare into the same bucket as the (less generous) Medicaid and the (quite sustainable) Social Security. The problem with Medicare, insofar as there is one, is an issue of medical cost inflation and that's an independent policy problem that has little to do with the budget (except  as a motivation to solve it). 

Second, there is always money for expensive adventures and tax cuts. The Iraq War cost 1.06 trillion dollars. Tax cuts from Trump cost 1.5 trillion and maintaining the Bush tax cuts from 2012 to 2021 cost 4.6 trillion. And the cost of saving social security is low:

As indicated in the 2009 Trustees Report, the 75-year shortfall projected under intermediate assumptions for the OASDI program could be met with benefit reductions equivalent in value to a 13 percent immediate reduction in all benefits, an increase in revenue equivalent to an immediate increase in the combined (employee and employer) payroll tax rate from 12.4 percent to 14.4 percent, or a combination of these two approaches.

I am not saying these programs should never be considered for cuts, but that we should be very careful about not framing this as a choice to have lower revenues which require cuts. You could also raise the payroll tax cap on the taxes, which could solve up to 90% of the problem and, by definition, only apply to people making greater than the cap (around $118K/year). 

Third, can we finally kill off the idea of the Laffer curve as being especially relevant to tax policy? We are nowhere near where it would kick in, which is around a 70% tax rate. The United States is a complicated country, so there might be somebody who faces a marginal tax rate of > 70% but it isn't a common tax situation. There are also cases where tax rates are extremely low, like this person who paid $750 in taxes despite a robust revenue stream. Nor is it clear that income maximization is the only goal of tax policy; it could also consider equity. 

Again, this is not to say that lessons could not be learned. Karl Smith:

A chorus of commentators, myself included, pushed back, arguing that by running the economy hot, it was possible to draw people back into the workforce. Powell and the Trump administration took these criticisms to heart, producing the strongest economy for workers since at least the 1990s.


These misjudgments alone do not disqualify Yellen. But they do raise concerns that she could shift the debate prematurely toward deficit reduction and away from increasing employment. This is precisely the mistake made during Barack Obama’s presidency. 

So I do not claim any special insight. But one thing Trump did that was novel and perhaps helpful, was to threaten the Federal Reserve to make it reluctant to try and slow employment growth. There is a principal agent problem with the president controlling fiscal policy but that doesn't go away if the people doing it are market economists from elite backgrounds. Look at some recent backgrounds of chairs: Jerome Powell (Princeton and JD from Georgetown), Janet Yellen (Brown and a PhD from Yale), Ben Bernanke (Harvard and MIT PhD), and Alan Greenspan (NYU and a PhD from Columbia). Do these strike you as typical working class backgrounds or people who are exposed to the concerns of the working poor? 

Now, none of these points suggests that we should set sail into aggressive experiments without careful planning. But it does suggest that it is odd that we are sailing from Ireland to New York, and begin by setting course for Italy. Why are we so afraid of robust wage growth among the working class? We go so far as to suggest ideas like a "Skills Gap", which blames the people without skills, without noting that this gap goes away rapidly once wages start rising and employers start training again. 

There is a lot of food for thought in charting the next few years. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

This may be crazy talk but there might be a subtle flaw in the tactic of telling your base votes don't matter

Anne Applebaum doesn't see it [emphasis added]

I’m afraid that I think it’s a little bit more sinister than that. I think that — certainly on Trump’s part, and other Republicans are probably coming to see this the same way as well — this is an attempt to create a new kind of base: an enraged receiving base, which will always think that the election was stolen and which will always assume that something went wrong and will always feel that they were deprived of something. And this base will then have uses in the future.

I don’t believe it will be all of the Republican Party. I can’t tell you right now how many of them it will be. But it will be a significant number of people. And in some congressional districts and some states, it could even be a majority. And this will be a base that is usable. This will be a base that not only dislikes the Democratic Party or disagrees with them, it will think that the Democratic Party is evil and anti-democratic — that they have stolen the election.

Think about what that means. That means that they aren’t even a legitimate political party. It means that there is a base of people who will be not just skeptical of mainstream media — whatever you think mainstream media is, which may even include Fox now. They will be not just skeptical of Fox, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. They will think all of those institutions are part of a deliberately constructed conspiracy to steal the presidency. And that kind of feeling — that conviction that the other side isn’t just wrong, it’s evil and traitorous — that’s then a useful group of people who can be motivated politically and maybe in other ways in the future.

Lots of this is familiar ground, particularly to long-time readers who have suffered through about a decade's worth of posts on the conservative movement's use of disinformation/war on data and its implications.

 Here's a relevant bit from 2015 [emphasis added]

I've been arguing for quite a while now that we need to pay more attention to the catharsis in politics (such as with the reaction to the first Obama/Romney debate), particularly with the Tea Party.  Conservative media has long been focused on feeding the anger and the outrage of the base while promising victory just around the corner. This has produced considerable partisan payoff but at the cost of considerable anxiety and considerable disappointment, both of which produce stress and a need for emotional release. 

 And from 2019 [again emphasis added]

I don't want to get too caught up in the finer distinctions between catharsis, emotional release, relief of stress, etc. What matters is that the conservative movement has spent more than a quarter century using distorted news and disinformation to cultivate a base motivated by anxiety bordering on panic and anger bordering on rage. It is easy to see why the leaders believed that having a base this motivated and hostile to the opposition would be to their advantage. It is not so easy to see why they believed they could control it indefinitely.


 There's no question that convincing your base "that the other side isn’t just wrong, it’s evil and traitorous" is potentially useful, nor is it a new idea. Conservative media has been focused on this, with considerable success, since Clinton first took back the presidency in '92. Go back and listen to some Rush Limbaugh shows of the era.

 But this has always been a balancing act. Every claim that a loss was due to betrayal and corruption had to be matched with an equally persuasive claim that next time would be different. Your vote didn't count last time but it's essential you show up at the polls next time. Selling that message has become more challenging.


And here's Josh Marshall.

It’s hard to manage party enthusiasm and unity when you’re arguing that the state GOP is actually a front for the Democratic party. This was the third rail – Republican control of the Senate – that Powell touched. Whether McConnell picked up the phone and communicated this directly to Trump or whether he got the message in another way, this is almost certainly what led to her ouster.

Just to be clear, the GOP may hold both these seats -- I'd be reluctant to bet against them -- but it seems overwhelmingly unlikely that the base's delusions about stolen elections and betrayals from within are helping. The Republican may retake the House in 2022 and the White House in 2024, but it is difficult to see how convincing the majority of your supporters that elections are fixed is an effective way of getting out the vote.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

"As God as my witness..." is my second favorite Thanksgiving episode line [Repost]


If you watch this and you could swear you remember Johnny and Mr. Carlson discussing Pink Floyd, you're not imagining things. Hulu uses the DVD edit which cuts out almost all of the copyrighted music. [The original link has gone dead, but I was able to find the relevant clip.]

As for my favorite line, it comes from the Buffy episode "Pangs" and it requires a bit of a set up (which is a pain because it makes it next to impossible to work into a conversation).

Buffy's luckless friend Xander had accidentally violated a native American grave yard and, in addition to freeing a vengeful spirit, was been cursed with all of the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas.

Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Heh heh. Yeah... Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him...
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Six years ago in the blog

 The news that inspired this post have largely faded from memory but that last paragraph still has a certain relevance.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thoughts on the coming storm

From a text exchange I had on election night
The press has gone from
"The Republicans are the responsible party"
"Both parties are irresponsible"
"The Republicans will start being responsible after they win"
Whatever they are going to say after the impeachment.
[voice recognition errors corrected.]

This must be an interesting time to be a political scientist or anyone studying the way institutions form, function and fail.

The  Republican party seems locked into a course that defies conventional political explanation. I don't see any way that this fight over this issue is a winning move for the GOP. I am inclined to agree with Josh Marshall's analysis:
It all adds up to an intense and likely toxic campaign fracas in which a lot of people will have a unique and intense motivation to vote. That will apply to people on both sides of course. But the anti-immigration voters vote consistently almost every cycle. And as intense as your animus is toward undocumented immigrants, it's hard for it to compare to the motivation of voters who directly know someone who will be affected. And that latter group has far more 'drop-off' or occasional voters.

This isn't getting mentioned a lot right now. But behind the headlines I suspect it's one of the key reasons Republican elites are upset that this might happen: because it's an electoral grenade dropped right into the heart of the 2016 campaign.
Of course, the standard line at this point is to say something about the leaders of the party losing control of the base, but I don't buy that -- at least not in the way it is generally framed. For one thing, the underlying political philosophy of the base and the leaders doesn't seem that different, and where there are differences, they seem to mostly come from the base actually believing the message crafted by the party elites.

Keeping in mind that they decisively won the last election, the Republicans still have big problems with information and coordination. That makes it more difficult for the party to make decisive rational moves that promote its self-interest and instead leaves it inclined to seek catharsis. Shut down and impeachment are about emotional release. The challenge for the party leadership is convincing their followers that there's something more important than that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Sub-groups in clinical trials

 This is Joseph

Astra-Zeneca/Oxford have the third (or fourth if you include Sputnik V) successful covid-19 vaccine. This is exceedingly good news for the chances of ending the pandemic with a vaccine, especially as this is the second successful mechanism (adenovirus-based delivery system) for a vaccine to have (Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA). 

But the sub-group of interest was present by chance:

The British drugmaker said on Monday that the vaccine could be around 90% effective, when administered as a half dose followed by a full dose a month later, citing data from late-stage trials in Britain and Brazil.

“The reason we had the half-dose is serendipity,” Mene Pangalos, the head of AstraZeneca’s non-oncology research and development, told Reuters.

A larger group who had received two full doses - as planned - resulted in an efficacy read-out of 62%, leading to an overall efficacy of 70% across both dosing patterns.

I don't want to undersell these results but the "serendipity" was in a sub-group of only 2700-odd participants, and the randomization was 2-1 vaccine to placebo. That is much smaller than the 41,000 in the final readout of the Pfizer trial. I also tend to omit Sputnik V because of the small sample size:

The data is based on 20 cases of Covid-19 from 16,000 volunteers given the Sputnik V vaccine or a dummy injection.

But some math suggests that the Oxford vaccine sub-group isn't based on much more data, and perhaps less (we don't have actual numbers quite yet).

All of this said, what would the authors have done if the error in dosing had the low efficacy and the correct dosing schedule had the high efficacy? Would they be highlighting the sub-group at all, or would they hedge with terms like "when properly used". Furthermore, since this was an accident it is, by definition, a post-hoc sub-group (intention to treat analysis would pool them with the higher initial dose group). That suggests that the statistical penalty is even higher (now we have at least 2 statistical tests, and more if you think of the hypothetical sub-groups). 

So perhaps caution is in order when considering these results. Certainly, if you think that this evidence is sufficient then you are in the 4th successful vaccine camp, as Sputnik V definitely had more total evidence than this vaccine does. 

 Still, the Oxford vaccine is likely to be inexpensive, fast to manufacture, and less susceptible to cold chain problems. These are not inconsiderable advantages and it might still have a valuable role to play as the numbers continue to come out. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Some data quality issues in a published paper

 This is Joseph

This paper has been getting a lot of attention, and not the best kind. The discussion has some unexpectedd  conclusions:

While it has been shown that having female mentors increases the likelihood of female protégés staying in academia and provides them with better career outcomes, such studies often compare protégés that have a female mentor to those who do not have a mentor at all, rather than to those who have a male mentor. Our study fills this gap, and suggests that female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females. The specific drivers underlying this empirical fact could be multifold, such as female mentors serving on more committees, thereby reducing the time they are able to invest in their protégés, or women taking on less recognized topics that their protégés emulate, but these potential drivers are out of the scope of current study. Our findings also suggest that mentors benefit more when working with male protégés rather than working with comparable female protégés, especially if the mentor is female. These conclusions are all deduced from careful comparisons between protégés who published their first mentored paper in the same discipline, in the same cohort, and at the very same institution.

 There are a number of issues with this article. Some of the most interesting are in this twitter thread, and the author of the thread has links to the data and his analysis

One really important finding is that the approach used by the authors actually evaluates "co-authorship" and not "mentorship". From the supplement (note, not the paper itself):

We identified mentor-proteg´ e pairs as follows: For any given scientist, we consider the first 7 ´ years of their career to be their junior years, and the ones after that to be their senior years. Whenever a junior scientist publishes a paper with a senior scientist, we consider the former to be a proteg´ e´, and the latter to be a mentor, as long as they authored at least one paper with 20 or less co-authors and share the same discipline and US-based affiliation.

This makes a big difference, as it suggests connectivity to very prominent male co-authors is important, but this is a different estimand than the one that the paper presents in the discussion. It's almost certainly based on flawed data, but even on it's own terms that is concerning.  

Daniel Weeks graphical look at the data shows cases with mentor ages of greater than 200 (seriously) and number of mentors exceeding 90. These are not plausible values for  the scientific question, and cast doubt on the reliability of the data analysis. 

Furthermore, the time period stretches from 1897 to 2019. It is worth nothing that women did not gain the right to vote until 1920 in the US (and this paper ONLY considers researchers with a US affiliation by design). Can we honestly say that there has been no important change in social and cultural practices in terms of granting of senior research positions since 1897??  

Finally, the approach used to assign gender seems . . . unreliable. Nevermind that it may miss important distinctions like trans-gender researchers, it seems that experiments with the tool used show poor results. Consider:

The authors claim they used to identify the gender of the author. It appears that this app assigns a gender based on the first name. I tried it by entering the names of 55 recent co-authors, whose gender identity and preferred pronouns I know, into a google sheet and using the API tool. mis-gendered 12% of them. It likely will not shock you that the names that were mis-gendered are more likely to be from non-American scientists. 

At some point the sheer amount of measurement error in the data has got to be an issue.  

Now look at the first sentence of the conclusion:

Our gender-related findings suggest that current diversity policies promoting female–female mentorships, as well-intended as they may be, could hinder the careers of women who remain in academia in unexpected ways.

What an incredibly strong conclusion for data on co-authorship that includes vast periods of under-representation of senior female scientists. Does it suggest that female senior scientists are bad for the careers of their trainees? I worry that it does, based on an incorrect estimand and some data with clear problems. This sort of strong conclusion is really not ideal, and even if you want to defend the need to look at controversial positions then it seems that the discussion should have focused on the grave limitations and not such strong conclusions. 

The article now includes the following statement:

Editor’s Note: Readers are alerted that this paper is subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Those criticisms were targeted to the authors’ interpretation of their data that gender plays a role in the success of mentoring relationships between junior and senior researchers, in a way that undermines the role of female mentors and mentees. We are investigating the concerns raised and an editorial response will follow the resolution of these issues.  

But it has an altmetric score of 7195 (likely higher when this blog posts) and has been accessed 302 thousand times.  Perhaps we should catch these problems earlier in the process. Just graphing the mentor age issue shows many fun problems including age starting at 5 years old (FIVE!) and people over 200 being immediately visible. Perhaps extra data cleaning, a better estimand (or use of the correct one), and a more relevant time period would have been a superior research result? 


Friday, November 20, 2020

Twitter and media freedom

This is Joseph

I remain astounded by this particular story.  Probably not for the reasons that one might think. Twitter is a private platform and should have the ability to curate it's content. People are sore because the article was banned, even though it was published by a news organization. But it seems to be a basic tenant of any viable platform that it can control the types of content allowed. 

In terms of the impact of the article, it was clearly a non-story. Hunter Biden, so far as I can tell, is not currently running for any known electoral office nor is there any serious talk of him taking on an advisor role to the president-elect. There is not really any good principle for holding the actions of one's relatives, against them and, if there were, it is not 100% clear that this principle would suggest Hunter Biden as the greatest point of interest in the 2020 presidential election. Ivanka Trump, actually employed the white house, would seem to be fair more on point for discussion about political conduct. 

But this really highlights the problem with mass private communications and the attempts to "work the refs". It is clear that all editors have a bias or a spin, which is why TV shows used to be regulated. But obviously there is going to be a strange standard of platform accountability if it simply fails to let users promote a specific article, especially in an unpaid way. But its business model requires it to have some policies for content, even if only for copyright, and these are always going to expand to focus as well.

It is the case that we need to puzzle out the best way forward. The end of the fairness doctrine has been very helpful to organizations like Fox News, who want a partisan spin.  And it is clear that twitter has viable competitors (Facebook, Parlour, MeWe) who could fill the void if they alienated their base. Nor was anybody upset at the end of GooglePlus, they merely migrated their social media activity to other social media platforms. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"The Denialist Playbook"

Writing in Scientific American, Sean B. Carroll looks at a wide range of anti-science activists, from creationists to climate change deniers to anti-vaxxers and finds a common set of tactics.

In brief, the six principal plays in the denialist playbook are:

    Doubt the Science
    Question Scientists’ Motives and Integrity
    Magnify Disagreements among Scientists and Cite Gadflies as Authorities
    Exaggerate Potential Harm
    Appeal to Personal Freedom
    Reject Whatever Would Repudiate A Key Philosophy


 The account of chiropractors' reaction to the polio vaccine is especially interesting.

Children were especially vulnerable, so parents watched anxiously for any sign of infection, often keeping them away from swimming pools, movie theaters, bowling alleys, anywhere where there were crowds and the dreaded microbe might lurk. Travel and business were sometimes curtailed between places with outbreaks, and public health authorities imposed quarantines on healthy people who may have been exposed, in order to halt the spread of the disease. In the first half of the 1950s, with no cure and no vaccine, more than 200,000 Americans were disabled  by the poliovirus. The virus was second only to the atomic bomb as to what Americans feared most.

Then, on April 12, 1955, public health officials at the University of Michigan announced that a “safe, effective, and potent” vaccine had been found. This set off a national celebration that recalled the end of World War II. Church bells rang, car horns honked, people wept with relief. President Eisenhower invited the vaccine’s inventor, Jonas Salk, to the White House. In a Rose Garden ceremony, the former Supreme Allied Commander told the scientist in a trembling voice, “I should like to say to you that when I think of the countless thousands of American parents and grandparents who are hereafter to be spared the agonizing fears of the annual epidemic of poliomyelitis, when I think of all the agony that these people will be spared seeing their loved ones suffering in bed, I must say to you I have no words in which adequately to express the thanks of myself and all the people I know—all 164 million Americans, to say nothing of all the people in the world that will profit from your discovery.”

But, alas, not everyone joined the party and expressed such gratitude. One group in particular did not welcome the vaccine as a breakthrough. Chiropractors actively opposed the vaccination campaign that followed Salk’s triumph. Many practitioners dismissed the role of contagious pathogens and adhered to the founding principle of chiropractic that all disease originated in the spine. Just a few years after the introduction of the vaccine, as the number of polio cases was declining rapidly, an article in the Journal of the National Chiropractic Association asked, “Has the Test Tube Fight Against Polio Failed?” It recommended that, rather than take the vaccine, once stricken, “Chiropractic adjustments should be given of the entire spine during the first three days of polio.”

Opposition to the polio vaccine and to vaccination in general continued in the ranks such that even four decades later, long after polio had been eradicated from the United States, as many as one third of chiropractors still believed that there was no scientific proof that vaccination prevents any disease, including polio. That belief and resistance continues to this day, with some chiropractors campaigning against state vaccination mandates.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

One of the many nice things about not having the long shot pull off a win this election is that we don't have to listen to endless told-you-sos from people who stumbled into a correct guess.

Given that, it seems like a good time to remember the 20th Century prognosticator who may have set the record for building a career on a lucky guess.

From Wikipedia:

Career as a psychic

Dixon reportedly predicted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the May 13, 1956, issue of Parade Magazine she wrote that the 1960 presidential election would be "dominated by labor and won by a Democrat" who would then go on to"(b)e assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term". However, this premonition was reversed in 1960 when, as the election date neared, she incorrectly predicted that Nixon would instead win the election. She later admitted; "during the 1960 election, I saw Richard Nixon as the winner", and at the time made unequivocal predictions that JFK would fail to win the election.

Dixon was the author of seven books, including her autobiography, a horoscope book for dogs, and an astrological cookbook. She gained public awareness through the biographical volume, A Gift of Prophecy: The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon, written by syndicated columnist Ruth Montgomery. Published in 1965, the book sold more than 3 million copies. She professed to be a devout Roman Catholic and she attributed her prophetic ability to God. Another million seller, My Life and Prophecies, was credited "as told to Rene Noorbergen", but Dixon was sued by Adele Fletcher, who claimed that her rejected manuscript was rewritten and published as that book. Fletcher was awarded 5% of the royalties by a jury.


President Richard Nixon followed her predictions[citation needed] through his secretary Rose Mary Woods, and met with her in the Oval Office in 1971. The following year, her prediction of terrorist attacks in the United States in the wake of the Munich massacre spurred Nixon to set up a cabinet committee on counterterrorism. She was one of several astrologers who gave advice to Nancy Reagan.


The Jeane Dixon effect
John Allen Paulos, a mathematician at Temple University, coined the term 'the Jeane Dixon effect', which references a tendency to promote a few correct predictions while ignoring a larger number of incorrect predictions. Many of Dixon's predictions proved erroneous, such as her claims that a dispute over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu would trigger the start of World War III in 1958, that American labor leader Walter Reuther would run for president of the United States in the 1964 presidential election, that the second child of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his young wife Margaret would be a girl (it was a boy), and that the Soviets would be the first to put men on the moon.

And while we're on the subject, if you haven't seen it before, hold a mirror up to your monitor and check out the story "Mail Order Prophet."

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Wrong about the Wright brothers

Following up on yesterday's post, the standard narrative about the Wright brothers was they were two nobodies laboring in obscurity. When the breakthrough came, no one could believe it. 

To support this account you'll often see this quote from Scientific American:























This would seem to be another of those "man will never fly" anecdotes, but context matters.  For starters, the Wright brothers weren't unknowns; they weren't even particularly long shots. They were known to anyone who had been seriously following advances in heavier than air flight. Samuel Langley had reached out to them. Scientific American had given them positive write-ups in 1902 and this in 1903:













 Even with the disputed flights, the magazine initially took a more guarded tone:

 The Wright Brothers,  in this  country, who in 1903 made the first successful flight  with an aeroplane, self-propelled and carrying its operator, have recently made a  flight, the particulars of  which have not been given to  the public. 

So if the Wright brothers were recognized as leading pioneers in the field, why was the press so skeptical, even hostile? One reason was that, due to fear of their ideas being stolen, the brothers had become extremely secretive, but the bigger factor was the astounding magnitude of the breakthrough. The brothers claimed to have made one of the all time great advances in transportation technology, but they offered no proof and no explanation for why no one had noticed the airplanes making multiple half-hour flights over the skies of Ohio.

The skepticism was justified. It was also short lived. As soon as confirmation came in, the brothers were hailed as having "already solved the  problem of  the century." Here was the lede of the Scientific American article that appeared less than four months after the "fabled performance" piece:

We love stories about how innocent and clueless our forefathers were about technology, particularly compared with how sophisticated we are today. At least with respect to the turn of the century, I think we may have gotten it exactly backwards.

Monday, November 16, 2020

You'll be shocked to learn that one of the most popular TED Talk stars is pretty much just lying to your face

Simon Sinek is one of the most successful of the TED Talk celebrities and this is one of his most popular videos.

Around the eight minute mark Sinek starts talking about the development of heavier than air flight -- something I know a little bit about -- and other than a couple of facts pulled so far out of context they are no longer in the same time zone, everything that follows is either lies or distortions. It's possible that what came before in the talk was more accurate (outside of my area of expertise), but I wouldn't count on it.

 Putting aside the silly claim that the big secret behind the Wright brother's  success was their inspirational leadership, let's focus on the ridiculous description of the work of Samuel Langley (yes, that Langley).

Langley was already a world famous astronomer and physicist when he started seriously pursuing a life-long interest in heavier-then-air flight in the 1880s. Among other things he had already invented the bolometer and helped lay the groundwork for the modern study of climate change. 

He had some high profile failures with his early aircraft experiments which, due to his celebrity status, were mercilessly mocked by the press, but he did important theoretical work and showed some impressive results.

On 6 May 1896, Langley's Aerodrome No. 5 made the first successful sustained flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven heavier-than-air craft of substantial size. It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two flights were made that afternoon, one of 1,005 metres (3,297 ft) and a second of 700 metres (2,300 ft), at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour (40 km/h). On both occasions, the Aerodrome No. 5 landed in the water as planned, because, in order to save weight, it was not equipped with landing gear. On 28 November 1896, another successful flight was made with the Aerodrome No. 6. This flight, of 1,460 metres (4,790 ft), was witnessed and photographed by Alexander Graham Bell.

Langley then received the grant to develop a piloted airplane. The project did not go well, the failures were dramatic and the remarkable breakthroughs of the Wright Brothers cast a shadow over that part of Langley's legacy, but his reputation was still secure.

Here's how Scientific American put it in March of 1904.

In 1896, for the first  time in  history, a mechanical  structure, free of any attachment to the  ground and wholly without any supporting power but its own engines. made several flights of  over one-half mile each. Mr. Langley had at this point reached the original aim of his researches in  this direction---that of demonstrating, as a  question of mechanical engineering, first. the conditions for, and second, the possibility of accomplishing, mechanical flight. 


[On his decision to pursue his research after that success.]

[I]t  requires moral courage of a high  order for a man already secure in  popular estimation  as a savant to  attempt to build a  flying machine,  since the effort is  sure of ridicule by a large  section of  the unthinking public, which sees  no  merit save in absolute success.

Not to put too fine a point on it but beyond the fundamental dishonesty, there's a certain sleaziness about the way Sinek casually defames a true pioneer in order to pitch his books and up his speaking fees but sleaziness goes with the territory.

While there are a few worthwhile TED Talks out there, the defining videos, the ones that get tens of millions of hits, are almost invariably concatenations of bad history and bad science used to pitch various brands of snake oil, and every respectable news outlet that plays along is just another shill.

Friday, November 13, 2020

XKCD's Electoral Precedent 2020

You might need to blow this one up.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Ground source heat pumps are "the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space conditioning systems available," but maybe we can get journalists to talk about them anyway.

I'm joking but I'm not kidding. 

If Elon Musk or some other Silicon Valley visionary proposed some laughable plan based on non-existent technology, reporters would be scheduling interviews within the hour, but a solution supported by experts based on mature, tested systems will get little to no coverage.

One of the biggest crises facing California is a failing electrical grid, particularly during summer heat waves which are going to continue becoming more frequent and severe as the planet warms. Ground source heat pumps and similar technology could greatly alleviate pressure on the grid, especially when coupled with roof top solar. On top of that, its efficiency reduces demand for fossil fuels.

If we're going solve our problems, we can't go on being disinterested in solutions. 

From Wikipedia:

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called ground source heat pumps the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space conditioning systems available. Heat pumps offer significant emission reductions potential, particularly where they are used for both heating and cooling and where the electricity is produced from renewable resources.
Ground source heat pumps are characterized by high capital costs and low operational costs compared to other HVAC systems. Their overall economic benefit depends primarily on the relative costs of electricity and fuels, which are highly variable over time and across the world. Based on recent prices, ground-source heat pumps currently have lower operational costs than any other conventional heating source almost everywhere in the world. Natural gas is the only fuel with competitive operational costs, and only in a handful of countries where it is exceptionally cheap, or where electricity is exceptionally expensive. In general, a homeowner may save anywhere from 20% to 60% annually on utilities by switching from an ordinary system to a ground-source system. However, many family size installations are reported to use much more electricity than their owners had expected from advertisements. This is often partly due to bad design or installation: Heat exchange capacity with groundwater is often too small, heating pipes in house floors are often too thin and too few, or heated floors are covered with wooden panels or carpets.
Capital costs may be offset by government subsidies, for example, Ontario offered $7000 for residential systems installed in the 2009 fiscal year. Some electric companies offer special rates to customers who install a ground-source heat pump for heating or cooling their building. Where electrical plants have larger loads during summer months and idle capacity in the winter, this increases electrical sales during the winter months. Heat pumps also lower the load peak during the summer due to the increased efficiency of heat pumps, thereby avoiding costly construction of new power plants. For the same reasons, other utility companies have started to pay for the installation of ground-source heat pumps at customer residences. They lease the systems to their customers for a monthly fee, at a net overall savings to the customer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

IMDBtv -- Corner Gas fans are going to feel I buried the lede

A good narrative (fact-based, complex, evolving) helps you see important things you otherwise have missed. A bad narrative makes you miss things you otherwise would have seen.

 The coverage of streaming has been a case in point. Reporters and pundits, usually NYC based and with little knowledge of the entertainment industry, have credulously bought into a story of hype and Silicon Valley disruptors. (Journalists from traditional TV towns like LA and Chicago have done a much better job.) The really important business aspects have been underplayed or missed entirely.

For example, the standard Netflix-driven narrative argues that ad-based models are hopelessly old economy, not something forward looking people would waste their time with. As a result, what has turned out to be perhaps the fastest growing and most profitable part of the television industry has largely been ignored.

With the exception of Netflix, all of the other major players now have some ad revenue in their models either through streaming and/or broadcast. Amazon's ad-based division is IMDBtv. The service started a couple of years ago and, while we don't have access to the numbers, Amazon apparently likes what it has been seeing because the company's investment has grown considerably.

Original Programming

A reboot of the 2008 crime drama series Leverage was ordered by IMDb TV, making it the first major original series for the streaming service.

On October 3, 2019, IMDb TV announced it licensed the Canadian animated series Corner Gas Animated as a branded original series, joining the live-action comedy franchise Corner Gas and the feature film Corner Gas: The Movie, which were both on the streaming platform.

IMDb TV acquired the rights to Eleventh Hour Films and Sony Pictures Television's young-adult espionage series Alex Rider, which will be premiering on the streaming platform on November 13, 2020.

On October 29, 2020, Amazon announced Amazon Studios would produce the successor program to Judge Judy for the service after the long-running court show ends production in 2021.

Third-Party Content

IMDb TV announced it would begin streaming the NBC show Chicago Fire on December 6, 2019, making the deal the biggest single licensing pact to date for the streaming service. In addition, IMDb TV announced it would also begin streaming all five seasons of Universal Television's Friday Night Lights starting on December 31, 2019.

In February 2020, IMDb TV acquired the rights to more than twenty scripted TV titles controlled by Disney's Direct-to-Consumer & International Division.

IMDB TV began streaming several Star Trek films in June and July 2020.

Starting July 15, 2020, IMDb TV began streaming all 92-episodes of the AMC series Mad Men after completing a licensing deal with Lionsgate.


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Next time we'll talk about what everyone misses about Lord Peter Wimsey

 I've always found Erle Stanley Gardner more interesting and substantive than he's given credit for.  His writing could be uneven and badly edited (perhaps inevitably given his output), but there was always a sharp intellect at play and a reluctance to insult that of the readers (a quality sorely lacking in many of his more respected peers).

The Case of the Careless Kitten is ESG at the top of his game, ingeniously plotted with surprising but logical twists. The client's innocence is confirmed in the middle of the book almost in passing. He plays almost no role in the in the amusing climactic courtroom scene (he's not even the defendant). Instead the focus is on pay back for Hamilton Burger in response t the DA trying to have him disbarred.

Recommendation aside, what makes this book of special interest is the way it spells out the central conflict between Mason and Burger. Both make intelligent, reasonable arguments about the courts and the role of defense attorneys. These arguments form the subtext of all the Perry Mason books.

 Like all good pulp, there's a bit more here than seen at first glance.







Monday, November 9, 2020

In 1968, Gulf+Western had already figured out how to co-opt the counterculture

I have a somewhat higher opinion of Lindsay Anderson than Kael (though it's been a long time since I've seen any of his movies), but this opening to her review of If.... is both fascinating and prescient. 

PR has been a big part of the film industry since the silent days, but the modern, data-driven/demographics based approach seems to date back to the post-war era (with a big dose of McLuhan coming in at the end). Kael probably the first critic to understand the full extent of how the changes in the business of motion pictures. She would explore the subject in depth in "the Numbers," particularly focusing on the role conglomerates were coming to play. (Note how even in '68 she goes out of her way to point out that Paramount is a subsidiary of Gulf & Western.)

The work of a PR flack has not changed that much over the past fifty years, but the scale certainly has. Tens of billions have been spent recently on marketing and PR. With the advent of Netflix, buzz often crowds out other metrics as the primary measure of success. That show may not have many viewers but look how many people are talking about it.

IF…. (1968): SCHOOL DAYS, SCHOOL DAYS – Review by Pauline Kael
From the advance rave quotes, I gather that many reviewers believe that If . . . . will be a great success with youth and that it is a masterpiece. One may suspect that in some cases the evaluation is based on the prediction. I think If . . . . will be a success, but I think it’s far from a masterpiece, and I should like to make this distinction, because so many people are beginning to treat “youth” as the ultimate judge — as a collective Tolstoyan clean old peasant. They want to be on the side of youth; they’re afraid of youth. (And this is not irrelevant to the subject of If . . . .) If they can be pushed by clever publicity into thinking “youth” will respond to a movie, they are then instrumental in getting “youth” to respond to it. Movie companies are using computerized demographic studies and market research to figure out how to promote movies. Here, taken from Variety, is the report on the technique adjudged most suitable for If . . . . by the same new “scientific” group at Paramount Pictures (a subsidiary of Gulf & Western) who worked out how to sell Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The report predicted that If . . . . will repeat its British success in the United States “if it is given the same kind of intensive marketing support that made it such a hit in its premiere engage­ment in London,” and described the key element as “a very extensive screening program for critics, writers, radio and TV commentators, educators, and members of government,” continuing, “We went out of our way to pursue every means of reaching the public through newspaper editorials, radio and television panels or discussions, magazine features and lectures before important opinion-making groups. The outpouring of ‘breaks’ in all communication media was phenomenal and most unusual in that [the film] was treated as a news event away from the usual coverage of motion pictures.” It’s easy to recognize the standard advertising campaign aimed at the mass audience-— the big ads and the appearances of stars and movie­makers on the TV talk shows — but we are still novices when it comes to an advertising campaign that feeds the appetite of the media for something new and exciting, and we may not spot techniques directed at the selective, educated audience. Obviously, these techniques couldn’t work if the film didn’t have something in it for people to react to, but if it does, the publicity people can build up a general impression of urgent, clamorous response. It’s no accident when all those rave reviews come out before a picture has opened; the early reviewers get the taste of triumph as they rush to be the first to jump on the bandwagon. And when this atmosphere of consensus about the importance of a picture is built up, anybody who doesn’t go along begins to seem “out of it” — “not with it.” If . . . . has been so well sold that people were discussing it in the Village Voice weeks before it opened; that’s real marketing, and it means that the whole underground press has been alerted by now. “Youth” will “discover” another movie; in a flash forward, one can already hear the discussions on WBAI. Once this process has begun to work and the publicity has caught on, the film is important; people want to see it because they are hearing about it wherever they go. The publicity men have manufactured “news,” and the mass media don’t want to be scooped and left behind.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

We're having a good week in California. It would be better if we capped it off by starting some fires.


Beyond the recent political developments (which are especially good news for the state), we've had some pretty good weather this weekend. Quite a bit of the state has seen some rain or snow. Not enough to affect the drought -- that's not likely this year -- but we have reduced the wild fire risk for the time being in a lot of areas. 

There should be a number areas where controlled burns can be conducted safely with minimal chance of them accidentally sparking a megafire and we desperately need those controlled burns.  Over a hundred years of disastrous fire suppression policy has left us with tens of millions of acres that are going to burn in the near future no matter what we do. 

By almost every standard whether you look at forest ecology, public health, economic impact, small fires ( the kind that were the norm before the arrival of European settlers) are better than megafires, but the incentives are heavily stacked on the side of doing nothing. What we need most now is decisive leadership and so far that's been more scarce than rain.

From James Temple:

As much as 20 million acres of federal, state, or private land across California needs “fuel reduction treatment to reduce the risk of wildfire,” according to earlier assessments by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other state agencies. That’s nearly two-thirds of the state’s 33 million acres of forests and trees, and six times the area that has burned so far this year.

This “treatment” can include prescribed burns set under controlled conditions—ideally, spaced out geographically and across the year to prevent overwhelming communities with smoke. It can also mean using saws and machines to cut and thin the forests. Another option is “managed wildfire,” which means monitoring fires but allowing them to burn when they don’t directly endanger people or property.

More than a century of deferred work, however, means it’s hard to get into places that need thinning. It’s also risky to do prescribed burns or allow natural fires to rage, since the fuels are so built up in many places, Westerling says.


 If the goal is to burn up excess fuel, why not just let the wildfires rage? The problem is that runaway fires in overgrown forests don’t achieve the same results as controlled burns. These intense blazes can level vast stretches of the forest rather than simply clearing out the undergrowth and leaving the big trees standing, says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. Instead of restoring the health of the forests, large, uncontrolled fires often transform them into shrub land, where vegetation grows quickly and severe fires can rapidly return.


Friday, November 6, 2020

a.k.a. Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane

 One of the movies for which the term "cult movie" was coined just showed up on the free-with-ads streaming service Tubi. If you've ever wondered how the same writer could produce the Exorcist and be behind the best of the Pink Panther films, you need to see William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration.

As Maltin's Guide puts it,  "hilarious yet thought-provoking, with endlessly quotable dialogue and an amazing barroom fight scene." Unlike anything you've seen before.



Thursday, November 5, 2020

Oh, that's where that came from

Be honest. How many did you get?

Growing up in Arkansas, I remember KARK, the NBC affiliate in Little Rock, used an excerpt from "Karn Evil 9" as their opening theme.

Someone once defined an intellectual as anyone who could hear the the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. I wonder how many people would make that connection today.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

I need to take a break and this one's worth repeating

Working from home I've been burning through a lot of instrumental music. (You come to miss the background noise.) I've been digging into Classical, Jazz and scores (mainly Goldsmith, Morricone, Thomas Newman), even some new stuff.

Around a hundred days, though, you start getting restless so I reached out to my friend Brian Phillips, a sometimes DJ whose knowledge of popular music is beyond encyclopedic, and asked for some recommendations that were eclectic and off the beaten path.

He delivered. Enjoy.

The Sons Of Moses - Soul Symphony

The T-Bones

Shocking Blue - Acka raga

The Black Exotics

The Tornados - Telstar

The Jumping Jewels Africa

Mr Bloe - Groovin` With Mr.Bloe

Santo & Johnny - Sleep walk

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The greatest comedy ever put on film

I thought you could use a break.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Schrödinger's election

This isn’t really the best of analogies, but bear with me I am working under the clock here.

While everyone is aware of the basic facts, I get the feeling that most analysts have not yet really internalized the new cadence of the election and its implications. They are still tending to  think of this as something that will basically happen next Tuesday instead of something that is 2/3 over. At this point, like Schrodinger‘s hypothetical cat, the election is largely locked in a box, its fate decided but unknown (though unlike with the cat, we do have some idea what’s going on in the box – like I said, this is not a great analogy).

(This, of course, does assume that we actually count all of the ballots that have been cast in person or received and certified by mail. Those not yet received may be in a kind of limbo.)

The first and most obvious aspect is that anything that happens, any political event, any news story will have no impact on the votes that have already been cast and certified. They are a fixed but unknown quantity.

The second point is a bit more subtle.

We are talking about a mixture of things that have happened and things that may happen. Since it appears that the early voting was heavily Democratic and it is assumed that the in-person voting will be mainly or at least disproportionately Republican, this basically puts a floor under Democratic support and a ceiling on Republican.

When you put these two ideas together it leads to some interesting conclusions.

Events and breaking news that can radically change results on election day are almost always on the downside. It is very difficult to imagine something breaking at the last minute that would double the turn out in a certain district. By comparison, it is not difficult at all to imagine events that would greatly suppress it. Given the extremely chaotic times we are living in, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of some otherwise unimaginable black swan event, but it seems unlikely we see one that will cause a huge surge in voter turn out on November 3.

Rethinking Likely Voter Models

At this point just throwing out a lot of post as quickly as I can and relying too much on my phone’s not so reliable dictation app. Apologies in advance.

1. Most journalists are horribly confused by the differences between gathering and aggregating polling data and building likely voter models. Two completely different processes using entirely different tools prone to entirely different types of failure.

2. Of the two parts of the process, the modeling component will tend to be less stable and more vulnerable to the kind of changing conditions that can undercut basic assumptions.

3. It is impossible to believe that there is not a strong relationship between likely voter models and voter suppression. This is something we need to think more about and discuss more openly.

4. One of the implications of 3. is that changes in the effectiveness of voter suppression techniques can completely upend likely voter models. Remember the J shaped curve. There is considerable evidence showing that in many states the effect of voter suppression has reversed directions in a big way.

5. Likely voter models were also based on historical data from a period where early voting was much less accessible and played a much smaller role.

6. The models were also based on (at the risk of being obvious) non-pandemic data. This also has the potential to greatly undermine their predictive power this year.

7. Finally, returning to the subject of early voting. I wonder if the modelers working on these problems have been overly static in their thinking. If a month in advance of the election, you see a large number of people whom you have pegged as unlikely to vote having already voted, shouldn’t there be a way of using this information to adjust your models?

Russian Roulette Odds

I hate assigning subjective probability’s, particularly in chaotic times, but if I had to I would say that when you add in all the possibilities of variation in polls and plans to steal the election, we are looking at something on the low end of Russian roulette odds. I’ve found this is a useful framing when talking with nervous friends about the election.  

On one hand it captures that a Trump victory, even with extensive cheating, appears unlikely. On the other hand, it also reinforces the fact that we are generally more concerned with expected value than we are with probabilities.

With a six shot revolver, your odds of a bad outcome are in the mid teens. Unfortunately, a bad outcome in that game is really, really bad.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter J

I’ve made this observation before but I thought it was worth calling out in a freestanding post.

We have lots of reason to believe that the relationship between voter suppression efforts or perhaps more precisely awareness of those efforts and actual turnout of the targeted groups is J-shaped. Making voting more inconvenient for certain people up to a point will have the effect of making them vote less, but eventually they get so angry at being disenfranchised that they actually become more likely to vote.

We have data, anecdote, and common sense telling us that we have reached the point where these efforts appear to have become massively counterproductive for the Republican party. The problem is the GOP is addicted to these tactics. If voter suppression has lost its effectiveness for sometime to come and the party doesn’t come up with something to replace it, they are absolutely screwed.