Quick hits (part II)

Sorry for the lateness on part II– busy weekend.

1) Really enjoyed this Rob Christensen column on how we need to consider historical political figures in their context.  Former NC Governor Charles Aycock is getting thrown under the bus for basically the same racial positions as Abraham Lincoln.

2) Connor Friedersdorf’s take on Ferguson is terrific.  He points out that, truly, the racist emails really were the least of it:

Establishing these glaring perverse incentives—effectively compromising the city’s criminal-justice system to increase revenue—is enough to disgrace Ferguson’s leaders all on its own, whether one regards them as civic imbeciles or moral cretins…

Little wonder that black people in Ferguson took to the streets after the killing of Michael Brown. Sooner or later, some event was bound to push them over the edge into protest, and even if Officer Wilson acted totally unobjectionably in that encounter, it wouldn’t change the fact that the general lack of confidence expressed in municipal and police leadership was well-founded. A DOJ investigation was long overdue, and so are major reforms. The full DOJ report can be found here.

3) Free Range parents responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect” (whatever that means) in Maryland.  There’s so many unfortunate, dysfunctional families out there.  Wouldn’t it be great if CPS focused there resources on them that happy families who are not paralyzed by irrational fear of their kids being kidnapped?

4) Sad, compelling story of a former UNC football player who is now homeless and sure seems to be suffering from CTE.

5) I actually don’t understand why we can’t do a lot more along the lines of this awesome Australian project that generates electricity from the tides.

6) I love the circus because of all the awesomeness from the humans, but hate that elephants have to suffer at the same time.  So pleased that Ringling is dropping the elephants from the circus.

7) Enjoyed this story on the fastest American female teenager ever and on what it takes to succeed long term as a competitive runner.

8) A Republican congressman thinks illegal immigrants are committing a murder a day.  Shockingly, he’s wrong.

9) I could totally go for Daylight Savings time year round.  Mornings I’m always hanging out inside anyway.  Give me more light in the evening.

10) John Cassidy on why the Federal Reserve needs defending.

11) A debate on Colorado on whether IUD’s are contraception or abortion.  Seriously?!  Good to know Republicans are against a method of birth control that dramatically cuts teen pregnancies and actual abortions.

12) It pains me to learn (from Krugman, no less) that my favorite food is apparently, quite Republican.  That won’t stop me!

13) An Economist friend of mine wrote this interesting Op-Ed about replacing a gas tax with a vehicle miles tax.  It will never happen, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.

14) With the political debate about net neutrality, it’s worth being reminded that the government invented the internet.

15) Charter schools may have their place, but they are certainly no panacea for our education problems.  And their lesser accountability (by design) is clearly bringing with it a host of problems.

16) Last word– Ta-Nehisi Coates is, of course, terrific in writing about the Ferguson report.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Of course the NRA is utterly lacking in decency.  And not surprisingly, they are not so good at logic (or empathy) either.

2) Oh, this Radley Balko column made me so, so mad.  A cop beats somebody up and the rest of them lie about it under oath.  Fortunately for the victim, it was caught on video.  At last check, no punishment for any of the malefactors in uniform.

3) It appears that in North Carolina, it is now legal for a lobbyist to provide a politician with a prostitute.  Seriously.

4) Oklahoma’s new AP courses (the satire version).

5) I had no idea the Mona Lisa had once been stolen (I learned this from a wrong answer on Trivia Crack).  Led me to this fascinating story of how that theft is what led the Mona Lisa to be so famous.

6) A former federal prosecutor on just how easy it is for prosecutors to abuse their power.

7) Vox on what firefighters are up to now that there are so many fewer fires.

8) I loved the SNL sketch on ISIS.  Those people so offended need to get over it.

9) How Kareem Abdul Jabbar re-invented himself as a really tall public intellectual.

10) So, maybe presidential democracy doesn’t doom America.  Maybe.

11) Given my picky eating, I only first tried Indian food a few years ago.  Love it!  The science behind what makes it so good.

12) Enjoyed this take down of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech.

13) Nine rules for all interactions between Coyote and Road Runner.

14) Tiny and remote Sweet Briar College is shutting down.  I certainly feel bad for the faculty and students, but how in the world is a college with just 500 students in the middle-of-nowhere supposed to survive?  Also, what’s the opposite of an economy of scale, because universities that small have always struck me as monstrously inefficient.

15) Got a good laugh out of this creative (and effective) attempt to distract free throw shooters.

16) I so want this new camera!  (And for that matter,  my Canon S100 has been missing for about a month).

17) Damn, the culture regarding women in general and rape in particular is just do damn deplorable in India.

18) So, you want to cut the prison population in half?  Have at it with this cool interactive feature.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Are liberals just as anti-science as conservatives, just on different issues?  Thanks to motivated reasoning, anybody will be anti-anything they are not disposed to agree with, regardless of what science says.  So, yes.  But degree matters:

However, the negative reaction of conservatives when they read about climate change and evolution was four times greater than that of liberals who read about nuclear power and fracking. Both liberals and conservatives showed evidence of motivated resistance against the facts related to the science topics that challenged their political beliefs.

But again, conservatives reacted more strongly than liberals, probably because the issues were hot buttons for conservatives.

Explain it away all you want (as the article) does, but this difference matters.

2) Great satire of anti-vaxxers– I’m an anti-braker.

3) It really bothers me that in a very wealthy county, many think it is the job of parents, not the state/county, to pay for full-day Kindergarten.

4) Very thoughtful piece from Amanda Hess on the incredibly blurry line of where drunk sex becomes sexual assault.

5)  Fred Hiatt on the anti-science beliefs of believing that GM foods are bad for you.

6) Seth Masket on the long-term strategic (and successful!) campaign of the Federalist Society to turn the federal judiciary substantially more conservative.

7) Regardless of how wrong Brian Williams may have been (and I’m pretty forgiving given what we know of how human memory works), I think Jon Stewart nails it on the media obsession.

8) Cannot say I’m surprised to learn that Wall Street firms secretly pay their employees to work in government.

9) How Louisiana’s refusal to expand Medicaid is leading to very real harm in the form of closed ER’s.

10) North Carolina’s Innocence Commission is awesome.  I really wish more states would do something similar (and I’m grateful that the current powers in Raleigh have not tried to eliminate it).

11) Pretty amazing how bad the vaccination rates are for the kids of America’s most famous Silicon Valley tech companies.

12) Obviously, I’m no expert on foreign affairs, but I found both these pieces really compelling.  They both argue that the solution is not military, but doing what we can to help improve Ukrainian society and government.

What Putin fears most in this whole confrontation isn’t the introduction of some Western tanks or rockets; it’s a thriving, prosperous Ukraine—it’s an example to the rest of the former Soviet republics (and to the people of eastern Ukraine, and for that matter Russia) that a better, richer life can be had under Western styles of governance and economics than under Putin’s dream of a resuscitated USSR…

Ukraine needs a massive infusion of aid and, even more, investment, along with expansive political ties with the West.

13) Is Scott Walker too far right to win the Republican nomination?  I don’t think so, because I think he’s really good at coming across as far less extreme than he actually is.

14) Love this Aaron Carroll piece on the best way to prioritize young lives (more focus on suicide reduction, for example, would be great).  It’s a great argument that we ignore the opportunity costs when we focus on some approaches (for very rare, but scary, causes of death) and ignore other, far more common, causes.

15) Jon Chait on how Democrats have become the child care party.

16) I found this totally fascinating (and I think my wife will too if she makes it this far into quick hits) on how brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are all actually the same plant.  Really!  (Thanks, Vox!)

17) It really is crazy how communities are expected to massively subsidize the sports stadiums that enrich millionaires and billionaires.

The NFL’s misguided moralism

I wrote very briefly before about the NFL’s way overly harsh punishment of Josh Gordon for marijuana use (it would be an understatement to say this is not exactly a performance-enhancing drug for a football player), and now they have suspended him a whole season for using… alcohol.  

CLEVELAND — Josh Gordon is officially suspended without pay for a minimum of one year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the Browns announced Tuesday. And the team couldn’t sound more fed up with the wide receiver.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Jan. 25 that Gordon had failed a league-issued substance abuse test, this time for alcohol. This is Gordon’s third NFL suspension. Also, the team suspended Gordon on the final week of the season for missing team activities. The NFL had issued a zero-drinking stipulation for Gordon as a result of his repeat offenses…

In a first-person letter published by a website called Medium, Gordon said he was not an alcoholic or a drug addict and took exception to television commentators broadly categorizing him as such. He also said that he had two beers and two drinks during a flight with teammates to Las Vegas on Jan. 2, and that he was summoned to be tested upon the plane’s landing.

One can argue that Gordon agreed to the NFL’s stipulation, but what business does the NFL have stipulating a grown man cannot consume a perfectly legal product?!  I’m no big fan of alcohol, but when used in moderation and with appropriate caution (i.e., driving, heavy machinery) it’s pretty harmless (and actually has some health benefits) so where the hell does the NFL get off saying no alcohol at all?  Did Mormons or Southern Baptists take over?  Again, the idea that an employer should be able to punish an adult for simply using a perfectly legal product that does not violate league substance abuse policies and using the product away from the place (and time) of employment is just absurd.

A perfectly defensible call

I know you are not here for my NFL analysis, but I am so annoyed at all the piling-on on Pete Carroll and the Seahawks today.  They were one great individual defensive play (the interception) from winning the Super Bowl and nobody would be complaining about choosing to call a pass for that play.  A variety of analyses suggest that a run was a better call, but not actually by a dramatic amount, and that for a number of strategic reasons, a pass was a more-than-defensible call.

First, Bill Barnwell in Grantland:

You might argue that the logic there doesn’t include the danger of throwing the football and the downside of an interception, and that’s true, but there are negative possibilities in every play call. In fact, this season it was more dangerous to run the football from the 1-yard line than it was to throw it. Before Sunday, NFL teams had thrown the ball 108 times on the opposing team’s 1-yard line this season. Those passes had produced 66 touchdowns (a success rate of 61.1 percent, down to 59.5 percent when you throw in three sacks) and zero interceptions. The 223 running plays had generated 129 touchdowns (a 57.8 percent success rate) and two turnovers on fumbles.

That said, Barnwell not a fan of the call:

The key phrase there, of course, is “in a vacuum.” This wasn’t a vacuum. This was the Seahawks and the Patriots, and while the size of the stage shouldn’t matter, the matchups should. As I mentioned in my Super Bowl preview, this was a matchup specifically built for running the football with Lynch in short yardage. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were the worst team in the league in power-running situations and fifth-worst in terms of stuffing the opposition for no gain or a loss. Seattle was the second-best power running team and the sixth-best team at avoiding stuffs. If there was ever a matchup that called for a team to live and die on the back of its running game from the 1-yard line, this was it.

Still, part of not a vacuum is what’s happened in the game and the Patriots had stopped Lynch in short yardage.

In Slate, Brian Burke also brings the data (and the statistical simulation):

Had Seattle run on second down and failed, it would have had to use its final timeout. This would mean that New England would know a pass was very likely on third down. If that had happened, the Internet would now be bashing Carroll for an entirely different reason…

The simulation—which is different than Win Probability—gave Seattle an 85 percent chance of winning by running and a 77 percent chance by passing. It turns out the added risk of a sack, penalty, or turnover was not worth the other considerations of time and down…

Seattle’s decision was not the best one possible, but it was defensible and supported by some reasonable considerations. Ultimately, it was a great defensive play that truly decided the game.

And Justin Wolfers brings the game theory:

The key insight of game theory for an N.F.L. coach is that when you think about what choice you should make, you need to also consider the response from the opposing coach, understanding that he is also thinking strategically. This line of thinking suggests that you should not necessarily call a run play, even if you’re blessed with a great running back. Likewise, it’s not clear that you should definitely pass. Rather, your choice should be somewhat random — a choice that game theorists call a “mixed strategy.”…

The logic is that if you always choose to run in this situation, then you make the opposing coach’s job too easy, as he will set a defensive formation aimed at stopping your running back. Forget guarding the receivers, Belichick would respond by piling players between Marshawn Lynch and the end zone. As great as Lynch is, even he would find it difficult to run over a stacked defense that was waiting for him. Likewise, if the Seahawks would always decide to pass in this situation, there would be little need for the Patriots to guard against the run, and so their defense could double-team the eligible receivers.

Instead, you need to keep your opponents guessing, and the only way to do this is to be unpredictable. The only way to be unpredictable is to be a little bit random…

Game theory points to the possibility that Carroll’s decisive call was actually the result of following the best possible strategy, and that this is a strategy that involves an element of randomness in play-calling. This leads to the intriguing possibility that if that fateful final play were to be run in a dozen parallel universes, with each coach continuing to play the same mixed strategy, the actual plays called would differ, as would their outcomes.

And so the same teams pursuing the same strategies under the same circumstances might have yielded a different Super Bowl champion.

Pete Carroll did not get where he is by being an idiot.  Was this call suboptimal?  Maybe.  Especially given the larger strategic considerations, it strikes me as more than defensible.  It’s a little ridiculous how everybody in America all of a sudden thinks they know better than one of the NFL’s best coaches.

UPDATE: Just after posting this I also found an excellent analysis at 538 which makes a strong argument that the really poor coaching choice was Belechick’s to not take a time out at the end.

This isn’t about passions, and it isn’t about statistical mumbo-jumbo. It’s about arithmetic.

Under the most pro-Beast set of assumptions, rushing may have been the better play but by the slimmest of margins (0.3 percentage points). Under a more pro-Gostkowski set of assumptions, passing may have been the best play by up to 3 percentage points.

But we’re still discussing marginal improvements in odds. Pick which assumptions you like; it doesn’t really matter. Carroll’s decision wasn’t the epically bad call many have made it out to be…

Note again that if we take the assumptions that are most unfavorable to Carroll, his mistake would have cost Seattle only 0.3 percentage points, while under the assumptions most favorable to Belichick, his error cost the Patriots 2.1 percent.4

But winning erases all sins.


Mega quick hits (part II)

1) I would say I simply trust in David Simon on his new show, but Treme was just so boring.  But a really interesting profile of Simon and what he’s been up to.

2) Vox provides a useful perspective on the ridiculous Michelle Obama headscarf flap

  1. American officials in Saudi Arabia typically do not wear headscarves, including at formal government functions. Michelle was following normal protocol.
  2. Former first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton did not wear headscarves on similar official visits to Saudi Arabia. Neither did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

3) This advice from a “supervillian” is actually pretty awesome.

4) I so loved “Boyhood.”  Seeing all the actors age– especially child actors– was awesome.

5) Unvaccinated kids should be barred from school without a very compelling reason– should not take a child with leukemia to sue to make it happen.

6) With the latest death penalty protocol going before the Supreme Court, enjoyed this Op-Ed:

Last summer, Alex Kozinski, a federal appellate judge in California and a supporter of the death penalty, called out this charade for what it is.

Lethal injections, he wrote, are “a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful.” But executions “are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”

7) Want to be in the Yelp top 100 restaurants?  Be in a place with great weather and provide good value.

8) 2014 set a record for exonerations.   The good– yeah, innocent people actually getting their freedom.  The bad– clearly, we’ve got a lot of innocent people locked up.

9) The improvement in NFL placekickers over time really is pretty amazing.

10) Police departments sure like to shoot mentally ill people with knives.  How about one guy with a knife surrounded by dozens of officers and yards of space between– but still gets shot.  Ugh.

11) Europe certainly does a lot of stuff better than us, but you can make a pretty good case that it really goes too far in hampering business.

12) Apparently men are ugly and women are not.  At least among OKCupid users.

13) Interested in a high-resolution audio player for $400 that the average listener’s ears cannot distinguish from an Iphone?

14) Somebody needs to tell Scott Walker that professors work a lot (and Full Professors work the most!)

15) Physicians are now raking in the dollars for stent procedures to unclog blood vessels in limbs.  Of course, there’s little evidence this is actually any more effective than far more inexpensive treatment options.

16) The economic benefits of paid parental leave.

17) Really enjoyed Adam Gopnik’s take on the very different conceptualizations of free speech in America and Europe.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Holy unintended consequences, Batman.  How Africans are using free malaria-preventing mosquito nets to fish and destroying fish populations and ecosystems.

2) Olga Khazan’s take on the idea of sorority parties instead of fraternity parties.  Liked this part:

Under the current regime, he said, women have to perform a certain slutty femininity in order to please frat brothers and gain entry into their houses.

“So if you dress like they want you to, drink like they want you to, dance like they want you to, then you’ll get in [to the frat house]; you’re a babe,” Kimmel said. “If you don’t do that, you’re a bitch, you won’t get in.”

What he proposed, instead, is for sororities to be the gatekeepers to the keggers.

3) Of course many secular people are just as, if not more, moral than religious people.

When these teens mature into “godless” adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.

4) The only recent elections that mattered were 2010 and 2014.  If you are a Republican.

5) Volkswagen cannot sell a $70,000 luxury car in America because Americans simply won’t buy a car that expensive– no matter how good a car– with “Volkswagen” on it.  Europeans are not so silly.

6) A new Pennsylvania law bars convicted felons from discussing their crimes if it might cause “mental anguish” to the victim.  This is so nuts.  This better be struck down by a judge with extreme prejudice.

7) Jon Stewarts‘ takedown of Mike Huckabee’s culture war hypocrisy is awesome.

8) I love The Great Gatsby.  Baz Luhrman’s take (which I just finished watching) left me somewhat annoyed.  So loved this quote in Richard Corliss’ review.

 The camera of cinematographer Simon Duggan seems to think it can’t simply capture an image; it must wrestle it unconscious to the ground. It views a character from a ceiling perch or rushes breathlessly up to his face.

9) I’m so done with people who don’t vaccinate their kids.  It’s not about you!  It would be one thing if it only meant there own kids getting sick, but do the importance of herd immunity, it has much wider repercussions.  I’m just glad I’m not living in one of these crazy anti-vaccine clusters like they have in California.

10) It’s rarely successful in the short-term to replace an NFL head coach.  Of course, every team is convinced that their new hire will be the next Bill Belichick.

11) Nice NYT piece on all the wrongness in the Tamir Rice shooting.

12) Thanks to the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission, Joseph Sledge is a free man 36 years after his murder conviction.  Looking forward to having his lawyer, Christine Mumma, as a guest speaker in my Criminal Justice Policy class later this semester.

13) Ezra Klein sure had fun writing what Obama would have really said in the SOTU had he been honest.

14) We ask jurors if they think they can be free of bias and go by their answers.  Of course, anybody who knows anything about social psychology knows that’s nuts.

15) You know how that being bilingual is supposed to be so great for your brain thing?  Way oversold (except for the very strong evidence on postponing onset of dementia).  Why?  The results that favor bilingualism get published, those that call this into question do not.

16) Almost every Republican Senator voted on a resolution that humans do not cause climate change.  Brad Plumer’s got the right take– the Senate is a hoax.

17) The poorer you get, the less good a place America is to live– in chart form:



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