Confession: due to addictive levels of playing Half Life 2 on my vacation there’s less blog posts than there should be.  Don’t hate.  That said, I loved this NYT editorial about the reprehensible response of many in the NYPD to their civilian leadership:

Mr. de Blasio isn’t going to say it, but somebody has to: With these acts of passive-aggressive contempt and self-pity, many New York police officers, led by their union, are squandering the department’s credibility, defacing its reputation, shredding its hard-earned respect. They have taken the most grave and solemn of civic moments — a funeral of a fallen colleague — and hijacked it for their own petty look-at-us gesture. In doing so, they also turned their backs on Mr. Ramos’s widow and her two young sons, and others in that grief-struck family…

The New York Police Department is going through a terrible time, and the assassinations of those officers only underscore the dreadful dangers that rank-and-file cops face every day. And, in truth, there is some thanklessness to being a cop. Officers often feel beleaguered, jerked around by supervisors and politicians, obligated to follow rules and policies that can be misguided, held responsible for their mistakes in ways that the public is not, exposed to frequent ridicule and hostility from the people they are sworn to serve. It has always been that way with cops.

But none of those grievances can justify the snarling sense of victimhood that seems to be motivating the anti-de Blasio campaign — the belief that the department is never wrong, that it never needs redirection or reform, only reverence. [emphases mine]

Cops are human– just like the rest of us.  No matter how hard it may be too be a cop, that does not excuse an ideology that suggests that cops can never do wrong and police organizations are never in need of reform.  Part of serving and protecting the public means actual accountability for mistakes, something it seems we’ve seen too little of.  And I so hate the false dichotomy that says if you want police officers and police departments to be better, you are somehow against police.  Then again, it’s probably coming from the same “America, love it or leave it crowd.”  Let’s just make things better, damnit, and not pretend that’s an “attack” on whatever it is we are trying to improve.

Photo of the day

Wired presents the 13 most amazing things discovered in space this year.  This was my favorite:

The ALMA telescope in Chile snapped this baby picture of a planetary system. A star forms from a collapsing cloud of gas and dust, which flattens as it spins. Dust particles eventually stick together to form planets, which can carve out rings and gaps in the disk. This image, released in November, is the most detailed yet of an infant system, revealing the structure that previously had only been depicted in artist concept drawings. ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The Wall Street Waste

So, I just finished reading Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys about how high frequency traders have been gaming Wall Street to basically place a tax on the entire American economy while delivering no benefits to society whatsoever (they’ve got various claims to the contrary, but suffice it to say that the economy does not benefit because one company figures out how to send stock information 3 microseconds faster than another company).  Like any Lewis book it was a great read, but it was so frustrating to read.  Sure, I know Wall Street is a venal, greedy, corrupt place, but to just read how deeply ingrained that is down to the DNA of the place is quite depressing.

Sure, there’s some decent people there, like the book’s hero, Brad Katsuyama, there’s an entire culture of conflict of interest and ripping off the customers one is supposed to be helping (i.e., pretty much ordinary investor who owns stock, which is a huge portion of Americans in retirement funds, etc.).  The book gives a sense of hope, but really, the entire tale is sordid and disgusting and it’s hard to be optimistic about a place where greed is the ultimate value.  I loved the anecdote about how when Katsuyama wanted to build a new, more fair stock exchange because he was horrified at the corruption of all the existing ones, nobody really believed him.  When he told investors he wanted to make a new exchange so he could earn lots of money, then the investors came pouring in.

There’s a nice piece from earlier this year featuring Michael Lewis in 60 Minutes.

One of the great frustrations of the situation is just how many smart, ambitious Americans get sucked into an industry that is essentially doing nothing to better America’s productivity.  Sure, the stock market as a whole does, but as it turns out it’s super inefficient and has way more people involved that need to be and it would be much better off for our society if very many of those smart people were working as engineers and innovators, not just trying to be one more person getting rich on Wall Street.  There was a great Post article on this a couple weeks back:

The financial industry has doubled in size as a share of the economy in the past 50 years, but it hasn’t gotten any better at its core job: getting money from investors who have it to companies that will use it to generate growth, profit and jobs. There are many ways to quantify how that financial growth-without-improvement hurts the economy.

In 2012, economists at the International Monetary Fund analyzed data across years and countries and concluded that in some countries, including America, the financial sector had grown so large that it was slowing economic growth. Using a different methodology, the most prominent researcher on the size and economic value of Wall Street, a New York University economist named Thomas Philippon, estimates that the United States is sinking nearly $300 billion too much annually into finance.

In perhaps the starkest illustration, economists from Harvard University and the University of Chicago wrote in a recent paper that every dollar a worker earns in a research field spills over to make the economy $5 better off. Every dollar a similar worker earns in finance comes with a drain, making the economy 60 cents worse off.

It’s not that finance is inherently bad — on the contrary, a well-functioning financial system is critical to a market economy. The problem is, America’s financial system has grown much larger than it should have, based on how well the industry performs.  [emphases mine]

Yowza.  Can’t say I’m all that surprised, but this is disturbing information.  And information that strongly suggests we should do something as a society, i.e., change the laws, that have allowed this sector to become such a drag on America’s productivity.  The article continues with a great analogy on all this unproductivity (you really should read the whole thing.  Really) and gets to the problem with the waste of our intellectual capital:

What that means is that the growth of complex financial products has served primarily to boost income for the firms themselves, Philippon said. A new paper from researchers in the United Kingdom supports his findings. It analyzes decades of data on individual workers and finds no connection between financial professionals’ specific skill sets and why they make so much more money than similarly skilled workers in other industries.

Those finance pros could have been doctors or researchers or product engineers. They could have gone into the business of solving human problems, commercializing big ideas and creating jobs. Almost anything they could have done, by Philippon’s calculations, would have added more value — more growth and job creation — to the economy.

So, damn it, it is really important to the good of the country that this change.  Alas, greed tends to win.  All that extra money buys a lot of politicians.  And, we’ve reached a point where both parties are pretty much dependent upon these absurd Wall Street profits to help fund them.  Hmmm, maybe it all circles back to campaign finance reform.  Whatever it is, the whole matter leaves me bitter, depressed, and pessimistic.  Bah humbug.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Loved this from Tim Wu on the non-economic costs to passengers from the fee-based system airlines rely on now.  Here’s the key insight:

But the fee model comes with systematic costs that are not immediately obvious. Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.  [emphasis mine]

2) Stephen Pinker applies the thesis (the world is actually getting substantially less violent) to the chaotic and violent world of today and says, yes, we’ve still got it pretty good.

3) Nice piece on the partisan politics of education policy and how they have dramatically changed.

4) How to actually debunk false beliefs (it’s not easy).

5) Everything is awesome!  Sort of.  Or at least the economy is doing a lot better than people realize says Michael Grunwald.   Some nice analysis of why people are so negative.  The media.  And:

The other problem in acknowledging good news, not just for the press but for the public, is that it has come to feel partisan, like an endorsement of whoever occupies the White House. Republican leaders have exacerbated this problem by describing everything Obama has done — his 2009 stimulus package, his 2010 Wall Street reforms, his 2013 tax hikes on high earners, his various anti-pollution regulations aimed at coal-fired power plants, and most of all Obamacare — as “job-killing” catastrophes that would obliterate the economy. It’s hard to point out that the economy is humming along nicely without making those doom-and-gloom predictions sound ill-advised and over-the-top. Because they were.

6) Speaking of which, Matt O’Brien reminds of us a not atypical WSJ Op-Ed predicting doom– especially for the stock market– under Obama’s economic policies.

7) Loved this David Frum book review looking at the world wars and how America became an economic superpower.  I thought I knew my 20th century history in this regard pretty well, but I learned a lot.

8) Thought this was a great analysis of the Sony hack and understanding North Korea’s actions.

9) I’m certainly interested in the  sociology of e-cigarettes versus cigarettes, but was really fascinated to learn how the biology and physics interact to affect all this:

Along with replicating important sensory aspects of smoking, like taste, the biggest hurdle for the new devices, experts say, is delivering nicotine with the efficiency of a cigarette. Within seconds of taking a drag, a smoker feels the nicotine’s soothing effects because compounds that are produced when tobacco burns are perfectly sized to carry nicotine deep into the lungs allowing the drug to quickly reach the brain. Those same compounds, which are collectively known as tars, also cause cancer and other diseases.

By comparison, the type of vapor generated by e-cigarettes, experts say, is a less efficient carrier of nicotine than smoke. “There is more deposition in the mouth,” with vapor, said Jeffrey S. Gentry, the chief scientific officer of R.J. Reynolds, a division of Reynolds American.

10) I ended up reading several lists of best video games of the year.  I haven’t played much but the occasional Ipad game in a while.  Since I love first-person shooters and I’m on vacation, I decided I’d investigate a little more to find something older (since I don’t have a high quality graphics card) and cheaper.  Apparently, Half Life 2 is the best fps ever.  I downloaded it for $5 and have had a lot of fun when I should have been blogging.

11) I’ve also enjoyed Monument Valley for Ipad which is easily the most visually engaging game I’ve ever played.  It’s spatial puzzles also seem custom-made to appeal to my 8-year old son, Evan, who has had to help me through several levels after conquering the whole game in an hour or so.

12) Nice piece in the Atlantic about the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law in recent controversies (personally, I prefer the spirit).

13)  Vox interviews the anti Dr. Oz.

14) I took a number of really good classes on Christianity and the New Testament back at Duke, so I cannot say that all that much in this exhaustive (in a good way) essay in Newsweek about how amazingly misunderstood the bible is was a surprise to me.  But it’s a great summary of modern academic scholarship on the bible and how so much of modern Christianity gets it wrong.

14b) Also led me to discover this study I had never seen on how most Christians are actually far more like pharisees than what Jesus preached (not that this result surprised me).

Photo of the day

I was a little disappointed with my photos from Christmas morning, but got some great ones on a Boxing Day visit to my grandmother-in-law way out in the country the next day.  This one of Sarah is my favorite:


Quick hits (part I)

1) Really interesting story about a judge in Maryland who practices “tough love” with juvenile offenders and seems to really want what’s best for them, but keeps on locking them up far too much despite the increasing evidence that this is not the best way to help them.

2) So, if we don’t step things up on dealing with antibiotic resistant bacteria, millions and millions of people are going to die.  I suggest we step things up.

3) Loved this glossary of twitter lingo, etc.  I’m going to have to start using the shruggie.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

4) The NYT Editorial calling for prosecution of the torturers and their bosses (here’s looking at you, Dick Cheney).

5) Jonathan Ladd on why you should not expect all the uproar/controversy over policing to have much partisan implication.  Short version: liberals and conservatives are already well-sorted on the issue.

6) NYT Sunday Review on the ongoing segregation of our schools.

7) Interesting piece on how the lack of affordable child care has stalled out the feminist revolution:

My mother’s generation—the Gloria Steinem generation of equal opportunity feminists—had fought and failed to create a system for working mothers, i.e., affordable day care for infants and toddlers, preschool for kids, and aftercare for school-age children. Instead, we have ended up with three months of maternity leave, 16 days of vacation, and a hodgepodge of “choices” that depend on whether we have a man, money, or family to help us along.

8) The NBA player analog for every US president.  Even if you are not an NBA fan (I’m not), this is pretty awesome.

9) A must-see SNL parody of Serial for Serial fans.  Otherwise, don’t bother.

10) War doesn’t pay.  Or so argues Krugman.

11) Still convinced racism is over.  Here’s some recent social science findings on the matter nicely summarized.

12) International aid is really, really hard.  All the reasons we get in wrong in a terrific essay.  Also hits the point I really like that simply looking at overhead expenses is a pretty awful way to judge a charity.

13) North Carolina’s restrictive abortion law overturned by a conservative Appeals court judge.  Really good piece on the matter from Dahlia Lithwick.

14) Love this photo essay of in Upshot of what 2000 calories looks like from a variety of places (as much as I love them, I did know to stay away from McFlurry on my many visits to McDonald’s).

15) And two really good essays on the year in movies in Grantland.  Short version: far too many sequels and far too few intelligent movies for adults.  (I like that Edge of Tomorrow gets a starring role in the first piece as an example of the latter).

At this point, optimists usually say lighten up, because, after all, good movies always find a way to get through. But here’s the thing: They don’t. The evidence that good movies survive is the fact that every year brings good movies, which is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today. Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to makeNightcrawler. Birdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail — and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.





Photo of the day

Merry Christmas! (from the In Focus gallery).  And for the record, even if you are not Christian I think it is a great holiday (easy for me to say, I know).  Seems to me that Christmas is a dual holiday.  What’s wrong with celebrating winter solstice with silly winter characters, trees, and gifts to loved ones? And, if you are Christian, well, there’s that whole incarnation thing, too.  Anyway, hope it’s a good one.

A woman and child enjoy the lights at a country house estate in the village of Grabovnica near Cazma, central Croatia, on December 19, 2014. The estate owned by the Salaj family is lit with 1.5 million Christmas lights and turns into a winter wonderland every December, attracting thousands of visitors. (Reuters/Antonio Bronic)

Photo of the day

From the final installment of In Focus’ photos of the year:

Nowa Paye, 9, is taken to an ambulance after showing signs of Ebola infection in the village of Freeman Reserve, about 30 miles north of Monrovia, Liberia, on September 30, 2014. Three members of District 13 ambulance service traveled to the village to pickup six suspected Ebola sufferers that had been quarantined. Months into the world’s worst-ever Ebola outbreak, and the first to happen in an unprepared West Africa, the gap between what has been sent by other countries and private groups and what is desperately needed is huge. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

People are complicated

One of the things that I like to think represents an intellectually mature mind is seeing the nuance in situations and the human condition.  Seeing the world in black and white, is such the hallmark of the adolescent mind (and the Sith!).  And one of the key ways that manifests is wanting to label people “good” or “evil.”  No, there are some truly uniquely good and uniquely evil people out there, but most people are quite capable of considerable extremes of both.  Yes, you reading this are sure you are good person, but are you quite sure you would not have helped the Nazi’s effort against the Jews if you were living in a small German village in 1942 and the SS came to town?  Sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people do good things and it’s not always clear what’s what, or if that’s even meaningful.  But absent a larger context and understanding to simply take any criminal, label them a “thug” and essentially write them off, shows a very facile way of thinking.  Bill Ayers on the matter:

The second item that sparked my thinking was from one of the many ideological talking heads “contributing” to the ongoing “debate” about police violence and the protests in NYC, Ferguson, and elsewhere. In this case, an avowedly conservative show (The O’Reilly Factor) trotted out an avowedly conservative commentator (Ben Carson, who happens to be black) to defend the police against attacks (both physical and verbal). You can see a synopsis and a link to the interview here. But what really caught my eye was this particular snippet by Carson, which the Fox News site picked up in the summary and the headline:

“The community has to recognize that a thug is a thug. When people do bad things, there are consequences,” Carson said.

This struck me because of something I’ve been wrestling with lately: a framework in which, rather than “picking a side” and dehumanizing the people on the other side, we can engage in conversations with people we disagree with, about serious and even tragic subjects, while continuing to recognize the humanity of each other. The phrase that keeps coming to mind: each of us is a Child of God…

Carson’s glib bumper-sticker statement, of course, runs in completely the opposite direction. He wants to put white hats and black hats on everybody so that he can defend the virtuous and punish the wicked. I guess it must be comforting to play God like that. But I think it’s the wrong approach.

And, I just love this conclusion– I read it and thought, “that’s going right into my blog”

To be clear: there are people in the world who, despite their humanity and inherent value, will try to hurt others unjustly. Some of these people are civilians, and if they’re lower class we call them “thugs”. Some of them are wealthy and wear suits and they usually get treated pretty well, even when the damage they cause is far more widespread than any thug could dream of. And some of them carry badges and wear uniforms and are called police officers. None of this should be surprising – if you change clothes and circumstance, some people will still do bad things to other people.  [emphasis mine]

But if we actually want to things to get better – if we want to work towards a society where fewer police are killed in the line of duty, and where fewer civilians are shot by police, and where fewer people are terrorized and assaulted by either strangers or those close to them – we need to stop pretending that we can draw neat boxes around people and label some of those boxes “good people” and others “bad people”. We need to treat violence and the use of force seriously – not as some Hollywood fantasy exercise and not as something that can be contained to only a few. We need to acknowledge everybody’s legitimate need to live in peace, and think about what we do when that is violated – by anybody. And above all, we need to listen to the collected wisdom of many centuries: treat others, and view others, as we ourselves would be treated and viewed.

Wonderfully said– nothing for me to add.

When it was easier to have a big Democratic coalition

I really love this post from Seth Masket that places the struggles of the Democrats in some nice historical context.  It’s wonderfully titled: “Yes, Democrats Won Lots of Elections Back When They Tolerated Bigotry.”

But on his main empirical point, that Democrats used to do better in elections back when their leaders didn’t talk about race or gender or the environment, well, that’s actually true, although probably not quite in the causal sense Kotkin seems to be implying. The Democratic Party of the mid-20th century was an historical anomaly. Thanks to the legacies of both the Civil War and the Great Depression, Democrats had an enormous and ultimately unsustainable coalition of both northern liberals and southern conservatives, integrationists and segregationists. Basically, a lot of poorer southern whites were still blaming Republicans for “northern aggression” in the 1860s and a dismal economic record in the 1920s and 30s. Democratic leaders tried to prolong this coalition as long as possible, largely by avoiding taking stances on civil rights. Ultimately, civil rights activism on the streets and in party conventions forced Democratic leaders to change their stances and actually begin advocating for civil rights laws, which is what finally drove most white southerners out of the party. [emphasis mine]

Yes!  Whenever pundits, etc., call for political strategies that emulate that of the mid 20th century, it largely shows they just don’t get history.  As Masket notes, this period is quite anomalous in our history.  Absent the Civil War, the South simply would not have stayed solidly Democratic for the next 100 years.  And we’ve got nothing like the historical conditions that produced the mid-20th century anomaly.  So, sure, make some good suggestions for helping the Democratic party, but if they involve taking us back to 1950 in a variety of ways, think again.


Hooray for Ohio

They’ve just made a move to begin non-partisan redistricting after the next census:

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Of 435 House races in November, only a few dozen were considered competitive — a result of decades of drawing district lines for partisan advantage, generally by state legislatures.

But in an era of hyperpartisan gerrymandering, which many blame for the polarization of state and national politics, Ohio took a step in the opposite direction last week. With the support of both parties, the Ohio House gave final approval Wednesday to a plan to draw voting districts for the General Assembly using a bipartisan process, intended to make elections more competitive.

This is only for the State legislature, not US Congress, but it is still a huge step in the right direction.  Kudos to Ohio Republicans for passing this while in the majority.

The plan explicitly prohibits maps drawn to favor or disfavor one party.

Republicans, who in some ways acted against their own interests, were motivated partly out of fear of a potential voter referendum that could impose an even more sweeping overhaul.

They also recognized that they could slip into the minority one day. “Right now, we’ve got 65 of 99 seats in the House and 12 of 16 congressmen,” Mr. Huffman said. “But in a state like Ohio, that’s not always going to be the case.”

The proposed changes, which Ohioans must vote on in a November 2015 referendum to amend the State Constitution, would not go into effect until the next redistricting, in 2021.

Not only does this give voters a real choice, it’s great to see politicians themselves recognizing some of the insidious impact of our current system:

Jon Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state and a Republican, praised the plan as a step toward ending polarization in the General Assembly. Many members face competition only in primaries, pushing them to cater to ideological extremes.

“We elect people that get there by winning primaries, and we say, ‘Now you come together and do the people’s business,’ ” Mr. Husted, a former speaker of the State House, said. “If your electoral incentive is only to care about staying loyal to the base voter in a primary election,” he added, “then your incentive to govern” is small.

Yes, it would be great if this covered Congressional districts, too, but I’ll take what I can get.  And I’ll certainly hope that this can be an inspiration to legislators in NC to likewise do the right thing.

Should you drink Diet Soda?

So, asks Time of Five health experts.  The answer, a resounding no.  My answer?  It depends.  Will you using it to replace sugar-sweetened drinks?  Then the best evidence says yes.  But if you are overweight and think that this will make you healthy, it certainly will not.  Anyway, the experts all weigh in on correlational studies that show that less healthy people drink more diet soda.  Consider me far from convinced.  That said, this very recent Nature article that is linked, is actually pretty interesting stuff in that it makes an effort to address a causal relationship.  I still think I’ll hold off on making dietary decisions based on causal studies with an N of 7 (!) however. Would I be healthier drinking less diet soda?  It’s entirely possible.  That said, since I’m pretty damn healthy and have no signs whatsoever of the meatabolic diseases that it supposedly causes, I shall continue to take my chances.

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