Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Everything in Moderation: The Goldilocks Hypothesis

Psychologists (and others) have spent decades studying things that may or may not be harmful. Most recently, digital media, such as the internet or video gaming, has gotten that attention, with people arguing whether or not such media is harmful. Hypotheses range from 1) it's helpful, but mostly for people with social anxiety because it gives them a more comfortable outlet for interaction, to 2) it's harmful, because it encourages people to forgo real interactions for fake ones, and everything in between.

But as with many things, the real relationships is probably more complex. For instance, it doesn't have to be a linear relationship of more use = more harm. It could be beneficial up to a point before it starts being harmful. This is the basis of the so-called Goldilocks hypothesis: Too little doesn't really do anything (good or bad) and too much is harmful; there is some level in between that is "just right."

A recent study published in Psychological Science set out to test this hypothesis among adolescents:
The research reported here was the first to systematically test for curvilinear relations between well-being and screen time measured continuously, separately for different digital activities and days of the week. As predicted by the Goldilocks hypothesis, we expected to find curvilinear associations, with no costs to mental well-being for moderate levels of screen time and some detriments at high levels. For the first time in this area of research, we defined low and high levels of screen time empirically by testing for local maxima, the inflection points, operationalized as the points at which the slopes relating screen time to well-being approached zero before reversing in sign. Thus, we identified the point at which each type of media use shifted from having a null or positive relation with mental well-being to having a negative relation indicating a detrimental effect.
Basically, if you plot the relationship between screen time and some measure of well-being, they expected it to look something like this:

You can't draw a single line through this - you would need to draw a curve. But another approach mathematically would be to draw many lines, to represent the different trends in the data at different points. The researchers looked for the point where a single line drawn through part of this figure was basically horizontal (a slope of 0), followed by another line that goes downward (negative trend). That is the local maxima - the point where screen time has the strongest effect on well-being and also the point at which additional screen time starts becoming harmful.

What's also cool about this study? They had over 120,000 participants! And here's what they found:
Local extrema were at 1 hr 40 min for weekday video-game play and 1 hr 57 min for weekday smartphone use. In contrast, watching videos and using computers for recreational purposes appeared to be less potentially disruptive at these levels, as the local extrema for these activities on weekdays were 3 hr 41 min and 4 hr 17 min, respectively. Indeed, some digital activities might be better suited than others to weekdays. For example, it is relatively easy to switch between different tasks using a computer, whereas an activity such as playing a video game requires more dedicated attention. For weekends, the derived inflection points ranged from 3 hr 35 min for playing video games to 4 hr 50 m for watching videos. Thus, the pivot points between moderate and potentially harmful screen time were notably higher and less variable for weekend days than for weekdays, which suggests that the nature and amount of engagement matter for understanding the relations between digital-screen time and mental well-being.
Below, these values they found positive relationships between screen time and well-being for all screen activities except weekend smartphone use, and above these values, negative relationships. So these are the happy mediums.

Monday, January 30, 2017

For Those Keeping Score at Home

Trump just dipped into negatives in his approval rating after only 8 days in office.

In related news, FiveThirtyEight introduced the Trump score:
Donald Trump has Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress — it’s the first time since Barack Obama’s first two years in office that the same party has controlled the U.S. Senate, the House and the White House. Trump’s ability to enact his policies, therefore, will largely come down to how often GOP senators and representatives buck the president’s agenda and, conversely, how often Democrats work with him. To help keep up with this, we’ll be tracking how often members agree with Trump and how that compares with expectations.

We’ll be using two primary measures for each member of Congress: the “Trump score” and “Trump plus-minus.”

The Trump score is a simple percentage showing how often a senator or representative supports Trump’s positions.

Plus-minus measures how frequently a member agrees with Trump compared with how frequently we would expect the member to, based on Trump’s 2016 vote margin in the member’s state or district.

A Case of the Mondays

It's Monday again. If you're like me, waking up early and heading to work often feels like a rude awakening after a pleasant weekend. Yesterday, Glamour shared this post on how to prevent the Monday blues:
1. Pinpoint the problem. Just because we all get the Monday Blues from time to time doesn't mean it's a one-size-fits-all problem. Challenge yourself to find the source of your anxiety, whether it's a recurring morning meeting or a true dislike of your job.

2. Use Sundays to plan your week. Sundays are actually your Monday Blues-beating secret weapon. If you make a to-do list on Sunday, you can hit the ground running.

3. Get plenty of rest. To start your Monday off right, go to bed early enough Sunday night to log a solid eight hours of sleep—or however long your body really needs. You know the right number for you.

4. Start it right. Make it a routine to start your mornings off right.

5. Dress to win. You have to dress for success—especially on Mondays. Pick out your snazziest shoes, your brightest bling, or your favorite fight-the-frumps blazer, and be ready to kick buns when you come out of your closet. Of course, you can deck out more than your personal appearance—you can dress up your desk, too.
Some of these are stupid obvious - of course we all know you can't stay up as late on Sunday as you did Friday or Saturday. But I do like the idea of making a to-do list on Sunday, so the week feels more manageable.

And someone on Sirius XM 80's on 8 has a sense of humor this morning - they gave me this gem on my commute.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Poor Productivity

If you're like me, you've probably noticed that your productivity has gone down in the last week. Though my most important job tasks are being finished, other things are getting pushed aside: the abstract I'm working on for an upcoming conference (which, blissfully, the abstract deadline has been extended from Tuesday to Thursday of next week), the book I promised to beta-read for a NaNoWriMo friend, the a capella arrangement I'm supposed to be writing, and the short story contest I'm participating in - all these things keep getting dragged on, as I get distracted by the latest developments in Washington.

Fortunately, Eileen Webb gets it, and offered this post about Productivity in Terrible Times:
I think I’m not the only one who hasn’t been getting much done lately in the realm of “normal work”. I may pretend like I’m working on documentation for a new CMS, but — I’m sorry, who was just appointed to the cabinet? He said what? Oh, for fuck’s sake.

When your heart is worried for your Muslim friends, and deep in your bones you’re terrified about losing access to healthcare, it’s very hard to respond graciously to an email inquiring about the latest microsite analytics numbers. “THE WORLD IS BURNING. I will have those content model updates ready by Thursday. Sincerely, and with abject terror, Eileen.”

By all means, if you’re able to shift your job so that you’re working directly with causes you believe in, go for it. But don’t get stuck on the idea that your job isn’t valuable unless you’ve dedicated your career to a non-profit. All of our work is capable of enabling righteous acts.

Set up automatic donations.Set aside time in your calendar for volunteering and local government work.Schedule time for actual work as well. This seems like a small thing, but it can be pretty huge: instead of trying to get work done in the “unscheduled” gaps of time in your calendar between meetings and calls, schedule time blocks throughout the week to reserve uninterrupted time for yourself.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t wait until you’ve burned out to assess your regular routine with an eye towards sustainability. Repeat after me: It is not a dereliction of duty to care for yourself. Did that make your breath catch a little? Inhale. Exhale. Say it again.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

2016 in Film

So 2016 was a bad year for many of reasons, but it was apparently a great year for movies. The Blacklist looked at the top 10 movies of the year, according to Metacritic, and compared their performance to the top 10 from previous years (going back to 2005). The top 10 from 2016 had the second highest average rating, the highest going to 2013 (the year that gave us 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and American Hustle, among others).

Here are the 10 most highly rated films from 2016:

For comparison, 6 of these films have been nominated for at least one Academy Award.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Inauguration Speech

So I finally sat down and watched Trump's inauguration speech:

In all seriousness though, I really couldn't bring myself to watch Trump's actual speech. I read it instead. I'm sure someone else has probably already done this, but I was curious, so I examined the readability statistics of Trump's speech.

Trump's speech was written at an 8th grade reading level. Not too surprising, despite his insistence that he has the "best words." As you'll see in the statistics, his best words average about 4-5 letters each.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Alternative Facts in Song

If you haven't watched any of Randy Rainbow's videos, you should definitely check them out! Here's today's showtunes-inspired video:

Sunday, January 22, 2017

March, Two, Three, Four!

Yesterday, women and men around the world gathered to march for women's rights and as an act of protest against the misogyny of America's newest President and his administration. Here's some of my favorite things from around the web about the march and the election in general:

Buzzfeed collects some of the most powerful images around the world

Longreads explains "why we march"

NYBooks offers rules for surviving autocracy

American University publishes a report on the gender gap in political ambition, "Girls Just Wanna Not Run"

And CNN puts together a panel to discuss the women's march - anyone see what's wrong with this picture?

Friday, January 20, 2017

On What It Means to Be an American

I've heard many people on Facebook today arguing for opponents of Trump to be supportive and respectful.

Yeah, sure. I think that goes without saying. I'm happy to be supportive and respectful of my fellow humans.

But it's more than that. It's things like, "You may not like the guy, but he's our President, and you should support him." Or "Wanting him to fail is like wanting the pilot of the plane we are all on to crash." Or "We didn't act like this when Obama was elected, so suck it up."

This is different from what I think when I hear the words "support and respect." This is not about "supporting someone because they are human like you"; this is, "you need to go along with him on everything he does." And so, I'd like to respond.

There have been many responses to the latter, highlighting that, no, you guys weren't so reasonable when the candidate you didn't like was elected. Many people are saying "Not my President" with regard to Trump, which you find disrespectful. No offense, but wasn't the same slogan used with regard to Obama. Anyway, I won't belabor that point here.

But to the first in particular, no, I don't like the guy. I think he's bad for this country, and his actions within the first hours as President affirm some of my fears about him. (True, this is because all content specific to the Obama administration has been migrated to ObamaWhiteHouse.gov, and the WhiteHouse.gov site is now sparsely populated until the new administration settles in.) I fear that he will keep many of his campaign promises that go against the very nature of this country: registries, a giant wall, and so on.

And you know what, that's okay. I'm allowed to think that. I'm allowed to dislike him. Just like you were allowed to dislike Obama. I live in a country where I am allowed to speak my mind. My first amendment rights guarantee that, with some important limitations.

But it goes beyond that. It is our civic duty to question our leadership. I don't have to fall in line with his rhetoric. I don't have to stand idly by as he does whatever he wants because he is the President.

I can respect the position of President, but that doesn't mean I have to respect the man. It is the position that warrants our respect, as citizens of this country. What the position stands for - not an elected king, but someone who leads the country for a time, who is elected by and for the people.

The man (or woman) who occupies that position is a temp. We choose someone to speak for us as our leader, but if he begins to speak out of turn, if he says things we don't agree with, it is our duty to let him know.

And there are options to help protect us from what turns out to be a bad leader - a limited term, so that we can elect someone else in four years, and also ways to remove him/her from office (impeachment is obviously unusual, but it has happened). And just as Trump is showing that he has the power to undo the executive orders issues by Obama, so too will the person elected after have the power to undo Trump's orders.

So, no, I won't like the guy. I won't respect the guy. And I certainly won't support him when he does things I disagree with. I plan to stay informed and stay involved, question my leadership, and speak out against injustices by this administration. It's my civic duty.

Books with Obama

There are going to be many posts looking back over the last 8 years of President Obama's administration, but this article, as a book-lover, is a favorite: Every book Barack Obama has recommended during his presidency.

It's a nice lift to my ego to see that he recommended some of my favorites:
But I'll be adding many of the books from Obama's recommendations to my to-read list, which is already longer than I can probably complete in my lifetime. As I've said before, I'm probably in no danger from suffering from this:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Post-Mortem on 2016 Election Coverage

Today, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight published the first in what will be a series about the 2016 election. Data scientists, stats-junkies, psychologists, and haters of bad journalism rejoice - there will be a lot of analysis of the polling data and how it was (mis)used, cognitive biases, and journalistic errors in these pieces:
At this point, I don’t expect to convince anyone about the rightness or wrongness of FiveThirtyEight’s general election forecast. To some of you, a forecast that showed Trump with about a 30 percent chance of winning when the consensus view was that his chances were around 15 percent will self-evidently seem smart. To others, it will seem foolish. But for better or worse, what we’re saying here isn’t just hindsight bias. If you go back and check our coverage, you’ll see that most of these points are things that FiveThirtyEight (and sometimes also other data-friendly news sites) raised throughout the campaign.

With that in mind, here’s ground rule No. 1: These articles will focus on the general election.

Ground rule No. 2: These articles will mostly critique how conventional horse-race journalism assessed the election, although with several exceptions. The focus on conventional journalism in this article is not meant to imply that data journalists got everything right, however. There’s obviously a lot to criticize in how certain statistical models were designed, for instance.

Interestingly enough, the analytical errors made by reporters covering the campaign often mirrored those made by the modelers. I’d also argue that data journalists are increasingly making some of the same non-analytical errors as traditional journalists, such as using social media in a way that tends to suppress reasonable dissenting opinion.
I'll admit, I made some of the same mistakes to which he alludes in his articles, and I was following his model. Sometimes, it's difficult to separate the data from our opinions, especially opinions we really want to be right. This is the reason for different philosophies of science. While in a perfect world, we want researchers to study issues they have no strong opinions about, to ensure no bias, in reality, this is really difficult. People don't study things they care nothing about; doing research is hard work, and if you're not passionate about the issue, it's far too easy to throw up your hands when things get difficult. In fact, even studying something you really truly love, you'll get fatigued and will probably ending up hating it by the end - this is definitely true of thesis and dissertation topics.

In 2017, I resolve to be a better data scientist, and plan on building my skills in this vein. Stay tuned!

Trying To Understand

So I'm trying to understand the apparent "trickle-down" logic of leadership in the new administration. Trump has no political experience, which his supporters and apologists argue is no big deal - he'll just make sure he has a staff that helps fill his gaps of knowledge and experience. In fact, Trump himself said he'd hire "the best people" to fill his administration, people with a "track record" who have demonstrated "competence" (these are his words from the video).

Which is why Betsy DeVos for Department of Education is so confusing. She has absolutely no experience teaching, she has shown she doesn't understand key issues with regard to assessment, and as Elizabeth Warren demonstrated, she has no experience with managing or participating in a student loan program:

In fact, what does she say when Senator Warren starts grilling her on ensuring that federal dollars are protected from waste, fraud, and abuse by for-profit schools (like Trump University)? "The individuals with whom I work in the department will ensure that federal monies are used properly and appropriately." She has no experience, but don't worry, she's going to hire the best people. Where have I heard that before?

Senator Warren immediately jumps on this statement, asking if DeVos really means that she's going to "subcontract" out her own job. DeVos backtracks. Warren then informs DeVos that it's okay, there's already a policy in place to protect federal dollars; DeVos just has to enforce it. Instead, DeVos says she'll review that policy and make a decision. So DeVos offered no concrete information on what she would do as DoE head, and when Warren says, "You could just use the existing policy," DeVos says, "Yeah, maybe."

I mean, there's really two options here: "I'll keep doing what's been done" or "I have ideas for how to do things differently". "I'll do my homework and hire the best people" is not acceptable, especially when you're supposed to be one of the people the President appointed as part of his "homework and best people" approach.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trump Administration and Data

This podcast is a few weeks old now, but the information is still very relevant: Politics Podcast: Data Under Trump. Trump doesn't have a particularly good record with data thus far, but all we know is from Trump as a candidate and then president-elect, not as president. As we keep slouching towards Bethlehem moving closer to the inauguration, these are some important things to keep in mind. 

A few important issues they touch on:
  • A lot of the important economic data used by both policy-makers and politics journalists are generated from survey data - for example, how we get data on inflation
  • Though a lot of the economic data isn't shown to the administration prior to release (preventing any cooking of the data), they can have an impact by starving these groups of funding
  • Making the Census or the American Community Survey, which are both government-run, voluntary will lead to increased costs (and there's a really good reason why)
Great quote from the podcast: "If he really is going to make good on being a law-and-order president, we need to track crimes better [than we currently do]."

Snapshot of the Nation: Pre-Inauguration

Yesterday, Gallup released the results of their Mood of the Nation survey, which assesses satisfaction with a variety of policy and life issues. This survey, conducted between January 4th and 8th assessed satisfaction with 28 items, ranging from policies (on guns, energy, and abortion, to name a few) to the environment to business and industry.

At the top of the list with 80% is overall quality of life. At the bottom? Race relations at 22% and the nation's efforts to deal with poverty and homelessness a close second at 23%:

As Trump prepares to take the presidential oath on Jan. 20, 80% of Americans are satisfied with the overall quality of life, making it the top area of satisfaction. Quality of life has ranked as the top item each year, tying with military strength and preparedness in 2013 and 2014. Since 2001, about eight in 10 Americans -- with a high of 89% in 2001 and 2002 -- have been satisfied with the overall quality of life in the U.S.

This year, just 22% say they are satisfied with the state of race relations, putting it at the bottom of the list along with the nation's efforts to deal with poverty and homelessness (23%). Anti-poverty efforts have always ranked near the bottom of the list. Race relations had ranked higher in the past, including a tie for fourth place in 2014, before a series of deadly incidents between police and young black men changed perceptions.
Analysis by political ideology found that Democrats were overall more satisfied than Republicans, though Republicans were more satisfied on certain issues, such as gun laws, the influence of organized religion, and the distribution of income/wealth. It will be interesting to see how these data change post-inauguration.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Dystopian Nightmare

Via The Daily Parker, and as a follow-up to my 1984-themed post, The New Republic discusses the similarities and dissimilarities of Trump's presidency and the Hunger Games books series:
No one thinks the Trump administration will transform the U.S. into Panem, Suzanne Collins’s post-apocalyptic North America where a totalitarian government forces children to fight to the death on national television. Still, a number of Trump’s critics have noted some legitimate parallels between him and The Hunger Games since he launched his campaign.

Vox explained “How The Hunger Games anticipated Donald Trump’s rise,” the commonality being that “in our culture, a really strong, compelling narrative trumps everything, every time, no matter what side you’re on.” Jezebel declared that Trump’s victory tour was “Literally a Plotline From The Hunger Games.” And New York Times columnist Ross Douthat floated Sean Hannity as Trump’s own Caesar Flickerman, the flamboyant state television broadcaster played by Stanley Tucci.
The main message of the piece is that literary and film portrayals of totalitarianism are much more bold than actual authoritarianism, which is subtle, sometimes so subtle people don't even realize they're living under control. (I touched on this in my previous post, in which information control results in have nots who have no idea they're have nots.) In this scenario, people may notice problems but when they make comparisons to what they think totalitarianism looks like from media portrayals, they decide to just deal with it because things could be worse.

I'm getting a lot of messages from friends to just "wait and see" - friends, I might add who weren't nearly so reasonable after Obama won - and that Trump won't be able to make sweeping changes until later in his presidency. (At which time, it might be too late, but I digress.) Of course, a lot can (and does) happen in the president's first 100 days.

Are We Birds or Opposites?

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people tell me that psychological research findings are merely "common sense," which they tend to demonstrate with popular expressions. I usually resist the urge to school them on confirmation bias, though that's one of the cognitive biases they're exhibiting in such utterances. And instead point out times when common sense might tell us two contradictory things. For instance, a popular expression I hear a lot, with regard to research on similarity between friends and romantic partners is "Birds of a feather flock together." However, if I were to cite research showing that friends and romantic partners often differ in terms of personality, I would hear "Opposites attract." So, which is right?

A new article in Psychological Science sought to answer this question while counteracting biases in previous research. The problem is that in this area of research, we tend to rely on self-report and peer-report personality measures. And if people go into the study with expectations about what they think is true (i.e., are we birds or opposites?), that might bias how they respond. Instead, these researchers used behavioral measures of personality:
The first approach measured personality using a common type of digital footprint: Facebook Likes. Facebook users generate Likes by clicking a Like button on Facebook Pages related to products, famous people, books, etc. This feature allows users to express their preferences for a variety of content. It has been shown that Likes can be used to accurately assess people’s personality (Kosinski, Stillwell, & Graepel, 2013; Youyou, Kosinski, & Stillwell, 2015). For example, people who score high on Extraversion tend to Like “partying,” “dancing,” and celebrities.

The second approach measured personality using digital records of language use: Facebook status updates. Facebook users write status updates to share their thoughts, feelings, and life events with friends. Previous research has consistently found links between personality and language use (Hirsh & Peterson, 2009; Mehl, Gosling, & Pennebaker, 2006; Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). Extraverts, for example, tend to use more words describing positive emotions (e.g., “great,” “happy,” or “amazing”; H. A. Schwartz et al., 2013) than introverts do. Several studies have demonstrated accurate personality assessment based on people’s language use in social media (Farnadi et al., 2014; Sumner, Byers, Boochever, & Park, 2012), including Facebook status updates (Park et al., 2014; H. A. Schwartz et al., 2013).
Using data from the myPersonality Facebook application, which allows users to take various personality measures (so all participants had at least some self-report personality results), they built models using like data and status update language data. These models were then applied to a sample of dyads (pairs of friends or romantic partners). They found that dyads tend to be similar, and this is especially true for members of a romantic couple:
Our findings provide evidence that romantic partners as well as friends are characterized by similar personalities. We measured personality traits relying on three different sources of data: traditional self-report questionnaires, digital records of behaviors and preferences, and language use. Relatively strong similarity was detected between romantic partners and between friends when we used Likes-based and language-based measures. By contrast, self-reports yielded only weak to negligible similarity. Across all three methods, stronger personality similarity was found for romantic couples than for friends.
So based on this research, it seems we're birds.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Too Darn Hot

Yesterday afternoon, I finally got to see "Too Hot the Handel," a jazz-gospel version of Messiah that has been performed in Chicago for the last 12 years. It was unbelievably fun and well-executed, seamlessly blending the original Messiah music with gospel, big band, and improvisational jazz styles, and featured some fantastic soloists. The tenor, Rodrick Dixon, probably stood out as the best voice, but the alto, Karen Marie Richardson, was amazing to listen to and watch. My belly dance teacher has been asking us to exude sass during our dance routine that we'll be doing in March, and I've struggled with exactly how that should look. The alto had it: she stood up and looked at the crowd with a little smile and a stance that said, "I guess I'll do you mere mortals a favor and sing for you."

This is my first time seeing Karen Marie Richardson performing in person, but I've been a fan of hers for a while - every since I heard her sing this song with Postmodern Jukebox:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

NFL Ref Bias

Friday, FiveThirtyEight explored some explanations for sideline bias among NFL refs, resulting in the conclusion that coaches yell at refs because it works:
But as it turns out, a sideline bias in the NFL is real, and it’s spectacular. To prove it, we looked at the rates at which refs call the NFL’s most severe penalties, including defensive pass interference, aggressive infractions like personal fouls and unnecessary roughness, and offensive holding calls, based on where the offensive team ran its play.

For three common penalties, the direction of the play — that is, whether it’s run toward the offensive or defensive team’s sideline — makes a significant difference. In other words, refs make more defensive pass interference calls on the offensive team’s sideline but more offensive holding calls on the defensive team’s sideline. What’s more, these differences aren’t uniform across the field — the effect only shows up on plays run, roughly, between the 32-yard lines, the same space where coaches and players are allowed to stand during play.
Read the full examination at the link above, but the article touches on some psychological concepts, particularly cue learning, in which our reaction is affected by the reactions of others. For instance, it's why watching a comedian live with others seems funnier than watching the same special at home alone; you laugh harder in the presence of other people. They use this to explain why factors like crowd noise have been shown to affect ref behavior in past research.

Of course, another important psychological factor is contingencies of reinforcement and vicarious learning. If screaming at the ref does have an impact, the coach or player who does it will be more likely to do it again. Other coaches and players watching that behavior be reinforced will also be likely to do the same thing. We may complain about or make fun of coaches that scream at the ref, but if it works, it's going to keep happening, and it's going to encourage other coaches to do the same thing, even if screaming at someone is not really their thing.

Speaking of making fun of screaming coaches, here's one of my favorite Bad Lip Reading videos:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

On Reading and Writing

I just finished reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

They might be the quickest 200-some pages I've ever read. The book is filled with lots of great advice for writers, that I'll definitely be taking to heart. I did notice that her writing style is different from mine - she seems to be a discovery writer, whereas I'm more of an outline writer (see a previous post on these topics). But much of her advice is useful regardless of whether you outline first or just start writing. For instance, when you're having trouble getting started with writing something, just focus on one element, as though you're viewing a 1-inch picture of the scene, and describe that. She's very much about writing as a regular activity.

There are many places throughout the book where she said things that really struck me, like "You wouldn't be a writer if reading hadn't enriched your soul more than other pursuits." Or this paragraph, that really addresses the current mood in our society:
The society to which we belong seems to be dying or is already dead. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but clearly the dark side is rising. Things could not have been more odd and frightening in the Middle Ages. But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion - not to look around and say, "Look at yourselves, you idiots!" but to say, "This is who we are."
And now, after finishing this great book on writing, I've been asked by a friend from National Novel Writing Month to be a beta-reader of her book. I think having Anne Lamott's advice fresh on my mind will help me offer my friend constructive advice. I read the first page yesterday after I received the file, and was in awe of the gorgeous prose. I still don't know anything about the story and, interestingly, she can't think of a good title for her book yet. So I'm about to read a book where I have absolutely no expectations going in. In between reading, I also need to finish my own book - still have a couple chapters to write, though I figured out last night how to get through the part that was holding me up.

Friday, January 13, 2017

On Education, the Media, and Blissful Ignorance

It has become increasingly clear to me that brushing Trump off as simply a buffoon is an incredibly dangerous view. What he has shown us is a strong knowledge of what it takes to create totalitarian control, not unlike what we see in dystopian stories. A friend recently posted a quote from George Orwell's 1984 that I think is certainly apropos today:

What was happening in 1984 was that the government was setting up complete power over its citizens, including what they think and what they know. It's no coincidence that Trump is attacking things like education and the media. In a system such as ours, where in order to have literal power (i.e., be a politician), one must be rich, the only power the remaining citizens have is knowledge. Access to knowledge and the ability to speak about that in the hopes that someone is listening, is how we maintain balance.

Trump wants to do things like completely gut the Department of Education, giving power back to local education boards to set standards and curriculum. It completely ignores the very reason national education boards and standards were developed to begin with. It is to ensure that everyone, regardless of where they live, the wealth of that area to hire high-quality teachers, and the family background of the citizens, is able to get a quality education.

I come from what would be defined as a working-class family. We did the best we could, and I know how very fortunate I was that I had a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food in my belly. (And I'm terrified of what might happen to programs like free or reduced school lunches that helped my brother and me have a regular meal.) But most importantly, I had a family that valued education, teachers who believed in me, and a public library that could give me all the knowledge I could absorb. Education is how you transcend. It is a way to go beyond your background, your upbringing, your opportunities. I am who I am today because of this philosophy. I'm not so elitist about education that I think everyone has to go to college. College is not the only way to learn. But I do believe that everyone should have the opportunity to get the education they need to make whatever difference in this world they want to make.

Trump's snide comments about higher education being overly politically correct, his insistence that local boards of education were doing just fine before the federal government came in and told them what they had to teach - all of these are setting up a system where the haves continue to have all the power (and now all the knowledge too). And the have nots are so under-informed that they have no idea they're have nots. They have no opportunity to become anything else. And he has convinced his supporters that they are better off without the very education that would allow them to transcend, to make a better life for themselves and their families. He has sentenced them forever to ignorance, and they are bending over backwards to thank him for it.

People who go into higher education tend to be more liberal, which Trump (and let's be honest, many others on the right) argues is because these places are troves of politically correct professors spouting off their liberal philosophy to convince students to see their way. This view creates a chicken/egg problem, of course. Higher education is about teaching critical thinking skills, research skills, the skills people need to be good citizens and informed people. So I don't think it's any coincidence that people who go on to receive higher education are more likely to be liberal, and it has nothing to do with the ideologies spouted off by professors. That's what knowledge does to people. It teaches them to consider other viewpoints, other ways of life, to be empathetic to their fellow man. And from this, they learn that there are certain basic inalienable rights. And so they fight with knowledge on their side. What happens when the knowledge is gone? What happens when it's only given out to people that the current leadership deems worthy? What happens when the face of the educated and the powerful are made in the current leadership's own image? It creates ripples that continue far beyond the length of any presidential term.

And now the media - he's attacking them too. He's attacking anyone with a voice who dares disagree with him, expose his lies, or comment on his corruption. So what does he do? Casts them off as fake news. Just as he tried to program his supporters to distrust the results of the election if he lost, he is programming them to distrust anything that he says is untrue, or perhaps even worse, anything that he doesn't say is true. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? How much power that gives one person?

Big Brother is watching. He's been watching. This isn't only true of the incoming administration. But now Big Brother is also shaping the truth in his preferred image. And he is setting up a system in which only the people he wants to succeed - the people who are like him - can succeed.

This isn't just the president-elect throwing a tantrum because Buzzfeed says he likes golden showers or Meryl Streep called him a bully or anything else he tweets about. This is calculated.

To fight, we need our citizens to be knowledgable. That knowledge comes from education (about the past, theories, scientific method, critical thinking, and so on) and the media (about what is going on in the world currently). We need a media that is not only motivated to tell the truth, but protected in its right to do so. But as Trump has shown, even with a Bill of Rights guaranteeing the freedom of the press, you can still take away that power and silence that voice, by convincing citizens to doubt what they hear and stop listening. Yes, some news is fake. But determining that should come from critical thinking and evidence, not what the president says.

Do not be misled. Do not be convinced when he tells you something is overly politically correct or fake news. And more importantly, do not laugh and call him a buffoon. To do so greatly underestimates just how dangerous his rhetoric and his actions are.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Uber Movement

Recently, Uber unveiled its new data platform, Movement, which provides anonymous aggregated data on road network performance, travel times, and so on. Linda Poon at CityLab offers some commentary on this new tool, which she feels was released to mend ties with cities that have demanded data from Uber in the past:
Uber isn’t releasing all the data collected over the last six years the company has been in operation. But its new tool, Movement, lets cities in on traffic patterns based on millions of trips taken over time. (The data released is anonymous.) The tool, which is currently available in Boston, Manila, Sydney, and Washington, D.C., tracks how long it takes to get from one point to another, and how that changes depending on the time of the day, day of the week, and factors like road shutdowns or city-wide events. It also allows users to look at patterns over a period of time.

That’s only one of the many ways Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation, imagines cities can take advantage of the tool. It’s all part of the company’s efforts to improve its relationship with cities: In fact, Salzberg says that creating the product involved collaborating with city planners to figure out what they need.

It isn’t quite the highly coveted data that cities want from Uber and the like. New York City, along with other local governments, is more interested in knowing when and where passengers get picked and dropped off—what Mayor Bill de Blasio has demanded and Uber has refused to deliver, on grounds of privacy protection for its riders.
The notion of privacy versus transparency for users has gotten a lot more attention and discussion in the age of social media, and opinions on the matter tend to differ (unsurprisingly) by generation. As a researcher and data scientist (if I'm feeling very generous toward myself, I'll use that title), privacy and data security are very important to me and something I think about daily. More data and potentially features will be released in the future, so it will be interesting to see how this tool evolves as opinions on privacy vs. transparency shift.

Chicago data is not yet available, but perhaps it will help inspire some new taglines for the various Chicagoland highways.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Future of VA

During his press conference today, Trump announced his choice for Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Dr. David Shulkin, who is currently the undersecretary for health of the Veterans Health Administration, the healthcare arm of VA. (The other two arms are Veterans Benefits and Cemetery/Burial Services.) So Dr. Shulkin comes into this job with a strong knowledge of VA, especially VHA, as well as experience as a leader of other healthcare organizations. I'm hopeful that his appointment will lead to some positive changes in VA, and will signal an overhaul, as opposed to privatization or movement to a voucher system.

VA certainly has problems. As a former employee, I know about many of those issues, some of them from my own experiences. But VA is still the best place for Veterans to receive their care, especially Veterans with conditions directly related to their combat experience: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, polytraumatic injury (multiple traumatic injuries, like both TBI and SCI) and Agent Orange exposure, just to name a few. The nuances of these particular conditions among Veterans make it difficult for them to receive care from providers who are experienced in dealing with these issues when they seek care outside of VA. The experience of a combat Veteran with PTSD is completely different from a sexual assault survivor with PTSD, and the types of treatments best suited also differ. And certain conditions cluster in Veterans in different ways than they do the general population, so a Veteran may need multiple providers in the private sector, when they could get the same quality of care from fewer providers in VA. And VA is exploring many programs and projects that help to deliver care to Veterans who are unable to get to a medical center or clinic (such as their teleHealth and Home Care programs) or who live too far from a large medical center to see particular specialists (projects like SCAN-ECHO).

A voucher system would force Veterans to find providers who can handle their conditions, rather than simply putting the providers best suited for their needs in one place. The quality of Veteran health would go down, and the onus would be entirely on the patient. Obviously, movements like patient-centered care, which focuses on, among other things, educating patients and helping them to share in decision-making about their care, are incredibly important and must continue. But there is a difference between empowering patients and giving them an impossible puzzle to solve.

I'm also hopeful that VA will continue to fund and conduct research to improve care among patients. VA research has resulted in many innovations that are becoming part of care in the private sector: things like daily aspirin regimens, cardiac pace-makers, and deep brain stimulation for Parkinson's disease were developed and informed by VA researchers. And as I've said before, without research, our quality of life - and in this case, our quality of health care - will stagnate.

End of an Era

Yesterday, in my cab ride home from the eye doctor, I had a long conversation with my driver, who was born in Africa, moved to New York City, and moved to Chicago just 3 weeks after 9/11. Working just blocks away from the World Trade Center, he watched the attacks happen. He had an incredible story to tell, and we both bonded over our mutual love of our beautiful city. Last night, President Obama was also in this beautiful city, delivering his farewell address. I wish I could have been there. In case you missed it, or want to relive it, you can read the full transcript and watch video here.

And now the real terror of what is to come over the next four years sets in. As reported by The Daily Parker, Trump currently has an approval rating of 37%, the lowest of any incoming president since these data began being recorded in 1953, and putting him on par with discredited leaders right before leaving office. He can probably expect a bump following his inauguration, but Trump's presidency will likely be anything but typical.

In fact, he's made yet another appointment that has scientifically-minded folks fearing for the future: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been asked to chair a commission on vaccination and scientific integrity. Oh, by the way, he's gone on record as saying he believes the DISCREDITED claim that vaccines cause autism. Exactly who you want leading a committee on scientific integrity - someone who believes a study that was completely fraudulent, that was retracted, and the author/researcher stripped of his medical license.

Dear god, what's next?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Pants-Free Public Transit

What began as a prank in 2002 New York City has grown into an international phenomenon: No Trousers on the Tube Day:

Hundreds of Britons, of all shapes and sizes, stripped down and kept a straight face as they rode on the underground in their underwear.

Confused commuters also saw the pranksters take part in a mannequin challenge on the concourse at Kings's Cross Station in central London.

Organiser Ivan Markovic said: "We have been running it for eight years here. We travel the Tube on the first Sunday of the year and just make a scene. We make people smile. We make people laugh and we get some lovely reactions."
Sadly, the big day was apparently January 8, so I missed the celebration. But there's always next year...

Cabinet Nominations

I had an eye doctor appointment earlier, and as I was in the waiting room, eyes in the process of dilating, I had the chance to watch some of the confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions, appointed as Attorney General. It was interesting to hear the content of each side's arguments for or against Sen. Session's appointment - with those opposed to his appointment highlighting his positions on abortion, same sex marriage, and immigration, as well as discussing stances or actions that could signal some of the same racist views as the President-Elect who appointed him, and those in favor of his appointment highlighting the work he did with regard to the Civil Rights movement and, golly gee, he's a great guy. I suspect we're going to hear a lot of this going forward, due to Trump's history of sexist/racist statements - hearings where the focus is on showing the appointee is not racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., while in other venues, Trump supporters explain away Trump's statements.

Despite this, as Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight points out, it's likely that most to all of these appointees will be confirmed:
From 1977 to 2013, the last six incoming presidents — Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama — made 109 appointments to Cabinet-level positions. Just six failed: Five nominees withdrew, and one was voted down by the Senate. The Senate confirmed 103 during the same span, 93 of whom were unanimously approved or not seriously contested. Ten were confirmed in contested votes. (I’m defining “contested” as more than six nay votes — admittedly a somewhat arbitrary cutoff.) Including the one rejection, that means that, whenever there was genuine dissent over a floor vote, the nominee was confirmed anyway 10 times out of 11.

It has always been rare for the Senate to outright reject a Cabinet nomination. Only nine Cabinet appointees in all of U.S. history — by new presidents plus ones attempting to fill vacancies in the middle of their terms — have ever been voted down by the Senate. The most recent Senate veto came in 1989, when John Tower, President George H.W. Bush’s pick for secretary of defense, went down to defeat 53–47 amid revelations of alcohol abuse, womanizing and conflicts of interest. And that was with a hostile, Democratic-controlled Senate; the last same-party Senate to nix a president’s nominee did so in 1925.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Gender, Co-Authors, and Attributions about Contribution

It's not very often that a researcher who publishes an article solo decides to call that out with a footnote reading "This paper is intentionally solo authored." Why did Harvard University PhD student Heather Sarsons call this out? Because her study examines gender and co-authorship among economics faculty members seeking tenure. Women are less likely to be tenured in economics departments, and Sarsons wanted to find out why that might be. It turns out that having co-authored articles on one's CV has differential impacts on tenure decisions, depending on the gender of the author as well as the gender or his/her co-authors:
To determine the impact of co-authorship, Sarsons tracked all of economics professors who came up for tenure between 1985 and 2014 at 30 top universities, all places that stress tenure candidates' research credentials. She considered various factors to control for paper and journal quality through such measures as citation indexes.

Her findings:
  • Men and women who are solo authors of most of their papers have similar rates of tenure, when factoring in measures of paper quality.
  • When men co-author papers, each such paper is associated with an increase of 8 percent in the odds of the man earning tenure. But when women co-author papers, each such paper is associated only with a 2 percent increase in the odds of earning tenure.
Sarsons argues in her paper that there is additional evidence that women and men are judged differently when they co-author papers. When women co-author papers with women, the impact of co-authored papers is similar to that for male faculty members. But when papers are co-authored with men, there is more of an impact, suggesting that review committees assume that papers written by a man and a woman reflect the work of the man more than the woman.
Part of the issue is that the convention in economics is to list article names alphabetically. So it would be interesting to see if these effects hold true in fields where authors are listed in terms of contribution/effort. Sarsons herself says more research is needed on this topic, and was hesitant to offer advice based on her findings, though she mentioned women might want to try to work with other female co-authors to ensure their efforts are being weighted properly. Of course, let's not forget that reviewers have rejected articles written by women for failing to have a male co-author.

So which do we academic ladies prefer: rock or hard place?

On Economics, the Golden Globes, and Geographic Clustering

The recent presidential election is still an important topic for discussion among my friends, and obviously others as well, as Meryl Streep demonstrated during her Golden Globes speech last night while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award:

Streep argues that she and other celebrities need to use their power and privilege to fight Trump, who himself used power and privilege to bully. This group of wealthy celebrities who vehemently oppose Trump are perhaps one of the many groups people have used to argue that Trump's election was not about economics. However, Ben Casselman from FiveThirtyEight insists that we stop saying Trump's election had nothing to do with economics: it did, just not in the way people initially thought:
Economic hardship doesn’t explain Trump’s support. In fact, quite the opposite: Clinton easily won most low-income areas. But anxiety is a different story. Trump, as FiveThirtyEight contributor Jed Kolko noted immediately after the election, won most counties — and improved on Romney’s performance — where a large share of jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. And while there is no standard measure of economic anxiety, a wide range of other plausible proxies shows the same pattern. According to my own analysis of voting data, for example, the slower a county’s job growth has been since 2007, the more it shifted toward Trump. (The same is true looking back to 2000.) And of course Trump performed especially strongly among voters without a college degree — an important indicator of social status but also of economic prospects, given the shrinking share of jobs (and especially well-paying jobs) available to workers without a bachelor’s degree.

The role of economic anxiety becomes even clearer in the data once you control for race. Black and Hispanic Americans tend both to be poorer and to face worse economic prospects than non-Hispanic whites, but they also had strong non-economic reasons to vote against Trump, who had a history of making racist comments. Factoring in the strong opposition to Trump among most racial and ethnic minorities, Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties where residents had lower credit scores and in counties where more men have stopped working.

The list goes on: More subprime loans? More Trump support. More residents receiving disability payments? More Trump support. Lower earnings among full-time workers? More Trump support. “Trump Country,” as my colleague Andrew Flowers described it shortly after the election, isn’t the part of America where people are in the worst financial shape; it’s the part of America where their economic prospects are on the steepest decline.
This morning, a friend with whom I've discussed the election a great deal, sent me an article published in the Economist several years ago, which offers another - though not mutually exclusive - explanation, and may explain why myself and others who did not support Trump were so surprised by the number of votes Trump was able to earn. It's a similar phenomenon to what playwright Arthur Miller commented on in 2004: "How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?" The answer is geographic clustering:
Americans are increasingly forming like-minded clusters. Conservatives are choosing to live near other conservatives, and liberals near liberals.

A good way to measure this is to look at the country's changing electoral geography. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 26.8% of Americans were in “landslide counties” that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.

The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then. In the dead-heat election of 2000, it was 45.3%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48.3%.

Where you live is partly determined by where you can afford to live, of course. But the “Big Sort” does not seem to be driven by economic factors. Income is a poor predictor of party preference in America; cultural factors matter more. For Americans who move to a new city, the choice is often not between a posh neighbourhood and a run-down one, but between several different neighbourhoods that are economically similar but culturally distinct.

For example, someone who works in Washington, DC, but wants to live in a suburb can commute either from Maryland or northern Virginia. Both states have equally leafy streets and good schools. But Virginia has plenty of conservative neighbourhoods with megachurches and Bushites you've heard of living on your block. In the posh suburbs of Maryland, by contrast, Republicans are as rare as unkempt lawns and yard signs proclaim that war is not the answer but Barack Obama might be.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Birthday Weekend

Another year, another birthday. I spent the evening before my birthday at the opera and hanging out with friends, and also making some new friends - everyone wants to buy you a drink when it's your birthday. So yesterday, the actual day, was really low-key: sleeping in, Netflix, reading, takeout. I opened gifts from my family and went to bed early. It was the perfect counterpoint to my wild Friday night. Today, I'm doing more reading, and hopefully doing some long-overdue writing, before going to one of my favorite restaurants this evening.

Birthdays have always been tough for me. Being the coldest time of the year, it's usually difficult to organize outings. Years ago, a cousin committed suicide on his birthday, and when I reached his age, every birthday after that was a reminder: I'm older now than he will ever be. In fact, I'm sure birthdays - turning a year older - are hard for most people. A friend on Facebook said wishing someone happy birthday is like cheering at regular intervals while someone's life runs out. That's not really how I think about, but I suppose it's accurate.

Growing up, one of my good friends had the same birthday as me, though she was a few years younger. And several years ago, at a friend's wedding, I met a true birthday buddy: someone born the same day and year as me. There's an interesting concept known as the birthday paradox, which is a great demonstration of probability.

The birthday paradox is essentially that in a room of 23 people, the chance that two people will have the same birthday is about 50%. How could this possibly be? Better Explained offers a post that demonstrates the math behind this concept. But to summarize, most people get hung up on the probability that a specific day will be someone's birthday: 1/365. But the math behind the birthday paradox deals with paired comparisons. The chance of two randomly selected people having different birthdays is 1-1/365, or 0.9973. When we have 23 people to choose from, we have 253 paired comparisons. And when we examine this kind of probability, we use exponents. The probability that all 23 people have different birthdays is (1-1/365)^253, or 0.4995. Meaning the probability that at least 2 people have the same birthday is 1-0.4995, or 0.5005.

Friday, January 6, 2017

On Standardized Testing, Educational Policy, and Statistics

Earlier today, I encountered the following article on Facebook: I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems. The article is written by Sara Holbrook, a poet and educator who learned that two of her poems were being used in the Texas STAAR assessments and who had issues with the questions generated to accompany her poems. I understand and agree with many of the concerns she poses in her article, but at the same time, had some pretty strong reactions to things she said in the article that I, as someone who works in test development, found to be completely inaccurate.

But first, a caveat: the Texas STAAR assessments are developed and administered by Pearson. I do not work for Pearson, I don't know anything about how they do things, and Holbrook's criticisms of Pearson may be completely valid. All I know is my experience working for another company that sells similar assessments, a company that could be considered a competitor to Pearson. I also need to stress that I can't divulge anything that would be considered privileged company knowledge.

First off, Holbrook discusses the "lack of experience" among test scorers, who are, as she says, "routinely hired from ads on (where else?), Craiglist, [and] also receive scant training." She links to an article written by one such test scorer. The thing is, she's discussing the closed-ended questions about her own poems while also discussing the lack of experience by test scorers who (and this is even clearly stated in the article to which she linked) score the open-ended written responses. These are two different tests. The questions she takes issue with are responded to with good old bubble sheets and are electronically scored.

Second, she discusses research that found test scores could be predicted using demographic data, and links to another HuffPo article which states:
Tienken et. al. have demonstrated that we do not need to actually give the Common Core-linked Big Standardized Test in order to generate the “student achievement” data, because we can generate the same data by looking at demographic information all by itself.

Tienken and his team used just three pieces of demographic data—

1) percentage of families in the community with income over $200K
2) percentage of people in the community in poverty
3) percentage of people in community with bachelor’s degrees

Using that data alone, Tienken was able to predict school district test results accurately in most cases. In New Jersey 300 or so middle schools, the team could predict middle school math and language arts test scores for well over two thirds of the schools.
Assessment serves many purposes but we could simplify it down to two:

1. How well is a school doing overall and/or is a program effective overall?
2. How well is a particular student doing?

Tienken and colleague's study looked at predicting overall performance at schools, and it looks like they were able to do so fairly accurate for over two-thirds of the schools. But that's not all of them, and when current educational policies base things like funding off of school performance, two-thirds accurate is probably not going to be acceptable for the remaining schools, especially if the prediction equation underestimates how well they are doing.

But even more importantly, this study highlights the difference between an idiographic approach (understanding and predicting for people in general) and a nomothetic approach (understanding and predicting for one particular person). If you want to understand the performance of a single student and use that information to, say, decide if they need an individualized education program (either because they are way below or way above grade level in their abilities), you need that student's actual data. That means conducting rigorous measurement of that particular case, because what is true in general may not be true for one particular person. In statistics, which is generally focused on "people in general," we call that error. But for understanding an individual, it may be error or it may be something else.

Third, but strongly related to number two, is that Holbrook insists test developers are not going to let go of Common Core because it makes them money:
When I heard the campaign promises to eliminate the Common Core made by Donald Trump, I thought, yeah, right. Wait until someone educates him on how much money is being made making kids miserable with these useless tests. Talk is cheap. School testing is big bucks, and those testers are not going down without a fight.
Yes, these assessments are conducted to examine the effectiveness of Common Core while also examining school performance to make sure they are abiding by Common Core, and for decisions about funding and so on. But Common Core is not the only educational policy, nor is the only reason these assessments are conducted. If Common Core goes away, it would be replaced with some other educational policy that is going to require, you guessed it, assessment. In fact, any program will require assessment, because we need to measure performance to demonstrate that a program is working (or not working). This is the nature of program evaluation. We can't just ask people how well they think they know something, or simulate data based on demographics, which is essentially what Holbrook and Peter Greene (who wrote the other article linked above) are arguing for. We need real data.

When I worked for Chicago Public Schools, we did a lot of work with assessment data. BTW, this was pre-Common Core. The assessments we worked with then were for other policies, like No Child Left Behind. And when I was in public school in the 1980's and 1990's, we regularly took standardized assessments, like the Iowa Assessments. And in my case, my scores on those Iowa Assessments were what resulted in me being tested, using a different kind of standardized test (an individually administered cognitive ability test, specifically the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children), for the gifted program. Assessment is a big part of education and educational policy, and in addition to group administered standardized tests, schools will keep using individually administered tests. These companies are going to do just fine, even without Common Core. So if Common Core needs to go away (and personally, I think it at least needs to be changed, perhaps dropped altogether), it will. It will just be replaced with something else.

And in fact, even if the national Department of Education were completely gutted, as some fear may happen in the new administration, we'd still have assessments required by state and local boards of education. That's right - some of the assessments taken by your students are required at the state- or local-level, not the federal-level.

I can understand Holbrook's arguments, especially understanding her perspective as an educator who sees these assessments are taking away from valuable classroom time. And I agree with that perspective. Yes, I work in test development and I think we may be over-testing our students. But some of her conclusions are based on inaccuracies and myths more than fact.

WTF Is Up with Swearing

For a few years, a good friend of mine has given up swearing for Lent. It apparently takes a lot of conscious effort and there are certainly slip-ups, where profanities come out before he has the chance to suppress them. An article in Time explores the scientific research around swearing. Not only can it help us to deal with experiences like pain, it also appears to be somewhat involuntary:
When researchers observed how people dealt with the pain of submerging their hands in icy water, they found that people could withstand more discomfort if they repeated a swear word, rather than a non-swear word. Scientists have also found that unlike most sounds we utter, cussing can happen in both voluntary and involuntary ways. The latter—like when we drop our keys in the snow and yell “F-ck” without consciously deciding to—offer evidence that language isn’t just produced one way in the brain. That has clinical and research implications, says Bergen, and it may tell us something about why we came to communicate as we do.

It also suggests that these emotionally charged words can become so deeply ingrained in us that uttering them toes the line of being a physical act rather than a symbolic one, more like a sneeze than a sentence. “When you say them,” [psychologist Timothy] Jay says, “you feel something.”
We've all probably had the experience of uttering a swear word involuntarily, often in situations where we really shouldn't swear. And many of my friends with kids have discussed times their young children have sworn after dropping something. In fact, we probably all remember this scene from A Christmas Story:

In his research, Jay has recorded and analyzed clips of people swearing, to try to understand why we do it. Swearing offers us a release of our emotions, and elicits a physical response, not unlike fight or flight. Benjamin Bergen, another researcher interviewed for the article, has even written a book on swearing: What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.

I've recently become more conscious of swearing in my writing. Before, I would try to avoid it as much as possible - my mom was a children's writer and very strongly dislikes bad language - but I felt that it left my characters too wooden. If they spoke more like I did, and the way many of my friends do, they would be a bit more crass. Now I just let fly in my writing. None of my readers have commented on it, positively or negatively, which is probably the best reaction.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

More Data on the Election

This morning, Harry Enten from FiveThirtyEight reported that registered voters who stayed home were more likely to be Democrat. This is based on a SurveyMonkey poll of 100,000 registered voters, including 3,600 who were registered but did not vote:
Election-year polls understandably focus on likely voters. Then, after the election, the attention turns to actual voters, mainly using exit polls. But getting good data on Americans who didn’t vote is more difficult. That’s why the SurveyMonkey poll, which interviewed about 100,000 registered voters just after Election Day, including more than 3,600 registered voters who didn’t vote, is so useful. It’s still just one poll, and so its findings aren’t gospel, but with such a big sample we can drill down to subgroups and measure the demographic makeup of nonvoters to an extent we couldn’t with a smaller dataset.

Registered voters who identified as Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to stay home.

It seems reasonable that many of these voters stayed home because they didn't know who to vote for or didn't want to vote for the person their party selected. And in fact, favorability ratings of either candidate were lower among people who didn't vote. However, Enten argues that because of the high correlation between party affiliation and voting, and because other polls show people who didn't identify with either candidate tended to vote for Clinton over Trump, these registered voters who stayed home would probably have voted for Clinton if they had actually voted on Election Day.

On Guns and Background Checks

This morning, I encountered two studies examining guns and background checks. The first examined school shootings, finding that 154 shootings occurred between 2013 and 2015. Using newspaper articles from that time period, as well as publicly available data, they found that school shootings were less likely to occur in states with background check laws, higher expenditures on mental health care, and higher expenditures on K-12 education.

Based on these data, we might be able to conclude that if guns are more difficult to get (i.e., background check), they're less likely to be used for school shootings. This would suggest background checks are a good thing - as is mental health treatment and education, of course. Unfortunately, the second study I read was based on a national survey of how many people were able to purchase guns without a background check. And they found that 22% of people surveyed were able to purchase a gun without such a check. When you look at private sales between individuals (which includes gun shows), that number jumps to 50%. Even in states that regulate private gun sales, 26% said they were able to purchase a gun without a background check.

As the article points out, the previous figure from 1994 data suggested that 40% were able to purchase a gun without a background check. So these new data suggest improvement. But considering the lives that could be saved from background checks, that's still a lot of guns that could be in the hands of people who really shouldn't have guns in the first place.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

When They Go Low, We Get High

If you, like myself (and many people I know), are incredibly worried about the upcoming inauguration of President-Elect Trump (god, it still hurts to type that), take heart - or rather, take solace in the free joints the DC Cannabis Coalition will be giving away in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day:
It all starts at 8:00 a.m. January 20th on the west side of Dupont Circle. Then, marchers will walk to the National Mall where the real protest will begin.

“The main message is it’s time to legalize cannabis at the federal level," said Adam Eidinger, the founder of DCMJ, a group of D.C. residents who introduced and helped get initiative 71 passed in the District. Initiative 71 made it legal to possess two ounces or less or marijuana, to grow it, and to give it away, but it is not legal to sell it.

The great marijuana giveaway is legal, as long as it's done on D.C. land.

"We don't want any money exchanged whatsoever, this is really a gift for people who come to Washington, D.C.," he said.

There will 4,200 gifts, to be exact. Then, at 4 minutes and 20 seconds into Trump's speech (420 is the internationally known code for weed), they'll light up. That part, is most definitely illegal.

"We are going to tell them that if they smoke on federal property, they are risking arrest. But, that's a form of civil disobedience," said Eidinger. "I think it's a good protest. If someone wants to do it, they are risking arrest, but it's a protest and you know what, the National Mall is a place for protest."