Friday, February 24, 2017

Of course, watching video on tiny screens has made a comeback...

One of the topics I want to take a serious run at one of these days is how the way we think about scientific and technological progress was shaped by two huge spikes, the larger occurring in the late 19th and early 20th century and the other hitting during the postwar era. A big part of that story is the break represented by the Great Depression and the second World War. Though you could argue that the war was actually a period of heightened progress, from a man-in-the-street standpoint, the 30s and the first half of the 40s generally seemed somewhat stagnant.

Television is a useful example. Almost as soon as people were able to transmit voices via wires or over the airwaves, the developers started thinking about ways to add video. This goes all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell. In the early part of the last century, the progress toward television appeared rapid and inevitable.

It is true that the system shown below looks awfully crude, but it represented a stunning advance at the time. Within the space of something like three years the technology went from first public demonstration to actual broadcast received by commercially available sets. In another five years the resolution would top 300 lines, not much by our standards but enough for a reasonable viewing experience.

It is also true that the mechanical approach to prove something of a dead end, but electronic television systems were not far behind. As early as 1929, Philo Farnsworth was publicly demonstrating television systems with no moving parts.

I suspect that most of the people who saw the various demonstrations or who eagerly leafed through each month's edition of magazines like Popular Science back in the late 20s assumed that most modern, upper-class houses of the late 30s would come equipped with a television.

Recommended by the good people at Gizmodo:

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Canceling then showing up anyway is probably my favorite

I'm no fan of Andrew Romano. He's one of those journalists who likes to use his instincts and understanding of politics to delve beyond the mere facts. Unfortunately, he's not very good at that part. He does seem, however, to be a reasonably reliable reporter. I wouldn't post his analysis and predictions (at least, non-ironically), but I do trust his to get his quotes right and this summary of Republican "evasive maneuvers" in the face of angry constituents is a nice complement to our previous discussion of how important lines of communication are breaking down between GOP officials and the voters.

    Publicly canceling a scheduled town-hall event because you “didn’t want to meet until all the president’s nominees were confirmed,” then showing up anyway, to talk solely to your conservative supporters, who somehow still seemed to know you would be there (Mo Brooks, R-Ala.)

    Posting a photo from your “great town hall this morning with concerned citizens about the need for tax reform” on Facebook, despite never actually putting said event on your calendar or otherwise telling your constituents that it was happening (Jim Renacci, R-Ohio)

    Removing all mention of your upcoming “town hall” from the host city’s municipal website and refusing to call it a town hall when questioned, insisting instead that it is a “low-key” “community meeting” with other elected officials (Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.) [Not to be confused with the previously mentioned town hall avoidance of Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) -- MP]

    Refusing to denounce your “friend” when he announces that he needs “all patriots in attendance” at your next town hall “to protect” you “from any potential disruption of [your] speech,” adding that “concealed carry permit holders [are] most welcome” and shouldn’t “forget [their] ammo” (Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.)

    Insisting that you are too “busy, busy, busy” to meet with your own constituents during the “first 100 days,” while at the same time scheduling a “special guest” appearance at another congressman’s town hall meeting 2,130 miles away (David Brat, R-Va.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Speaking of older posts

This is Joseph.

LGM points to this older Paul Krugman piece on why market forces don't work in health.  It discussed the work of Kenneth Arrow, who recently passed away.  But it is worth considering that health care is not a traditional market, like the ones that Adam Smith so nicely described, but has features (high and variable cost, complexity) that make it different. 

Bowling Green is more than just a town in Sweden; it's an excuse for a repost

I don't want to overgeneralize, The producers at Fox News have multiple objectives -- they are interested in money, ratings, sometimes even informative journalism --  but at this point it would be denying the obvious to pretend that feeding slanted news and misinformation to the base isn't one of the primary objectives of the network.

If a Florida retiree hears a story on Fox that implies that Muslim immigrants are killing and raping their way through Sweden, then tells all his friends about how bad things have gotten, that is a clear win for the Conservative Movement. If that same story leads to those same comments, but this time spoken at a rally by the head of your party, that's not so much of a win.

From Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In retrospect, it's surprising we don't use more sewage metaphors

A few stray thoughts on the proper flow of information (and misinformation) and a functional organization.

I know we've been through all of this stuff about Leo Strauss and the conservative movement before so I'm not going to drag this out into great detail except to reiterate that if you want to have a functional  institution that makes extensive use of internal misinformation, you have to make sure things move in the right direction.

With misinformation systems as with plumbing, when the flow starts going the wrong way, the results are seldom pretty. This has been a problem for the GOP for at least a few years now. A number of people in positions of authority, (particularly in the tea party wing) have bought into notions that were probably intended simply to keep the cannon-fodder happy. This may also partly explain the internal polling fiasco at the Romney campaign.

As always, though, it is Trump who takes things to a new level. We now have a Republican nominee who uses the fringier parts of the Twitter verse as briefings.

From Josh Marshall:

Here's what he said ...
Wikileaks also shows how John Podesta rigged the polls by oversampling democrats, a voter suppression technique. That's happening to me all the time. When the polls are even, when they leave them alone and do them properly, I'm leading. But you see these polls where they're polling democrats. How is Trump doing? Oh, he's down. They're polling democrats. The system is corrupt, rigged and broken. And we're going to change it. [ Cheers and applause ]
Thank you, thank you. In an e-mail podesta says he wants oversamples for our polling in order to maximize what we get out of our media polling. It's called voter suppression because people will say, oh, gee, Trump's down. Folks, we're winning. We're winning. We're winning. These thieves and crook, the immediate, yeah not all of it, not all of it, but much of it -- they're the most crooked -- they're almost as crooked as Hillary. They may even be more crooked than Hillary because without the media, she would be nothing.
Now this immediately this grabbed my attention because over the weekend I was flabbergasted to see this tweet being shared around the Trumposphere on Twitter.
I don't know who Taylor Egly is. But he has 250,000 followers - so he has a big megaphone on Twitter. This tweet and this new meme is a bracing example of just how many of the "scoops" from the Podesta emails are based on people simply not knowing what words mean.
Trump had already mentioned 'over-sampling' earlier. But here he's tying it specifically to the Podesta emails released by Wikileaks. This tweet above is unquestionably what he's referring to.
There are several levels of nonsense here. Let me try to run through them.

 More importantly, what Tom Matzzie is talking about is the campaign/DNC's own polls. Campaigns do extensive, very high quality polling to understand the state of the race and devise strategies for winning. These are not public polls. So they can't affect media polls and they can't have anything to do with voter suppression.

Now you may be asking, why would the Democrats skew their own internal polls? Well, they're not.
The biggest thing here is what the word 'oversampling' means. Both public and private pollsters will often over-sample a particular demographic group to get statistically significant data on that group.
...  You need to get an 'over-sample' to get solid numbers.

Whether it's public or private pollsters, the 'over-sample' is never included in the 'topline' number. So if you get 4 times the number of African-American voters as you got in a regular sample, those numbers don't all go into the mix for the total poll. They're segmented out. The whole thing basically amounts to zooming in on one group to find out more about them. To do so, to zoom in, you need to 'over-sample' their group as what amounts to a break-out portion of the poll.

What it all comes down to is that you're talking about a polling concept the Trumpers don't seem to understand (or are relying on supporters not understanding), about polls that are by definition secret (campaign polls aren't shared) and about an election eight years ago.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Brexit and the problem of referendums

This is Joseph.

There has been a lot of discussion about direct democracy in the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.  On one hand, you want to respect the will of the average citizen.  On the other hand, it is one thing to set a policy and quite another to carry out.

Consider the Sicilian Expedition carried out by classical Athens.  Clearly this course of action was voted for by the majority of the citizens of Athens and was an exercise of direct democracy.  But the result was a complete catastrophe, and likely the beginning of the end of Athens as a major power.  The loss of the sailors in the this debacle was a key element that led to the eventual defeat and conquest of Athens by Sparta.

This isn't a argument against democracy but rather an endorsement of representative democracy, as practiced by countries like the United Kingdom. These sorts of governments have the ability to develop complex policies to handle complex questions, and to make difficult trade-offs. There seems to be a naive notion that asking people to make tough decisions is a good idea, but this is only true if the sequela are also pretty simple.  It is one thing to vote to invade Sicily.  But the question presumes a competent expedition and the answer might be very different if the people would presume that the politicians might bungle the implementation.

Possible analogies with Brexit are left as an exercise to the reader.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Accusation-driven reporting

I recently came across an excellent piece by Eric Ravenscraft (old but new to me) on dealing with fake news. The whole thing is worth reading but I wanted to take a minute to share his summary of Prof. Jay Rosen's accusation-based reporting concept.

On top of people making stuff up online (whether intentionally or accidentally,) political and corporate figures often muddy the news waters with accusations. In an attempt to promote “neutrality,” many news outlets are hesitant to claim a statement made by a public figure is outright false, even if it’s demonstrably so. Professor of Journalism at New York University Jay Rosen calls this accusation-based reporting.

Accusation-based reporting follows a basic structure:
  1. Person A makes an accusation against Person B.
  2. Person B denies the accusation.
  3. A news outlet reports that the accusation has been made and denied, but doesn’t offer any information to support or disprove the accusation.
  4. The accusation itself, not the accuracy of the claim, is treated as the newsworthy story.
Rosen says this runs counter to evidence-based reporting. In evidence-based reporting, a story should lead with information about the veracity of the accusation. If there is no evidence to support the accusation, a story should say so. If there is evidence to disprove an accusation, the piece should say that as well. The evidence should be given top billing, instead of the accusation.

For example, President-Elect Donald Trump claimed that millions of votes were cast illegally, costing him the popular vote. As Rosen points out, accusation-based reporting would present this accusation as valid until disproven merely because it was stated by the president-elect. In an evidence-based report, there must be evidence before a story is treated as true. In this particular case, The Washington Post explained that there has been no hard evidence of mass voter fraud on the scale the president-elect mentioned. Recount efforts are underway in several states, but until the recounts are finished or data is released, there’s no evidence to rely on, only accusations.

While most news outlets at least reported this information, many legitimate organizations feature headlines that simply quote the president-elect’s assertion, giving the impression that the accusation is more credible than it is. This practice presents the claim in a bombastic way to draw in readers, but it sets a misleading tone from the outset.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Quote of the day

This is Joseph

Via Stumbling and Mumbling, here is a George Carlin quote:

Conservatives say if you don’t give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they’ve lost all incentive because we’ve given them too much money.
Now it is true that the mechanisms of subsidy are different, but there is no reason that the investment activities of the poor could not have similar approaches to that of the wealthy.  I think that it is a very important flag that incentives are very complex to apply, and it is not always straightforward to figure out the net effect that they will have. 

Sometimes I post something just so I'll remember it later

Like that assembly line music from the old Warner Bros. cartoons.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Selling you pain"

Kristin Wong, writing for the Gawker remnant Lifehacker, has an excellent piece up on the economics of air travel.

I like the way Skift puts it: airlines are selling you pain. They make your experience as uncomfortable as possible so you’ll pay more.
by increasing the density of the Economy cabin, airlines “can boost capacity without adding to the fleet. Of course, as they shrink the coach section they force many to pay more to be able to have an ounce of comfort.” This is a key element of the up-selling strategy employed by airlines today to boost revenues, shored up by unbundled pricing strategies which offer to sell the pain away.
And with some of the carriers, you can’t even buy relief. Spirit is the worst airline for on-time arrivals, for example; only 73.8% of its flights arrive on time. You can’t pay extra to ensure they’re prompt. And when my friend and I were yelled at by WOW gate agents, we were afraid to even approach the desk to ask what our options were. We laughed about it later, but there wasn’t a fee we could pay to not get reprimanded like children. In other words, you can’t buy your way to better overall service.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

When you ignore bullshit artists, the pile does not get smaller

This is where we are now.

From New York Magazine:

As PolitiFact, the Daily Beast, and other outlets have noted, Phillips, a former executive deputy commissioner at Texas’s Health and Human Services Commission who was embroiled in corruption allegations there, has not provided any evidence to back up his assertion. Two and a half months later, we know nothing about his methods, and there is no sign of True the Vote having initated legal action. Moreover, Phillips launched his claims well before some states had even certified their results. That didn’t stop those claims from getting picked up by Alex Jones’s conspiracy-theory cauldron Infowars, where an article by Paul Joseph Watson — “Report: Three Million Votes in Presidential Election Cast by Illegal Aliens” — helped amplify them greatly, especially after the piece got picked up by the Drudge Report.

Since Trump first floated his “3 million” number, several journalists have pointed out the very high likelihood that it came from Phillips, given that Trump is a known gonzo-news connoisseur and a fan of Jones and his site (though the White House has denied Jones’s claim he was offered press credentials there). In public, though, Trump and his staff have generally instead referenced two studies from mainstream sources, one from Pew and one from Old Dominion University researchers, to support the claim, despite the fact that neither study does so. As of two days ago, the Daily Beast said that Phillips was the “apparent source” of Trump’s belief — there was still a bit of uncertainty.
A bit of background, for years now the Republicans have been trying to counter demographic tides with increasingly blatant voter suppression measures. They have justified these measures by raising concerns about voter fraud. These claims have been thoroughly debunked, but most journalists have been reluctant to come out with a straight declaration of the fact.

The voter ID debate has been one of those stories where reasonably accurate reporting would inevitably lead to charges of liberal bias. There is simply no way of honestly describing the situation without making the Republicans look bad. As a result, we got a lot of coverage of voter ID laws that seriously downplayed or omitted the part about voter fraud not being a real thing in this country.

We addressed this in the following post a few months ago:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Context only counts if it shows up in the first two dozen paragraphs

The New York Times has a good piece on the impact of voter ID laws but I do have a problem with a few parts (or at least with the way they're arranged).

Stricter Rules for Voter IDs Reshape Races


SAN ANTONIO — In a state where everything is big, the 23rd Congressional District that hugs the border with Mexico is a monster: eight and a half hours by car across a stretch of land bigger than any state east of the Mississippi. In 2014, Representative Pete Gallego logged more than 70,000 miles there in his white Chevy Tahoe, campaigning for re-election to the House — and lost by a bare 2,422 votes.

So in his bid this year to retake the seat, Mr. Gallego, a Democrat, has made a crucial adjustment to his strategy. “We’re asking people if they have a driver’s license,” he said. “We’re having those basic conversations about IDs at the front end, right at our first meeting with voters.”

Since their inception a decade ago, voter identification laws have been the focus of fierce political and social debate. Proponents, largely Republican, argue that the regulations are essential tools to combat election fraud, while critics contend that they are mainly intended to suppress turnout of Democratic-leaning constituencies like minorities and students.
In the third paragraph, we have two conflicting claims that go to the foundation of the whole debate. If election fraud is a significant problem, you can make a case for voter ID laws. If not, it's difficult to see this as anything other than voter suppression. This paragraph pretty much demands some additional information to help the reader weigh the claims and the article provides it...

More than twenty paragraphs later.

Mr. Abbott, perhaps the law’s most ardent backer, has said that voter fraud “abounds” in Texas. A review of some 120 fraud charges in Texas between 2000 and 2015, about eight cases a year, turned up instances of buying votes and setting up fake residences to vote. Critics of the law note that no more than three or four infractions would have been prevented by the voter ID law.

Nationally, fraud that could be stopped by IDs is almost nonexistent, said Lorraine C. Minnite, author of the 2010 book “The Myth of Voter Fraud.” To sway an election, she said, it would require persuading perhaps thousands of people to commit felonies by misrepresenting themselves — and do it undetected.

“It’s ludicrous,” she said. “It’s not an effective way to try to corrupt an election.”

I shouldn't have to say this but, if a story contains claims that the reporter has reason to believe are false or misleading, he or she has an obligation to address the issue promptly. Putting the relevant information above the fold is likely to anger the people who made the false statements, but doing anything else is a disservice to the readers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sometimes analogies are the most interesting when they break down -- UPDATED II

[I wrote this a few days and then half-forgot about it until last night when TPM started running headlines like "What Did The President Know?" (a question that was quickly answered while others were raised). We can debate exactly where we are along the path, but it seems fairly likely that we will multiple impeachable offenses by the end of the year. If that happens, we shouldn't count on history as a guide.]

At the risk of taking the "look for the silver lining" approach to a pathological level, one of the positives of the Trump phenomenon has been the way it has made the subtle plain, the plain obvious, and the obvious undeniable. This has been even more true with journalism, particularly the pundit class.

For a long time now, it has been apparent that opinion writers and news analysts are simply terrible when it comes to the analogy heuristic suggested by PĆ³lya. Many writers apparently thought that an analogy was simply a collection of similarities ("Herman Cain was a businessman just like Trump. He had a big surge in the polls just like Trump. He..."). Still others treated analogies as some sort of path of destiny that could be extrapolated endlessly into the future. My favorite of these was the argument that the parallels between Trump and Goldwater meant that we would have a historic Republican loss followed by complete conservative dominance 12 to 20 years from now.

That is not how these things work. Analogous relationships can give us insights into situations and they are potentially useful for suggesting hypotheses and lines of inquiry. Ironically, this usefulness is sometimes greatest when the analogies break down.

There's already been lots of discussion about the Trump/Goldwater analogy and a fair amount, more recently, about the Trump/Nixon analogy. Both of these provide some interesting points to explore, but what strikes me is most important here is where the analogies fail. At the risk of oversimplifying, the extremism of Barry Goldwater and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration both qualified as comparable threats to the Republican Party. The GOP was able to weather these threats with no lasting damage in large part because it successfully distanced itself from both men.

That was, of course, a different Republican Party. Even as late as the 1980s, you could still find Republican leaders like Bob Dole pushing back against Reaganomics. Since then the party has changed radically. Absolute loyalty is demanded and party discipline is strictly enforced. The flow of information (and in the case of the base, misinformation) is carefully controlled. The displays of independence that allow party members to pull away from controversial candidates and officeholders is no longer possible.

Which pretty much leaves GOP office holders with the option of keeping their head down and hoping the storm will pass.


UPDATE: This Josh Marshall post from earlier today provides a perfect example of the Party's unwillingness and inability to distance itself from upcoming WH scandals.

But only three or four hours before Flynn resigned, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence), Devin Nunes, said there was no problem and it was just the President's enemies ("the swamp" in his words) making trouble. "It just seems like there's a lot of nothing here," Nunes told Bloomberg's Steven Dennis.

This is only a particularly embarrassing illustration of a larger problem. The Republican Congress has no interest in any oversight of the Trump administration. None. Sure, opposing parties usually scrutinize administrations more aggressively. But it's rare to have this level of complete refusal.


And from Jonathan Chait:

3. Leave Trump alooooone. Republicans insist they do not support any probe of Flynn’s actions or what Trump may have known. “It’s taking care of itself,” insists House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz.

What about House Speaker Paul Ryan? Ryan is known for his fanatical belief in informational security. The Speaker once held such strong views on classified information that he demanded Hillary Clinton be denied access to classified briefings during the campaign because she had shown, by using a private email server, she could not be trusted with the nation’s secrets. “The consequences for the safety of our nation are grave,” he wrote solemnly. “Clinton’s actions may have allowed our enemies to access intelligence vital to our national security.” Ryan has learned from that episode to be far less judgmental. And now today, even the prospect that Trump allowed intelligence to be exposed to a staffer whom he knew to be potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail strikes him as unworthy of investigation.

Today, Ryan said, “I’m not going to prejudge the circumstances surrounding this.” And since Ryan is not forcing an investigation, he won’t post-judge, either. No prejudging, no post-judging, no judging of any kind, just moving on.

Monday, February 13, 2017

You all get that DeVos is the one with the chainsaw, right?

We all remember the moral of the story: even the hitchhiker with the acts is freaked out by the one with the chainsaw.

Eli Broad is one of the most aggressive of the many billionaire education reformers. He has directly or indirectly supported any number of sketchy activists and questionable entrepreneurs. It takes a lot to freak this guy out, but Betsy DeVos has what it takes.

From Bill Bradley's essential report.
In a letter to the Senate, philanthropist Eli Broad, a student of Detroit Public Schools and a longtime charter advocate, voiced his “serious concerns” over DeVos’ “support for unregulated charter schools and vouchers.” That the Michigan native, who was unavailable for comment, would have come out so vocally against DeVos signals just how spooked the education community is by her new perch in Trump’s cabinet.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Let's close out the week with some satiric journalism

The Shocking Way Private Prisons Make Money

Adam Ruins Everything - How Prostitutes Settled the Wild West

Adam Ruins Everything - Why Trophy Hunting Can Be Good for Animals

Adam Ruins Everything - The Conspiracy Behind Your Glasses

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The press does something right

This is Joseph

We often give the media a hard time, but this coverage by the Washington Post is a nice example of being appropriately critical of the remarks of spokespeople:
Kellyanne Conway has taken “alternative facts” to a new level.
During a Thursday interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the counselor to the president defended President Trump’s travel ban related to seven majority-Muslim countries. At one point, Conway made a reference to two Iraqi refugees whom she described as the masterminds behind “the Bowling Green massacre.”
“Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered,” Conway said.
The Bowling Green massacre didn’t get covered because it didn’t happen. There has never been a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Ky., carried out by Iraqi refugees or anyone else.
Now, there was a story underneath this one, but it rather defied the term "massacre", where one presumes at least one person would need to actually be killed (as opposed to a couple of arrests).  If we can trust Talking Points Memo, this was not a singular lapse. 

This can be more difficult with opinions, or difficult to prove facts.  For example, at Chaos Manor, prominent science fiction Jerry Pournelle claimed:
It is not universally agreed that universal health care is so easily attained or that it works so well; Canada’s is tempered by the proximity of US clinics which can relieve much of the waiting times, as an obvious example. But this is hardly the place to debate that.
This is much more tricky to debate.  The first sentence is obviously true (Mr. Pournelle claims it, making it clear that it is not universal).  The second point is overly broad, and it isn't clear to what extent it is occurring.  But it could be true, at least for some diseases or procedures (and is a real point in regards to Canada)

I generally presume socialized medicine works best for public health interventions and worst for elective surgery.  But this is the sort of tricky political opinion that already gets complicated, because real world evidence is complicated.  I get the decision to try and not take sides on these claims.  My personal opinion is that the US has a trivial effect as a safety valve on Canadian waiting times for most procedures, because the cost is so high.  But I could very well be incorrect.

However, I think that we should call out invented examples early and often.  The evidence is challenging enough as it is, without adding fictional evidence in as a complication to the whole thing.

Hopefully, this was a failure of recollection on an overburdened staffer dealing with a difficult transition, and not the beginning of a pattern.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Must read" is one of the internet's most overused phrases, but this time it applies

Last December, Prof. Jay Rosen wrote the best and most comprehensive piece I've seen on how the decline in American journalism enabled the election of Donald Trump. The follow-up is almost as good.