Friday, October 24, 2014

Have you had your flu shot yet?

This is Joseph

I was reading Mike the Mad Biologist's web page and I noted this article on Ebola and the flu.  Ebola has been in the news a lot but influenza remains a bigger killer than Ebola:
Ebola has claimed fewer than 4,000 lives globally to date, none in the United States. Flu claims between 250,000 and 500,000 lives every year, including over 20,000 in the United States—far more American lives than Ebola will ever claim.
Notice just how terrible the Spanish flu was:
It infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic, and killed 50 to 100 million of them—three to five percent of the world's population
Today, that would be a disease that killed between nine and fifteen million Americans.  And the easiest option to reduce risk is to vaccinate against the infection. 

Have you had your flu vaccine?  [I get mine annually, usually on the first day it is permitted]

When journalists have an ethical obligation to roll their eyes...

...or at least ask a follow-up question.

Maybe it's just me, but don't journalists have an obligation to object when sources say something blatantly, laughably untrue? If the subject of an interview has just insulted the intelligence of your readers, should you at least attempt to get a more truthful response?

Andrew Cuomo has a new book out. To promote it he has a brief interview with Amy Chozick in the New York Times. I realize that this isn't a setting where you expect hard-hitting journalism, but this still stands out.
You also write that there are ultimately more negatives than positives to being a famous politician’s son. Why? I wouldn’t trade my father or our experiences for anything. But politically, it’s a negative, because you get all your father’s enemies — and not all his friends.
As Scott Lemieux observes, "It’s amazing how many public officials in this land have managed to get beyond this handicap anyway." Everyone knows that Cuomo's background gave him an enormous advantage. He knows it. Chozick knows it. Her editor knows it. We know it.

However, Cuomo also knows that no no one at the NYT is going to rock this particular boat. It's possible that Chozick asked some kind of follow-up -- the article includes the rather troubling disclaimer "INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED".-- but the piece that I saw just moves on.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

David Brooks, con(firmation) artist

[picking up where we left off here]

David Brooks has one of the most desirable jobs in journalism; it is also one of the most difficult. He has to present a mainstream conservative perspective in a way that appeals to his center-left target audience (which includes but is somewhat larger than the target audience of the New York Times). His job is greatly complicated by shifts in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. On a growing number of issues there is less and less common ground to focus on.

Fortunately for Brooks, there is a (hopefully unwritten) loophole in the professional standards of the NYT and many other publications which allows writers to break all sorts of rules -- up to and including the one against making things up -- as long as these lapses serve to reinforce the readers' (or at least the editors' and publishers') preconceptions.

The target audience for the NYT is mainly in the top half (possibly top quartile) in terms of wealth and education. They may not be Randian but they still tend to look at the bottom quartile with an attitude that is by turns suspicious and patronizing. Check out how Brooks plays to those prejudices in this recent column (via Charles Pierce).
In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.
This is brilliantly Brooksian. The first paragraph is accurate and well-grounded. The second is where things start getting subtle. The transition from fact to inference is so smooth and the conclusions he draws are so reasonable that few readers will realize how skillfully they've been set up.

Note the patronizing, more-to-be-pitied-than-censured tone. In his detached, scholarly, Middlemarch-quoting way, Brooks sympathizes with those in the lower class. He understands how conditions have made them angry, resentful and suspicious and how those emotions have made them gullible and prone to hysteria.

Having framed the question in such reasonable terms and having masterfully played on the prejudices of his readers, Brooks feels free to start making things up. Pretty much all the statements in the third paragraph are lies of varying degree, but Brooks knows they are lies most of his readers were predisposed to believe.

Working backwards (which allows us to save the best for last), let's start Ebola. Brooks is basically talking about the sort of thing we've been hearing from this guy (to get the full effect, go back and read the second paragraph).

How about the broader anti-science question? Brooks credits it to the great unwashed sharing misinformation but he offers no data to back it up, but if we look at the most obvious example (denial  of global warming), there is an alternative explanation that does have considerable evidence to support it.  George Will also figures prominently in this one.

And finally, how about the resentful and suspicious lower classes driving the anti-vaccination movement?

Not so much:
Exemption rates vary greatly by area and school. Los Angeles Unified kindergartens, for example, had an overall exemption rate of just 1.6%, although there are several in the district where more than 8% of students have belief exemptions. At Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, the overall exemption rate was 14.8% and at Capistrano Unified in south Orange County, it was 9.5%. At nearby Santa Ana Unified only 0.2% of kindergartners had exemptions on file.

In Los Angeles County, the rise in personal belief exemptions is most prominent in wealthy coastal and mountain communities, The Times analysis shows. The more than 150 schools with exemption rates of 8% or higher for at least one vaccine were located in census tracts where the incomes averaged $94,500 — nearly 60% higher than the county median.

Brooks has been doing this sort of thing for a long time now, long enough for the NYT to know what's going on..

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Another one for the West Coast Stat View Lexicon -- Farpotshket

I'm just a good ol' Arkansas boy (and a lapsed Presbyterian to boot) so I don't know from Yiddish, but for anyone discussing education reform, this one is indispensable.

From the inexplicably good

#8. "Farpotshket" (Yiddish) 
What It Means: 
Something that was a little bit broken ... until you tried to fix it. Now it's totally screwed.
To demonstrate the usefulness of "farpotshket," look no further than that nightstand you picked up at your friendly neighborhood IKEA. You know, the one that sits completely cockeyed but, goddammit, still does its job so long as you don't hit the snooze on your alarm clock too hard and send everything sliding off onto the floor. Then one day you finally get ambitious and think, "Hell, all I need to do is shorten the other three legs and make it level again! I can do that!" Six hours and a pile of sawdust later, you now have an unusable 12-inch-tall table that, by the way, still wobbles. In Yiddish, you have a farpotshket on your hands.

"The skeptics are wrong all the time"

Marc Andreessen has a new interview up and it is characteristically packed with silliness. If things had gone better for ViolaWWW, do you think Pei-Yuan Wei would have gotten this annoying?

What did you do?

I just went to college. I did my thing. I came out here in ’94, and Silicon Valley was in hibernation. In high school, I actually thought I was going to have to learn Japanese to work in technology. My big feeling was I just missed it, I missed the whole thing. It had happened in the ’80s, and I got here too late. But then, I’m maybe the most optimistic person I know. I mean, I’m incredibly optimistic. I’m optimistic arguably to a fault, especially in terms of new ideas. My presumptive tendency, when I’m presented with a new idea, is not to ask, “Is it going to work?” It’s, “Well, what if it does work?”

But clearly you don’t think everything’s going to work.

No. But there are people who are wired to be skeptics and there are people who are wired to be optimists. And I can tell you, at least from the last 20 years, if you bet on the side of the optimists, generally you’re right.

On the other hand, if there’d been a few more skeptics in 1999, people might have kept their retirement money. Isn’t there a role for skepticism in the tech industry?

I don’t know what it buys you. Let me put it this way. If you could point to periods of time in the last hundred years when everything just stabilized and didn’t change, then maybe yes. But that never seems to actually happen. The skeptics are wrong all the time.

There is a huge survivor bias in the way Andreessen and other creative disruptors compile their case studies. They only remember the lottery tickets that paid off and this leads them to dispense some very bad advice.

When it comes to investing in innovation, skeptics are right a lot -- quite possibly most -- of the time. We've been at this for well over a century, at least since Edisonades started showing up next to the dime Westerns. If you couldn't be a Bell or a Wright, you could at least be the investor who got in on the ground floor.

The trouble was, then and now, that there tend to be more Paige Compositors than light bulbs. Uncritical blanket optimism is a bad way to approach investments. I'd also argue that, if you're setting your sights higher than Snapchat, it's also a bad way to promote innovation but that's a topic for another post.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

This is why I think nobody cares about the debt

Over in Canada, Frances Woolley takes on the question of should the elimination of the deficit lead to immediate tax cuts.  Seriously.  Read and marvel at these quick facts:

From 2008–09 through 2013–14, the Government has delivered tax reductions totalling more than $60 billion to job-creating businesses.

According to KPMG, total business tax costs in Canada are now the lowest in the Group of Seven (G-7) and 46% lower than those in the United States.

Personal income taxes are now 10% lower with the tax relief provided by the Government since 2006. For an average family of four, taxes have been cut by close to $3,400. 

Once the federal budget is balanced, the Government’s first priority will be to provide further tax relief to hard-working Canadian families
So, after a ton of tax cuts (look at points 2 and 3), the clear priority is more tax cuts.  Under this rubric the debt will never, ever be paid down.  After all, I am not a financial genius, but paying down debt requires at least some period of running a surplus.

Now there may be all sorts of reasons that running a long term debt is a sane and responsible thing to do.  After all, governments are not households and many of my household intuitions are incorrect (governments can print money, for example, so being unable to pay the debt at all is unlikely unless it is denominated in a foreign currency).  But if this is the strategy of the debt scolds -- cut services so we can run a surplus and then give out tax cuts -- then they don't care about the debt at all.  They just want to redistribute money in a different way across the economy. 

EDIT: Forgot to mention this is Joseph and not the regularly scheduled Mark content

Discipline then and now

[Originally posted at You Do the Math]

A few years ago I taught at a small rural school in the Mississippi Delta. The old timers would talk at great length about how much better the school had been before I got there. They attributed the decline to the closing of the alternative school. In the "good old days," any student who caused trouble would be pulled out of class and sent to a special, highly structured school -- basically a glorified study hall -- run by an honest-to-God former Marine drill sergeant.

According to the version I was told, the program worked exceptionally well but was shut down in a discrimination suit because a disproportionate number of African-American students were being sent to there. This was a very conservative community (I doubt that there was a unionized teacher in the county let alone in the school), so it is not surprising that this was seen as another instance of the federal government interfering.

As you might guess, I saw things a bit differently. The government has not only the right but the obligation to step in in cases of racial discrimination. Furthermore, even if there had not been a civil rights issue here, I still have very mixed feelings about policies that potentially denied certain kids a quality education simply because they were difficult to deal with.

There is, of course, another side to the debate. In a world of fixed resources, educators frequently have to weigh the needs of the many against the needs of the few. If a small group of students is undermining the quality of education for the student body as a whole, there is a case to be made for removing the students. Just as importantly, sometimes that particular disciplinary action is the best thing for the kid being disciplined. For some, the structure and discipline of a boot camp environment really is the best educational setting. For others, there is a scared-straight effect. For these kids, a brief stay in the alternative school is enough to convince them to improve their behavior and work habits.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned here, but for me, the big one is that education is filled with tough choices and difficult trade offs. We need to acknowledge this difficulty. We need to have honest, well thought out discussions about the consequences of discipline and expulsion (both nominal and de facto). In particular, if we decide to sacrifice one student for the good of the many, we need to own up to that decision.

Today, in many schools, we have covert policies in place (particularly in the popular "no excuses" schools) that effectively mimic the alternative school approach of that small Delta town, including having a disproportionate impact on African-American males (often taking it to the next degree). But as much as that troubles me, what bothers me even more is the fact that we don't face up to what we're doing.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Robert Heinlein's house of the future

I was doing some research on Heinlein for a post in the compensation thread and I happened on this article on the house he and his wife (an engineer) designed and built in the early Fifties. For Heinlein fans it's a chance to see another side of the man. For the rest of us, it's an interesting glimpse into the way futuristic used to look.

You can find the rest of the article here.

The myth of a data-driven Netflix

There's been a lot of talk about Netflix stock this week (usually with words like "plummet"), but a big part of the story has largely gone unnoticed, probably in part because it involves statistics.

As mentioned before, some aspects of the Netflix narrative such as the company building and HBO type content library, are simply, factually incorrect. Others, while not blatantly wrong, are difficult to reconcile with the facts.

One of the accepted truths of the Netflix narrative is that CEO Reed Hastings is obsessed with data and everything the company does is data driven (for example "What little Netflix has also shared about its programming strategy is that its every decision is guided by data."). The evidence in support of this belief is largely limited to a model that Netflix crowd sourced a few years ago and to endless assertions from executives at the company that they do know what they are doing despite evidence to the contrary.

Of course, all 21st century corporations are relatively data-driven. The fact that Netflix has large data sets on customer behavior does not set it apart, nor does the fact that it has occasionally made use of that data. Furthermore, we have extensive evidence that the company often makes less use of certain data then do most other competitors.

On pertinent case in point, particularly for the SEC, is churn rates.
But Netflix disagrees. “With respect to various operational metrics, management has evolved its use of these metrics as the business has evolved,” it wrote the SEC in response. Because it is so easy to quit and then restart a Netflix subscription, it said, “the churn metric is a less reliable measure of business performance, specifically consumer acceptance of the service.”
This is problematic on any number of levels. In terms of marketing, pricing and long-term corporate strategy, having a complete picture of how long people stay and why they leave is huge. The only excuse for not reporting churn would be if you had such a detailed picture of who was leaving and why that this additional metric was redundant.

In other words, Hasting should have a good, data-supported explanation for a recent sudden loss of subscribers.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings blamed the subscriber drop-off on a $1 price increase the company instituted back this spring.

"Our best sense is it's an effect of our price increase back in May," Hastings said Wednesday night in an interview with CNBC. "With a little bit higher prices, you get a little bit fewer subscribers. So that's our sense of it. But we can't be 100% sure. We had so much benefit from Orange in Q2 and the early Q3, but that's what we think."
Phrases you don't want to hear in these circumstances include "our best sense" and "that's what we think." They convey the impression of a CEO who was blindsided by a bad day at the NASDAQ.

When contemplating a price increase, well-run companies look at the impact on retention and on acquisition. When Netflix management said
[M]anagement believes that in a largely fixed-cost streaming world with ease of cancellation and subsequent rejoin, net additions provides the most meaningful insight into our business performance and consumer acceptance of our service. The churn metric is a less relevant and reliable measure of business performance, and does not accurately reflect consumer acceptance of our service.
They were basically saying that losing one customer and gaining another is the same as keeping the same customer. That's a dangerous approach under the best of circumstances but it can be deadly when trying to gauge the impact of a pricing change.

Just to be clear, for years analysts and the SEC have been asking for more data, or at least more detailed statistics and Netflix has been saying "trust us, the aggregate number are good enough." Now the company appears to have screwed up badly, and they've done it in pretty much exactly the way you would expect a company to screw up when it doesn't drill down into the data.

p.s. I'm considering putting out a collection of business posts (something similar to the education reform e-book Things I Saw at the Counter-Reformation). Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hexagonal Reversi

Over at You Do the Math, I've got a post on a Reversi variant played on a 6x6x6 hexboard.

If you're feeling particularly nerdy, check it out.

Dick Cavett from 2013

I've been catching up on Cavett's NYT column. I have no idea how he pulls it off but he manages to constantly talk about his encounters with the iconic and yet he avoids being boastful or sycophantic. Here are some favorites:

Burton being Burton.

Laurel not being Stan.

and John Wayne being... hell, you wouldn't believe me anyway.

But it was a section near the end of this piece on Carson's rough start on the Tonight Show (Cavett got his start as a writer for the show) that caught my eye.

From Tonight, Tonight, Its World Is Full of Blight
By DICK CAVETT  MARCH 29, 2013 9:00 PM
If my friend Dave Letterman should decide next contract time that he’s sat through one too many starlet guests who come on to plug their movies, exhibit seemingly a yard of bare gam, pepper their speech with “likes” and “I’m like” and “awesome” and “oh, wow” and “amazing,” and list at least seven things they are “excited” about despite the evidence, from who knows what cause, of their half-mast eyelids, I’ll regret his going.

And speaking of Dave’s presumably stepping aside some sad day, if CBS is smart, there is in full view a self-evident successor to The Big L. of Indiana.

The man I’m thinking of has pulled off a miraculous, sustained feat, against all predictions — descendants of those same wise heads who foresaw a truncated run for the Carson boy — of making a smashing success while conducting his show for years with a dual personality. And I don’t mean Rush Limbaugh (success without personality).

I can testify, as can anyone who’s met him and seen him as himself, how much more there is to Stephen Colbert than the genius job he does in his “role” on “The Colbert Report.” Everything about him — as himself — qualifies him for that chair at the Ed Sullivan Theater that Letterman has so deftly and expertly warmed for so long. Colbert is, among other virtues, endowed with a first-rate mind, a great ad-lib wit, skilled comic movement and gesture, fine education, seemingly unlimited knowledge of affairs and events and, from delightful occasional evidence, those things called The Liberal Arts — I’ll bet you he could name the author of “Peregrine Pickle.” And on top of that largess of qualities (and I hope he won’t take me the wrong way here), good looks.

Should such a day come, don’t blow it, CBS.

"Velocitas Eradico," Nazi mad scientists and other cool things a little research would have uncovered

I know I'm being picky...

This article by Sam Biddle on the testing of a new weaponized railgun isn't bad. It does a good job explaining the physics and keeping the gee-whiz factor in check while acknowledging the genuinely exciting potential of the technology.

But I do have a complaint and it's one of the few times I'd actually favor a bit more gee-whiz. My problem with the article is that it is very much the story of one specific development -- albeit a cool and possibly important one -- and it doesn't show much interest in the history of the technology or its larger potential.

Here are some of the highlights from the Wikipedia entry:
[The Navy] gave the project the Latin motto "Velocitas Eradico", Latin for "I, [who am] speed, eradicate".
In 1944, during World War II, Joachim Hänsler of Germany's Ordnance Office built the first working railgun, and an electric anti-aircraft gun was proposed. By late 1944 enough theory had been worked out to allow the Luftwaffe's Flak Command to issue a specification, which demanded a muzzle velocity of 2,000 m/s (6,600 ft/s) and a projectile containing 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) of explosive. The guns were to be mounted in batteries of six firing twelve rounds per minute, and it was to fit existing 12.8 cm FlaK 40 mounts. It was never built. When details were discovered after the war it aroused much interest and a more detailed study was done, culminating with a 1947 report which concluded that it was theoretically feasible, but that each gun would need enough power to illuminate half of Chicago.
In 2003, Ian McNab outlined a plan to turn this idea into a realized technology. The accelerations involved are significantly stronger than human beings can handle. This system would be used only to launch sturdy materials, such as food, water, and fuel. Note that escape velocity under ideal circumstances (equator, mountain, heading east) is 10.735 km/s. The system would cost $528/kg, compared with $20,000/kg on the space shuttle.
I realize I complain about tech reporters getting carried away, but when something's this cool, it's OK to get a little more excited.

Sneetch class

James Kwak has a sharp and funny post on the economics and branding of first-class air travel.
Ultimately, what Suites Class is selling, along with every other “luxury” first-class cabin in the air, is a feeling of distinction. Air travel is a miserable experience for everyone involved, mitigated only by the immense convenience of being able to show up in another part of the world in a matter of hours. The glamour of high-end air travel, as with any other luxury good, is a function of exclusivity. Now that, thanks to Southwest Airlines, most people can afford to get on a plane, there have to be ways to pay more and more to get on the same plane. To get people to pay more, you have to give them something: an emotion, a brand, a story, something. And that’s why we have Suites Class.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Education reform thoughts

This is Joseph.

I sent this article to Mark, but thought the blog might appreciate a few comments on it as well.  In particular, I was struck by the following passage:
We could double teachers' salaries. I'm not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn't even enter the conversation tells you something about what's wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it's just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They're looking for easy answers, not hard answers.
In a really important way, this is the most compelling counter-point to the cries of urgency that accompany reform.  It's not that salary doubling is necessarily the solution, but that reformers appear to want cost-neutral or cost-saving improvements in quality. 

Now it is possible that such options exist.  It seems difficult to imagine extremely large effect sizes, as international comparisons don't seem to find obvious (cost neutral) options.  Do note that a longer school day without increasing salaries is an effective pay cut. 

Now, if there really is a crisis, why isn't the "pay more" option next to ideas like remove tenure?  Was that not the way we often respond to crises (think of the World Wars)?  Would increasing taxes to double salaries make it easier to remove (for example) tenure? 

Who knows.  But the Overton window here is pretty revealing. 

Non-compete agreements

This is Joseph.

Jimmy John's has a noncompete agreement.  Kevin Drum wonders what the point is, given how unlikely it is to be enforced.  Alison Griswold notes that:
That said, an unenforceable clause is still problematic if it's scaring employees who don't know any better into thinking they can't work at another sandwich shop—or another restaurant of any sort with a trade in sandwiches—for the next two years.
I don't even think that "scaring" is the right word.  Imagine the tight budgets somebody who works in fast food preparation likely has.  Yes, there will be exceptions.  But is it obvious that there will be lawsuits, even in a place like California

Do you know what no company wants to do with the new sandwich person?  Litigate to keep them.  Nor does an employee want to spend time and money in court to defend themselves if the court should grant an injunction while they hear the case.  Courts are slow, sessions happen during paid workdays, and it's not at all clear that anybody wants to deal with that while no longer making money.

So I think the chilling effect might be more than one realizes.