Saturday, August 29, 2015

Perspective crash!

Looking too closely

The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, made it perfectly clear: The stock market had crashed. The headline “Plunging markets” was accompanied by an illustration that made the disaster graphically clear—provided you didn't read the fine print along the margin. The understated labeling of the vertical axis was, fortunately, reinforced by the actual numbers. The Dow Jones was merely down 588.40 from 16,459.75, a drop of 3.5748% (which the Chronicle over-rounded to 3.58%). Yes, that's a significant market correction in a market widely viewed to be overvalued. Not exactly an apocalyptic result. Nicely eye-catching headline, though.

A better perspective on the issue shows why the market chart would have been quite underwhelming if drawn to a scale that including the zero point. The grid lines representing 1000 points on a hard copy of the Chronicle were separated by 6 centimeters and ended at 15,500 along the bottom edge of the graph. To extend the chart down to its zero-line would have required an additional 93 centimeters (36.6 inches). That's right: It would have extended an additional yard below the printed chart and (since the newspaper isn't that long) more than two feet below the paper's bottom margin.

A fold-out extension would have attracted more attention to the front page, but ruined the message.

By way of comparison, a real economic disaster on the order of the notorious crash that ushered in the Great Depression involved a 13% drop on “Black Monday” (October 28, 1929) and another 12% drop on the immediately following “Black Tuesday.” The losses continued to accumulate and full recovery, as we know, took decades.

What about this week's “plunge”? The Business Insider published a report with an appropriate title: “After all that, the stock market finished the week higher.”

Saturday, July 18, 2015

All in this together

Denying individuality

We live in an age when everyone, whether enthusiastically or grudgingly, gives at least lip service to diversity. Most people acknowledge diversity as a strength, others may claim they find it excessively politically correct, but a surprisingly large number of people seem to forget all about it in certain venues. I notice it all the time, like when it happened multiple times at a series of seminars earlier this year. How often have you heard speakers address groups with remarks like these?
Sometimes you just need a beer, right?
No. Never. I belong to the approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population that eschews alcohol. The man extolling the virtues of beer had about one hundred people in his audience, so about a dozen people were left out of his all-encompassing declaration. He probably never considered saying, “You know, I really need a beer sometimes.” Even the handful of nondrinkers could have chuckled in sympathy with that remark.
Last night, of course, we were all watching the game!
No, I wasn't. I'm not even sure what game you're talking about. It's even worse when the speaker wants us to cheer for a particular team. Not everyone is fascinated by sports teams.
Just think back to your senior prom!
I didn't bother to go. I didn't bother with the junior prom, either. Not my thing.

Then there's funerals. Nothing beats the last rites for unleashing mandatory group-think, whether you're inclined to go along or not.
We can all take comfort in the thought that she's in a better place now. She and her late husband are together again.
People try to coerce you into prayer. They inflict inane pieties on you and prate about an afterlife. It is, of course, the maximally inappropriate venue to insist on dissent. No individuals are allowed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Confederate pseudohistory

The flag game

The most vigorous defenders of the flag always bring up “heritage” and “Southern pride.” They cite the bravery of fallen ancestors, whom they imagine fighting till their last breath and last drop of blood for states' rights beneath the waving Confederate flag. Ah, but which flag? Ironically, many of those revered rebels probably never even saw the flag that their descendants regard as sacred to their memory. Unless they were part of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which used the infamous banner as its battle flag, Confederate soldiers went to war under other colors—including even Lee's troops.

The official flag of the Confederate States of America was the Stars and Bars, first adopted and flown in the CSA's provisional capital city of Montgomery, Alabama. Its resemblance to the USA's Old Glory made its use in battle problematic, insufficiently distinguishing the two sides. The Stars and Bars acquired additional stars as the CSA incorporated (or pretended to incorporate) more renegade states and remained the Confederacy's official banner till it was set aside in 1863 in favor of a new design.

The so-called “Stainless Banner” was characterized by a now-familiar image embedded in a field of white. The white was described by the flag's designer as representing “the cause of a superior race.” Now a different problem arose. The generous use of white made the Stainless Banner appear in some circumstances to be a white flag of surrender. It was back to the drawing boards one more time, resulting in the third and final iteration of the CSA's national banner in 1865.

The “Blood-Stained Banner” never had a chance. Although the addition of a broad red stripe mitigated the problem of confusion with a flag of surrender, surrender was, in fact, at hand. The final CSA flag was adopted in March 1865 and General Lee conceded to General Grant in April. Most Confederate soldiers never saw the new national flag, which was defunct with the defeat and dissolution of the CSA.

Both the Stainless and Blood-Stained CSA banners featured a canton displaying the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had adopted the starred saltire cross in late 1861 in preference to the confusing Stars and Bars. Despite the battle flag's role as the banner under which General Lee surrendered, it had a vigorous post-war life. Decades after the war was over, the battle flag (often in rectangular rather than square form) was favored as the official emblem of various associations of Civil War veterans in the South. It outlasted the official flags in its identification with the Confederacy and its Lost Cause.

Later the battle flag found favor with the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations that promoted “white power” and suppression of the civil rights of black citizens. It can hardly be mere coincidence that Georgia chose to revive the battle flag and incorporate it in its state banner in resistance to the desegregation mandate of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education.  (The illustration depicts the change enacted in Georgia's flag in 1956.)

The racist component of Southern heritage was there at the outset, as detailed in the constitution of the seceding states and the declarations of the Confederacy's officers, but it was compounded and exacerbated by the era of Jim Crow and the South's segregationist state governments. The Confederate battle flag can no more be purged of that association than the swastika of Germany's National Socialist Party can be restored to its pre-Nazi status.

It's time for the battle flag to fade away, the sooner the better.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The buzzing B

And nonplussed

The end of each semester is a time for reflection and renewal. The school term is over, the new term has yet to begin, and the days are free for contemplation, consideration, and ... complaining students. You can always count on the student who learned the “squeaky wheel” adage better than he learned the subject matter. He imagines that his grade is negotiable and fails to note that no negotiating is actually occurring. It can take weeks for the spate of wheedling communiqu├ęs to peter out.
If ever there was a time to consider a grading scheme where if the majority of your exams are A's including the final you get an A. My dad said he got a math teacher to bump him up a grade by doing a card trick.  Are you game?
Family legends and Rudyard Kipling notwithstanding (“If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss”), skill at sleight of hand does not translate into grade points in my class. Sorry about that. He moved on to plan B:
My grandmother would give an A if you got an A on the final but maybe she gave harder finals or something.  
Not to criticize the young man's sainted grandmother, which whom I should never be confused, the old girl was offering her students the ancient “sucker bet” routine. I've seen it often enough before. It's deadly.

When an instructor tells a class at the beginning of the semester that grades will be based on either an overall average or the final exam score, whichever is best, a significant minority of the students immediately falls into the trap: I just need to do well on the final. That'll be enough! Of course it never is. Most such students begin slacking off in that class in order to concentrate on other courses or activities. More immediate concerns take over because I just need to do well on the final. They dig the hole deep, taking comfort in the thought that a single Olympian jump at the end will permit them to escape their subterranean situation, even as they neglect the exercises that would make the feat feasible (and, more to the point, unnecessary, because they would be earning the points that would put them into a position to pass without a miraculously redemptive performance on the final exam).

I never offer my students the sucker bet. My student was undeterred.
Just curious now; did anyone else get two A's on exams and an A on the final and still not get an A?  Is there anyone I can commiserate with or is this an anomaly?
Although misery may love company, privacy considerations intervened. I answered him:
Yes, there were two other students, so it wasn’t exactly an anomaly. It was a matter of getting relatively low A’s that were counterbalanced by lower grades, preventing the composite score from being in the A range. You’d be welcome to commiserate with them, but privacy concerns forbid me from sharing their names. —Z
My student kept harping on his “majority” argument and insisted on ignoring the relative strength of his scores. The semester grade was a weighted average of six scores: one for homework and quizzes, four chapter tests, and one final exam. The composite score was computed thus:

Comp = 0.15*HQ + 0.70*E_average + 0.15*Final

My diligent correspondent had a low A for HQ, a high C for E_average, and a low A for Final. His Comp result was 83.4. That's not A territory. Interestingly, he kept his focus on the exam and ignored the HQ result. Thus his argument was, in effect, three A's on five exams should work out to an A in the class. But here are the exam scores:

Exam 1: 90, Exam 2: 80, Exam 3: 95, Exam 4: 54, Final: 92

That's right: He outright flunked Exam 4. It's really tough to be an A student when you flunk an exam, especially that severely. This never figured into his arguments, for obvious reasons. He fussed over the weights. The final wasn't worth enough! Sorry, but short of going the “sucker bet” route it could hardly ever be worth enough to suit his purposes. Besides, I had already sweetened the pot by building some bonus points into the final exam's grading scheme, giving a perfect paper a value of 105 instead of a mere 100. In reality, his 92 on the final was 87.6%. I had already cut everyone as much slack as I intended to.

He had one more card up his sleeve:
Is there nothing that can be done... a test I can take to challenge?
Lord have mercy! Can you imagine? I tried to be nice:
No, there isn’t anything. If you think about it a little bit, you’ll realize for yourself there couldn’t be any after-the-fact exam that students could take to tweak their grades. Otherwise the college would spend the first several weeks of summer vacation giving the special exams to students who were unsatisfied with the outcome of the semester. Six of your classmates who earned B’s did better than you; ten did more poorly. You earned an unambiguous mid-range B in the class, a good solid grade. —Z
It did not satisfy him. I received one more lengthy message in which he noted his regular attendance, active participation, his “majority” of A's, and his work ethic. “It seems that for one reason or another, I end up coming up short somehow.”

The main reason, as best as I can tell, is that you're a B student whose grades range across the spectrum from A to F. It's not mysterious.
I'm sure you're tired of this by now.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

A balmy in Gilead

My modest proposal

When it comes to irrational right-wing extremism, Joseph Farah lives in a surreal bubble of his own special brand of derangement. He is the founder of WorldNetDaily, a Web-based journal almost impossible not to cite as WorldNutDaily. WND serves up regular heaping helpings of paranoia, propaganda, and crackpottery.

Farah has been wringing his hands over the fate of traditional biblical marriage. (Please note: “Traditional” marriage means the one-man/one-woman definition from the Bible exemplified by Adam and Eve—and not the one-man/two-women example of Jacob with Leah and Rachel nor the one-man/seven-hundred-wives/three-hundred-concubines example of good old King Solomon.) In his WND column of June 3, 2015, Farah proposes secession from the United States if the Supreme Court allows same-sex marriage throughout the nation.
Is there one state in 50 that would not only defy the coming abomination, but secede in response? The rewards could be great. I would certainly consider relocating. How about you?

The founders of this country found a place of refuge in America and shaped it into the greatest self-governing nation in the history of world. Just think what one state could do if it simply stuck to the principles that made this country great? Americans wouldn’t have to cross an ocean to rediscover what brought most of our ancestors here. We could simply drive.

Are any states so inclined?

I haven’t heard this question raised by anyone else. So I’m raising it now. We don’t have much time before the nine high priests in black robes decide to follow Baal instead of the One True God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Okay, that mention of Jacob is a trifle unfortunate, but at least his wives were of the opposite sex.

Farah calls his proposal an “Exodus strategy.” Commenters on sites like Crooks & Liars have been quick to suggest that Texas is the state that should secede (or be thrown out) to serve as a haven for Farah and his followers. I think this is much too generous. Abandon Austin? Dump Dallas? Leave Houston high and dry? (Actually, I guess they might appreciate that right about now.)

I have a counter-proposal. Let Farah and his crazies colonize the Texas panhandle. Let's carve out a nice rectangular space for an independent nation named Gilead. (There's a nice literary reference for you.) Amarillo and Lubbock would probably fit in just fine. While saner people might flee to the greater portion that remains as Texas, there should be plenty of opportunities to obtain good deals on the residences left behind by the flight of Farah's adherents (especially in Plano). A plebiscite could determine whether Oklahoma's panhandle should be included for good measure. (Those who think Panhandler would make a good name for this new nation should take into account that the imbalance between taxes paid and federal dollars received would no longer be an issue—unless the new nation demands a lot of foreign aid from the US, in which case Panhandler might be exactly right.)

There are other aspects to this win-win situation: (1) Texas goes blue more quickly. (2) Jobs are created in the border patrol and border-crossing stations will have to be constructed. (This would be true in New Mexico and Oklahoma, as well as in the new Texas. Possibly in Colorado and Kansas, too.) (3) Other parts of the United States would improve as their nutcases emigrated to Gilead. (4) Ted Cruz would lose his political base (unless he moves to the new country to become its Priest-King).

I'm not certain what would support the economy of Gilead, though it's likely that Lubbock's cotton industry and Amarillo's meat-packing would remain mainstays. However, opportunities to promote tourism might be sketchy. Would Americans be eager to visit a nation based on a Christian version of sharia law?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

How the crazy works

Capitalism in Bizarro world

Last month I briefly indulged my nasty habit of scanning the AM radio dial. As usual, the cesspit that is KSFO served up a memorable dollop of right-wing nonsense. The old stalwarts are gone now—Lee Rodgers to eternal silence and Melanie Morgan to the scandal-tainted Move America Forward—but Brian Sussman and Katie Green are doing their best to maintain the morning program's standard of irrational extremism.

Sussman, a weather man who thinks himself competent to pretend to be a climatologist, has apparently fixated on Hillary Clinton the way Cato was obsessed with Carthage. Although I suspect he will be disappointed with the eventual outcome, his overreach inspires a kind of head-shaking awe. Making money is usually honored by the KSFO tribe, but Sussman was willing to make an exception for Clinton's success. When Hillary makes money, it's evil and corrupt (two words you'll never hear Sussman use while discussing the excesses of the banking industry).

In this particular instance, Sussman was offended that Clinton commands top dollar for her speaking engagements:
Sussman: Hillary Clinton. Remember when she addressed the eBay summit? And we had asked this question: what did she make for this 20-minute talk? We literally asked the question. And now we find out: 315,000 dollars from eBay! Katie, that's your money and my money—because we use eBay.

Katie Green: Yeah, it is.
Welcome to the new KSFO theory of capitalism. Since Sussman is a customer of eBay, he shares ownership of the company's money. Sorry, Brian. When you patronize a company, your dollars become theirs, to do with as they please. Even if that means bringing in a nationally-known speaker to amp up attendance at one of their conferences. Your permission is not required.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for a correction or clarification. That would be fatal.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Pick a number

The art of data denial

The United States economy has climbed out of the hole created by the Great Recession and the Obama Administration has presided over an unbroken string of increasing job numbers lasting more than five years. I commented on this accomplishment and posted an illustration summarizing the data.

This did not sit well with one of my Facebook “friends,” who promptly took me to task:
Really, you are smarter than this BS!
It's a puzzlement how many people assure me I'm smart while insisting I'm also stupid. I asked my accuser how I had gone astray when my evidence-based conclusion was supported by the published numbers. She didn't hesitate:
Evidence that can be changed or tampered with. Too easy to make things look good for the moment!
Ah, yes. We must question authority and doubt the data. No doubt she took comfort in 2012 from the “poll correcters” who disdained the conclusions of the professional pollsters that President Obama was heading toward reelection. Remember them? (I'm sure folks in the Romney campaign do.)

I shared a story with my data doubter, explaining to her that data tampering in this context is a myth. It doesn't happen. Perhaps that sounds like simple-minded credulity, but I actually know what I'm talking about.

Once upon a time I worked for a state agency that was responsible for the annual computation and publication of the California Necessities Index. The CNI had been adopted by the legislature as the standard for indexing public assistance benefits (mostly because, at the time, it was lower than the Consumer Price Index). I was the person within the agency who was assigned to perform the actual computation, since I was the closest thing to a staff mathematician.

My father was amused by this situation and jokingly suggested it would be nice if I shaved off a fraction of a percentage point, thus denying full benefits to welfare cheats (most of the people on public assistance, in Dad's proto-tea-party view of the world). Contrariwise, I could have been a benefactor to California's destitute and downtrodden by judiciously rounding up the factors of the CNI, giving them an unexpected windfall. We could tamper with the numbers!

No. The very notion was ridiculous, as well as impossible. The components of the CNI were public information, factors selected from the published data for the CPI. Anyone could look up the factors that went into the CPI, apply the weights stipulated for the CNI, and derive the number. My role was simply a formality, providing the number that appeared in our agency's publications to make it official, pursuant to state law. Well before we published the number, the governor's Department of Finance had done its own independent calculation, as had the Legislative Analyst's Office and anyone else who needed the index number or was just curious about it.

The same thing is largely true of the numbers published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The worker bees of the federal government compile the monthly data each month, analyze the figures, and publish the summary information. The monthly unemployment rate, for example, is not vetted, suggested, or even approved by the White House. The faceless bureaucrats who crunch the numbers for the Obama Administration did the same exact thing when Bush was president (and, for some of these civil servants, they did it under both Bushes). They have no more control over the conclusions or final numbers than I did when I was a California civil servant. (It's popular within the right wing these days to decry unemployment data as unrepresentative of the “truth” because the usual unemployment number is deemed to have fallen when people just give up and stop seeking jobs. If they think the U3 measure published by the BLS is insufficiently informative, they are welcome to cite U6, which the BLS also publishes. You want numbers? Go to the BLS. They publish practically everything and the numbers aren't fudged.)

Data denial is a fundamental component of the refusal to recognize global-warming induced climate change. Data denial is also currently hard at work in California, giving aid and comfort to people paranoid about vaccinations, who pick and choose among an Internet stew of “research” and anecdotes to bolster their arguments that vaccines are more dangerous than now-rare childhood diseases (rare because of vaccines!).

If you want your conclusions to be rational and evidence-based, you have to avoid the denial of well-established data. We have seen, however, that even the most robust numbers are rejected when they get in the way of political ideologies.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Catholic denialism

Faith in anti-science

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church for less than two years, but that's been plenty of time to establish that he has a talent for sparking over-reaction. One expects this is in part due to the contrast between Francis and his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, the Panzer pope still living in retirement in Vatican City. Pope Francis has raised exaggerated expectations simply because he comes across as milder and less doctrinaire than popes of recent memory, but no one should believe that he is likely to do anything significant with respect to women in the clergy, the ban on contraception, or the Church's medieval attitudes toward homosexuality. He merely avoids the condemnatory language that others in the hierarchy prefer to use.

In most respects, therefore, I expect little more from Pope Francis than a kinder and friendlier tone. His one potentially significant departure from past practice is not ensnared in hoary Church dogma, which perhaps gives him more freedom of movement. That is the pope's inclination to address humanity's responsibility toward the environment. Francis appears to be ready to go beyond God's exhortation in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” He is reportedly working on an encyclical on global warming and climate change. It doesn't take much to outrage the Church's lunatic fringe, and this was more than enough.

Church Militant TV was quick off the mark to condemn the pontiff. In its news report for February 2, 2015, Church Militant spokeswoman Christine Niles snidely commented on the pope's environmentalism:
In light of the pope's upcoming encyclical on climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency made a recent trip to the Vatican. Gina McCarthy, head of the agency, told papal aides that Obama wants to work with the pope to promote the president's “green” agenda. According to McCarthy, Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Bishops Conference have also offered their help, but many Catholics remain confused, wondering why the Supreme Pontiff would choose to base his next encyclical on a dubious, unproven theory, when the greatest threats to the faith today are attacks on marriage and the family.

Her comments occur at 1:32 in the video. What's next? Is vaccination a tool of Satan?

Friday, December 26, 2014

One page at a time

The importance of packaging

He seemed smart enough, but he was an extremely unreliable student. He confided to me that he was under treatment for an anxiety condition, but his therapy had clearly not resolved his problem. Still, he started off the semester by powering through the lessons and it looked like he would be all right in the long run.

But looks can be deceiving. His scores on the exams eroded steadily throughout the term, and the erosion was eating away at his chances of passing the class. We met during office hours. We conferred after class. He e-mailed me questions, which I tried to answer promptly. Nothing worked. On top of all that, anxiety feeds on itself, so his emotional condition was not improving.

Of course, we tried that old stand-by of extending his time and letting him linger over the exams, but there was no significant pay-off. The situation was desperate—and so was he.

Despite decades of teaching, I was slow to recognize the significance of an anomaly in my student's performance. Although his exams were increasingly disastrous, his quiz scores remained persistently decent, hovering between B's and C's. It was nearly too late when inspiration finally struck me.

“We're going to do something different on the last chapter test,” I told him.

My announcement did not please him. He mistrusted change. However, he was docile enough and desperate enough to cooperate with whatever I wanted to try.

“I will dole out this exam to you one page at a time,” I continued. “You won't get page two until you return page one to me. If there's time at the end of your extended period, you can ask for individual pages back, but only one page will be on your desk at a time.”

His eyes widened. “It'll be like quizzes!” he said. “A series of quizzes! I can do quizzes!”

“Yes, you can,” I agreed.

On exam day, we followed the one-page-at-a-time protocol rigorously. He never had multiple sheets of paper simultaneously on his desk. When I graded his exam, his score soared into the nineties. I was both astonished and gratified. It had worked ever so much better than I had dared hope.

We did it again on the final exam. He broke discipline this time and filched old pages from my desk when he came up for new pages. I noticed that he sometimes had two or three pages on his desk. He did a lot of flipping between them, making clear to me for the first time what he had been doing on the exams when he had crashed and burned. The one-page approach permitted him to stay focused. Under its restrictions he couldn't compulsively jump back and forth between problems, aborting each solution before he finished. I began to monitor him more closely when he came up to swap pages.

Although he never had the entire final exam on his desk at one time, his occasionally divided attention cost him and his final exam result was not superior. Nevertheless, it was good enough to secure him a passing grade for the course, much to his (and my) relief. He learned a new way to manage his difficulty in expressing his knowledge.

And, obviously, I learned something, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Econ 101

Teabaggers are experts

A special interest group called the California Drivers Alliance is sounding the alarm. We in the Golden State are in imminent danger of assault:
On January 1, 2015, a new hidden gasoline tax will go into effect. ... There is still time to stop it, but we must act now. Contact state officials today and urge them to put the brakes on this new hidden gas tax!
A “hidden” tax? Scandalous! I did some research.

First of all, the California Drivers Alliance is one of those industry-funded “astroturf” organizations. The faux grassroots movement is bankrolled by the California Independent Oil Marketers Association. Second, the so-called hidden tax is nothing more than the state's cap and trade program, administered by the California Air Resources Board. I could not resist posting a snide comment on the California Drivers Alliance's Facebook page:
How can a gas tax be “hidden” if was enacted by Assembly Bill 32, a 2006 measure that is public record and was defended by the voters' overwhelming rejection of Proposition 23? Besides, oil companies who are eager to compete in the free market could choose to trim their profits a bit to maintain the attractiveness to consumers of their product.
People hastened to educate me. Here are some paraphrases, edited to correct misspellings and delete expletives:
Why can't stupid libtards understand that corporations don't pay taxes? They pass them on to us and we pay them!

Tax, tax, tax! That's socialism for you.

The tax is hidden because people don't know about it!!!!!

Take an econ class, you idiot! Higher taxes kill jobs!

Taxes on gas producers are taxes on drivers!
The immediate lesson I learned is that we should do away with the personal income tax and stick it to the corporations. It shouldn't matter, since we're going to pick up the tab anyway when we purchase goods and services from those corporations. Right?

I also learned that the free market doesn't function very well. The members of the California Independent Oil Marketers Association have no choice but to pass along the entire 10 cents per gallon (usually misstated by the California Drivers Alliance as 16 cents to 76[!] cents per gallon). If anyone dared attract more customers and more revenue by eating part of the AB 32 surcharge, evidently it would not be enough to restore their profits, which can never be high enough.

That's econ for you.