Mathematical Malpractice: Food Stamps

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

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.
  • The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part I

    September 20th, 2013

    Wikipedia tells me that Henry VI, Part I was one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories. It shows. It lacks the verbal fireworks and beauty of his later works and there is little, if any comedy. It’s workmanlike and bases a lot more on action and more direct drama than his later works.

    Of particular note is the character assassination Shakespeare renders on Joan of Arc. She starts out reasonable enough but then tries to sell her soul to demons for help, begs for her life and tries to lie and deceive her way out of the stake. Given what we know of Joan of Arc — even after hefty English rewriting of the historical record — this is pretty far from the truth. By all accounts, Joan was a smart woman who met her accusers effectively and died bravely. Had the French listened to her and protected her, the Hundred Years War might actually have finished in a hundred years. This one of the rare times when the Tudor propaganda aspects of the histories really jumps out (and possibly a bit of misogyny as well). I’m told that in some performances, Joan is more of a comic character, as are most of the French. I didn’t find them particularly funny.

    Still, the play has its good parts. The action is easy to follow and the conflicts well-described. Henry VI is effectively portrayed as a bit too innocent, inadvertently dooming his house when he chooses to wear a red rose. It’s a tiny moment that is one of the most important moments in the Henry VI tetralogy. Talbot is the most developed character and the scene where he and his son beg each other to leave the doomed field of battle is one of the highlights of the play. And the theme of the histories — that England is weak when divided — shows most strongly in this play when the rivalries between the English lords destroys England’s occupation of France.

    So definitely a worthwhile read. Hopefully, I’ll finish part II on a time scale of less than six months.

    Next Up: Um, Henry the VI, Part II, of course.

    Rush is Wrong on Religion

    September 20th, 2013

    I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    The Language of Cinema

    September 18th, 2013

    Yesterday, I stumbled across the video contrasting the scenes of Medusa in the 1980 Ray Harryhausen Clash of the Titans against the 2010 remake.

    I love this YouTube video because, to me, it illustrates precisely how Hollywood has gone so very wrong in the last few years. The original Clash is not a classic, although I am very fond of it. But the scene in the Harryhausen version is so much better in so many ways. Let’s enumerate them:

  • In the original, the scene in Hades takes place underground and is darkly lit. Yet, it is always clear exactly what’s going on. The layout of Medusa’s lair, the location of the two Greeks, the way the action plays out, the strategy employed by Perseus — these are all apparent. By contrast, the remake is completely incoherent. Where are they? What is the layout of Medusa’s lair? There’s a brief moment of “strategy” where Perseus gets Medusa to chase him so one of his men can attack her. But it’s not clear how this is accomplished because he appear to be moving away from his men only to have one jump out randomly. It’s hard to follow, sloppily executed and ends with all three of Perseus’ men dead. Moreover, the scene is simply incoherent. Medusa flashes around the pillars like the CGI creation she is with little rhyme or reason. She smashes through pillars that should injure her instead of snaking around them. It’s like a trailer for a better and more coherent scene.
  • There’s one shot in the original I just love, right before Medusa is killed. The camera pulls back to a medium shot to show Perseus behind the pillar and Medusa slowly moving between the rows of pillars, looking for him. That one shot instantly lays out the terrain so we know what’s going on and where everyone is. No such shot is seen in the remake.
  • The original has a palpable sense of fear. Perseus and his men are scared of Medusa and try to avoid her. By contrast, the men in the remake treat Medusa like the boss in a video game. One of them deliberately looks right at her. The other fails to turn to stone but blows himself up (maybe this makes sense if you’ve seen the whole movie).
  • The blood leaking out of Medusa’s body in the Harryhausen version is a bit unrealistic. But in the remake, Medusa’s body falls into a crevice and explodes. Just ‘cuz.
  • In the original, the appearance of Medusa is clear. If I were capable of drawing, I could sketch her out. In the remake, she’s a murky CGI mess. You can see the beautiful face of Natalia Vodianova, the model playing the role. But around her is just waving CGI bracken, snakes moving at light speed, rather than in anything resembling a believable monster. The emphasis modern action movies place on CGI-enhanced speed of movement has taken away any sense of realism.
  • (And please don’t come at me with “Realism? It’s a movie about gorgons and krakens!” Even a fantasy movie has to play by its own rules and be realistic enough that the creatures, the danger and the action draw the viewer in.)
  • Notice the Kraken at the end. In the Harryhausen version, the Kraken is plainly seen and looks like a mythical creature. I could draw him. The Kraken in the remake is a CGI blob, an indistinct mass of flesh and teeth.
  • I want to be clear about something: CGI isn’t the problem here. The way it is being used is the problem. Contrast the Kraken and Medusa against the CGI creatures of Lord of the Rings. The Nazgul and the trolls have a definite appearance. They look like a real mythical creature might look (in part because they are based on sketches by artists who have been drawing Tolkien’s world for decades). I expect Smaug to be the same. Gollum was so well-rendered that people wanted to nominate Andy Serkis for an academy award (although in that case, Serkis was on set to give Gollum a physical reference).

    Those were creatures. They were rendered to act, move and look like creatures. Medusa looks like someone got at their computer and said “more snakes! Make ‘em move faster! Faster! This is so cool!”. The Kracken looks like it’s not finished rendering. It’s the creature equivalent of the spiny spikey CGI spaceships that have begun to clutter sci-fi movies. It’s indistinguishable from any number of other CGI blobs with teeth like Cloverfield. But at least Cloverfield‘s murk made sense in context, since it was found footage. Show me Harryhausen’s Kraken and I’ll recognize it. Show me this one and I’ll have to guess: the Kraken? Cloverfield? Cave troll? Last night’s Mexican dinner?

    Harryhausen’s movie uses the language of cinema effectively. It establishes the scene and the stakes. It gives us a clear idea of where Medusa is, what she’s doing and what she looks like. It treats her like a real monster enraged by her curse and determined to hunt down and kill those invading her lair. Perseus and his men are scared of her and trying to think of a way to kill this dangerous creature. The scene is 90% tension and about 10% effects.

    By contrast, the remake is a video game. Perseus’ men don’t value their lives and don’t act in a realistic way. And why should they? There’s no sense that this is a real monster. She’s a creation that pops out of the shadows at random moments.

    I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: a generation of move-goers are growing up not knowing what a coherent movie looks like. This isn’t a style thing or an old-man “get off my lawn” thing. Frequently, when they see movies that are well-made and composed, they notice how much better they are without really knowing why. They are being drowned in a sea of dreck.

    For more on this, you should check out Jim Emerson’s two videos contrasting The Dark Knight and SALT to show how differently they use (or fail to use) the language of cinema. I love The Dark Knight but he does have a point about the way some of its action scenes are laid out.

    The most hilarious part of that, however, is the response from the Dark Knight defenders, which essentially amounts to misquoting Emerson or falling back on the “hey, it’s a movie about a billionaire in a bat suit. You expect realism?!” I referenced above.

    That is is why I love this video. Both movies are about mythical creatures and heroes. But one has tension, clarity and excitement. The other has noise and chaos. The defenders of modern film — not batting an eye from there “hey, it’s fantasy” line — will then claim that, in real life, action is often chaotic and noisy. True enough. But it also follows certain rules (like gravity) and people value their lives and sell them dearly.

    Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Cherry-Picking

    September 15th, 2013

    Probably one of the most frustrating mathematical practices is the tendency of politicos to cherry-pick data: only take the data points that are favorable to their point of view and ignore all the others. I’ve talked about this before but two stories circling the drain of the blogosphere illustrated this practice perfectly.

    The first is on the subject of global warming. Global warming skeptics have recently been crowing about two pieces of data that supposedly contradict the theory of global warming: a slow-down in temperature rise over the last decade and a “60% recovery” in Arctic sea ice.

    The Guardian, with two really nice animated gifs, show clearly why these claims are lacking. Sea ice levels vary from year to year. The long-term trend, however, has been a dramatic fall with current sea ice levels being a third of what they were a few decades ago (and that’s just area: in terms of volume it’s much worse with sea ice levels being a fifth of what they were). The 60% uptick is mainly because ice levels were so absurdly low last year that the natural year-to-year variation is equal to almost half the total area of ice. In other words, the variation in yearly sea levels has not changed — the baseline has shrunk so dramatically that the variations look big in comparison. This could easily — and likely will — be matched by a 60% decline. Of course, that decline will be ignored by the very people hyping the “recovery”.

    Temperature does the same thing. If you look at the second gif, you’ll see the steady rise in temperature over the last 40 years. But, like sea ice levels, planetary temperatures vary from year to year. The rise is not perfect. But each time it levels or even falls a little, the skeptics ignore forty years worth of data.

    (That having been said, temperatures have been rising much slower for the last decade than they were for the previous three. A number of climate scientists now think we have overestimated climate sensitivity).

    But lest you think this sort of thing is only confined to the Right …

    Many people are tweeting and linking this article which claims that Louis Gohmert spouted 12 lies about Obamacare in two minutes. Some of the things Gohmert said were not true. But other were and still others can not really be assessed at this stage. To take on the lies one-by-one:

    Was Obamacare passed against the will of the people?

    Nope. It was passed by a president who won the largest landslide in two decades and a Democratic House and Senate with huge majorities. It was passed with more support than the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D, both of which were entirely unfunded. And the law had a mostly favorable perception in 2010 before Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars spreading misinformation about it.

    The first bits of that are true but somewhat irrelevant: the Iraq War had massive support at first, but became very unpopular. The second is cherry-picked. Here is the Kaiser Foundation’s tracking poll on Obamacare (panel 6). Obamacare barely crested 50% support for a brief period, well within the noise. Since then, it has had higher unfavorables. If anything, those unfavorables have actually fallen slightly, not risen in response to “Republican lies”.

    Supporters of the law have devised a catch-22 on the PPACA: if support falls, it’s because of Republican money; if it rises it’s because people are learning to love the law. But the idea that there could be opposition to it? Perish the thought!

    Is Obamacare still against the will of American people?

    Actually, most Americans want it implemented. Only 6 percent said they wanted to defund or delay it in a recent poll.

    That is extremely deceptive. Here is the poll. Only 6% want to delay or defund the law because 30% want it completely repealed. Another 31% think it needs to be improved. Only 33% think the law should be allowed to take effect or be expanded.

    (That 6% should really jump out at you since it’s completely at variance with any political reality. The second I saw it, I knew it was garbage. Maybe they should have focus-group-tested it first to come up with some piece of bullshit that was at least believable.)

    Of the remaining questions, many are judgement calls on things that have yet to happen. National Memo asserts that Obamacare does not take away your decisions about health care, does not put the government between you and your doctor and will not keep seniors from getting the services they need. All of these are judgement calls about things that have yet to happen. There are numerous people — people who are not batshit crazy like Gohmert — who think that Obamacare and especially the IPAB will eventually create government interference in healthcare. Gohmert might be wrong about this. But to call it a lie when someone makes a prediction about what will happen is absurd. Let’s imagine this playing out in 2002:

    We rate Senator Liberal’s claim that we will be in Iraq for a decade and it will cost 5000 lives and $800 billion to be a lie. The Bush Administration has claimed that US troops will be on the ground for only a few years and expect less than a thousand casualties and about $2 billion per month. In fact, some experts predict it will pay for itself.

    See what I did there?

    Obamacare is a big law with a lot of moving parts. There are claims about how it is going to work but we won’t really know for a long time. Maybe the government won’t interfere with your health care. But that’s a big maybe to bet trillions of dollars on.

    The article correctly notes that the government will not have access to medical records. But then it is asserts that any information will be safe. This point was overtaken by events this week when an Obamacare site leaked 2400 Social Security numbers.

    See what I mean about “fact-checking” things that have yet to happen?

    Then there’s this:

    Under Obamacare, will young people be saddled with the cost of everybody else?

    No. Thanks to the coverage for students, tax credits, Medicaid expansion and the fact that most young people don’t earn that much, most young people won’t be paying anything or very much for health care. And nearly everyone in their twenties will see premiums far less than people in their 40s and 50s. If you’re young, out of school and earning more than 400 percent of the poverty level, you may be paying a bit more, but for better insurance.

    This is incorrect. Many young people are being coerced into buying insurance that they wouldn’t have before. As Avik Roy has pointed out, cheap high-deductible plans have been effectively outlawed. Many college and universities are seeing astronomical rises in health insurance premiums, including my own. The explosion of invasive wellness programs, like UVAs, has been explicitly tied to the PPACA. Gohmert is absolutely right on this one.

    The entire point of Obamacare was to get healthy people to buy insurance so that sick people could get more affordable insurance. That is how this whole thing works. It’s too late to back away from that reality now.

    Does Obamacare prevent the free exercise of your religious beliefs?

    No. But it does stop you from forcing your beliefs on others. Employers that provide insurance have to offer policies that provide birth control to women. Religious organizations have been exempted from paying for this coverage but no one will ever be required to take birth control if their religion restricts it — they just can’t keep people from having access to this crucial, cost-saving medication for free.

    This is a matter of philosophy. Many liberals think that if an employer will not provide birth control coverage to his employees, he is “forcing” his religious views upon them (these liberals being under the impression that free birth control pills are a right). I, like many libertarians and conservatives (and independents), see it differently: that forcing someone to pay for something with which they have a moral qualm is violating their religious freedom. The Courts have yet to decide on this.

    I am reluctant to call something a “lie” when it’s a difference of opinion. Our government has made numerous allowance for religious beliefs in the past, including exemptions from vaccinations, the draft, taxes and anti-discrimination laws. We are still having a debate over how this applies to healthcare. Sorry, National Memo, that debate isn’t over yet.

    So let’s review. Of Gohmert’s 12 “lies”, the breakdown is like so:

    Lies: 4
    Debatable or TBD: 5
    Correct: 3
    Redundant: 1

    (You’ll note that’s 13 “lies”; apparently National Memo can’t count).

    So 4 only out of 13 are lies. Hey, even Ty Cobb only hit .366

    Mathematical Malpractice: Focus Tested Numbers

    September 3rd, 2013

    One of the things I keep encountering in news, culture and politics are numbers that appear to be pulled out of thin air. Concrete numbers, based on actual data, are dangerous enough in the wrong hands. But when data get scarce, this doesn’t seem to intimidate advocates and some social scientists. They will simply commission a “study” that produces, in essence, any number they want.

    What is striking is that the numbers seem to be selected with the diligent care and skill that the methods lack.

    The first time I became aware of this was with Bill Clinton. According to his critics — and I can’t find a link on this so it’s possibly apocryphal — when Bill Clinton initiated competency tests for Arkansas teachers, a massive fraction failed. He knew the union would blow their stack if the true numbers were released so he had focus groups convened to figure out what percentage of failures was expected, then had the test curved so that the results met the expectation.

    As I said, I can’t find a reference for that. I seem to remember hearing it from Limbaugh, so it may be a garbled version (I can find lawsuits about race discrimination with the testing, so it’s possible a mangled version of that). But the story struck me to the point where I remember it twenty years later. And the reason it struck is because:

  • It sounds like the sort of thing politicians and political activists would do.
  • It would be amazingly easy to do.
  • Our media are so lazy that you could probably get away with it.
  • Since then, I’ve seen other numbers which I call “focus tested numbers” even tough they may not have been run by focus groups. But they cross me as numbers derived by someone coming up with the number first and then devising the methodology second. They first part is the critical one. Whatever the issue is, you have to come with a number that is plausible and alarming without being ridiculous. Then you figure out the methods to get the number.

    Let’s just take an example. The first time I became aware of the work of Maggie McNeill was her thorough debunking of the claim that 200,000 underage girls are trafficked for sex in the United States. You should read that article, which comes to an estimate of about 15,000 total underage prostitutes (most which are 16 or 17) and only a few hundred to a few thousand that are trafficked in any meaningful sense of that word. That does not make the problem less important, but it does make it less panic-inducing.

    But the 200,000 number jumped out at me. Here’s my very first comment on Maggie’s blog and her response:

    Me: Does anyone know where the 100,000 estimate comes from? What research it’s based on?

    It’s so close to 1% [of total underage girls] that I suspect it may be as simple as that. We saw a similar thing in the 1980′s when Mitch Snyder claimed (and the media mindlessly repeated) that three million Americans were homeless (5-10 times the estimates from people who’d done their homework). It turned out the entire basis of that claim was that three million was 1% of the population.

    This is typical of the media. The most hysterical claim gets the most attention. If ten researchers estimates there are maybe 20,000 underage prostitutes and one big-mouth estimates there are 300,000, guess who gets a guest spot on CNN?

    —–

    Maggie: Honestly, I think 100,000 is just a good large number which sounds impressive and is too large for most people to really comprehend as a whole. The 300,000 figure appears to be a modification of a figure from a government report which claimed that something like 287,000 minors were “at risk” from “sexual exploitation” (though neither term was clearly defined and no study was produced to justify the wild-ass guess). It’s like that game “gossip” we played as children; 287,000 becomes 300,000, “at risk” becomes “currently involved” and “sexual exploitation” becomes “sex trafficking”. :-(

    The study claimed that 100-300,000 girls were “at risk” of exploitation but defined “at risk” so loosely that simply living near a border put someone at risk. With such methods, the authors could basically claim any number they wanted. After reading that analysis and picking my jaw up off of the floor, I wondered why anyone would do it that way.

    And then it struck me: because the method wasn’t the point; the result was. Even the result wasn’t the point; the issue they wanted to advocate was. The care was not in the method: it was in the number. If they had said that there were a couple of thousand underage children in danger, people would have said, “Oh, OK. That sounds like something we can deal with using existing policies and smarter policing.” Or even worse, they might have said, “Well, why don’t we legalize sex work for adults and concentrate on saving these children?” If they had claimed a million children were in danger, people would have laughed. But claim 100-300,000? That’s enough to alarm people into action without making them laugh. It’s in the sweet spot between the “Oh, is that all?” number of a couple thousand and the “Oh, that’s bullshit” number of a million.

    Another great example was the number SOPA supporters bruted about to support their vile legislation. Julian Sanchez details the mathematical malpractice here. At first, they claimed that $250 billion was lost to piracy every year. That number — based on complete garbage — was so ridiculous they had to revise it down to $58 billion. Again, notice how well-picked that number is. At $250 billion, people laughed. If they had gone with a more realistic estimate — a few billion, most likely — no one would have supported such draconian legislation. But $58 billion? That’s enough to alarm people, not enough to make them laugh and — most importantly — not enough to make the media do their damn job and check it out.

    I encountered it again today. The EU is proposing to put speed limiters on cars. Their claim is this will cut traffic deaths by a third. Now, we actually do have some data on this. When the national speed limit was introduced in America, traffic fatalities initially fell about 20%, but then slowly returned to normal. They began falling again, bumped up a bit when Congress loosened the law, then leveled out in the 90′s and early 00′s after Congress completely repealed the national speed limit. The fatality rate has plunged over the last few years and is currently 40% below the 1970′s peak — without a speed limit.

    That’s just raw numbers, of course. In real terms — per million vehicle miles driven — fatalities have plunged almost 75% of the last forty years, with no effect of the speed limit law. Of course, more cars contain single drivers than ever before. But even on a per capita basis, car fatalities are half of what they once were.

    That’s real measurable progress. Unfortunately for the speed limiters, it’s result of improved technology and better enforcement of drunk driving laws.

    So the claim that deaths from road accidents will plunge by a third because of speed limits is simply not supported by data in the United States. They might plunge as technology, better roads and laws against drunk driving spread to Eastern Europe. And I’m sure one of the reasons they are pushing for speed limits is that they can claim credit for that inevitable improvement. But a one-third decline is just not realistic.

    No, I suspect that this is a focus tested number. If they claimed fatalities would plunge by half, people would laugh. If they claimed 1-2%, no one would care. But one-third? That’s in the sweet spot.

    Bulbs

    August 31st, 2013

    I have quite a few posts in the queue that will come out in the next few weeks but this has been my quietest month ever on the blog. One thing I did want to post on, however, came to a head tonight. While working in the basement, I knocked over a basket of bulbs and one shattered. Of course, it was a CFL with mercury in it so I had to follow the EPA’s elaborate instructions for cleaning up. Because it was the basement, I couldn’t take the most important step — airing out the room.

    Of course, the amount of mercury in CFL’s is very small — a couple of mg. I probably got ten times the exposure when I dropped and broke a mercury thermometer as a kid and then played with the mercury for a while. But still, these things were foisted on us and encouraged before anyone had really explained the potential danger (in parts of the world, they’re now mandatory). The EPA has done an analysis showing that, on balance, less mercury will be released into the environment because of the decreased amount of coal burnt to power the bulbs. However, I’m not sure this analysis is accurate since 1) history shows that greater energy efficiency mostly results in us using more powered devices: energy use tends to rise or be flat; 2) coal is slowly dying an industry. Powered by gas or nuclear, it’s likely that CFL’s will put more mercury into the environment. It also ignores the aspect that having mercury in the air from power plants is a little different from having it on the floor where your children play.

    LED bulbs are better but … they have their own concerns, which no one talks about.

    Global warming is real — one of my queued posts is on that subject. But the environmental movement has become fixated on it almost to the exclusion of all else. There is no such thing as perfect technology. Wind and solar require dirty manufacturing techniques and extensive use of rare-earth elements (that have to be mined). Nuclear has its obvious dangers. Fracking is less carbon-intense than coal, but doesn’t come without its own set of risks.

    The problem is that we do not talk about these trade-offs. We don’t balance rare-earth mining versus radioactive waste versus carbon emissions. We simply get into tizzies about global warming or nuclear waste and stampede toward something that looks good. And that extends into the home. On balance, I might take an LED or CFL light because it saves money, saved energy and the toxin risk is low. But that choice should not be mandated. People should be free to make their own evaluations of the tradeoffs.

    August Linkorama

    August 8th, 2013

    Time to clear out a few things I don’t have time to write lengthy posts about.

  • I’m tickled that Netflix garnered Emmy nominations. Notice that none of the nominated dramas are from the major networks. Their reign of terror is ending.
  • This look at Stand Your Ground laws look state by state to see if murder rates went up. I find this far more convincing than the confusing principle component analysis being cited. Also, check out this analysis of the complicated relationship these laws have with race.
  • Speaking of guns, we have yet another case of Mathematical Malpractice. Business Insider claims California’s gun laws have dramatically dropped the rate of gun violence. But their lead graphic shows California’s rate of gun violence has fallen … about as much as the rest of the country’s.
  • Mother Jones Doesn’t Know Data

    July 31st, 2013

    You know, you could probably cut out a career in responding to Mother Jones twisting and distorting of data from gun deaths. Today has another wonderful example. Hopping on the rather hysterical claim that gun deaths are close to exceeding traffic deaths, they look at it at a state by state level and conclude that “It’s little surprise that many of these states—including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Utah, and Virginia—are notorious for lax gun laws.”

    Look at the map. Then look at this one which shows the Brady Campaign’s scorecard for state laws on guns. The states were gun deaths exceed traffic deaths are Alaska (Bradley score 0), Washington (48), Oregon (38), California (81!!), Nevada (5), Utah (0), Arizona (0), Colorado (15), Missouri (4), Illinois (35), Louisiana (2), Michigan (25), Ohio (7) and Virginia (12). Of the 14 states, half have Brady scores over 12 and California has the most restrictive gun laws in the nation.

    Going by rate of gun ownership, the states are Alaska (3rd highest gun ownership rate in nation), Washington (33), Oregon (28), California (44), Nevada (38), Utah (16), Arizona (32), Colorado (36), Missouri (15), Illinois (43), Louisiana (13), Michigan (27), Ohio (37) and Virginia (35). In other words, the states where traffic deaths exceed gun death are just as likely to have a low gun ownership rate as a high one.

    Oops.

    Moreover, the entire “guns are killing more than cars” meme is garbage to begin with. Gun deaths, as I have said in every single post on this subject, have fallen over the last twenty years. The thing is that traffic deaths have fallen even faster. The gun grabbers might have had a point back in 1991, when we had a spike in gun deaths that caused them to almost exceed traffic deaths. But they don’t now because both rates are down, way down. Traffic fatalities, in particular, plunged dramatically in the mid-00′s.

    A real analysis of the data would look at both factors to see if better drunk driving laws or seatbelt laws or whatever are also playing a factor here. But Mother Jones isn’t interested in that (for the moment). What they are interested in is stoking panic about guns.

    (Notice also that MJ illustrates their graph with a picture of an assault rifle, even though these are responsibly for a tiny number of gun deaths.)

    The Worst of the Oscar: Round-Up

    July 20th, 2013

    (Parts I, II, and III.)

    In comparing the critics, the Academy and IMDB, I find that, with few exceptions (e.g, West Side Story, Crash, Braveheart) the critics and IMDB are in large agreement while the Academy is more often the outlier. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the Academy judges films in the moment while IMDB voters, for any year before about 1998, have the verdict of history on their side. Their ratings are reflective of the critic’s and historian’s opinions. If you look at the immediate judgement of IMDB — the last ten years, you’ll find some questionable favorites (The Dark knight Rises) but also some times when I think IMDB, even in the moment, did a better job than the Academy. Inception was a better film than the King’s Speech. Intouchables, from what I’ve heard, is better than The Artist. Batman Begins was better than Crash. Eternal Sunshine was better than Million Dollar Baby.

    In short, I think my tendency to use IMDB ratings to judge films is justified provided one accounts for the biases it has. It is certainly less biased than the Academy.

    Overall, however, I think while the Academy’s performance has waxed and waned, most of its picks aren’t horrific. I’ve sorted the Best PIcture winners into four categories:

    Agreement: This is where the IMDB, the critics and the Academy all picked the best picture or the winners are neck-and-neck. Clearly, the Academy did its job. In this category, you would have All Quiet on The Western Front, It Happened One Night, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, The Godfather, the Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, The Return of the King, the Departed. That’s 15 out of 85. I have seen all of those films except The Lost Weekend and agree with IMDB and history.

    Defensible: There is some disagreement but the film has a place in the conversation as the best pic of the year. Generally I look for something rated at least an 8.0 on IMDB, in the top five and with either IMDB or the critics agreeing. Any film that makes the AFI top 100 or similar lists is defensible. In this category, you have Mutiny on the Bounty, You Can’t Take it With You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Best Years of Our lives, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, Rocky, Annie Hall, Gandhi, Platoon, Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Braveheart, Titanic, American Beauty, Gladiator, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men. That’s another 31 films where the Academy’s choice is defensible. That’s 46 of 85 years where I would say they did their job. So about half the time. I have seen all of these films except You Can’t Take it With You and generally agree with the verdict.

    Meh: A good film, by not a great one. Probably got swept up in some hype. There are better films that could have been recognized that year. There’s a bit of play in this one as a few of these are probably seen as bad picks by some. Ordinary People over Raging Bull is regarded as a bad choice now, but IMDB still regards Ordinary People as a good film. I’m trying to be a bit objective here and leave my opinions out. But the way I see it, the “meh” picks are: Wings, Grand Hotel, the Life of Emile Zola, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Gentleman’s Agreement. Hamlet, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, Marty, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, the Last Emperor, The English Patient, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo. That’s 25 years where the Academy muffed it. I expect some of the recent titles like Crash to eventually slip down into the bad category.

    I’ve only seen ten of the “meh” films, actually, which is why I’m relying as much as I can on critics and IMDB. Does that mean I can’t judge them? Perhaps. My priority when it comes to watching old films is to watch ones I have heard are good or ones I know I will enjoy. For the sake of completeness, I will eventually watch all of the Academy winners and will post on Twitter if I think history and/or IMDB got it wrong. But it will be slow. The limited time I have for movies is better spent on things like Frankenstein than Grand Hotel.

    Bad: Generally, this is reserved for films that rate below a 7.0 but special mention will be made where even a good film nudged out a classic, especially if it was for stupid reasons. The designation of a film as a bad choice is almost entirely objective, based on IMDB ratings and historical consensus. This is because I have only seen five of these to completion and bits of others. As I said, I’m still working my way through the Best Picture winners. And Best Picture winners that history has judged poorly are very low on the priority list. Sorted from the biggest difference between the IMDB rating of the Best Picture winner and that of the film historically regarded as the best, the worst pictures are: Driving Miss Daisy, Oliver!, Around the World in Eighty Days, Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, out of Africa, Tom Jones, Chicago, Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Great Ziegfeld, Cavalcade, Broadway Melody and Cimarron. That is 14 years where the Academy completely stunk up the joint, picking a mediocre picture while classic went unrecognized.

    If we designate the first category as an A, the second as a B, the third as a C and the fourth as a D, the Academy has earned 15 A’s, 31 B’s, 25 C’s and 14 D’s in its 85 years for a GPA of 2.55 GPA. Let’s call that a B-. But … I’m kind of surprised to find myself saying this … I think their reputation is worse than their actual performance. We have the benefit of history. We have the benefit of time. We don’t have the disadvantage of studios harassing us to hype their picture. Considering the pressure the Academy is under and the skewed distribution of the electorate, I don’t think they’ve actually done that bad a job. If you’re looking for a list of films to watch, the list of Academy Award winner is not that bad a place to start, especially in recent years where IMDB and history are still a bit uncertain.

    I think the Academy is getting less relevant thanks to IMDB and the explosion of online critics. But as a historical perspective … they’re OK.

    So what is the worst of the worst? As I noted in Part I of this series, I don’t think it’s illuminating to look at the first ten years of the Academy, when they were still sorting things out (even though snubbing City Lights was mind-boggling). That leaves off four pictures. I’m also going to exclude any year where the best picture of the year isn’t regarded as one of the best of all time. The Searchers is rated as one of the best westerns ever, but IMDB only rates it an 8.1 — great, but not historically so. Ignoring it was a terrible snub, but we’re looking for the absolute worst choices. That cuts out Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones and Driving Miss Daisy. Next I’ll cut out Oliver!, since IMDB rates it a 7.4 and the brilliance of 2001 and Once Upon a Time in The West became obvious later — a bad choice but not the worst.

    That leaves us with six finalists for worst picks of all time. Of these, I have seen five and bits of the sixth. And I’ve seen most of the films they snubbed. So without further ado.

    Actually, you know what? I like good numbers, so we’ll make this is a list of seven with the seventh being:

    #7 – Lifetime Achievement Award: Cimarron over City Lights, The Great Ziegfeld over Modern Times and Broadway Melody over The Passion of Joan of Arc. The first decade of the Academy was terrible, far worse than we will ever seen again.

    #6 – 1981: Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark, Das Boot, On Golden Pond, Gallipoli, Excalibur(!!) and Body Heat. Chariots is actually a decent film. But it won in a strong year over far superior films.

    #5 – 1985: Out of Africa over Back to the Future, Ran, Brazil, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Color Purple, Witness and A Room With A View. IMDB regards Better Off Dead as a better movie than Out of Africa. That’s Gen-X bias, of course. But … I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong.

    #4 – 1998: Shakespeare in Love over American History X, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Lebowski, The Truman Show, Run Lola Run, Dark City, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth. Yes, that’s right. SIL wasn’t even the best film that year about Elizabeth I.

    #3 – 2002: Chicago over The Two Towers, City of God, the Pianist, Talk To Her, Lilya 4-Ever, The Magadalene Sisters, 25th Hour, In America, Road to Perdition, Adaptation, Minority Report, the Whale Rider, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Far From Heaven, Dirt Pretty Things, About Schmidt, Insomnia. If you lower the vote threshold to 10,000 votes, Chicago was ranked 50th out of 184 films that year. This is not just about The Two Towers. This was a very strong year and the Academy picking a truly mediocre film. Appalling. I didn’t expect I would see this as worse than Shakespeare in Love. I originally ranked this choice #4. But the more I looked at it, the worse the pick looked. Another reason why I did this exercise. I’m aware of IMDB’s bias against musicals. Chicago was still a bad choice.

    #2 – 1958 : Gigi over Vertigo, Touch of Evil, A Night to Remember, Auntie Mame, The Fly. I went over this before. Gigi is a bit of a stand-in for the snubbing of Hitch. I’m aware that it swept the awards and is regarded by many as one of the best winners. Those many are wrong. It wasn’t even close to the best picture of the year. Look beyond the number of awards it won and it’s an awful pick.

    #1 – 1952: I’m probably over-correcting for my bias against bad picks in my lifetime. In time, Shakespeare or Chicago could take over this spot. But consider what The Greatest Show on Earth (the only bad pick I have not seen in its entirety) stomped on to win the statue: Singin’ in the Rain, Ikiru, Umberto D, High Noon, Limelight, The Quiet Man, Othello, the Importance of Being Earnest, Moulin Rouge, Monkey Business, Ivanhoe. Some of those are over-rated, I grant you. But in 1952, you could have wandered into a theater at random and seen a better movie than The Greatest Show on Earth.

    The Worst of the Oscars: 1978-2012

    July 13th, 2013

    One of the things that happens from this point forward is that action movies and cult movies begin to take over the IMDB ratings. We also, by the 90′s, begin to run into IMDB’s bias toward recent films. So the comparison of Academy to IMDB becomes steadily less useful.

    IMDB’s temporal bias is the result, in my opinion, of fanboys and excited audiences wildly over-rating pictures right when they see them and then not going back to revisit their ratings. There’s a sort of “observer effect” in films since the late 90′s where IMDB itself has become part of the process. So people, in the moment, think “Best. Movie. Ever!” rush over to IMDB and rate it a 10. Five years later, they’d probably rate it an 8.

    IMDB ratings have a predictable rhythm. New movies shoot up to the top, sometimes to #1, based on early fanboy ratings and deliberate attempt to raise the rating. Then they slowly sink down to Earth as general audiences catch up. I don’t think they are as bad as critics say nor are as manipulated as snobby websites like to pretend. But they do have issues.

    At some point, IMDB is going to have to tweak their formula to downweight votes that were cast (1) for movies that debuted since IMDB was inaugurated, and (2) in the immediate months after a movie was released. I think this would remove a lot of the bias, at least for anything less than ten years old.

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    The Worst of the Oscars: 1953-1977

    July 11th, 2013

    Let’s just dive right back in, shall we?

    This exercise turned out to be very revealing about the biases built into IMDB ratings. IMDB tends to over-rate science fiction, westerns and movies by certain directors (Tarantino, Leone, Kubrick). It tends to underrate musicals and movies with women leads. This is not entirely surprising if you know about the internet. But it is fascinating to see it in such fine grain.

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    The Worst of the Oscars: 1928-1952

    July 9th, 2013

    Some time ago, I got into a Twitter discussion about the worst films to be tabbed by the Academy as the Best Picture of the Year. The usual nominees were bruited about but I wanted to approach it in a more systematic way.

    So what I did was go through the list of Academy Awards winners for every years since 1928. What I was looking for was the answer to several interlocked questions: Was it the best picture of the year? If not, what was the best picture of the year? How is the film regarded historically?

    I’ve talked about the limitations of IMDB ratings before, especially when it comes to films over the last 20 years. But my feeling is that comparing the films within any single year can be illuminating. This took a little bit of work since movies from early years don’t have a lot of votes. I’ve also taken the liberty of figuring out which movie for any particular years is the “consensus” best film, based on perusing the AFI and other critics’ ratings. I think the method to my madness will become clear once we get going.

    The short story is this: the Academy has rarely done a great job, has sometimes done a horrible job but has mostly done an OK job. They rarely select the best picture but huge snubs are kind of rare. They clearly have biases: against silent movies, against comedies, against certain genres like science fiction. They clearly favor “important” movies that make them feel smart or politically aware and they are very prone to the flavor of the month. There’s a reason all the Oscar nominees are released in December.

    Let’s go year-by-year. To save some sanity, I’ll break this up into three posts with a fourth to sum up.

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