Archive for October, 2013

Mathematical Questions: Guns Yet Again

Monday, October 28th, 2013

I’m not going to call this mathematical malpractice because I don’t think it’s been reviewed or published yet. But the way the study is quoted in the press makes me highly dubious of its conclusions:

There are approximately 7,500 child hospitalizations and 500 in-hospital deaths each year due to injuries sustained from guns. In an abstract presented Oct. 27 at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, researchers also identified a link between the percentage of homes with guns and the prevalence of child gunshot injuries.

In “United States Gunshot Violence—Disturbing Trends,” researchers reviewed statistics from the Kids’ Inpatient Database (KID) from 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009 (for a total of 36 million pediatric hospital admissions), and estimated state household gun ownership using the most recent Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data (2004).

The study found that approximately 7,500 children are admitted to the hospital for the treatment of injuries sustained from guns each year, and more than 500 children die during hospital admission from these injuries. Between 1997 and 2009, hospitalizations from gunshot wounds increased from 4,270 to 7,730, and in-hospital deaths from 317 to 503.

Several things that raise alarm bells:

  • The study is of five very specific years rather than of all twelve years.
  • The study using the KID database for hospitalizations. Looking over the details of this database shows that these five years are the only years in the database (which is apparently compiled every three years). However, the number of participating hospitals has increased over time. This could induce a variety of biases, not all of which are obvious. It could also be biased by an increasing tendency to hospitalize gunshot victims. It could also be biased because KID, after 1997, uses a larger age range, adding 18- and 19-year olds who are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity. I’d have to see the paper to see how they have accounted for these. I suspect the biases are very strong compared to the overall signal and the reliability of the result is critically dependent on how they account for the biases.
  • The press release does not specify an age range but KID tracks patients up to age 18 (in 1997) and age 20 (from 2000 on). This isn’t exactly what people think of with “kids” and this age range has been used before to inflate the number of kids who are victims of gun violence.
  • The trend of massively increasing violence is the complete opposite of what every study of criminal violence is showing. Murder is down, assault is down, gun violence is down down down according to crime states, FBI stats and victim surveys.
  • I’m not here to slander anyone’s work. They may already have addressed the points I raise above. My read is that this is an abstract, not a refereed paper. So all I can do is point out the obvious pitfalls that might be causing this abstract to contradict everything else we know about violent crime. The gun control side, as I have documented on this blog, has a history of twisting the stats, sometimes unintentionally. And the media have a tendency to exaggerate the results of tentative early studies when it suits their narrative.

    (The gun control side also has a history of outright fraud but I am very dubious that any fraud is occurring here because it would be too easy to check. They are using a public database, not proprietary data.)

    There’s also the Scientific Peter Principle to consider here. If you hear of a study with startling results, it is most likely to be erroneous. That goes doubly so for unrefereed abstracts presented at conferences. The reason is that errors and biases almost always give you unexpected results. For veteran scientists, that’s often how you spot biases but even the best scientists can be fooled. That this study indicates a massive increase in violence at a time when every other study indicates that violence is falling (as is gun ownership) causes me to be concerned that something is wrong.

    Two things I would place small bets on. Within a few months, this study will be shown to be flawed in some way and its conclusions toned down. And for the next ten years, the initial abstract will be quoted by gun control advocates as proof of their position (e.g., the selective quoting of Mother Jones).

    The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part 3

    Thursday, October 24th, 2013

    Well, that was a bit of a whirlwind.

    Summing up the complicated War of the Roses in a manner that would be amenable to Shakespeare’s Tudor rulers must not have been an easy task. As a result, Henry VI, Part 3 has a tendency to get confusing, even for the author himself (the character of Montague seems a bit confused as to which side he is on). Just in the span of Act IV, Edward is king, exiled and king again. Nobles change sides seemingly on whims. The few strong moments — the scene in the French King’s court for example or the murder of Rutland and its echoes throughout the play — tend to disappear into the dizzying plot turns and twists. By the time it was over, I really felt that it was this play that suffered from “middle chapter syndrome”, killing off masses of characters from the previous two plays and setting up the epic Richard III, which looms over this play like a thunderhead.

    While I found this play to be one of the lesser of the histories, I have to disagree with the critics as to why. They usually talk about the amount of action on stage, citing classical tendencies to have action off-stage. I actually think the battles work pretty well (I mean, it was the War of the Roses, not the Polite Chat of the Roses). The action also sets up one of the play’s few iconic moments when Henry VI laments the father killing his son and the son killing his father. It also enhances the play’s running them of violence begetting violence and England descending into a chaotic state of barbarism in the absence of a strong king. No, I think the play’s weakness is the one I identify above: trying to squeeze too many historical turns into too short a time.

    That having been said, I still am finding the histories easier to follow than some of the comedies and therefore, as a group, more enjoyable. And I’m so excited about the next one that I’ve already started Richard III, whose opening soliloquy is already one of the best of the canon.

    The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part Two

    Sunday, October 6th, 2013

    Henry VI, Part Two could never be accused of “middle chapter syndrome”. Starting the end of Part I, it advance the story in leaps and bounds, dispatching character after character and plowing through the early battles to set up Part III and Richard III. By the end, you really feel that England will never be the same.

    I found this play to be a bit of a tough read. It’s very good, keeping the characters sharp and the intrigue furious. It covers a huge amount of ground and takes us a long way through the War of the Roses. The scheming and conniving of the characters, the slow decay of Henry’s rule, the loss of all honor and loyalty — it all works.

    But, Lord, is it depressing. The only worthwhile man in the entire play — Gloucester — sees his wife fooled and shamed and is then murdered. By the time the play ends, the floor is slick with the blood of dispatched rivals and the vile York is in ascendance. I can only imagine things will get darker.

    Next Up: Henry VI, Part Three

    Mathematical Malpractice: Food Stamps

    Sunday, October 6th, 2013

    I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call out my favorite website again.

    One of the things that drives budget hawks nuts is baseline spending. In baseline spending, government program X is projected to grow in the future and any slice of that growth that is removed by budget-cutters is called a “cut” even though it really isn’t.

    Let’s say you have a government program that pays people to think about how wonderful our government is. Call it the Positing Thinking Initiative and fund it at $1 billion. Future spending for PTI will be projected to grow a few percent a year for cost of living, a few percent for increase utilization, etc. so that, in FY 2014, it’s a $1.2 billion program. And by FY2023, it’s a $6 billion program.

    Congress will then “cut” the funding a little bit so that, by FY2023 it’s “only” a $4 billion program. They’ll then claim a few billion in spending cuts and go off for tea and medals.

    This drives budget hawks nuts because it changes the language. It makes spending increases into spending “cuts” and makes actual spending cuts (or just level spending) into “savage brutal cuts”. This one of the reasons the sequester drew as much opposition as opponents thought it would. The sequester actually did cut spending for programs but everyone was so used to the distorted language of Washington that they couldn’t distinguish a real cut from a faux cut.

    So I can understand where Ira Stoll is coming from when he claims that the cuts to the food stamp program aren’t actually cuts. The problem is that he’s not comparing apples to apples:

    The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House bill would spend $725 billion on food stamps over the years 2014 to 2023. The Department of Agriculture’s web site offers a summary of spending on the program that reports spending totaling $461.7 billion over the years 2003 to 2012, a period that included a dramatic economic downturn.

    This is a great example of how and why it is so difficult to cut government spending, and how warped the debate over spending has become. The Republicans want to increase food stamp spending 57 percent. The Democrats had previously planned to increase it by 65 percent (to $764 billion over 10 years instead of the $725 billion in the Republican bill), so they depict the Republicans as “meanspirited class warriors” seeking “deep cuts.”

    Stoll acknowledges the economic downturn but ignores that the time period he’s talking about includes five years of non-downturn time. Food stamp spending tracks unemployment; the economy is the biggest reason food stamp spending has exploded in recent years. So this isn’t really a spending “hike” so much as the CBO estimating that unemployment will be a bigger problem in the next decade than it was in the last one.

    Here is the CBOs report. Pay particular attention to Figure 2, which clearly shows that food stamp spending will decline every year for the next decade (a little more sharply in inflation-adjusted terms). It will be a very long time before it is back to pre-recessionary levels, but it is, in fact, declining, even in nominal dollars. This isn’t a baseline trick; this is an actual decline.

    Spending (mostly for benefits and administrative costs) on SNAP in 2022 will be about $73 billion, CBO projects. In inflation-adjusted dollars, spending in 2022 is projected to be about 23 percent less than it was in 2011 but still about 60 percent higher than it was in 2007.

    In fact, long-term projections of food stamp spending are very problematic since they depend heavily on the state of the economy. If the economy is better than the CBO anticipates, food stamp spending could be down to pre-recession levels by the end of the decade.

    So with a program like food stamps, you really can’t play with decade-long projections like Stoll. That’s mathematical malpractice: comparing two completely different sets of budgets. CBO does decade-long projections because they are obligated to. But the only thing you can really judge is year-to-year spending.

    Food stamp spending in FY2012 was $78 billion. FY2014 spending, under the Republican bill, will be lower than that (how much lower is difficult to pin down).

    That’s a cut, not an increase. Even by Washington standards.

    The Agony of Atlanta

    Friday, October 4th, 2013

    The most miserable sports town in America is, without a doubt, Cleveland*. The Indians have not won a world series since 1948 and the city had a great team in the late 90′s that fell just shy (in heart-breaking fashion in 1997). Only the Cubs have a longer world series drought. The Cleveland Browns have not won a championship since 1964, although they have a lot more company in their misery than the Tribe do (for all the NFL’s talk of competitive balance, they are far more dominated by franchises than baseball). The Browns also had heart-breaking losses in the 1980′s. The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won a title in any of their 43 seasons. During the last decade, they had one of the best players in league history but couldn’t win a title. He then ran off to Miami, where he’s won two.

    That’s 157 years of misery for Cleveland fans and 49 years since they could claim to be champions. They have it the worst. There are 20 cities in North America that have at least three major sports teams. The second longest drought is Minnesota at 22 years (and Washington, but the Ravens have won twice since then). And Clevelanders have born this burden with about 6% of the whining with which Boston fans endured the Red Sox drought while their Celtics were dominating the universe.

    However, I would argue that Atlanta comes in second in sports agony**. Consider:

  • The Atlanta Braves have won one title in almost half a century of play. They were an awful team for their first 25 years — Lewis Grizzard once joked that Michael Jackson and the Atlanta Braves had one thing in common: they both wore one glove for no apparent reason. They then turned into one of the best franchises in sports. They have had two losing season in the last 23 years and went to the post-season 14 straight times. But they only won one title, including heart-breaking loses in 1991 and 1996. In recent years, they have flamed out every year and seem well on their way this year. The last time they even won a post-season series was 2001. Throughout the 90′s they lost on freak events, such as horrific umpiring in ’96 series. Last year, they lost on a fluke bad call.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have also gone nearly half a century without a title. They were also awful for a long time but have recently been one of the better franchises in the NFL, with five straight winning seasons. They have flamed out in the playoffs every time, only making one Super Bowl during their existence. Last year, they lost on a batted down fourth and goal pass that would have won the game.
  • The Hawks have not won a title since moving to Atlanta in 1968. During that time, they have made the playoffs 29 times and had the best conference record 4 times. They have not made an NBA final. They have not even made the conference final since 1970.
  • For good measure, the Atlanta flames played eight years and made the playoffs six times. The Atlanta Thrashers played eleven years and made the playoffs once. Neither team even made it to a semi-final.
  • The Georgia Bulldogs won a national championship in 1980. They lost the championship the next two years. Since then, Georgia has not made a title game. Over the last few years, they have been an SEC powerhouse but can’t put together a championship season. Last year, they lost the SEC title and a possible trip to the BCS title game when a pass was deflected and caught by a receiver, letting time run out inside Alabama’s five. Georgia Tech split a title in 1990 and have not done much since. That title, incidentally, should not have been split. It only was because of Colorado’s fifth down play.
  • Last year was particularly hideous for Atlanta sports fans. The Falcons, Dawgs and Braves all went down on fluke plays falling literally yards shy of a Super Bowl, a BCS title game and an NLDS appearance, respectively. And this year looks no better. The Falcons are already 1-3 and have lost three games because of an inability to punch it in from the red zone. The Dawgs lost a close game to Clemson and have looked shaky on defense. The Braves lost tonight and have looked hapless over the last few weeks.

    My brother thinks Georgia teams are cursed. I’m starting to believe him.

    (*After I posted this, the Great Posnanski posted similar thoughts.)

    (** Being me, I actually compiled a table for this. There are 20 metro areas that have three or more sports teams and six more that have had three at some point in the last 50 years. I compiled the number of championships and the number of years played since 1963. Some New Yorkers or Chicagoans may take offense at my math since I’m combining teams that play in the same city. Meh. I figure if you’re a Yankees fan and can’t get some small pleasure from the Mets winning a World Series, that’s your problem. A more meritorious gripe might be leveled at my merging of San Francisco and Oakland as well as Washington and Baltimore. But there is a lot of overlap between those fans.

    Anyway, every city has won at least one championship in the last fifty years. New York, LA, San Francisco-Oakland, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh have at least ten. New Yorkers, if you throw in the Islanders and Devils — and I will — have basically enjoyed a championship every other year. All good and decent sports fans should cheer against New York teams. I mean, unless they’re from New York. The other cities have enjoyed a title once every 2-5 years.

    The cities with only one title? Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland, Atlanta and Phoenix. If you divide the number of seasons by the number of titles, the most barren cities are Phoenix (1 title every 102 seasons), Cleveland (1 every 144), San Diego (1 every 115) and Kansas City (1 every 104).

    Atlanta, however, comes in at 1 championship in 158 seasons of sports. Now that’s misery.)

    PS: Some more facts that came to me this morning:

  • Up until 1995, the only championship any Atlanta team had ever won was the Atlanta Chiefs, who won the inaugural season of the North American Soccer League.
  • Before then, you have the minor league Atlanta Crackers. Seriously.
  • 1991 was the first time any major championship was played within 500 miles of Atlanta.