Posted in Rants on May 12th, 2016 by Ed

Anyone who has taught for a living knows that you pick your battles. You can't carry on like you're prepared to die on every single hill because damn there are a lot of hills – more than you realize at first and they seem to multiply whenever you're not looking.

A few weeks ago someone posted a comment that they observed a student cheating on an exam. There's an obvious issue of integrity there, but two others that aren't so obvious. One is the monumental hassle it entails to discipline a student for academic dishonesty these days. The other is the fact, in his words, that the student was well on his/her way to failing anyway. So on the one hand, the instructor could go through a bunch of hoops to fail a student for cheating. That is the Right thing to do. On the other hand, he could save himself the hassle and let it be.

My biggest frustration – and believe me, this happens every semester, every year – is students failing to show up for exams. They forget about them, fail to set their alarms, yadda yadda. Everything about my personality and the way I see my job makes me want to give them a zero. It is the only way they will learn anything from the experience. But there are times when letting them take a make-up exam is just…the easier thing to do. The path of least resistance. I'm not happy about it, but I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't happen.

Here's what we tell ourselves when we let supposed adult students get away with behaving like children in a consequence-free environment: "This will catch up with them in the long run." In other words, a college student might be able to talk some administrator or professor into letting him make up an exam he slept through, but when in the future he sleeps through something important at work…his ass is fired. Because he learned nothing from the experience in college other than "I can get away with anything!", he'll inevitably do it again in the future. And when he does, there will be consequences. Real consequences.

Lately I've wondered, though: Are there? Or is this just a thing we tell ourselves to feel better about the fact that we have a hard time being strict? Part of me believes that someone who lacks the basic organizational and emotional skills necessary to do things like meet deadlines and complete tasks is bound to be chewed up and spit out in the working world. Part of me wonders if the people who skate by on complaining and making excuses now will continue to do it in the future. Sleeping through class is a good gateway drug to sleeping through other things. Failing to do academic work on a deadline seems like a great way to get in the habit of not making deadlines in the future. So I hope there will be consequences, but lately I'm not so sure.

We learn quickly in adolescence that life isn't fair. The rest of life exists to confirm that. If some people can slack their way through one part of life, maybe they can slack their way through others in the future. Conversely, we all live in an At-Will labor environment wherein we can find ourselves laid off or terminated even if we do our jobs really well, let alone if they fail to show up on time and do what they're paid to do. I know some people are really good at working the system, and I (and of course others) have to deal with it all the time. We hope that everyone gets what's coming to them in the long run, but I've been alive long enough to understand how rarely just desserts are served.


Posted in Rants on May 10th, 2016 by Ed

I don't even know what that title is supposed to mean.

Of interest this election season has been fake pundit Carl "The Dig" Diggler, the creation of two comedy writers, who not incidentally has predicted correctly the outcome of twice as many primaries as Almighty Beltway Knowledge God Nate Silver. Their prediction "method" involves little more than "gut feelings" and comedic stereotypes of the residents of different states, and so to even call it a method is unjustified. But that's precisely the point.

Nate Silver is, on the whole, a force for good. Attempts to provide analysis that relies on empirical data are, and always will be, an unqualified positive. His (at this point it is hard to separate him from his FiveThiryEight colossus, which of course involves other analysts and writers) reputation has taken a blow in 2016, though, and frankly I'm not sorry to see it happen. His analysis has always been terribly basic – on the order of something a good undergraduate statistics course would cover – and the reputation he has built as some sort of data god is a bit much. He has become, intentionally or otherwise, a liberal Bill Kristol; it doesn't matter if he's always wrong, he's still brilliant.

Two aspects of Silver's predictions deserve serious criticism, one of which Mr. Diggler emphasizes. He has a really annoying tendency to hide behind probability – "I didn't say Clinton would win, I merely said there was a 99% chance she would win!" Empirically, this makes perfect sense. Probabilistic analysis is never 100% accurate and does not claim to be. In the face of a large number of incorrect predictions, though, someone treated as an idol should have a better defense of his supposedly brilliant methods than The Simpsons' classic "Well, when you're right 52% of the time, you're wrong 48% of the time" gag. ("OK Jimmy, you're off the hook!")

The part that always has bothered me – and yes, of course I'm jealous – is that Silver became A Genius by predicting the outcomes accurately of two very, very easy to predict elections – 2008 and 2012 – in which a simple average, even an unweighted one, of barely-scientific polls by state was sufficient to see that the Electoral Vote would be lopsided. Those were not especially close elections, and it is not difficult to predict the outcomes of elections that are not especially close. As for his correct predictions of many other statewide races such as Senate and gubernatorial races, his model amounts to little more than averaging poll results obtained by other organizations and which are publicly available. In 2016, so far we see that the same magical techniques that told us McCain was going to get blown out (duh) are of minimal use in predicting an outcome that isn't totally obvious.

Yes, primaries are much more volatile and difficult to predict due to a number of factors like low voter turnout and a large, shifting field of candidates. In that sense we would expect predictions to be less accurate. But that's exactly the problem for Silver; it's becoming very easy to say "Well if you can't predict a race correctly unless all the conditions for making a correct prediction exist, what are you really doing? What good is this?" That has been the thorn in my paw with Silver all along. It's like saying that you can hit a lot of home runs, provided the pitcher throws the ball exactly where you want it, how you want it, with the wind blowing out at 50 mph. The limits of the Big Data approach and worship thereof are becoming very obvious. Like public opinion polling (on which much of 538/Silver is based), it is a useful tool when the gap between or among options is greater than the margin of error. When it isn't, the data don't tell you much at all. At that point you're effectively guessing. And Silver puts a number on his guesses, which gives them the imprimatur of scientific authority ("Clinton has a 63% chance to win!" – so precise!). But in reality he's telling you that Clinton is slightly more likely than Sanders to win a given race; the odds are about 3 in 5. That's an improvement on a coin flip, but it isn't much of an improvement.

It is far better to hear someone talk about data than to listen to some empty suit talk about his hunches or his conversations with various cab drivers. I'll take a Nate Silver column over 99% of what's out there for consumption. But people really need to stop chanting his name like it's a magical talisman that all but guarantees victory. What he's doing is not that complicated and, more importantly, not that useful unless the outcome of a given race is not in doubt. If the new working definition of genius is the ability to avoid being wrong about outcomes that are obvious, then I wish someone had sent out a memo in the mid-00s that the position was being filled. I, or anyone else with a basic understanding of political data, could just as easily have filled it.


Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2016 by Ed

Philip Converse was the most important scholar of public opinion in the 20th Century. Even those who vehemently disagreed with his findings and conclusions used his work – particularly "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics" – as the starting point for any academic treatment of how Americans organize political ideas. A portion of his seminal work deserves a closer look, as the current election is giving us daily reminders to its effect.

Briefly, Converse believed that the public fell into one of five groups in terms of how they organized their political thinking. A common criticism since Converse has been his definition of liberal-conservative ideology as the "correct" way to do it, with all other schemas inferior to different degrees. His estimates of what share of the public fall into each category are also easy to poke full of holes. Neither of those criticisms are relevant to the point I am about to make; I'm just preempting the need to point out that Converse's work is 50 years old and a great deal has been said about it in the intervening years.

The first group – people who do it correctly, in the eyes of 1960s political scientists – are Ideologues. They evaluate political ideas by comparing them to a "yardstick" defined by the liberal-conservative spectrum of ideas. Ideologues are consistent; a liberal position on one issue is likely to be found with a liberal position on other issues. Second we have Near Ideologues. These people reference the liberal-conservative spectrum and appear to understand it but do not rely on it heavily – in essence they know how to drive but they prefer to take the bus. Third are Group Interest types, people who see politics in terms of which groups each party represents (Democrats represent labor, Republicans represent business interests). They rarely understand any issue that cannot be framed in terms of which group it serves. Fourth are people barely hanging on to some sense of coherence – "Nature of the Times." They form opinions by assigning credit or blame for anything that happens to the party in power when it happened. Republicans are bad because they caused the Depression, for example.

The final group is where things get ugly. Converse labeled them NIC: No Issue Content. These people have a party they identify with but cannot explain what it stands for. They have opinion, but opinions with "no shred of policy significance whatever." They like individual candidates based on their personal attributes and they have no substantive understanding of any policy issue, so the ideas they appear to support can appear quite random and perplexing to the observer in aggregate.

Re-read that last sentence. Does that sound familiar?

The most incredible thing about the Trump campaign from an academic / political science perspective is that we have the rare opportunity to observe a major party campaign with no ideological content whatsoever. There is no coherence to anything about Trump, policy-wise, and this reflects his supporters' similar lack of meaningful ideology. On what rare occasions that he does put forth an actual idea it 1) makes no sense and 2) bears no identifiable relationship to any other idea he mentioned before or since. It is the definition of random. His appeal, in the eyes of his supporters, is that he is Tough or Bold or some personal characteristic that one could only get from watching and listening to Trump if one does not understand what anything in the realm of ideas in American politics actually means. Moreover, one must explicitly not care what any of it means.

For example, Trump recently stated that his bold plan for dealing with the national debt was that, as a brilliant negotiator, he would convince holders of Treasury obligations to take a haircut – in other words, to accept fifty cents on the dollar or something like that, as a bankruptcy court might force creditors to do during a liquidation or reorganization. This is almost too stupid to bother explaining why it is stupid, as though the Treasury of the largest economy on the planet is no different than a failing casino trying to talk down its debts to a bunch of Mustache Petes who put up the initial investment. It is such a stupid idea that it falls short of qualifying as an idea; it's the kind of thing someone who has absolutely no idea how anything related to the economy works would think is a really brilliant solution.

The problem, from Trump's perspective, is that there simply aren't enough such people in the electorate. Converse estimated (again, his estimates have been subject to much debate) that no more than 1 in 5 voters fall into this category, and since then most analyses have treated that as incautiously high. If there's one thing academics like more than calling people stupid, it's rationalizing ways that apparently stupid people are actually smart. Regardless, on the rare occasions that Trump says anything policy-related my mind automatically goes to Converse, because nothing he says bears any resemblance to a definable political ideology. And that's what Trump supporters like about it. To them it sounds brilliant, because they don't even understand the issues well enough to understand why his proposals are ridiculous.

Think of it this way. Say you're one of those people who is totally ignorant when it comes to cars, and your car is non-functional. I came over looking like the quintessential stereotype of a mechanic from TV – blue coveralls, grease stains, a name across my breast pocket, and wrench in hand. After fiddling with your car for a few minutes – and since you have not one clue about anything car-related, my various taps and fiddles will easily fool you into thinking I know what I'm doing so long as I'm a half-decent actor and I stay in character. I tell you that your car will never run again unless you replace your Pancake Manifold and fill the gas tank with Bensonol. If I've succeeded in exploiting your ignorance by portraying myself as a tough, efficient, brilliant mechanic, there's no reason to doubt me…as long as you don't know a sparkplug from a muffler.

That's how Trump's popularity works. The more he talks, the less anyone with half a brain is willing to support him. But to people for whom the ideas of politics are totally meaningless anyway, every sentence makes them love him more. His ideologically nonsensical ideas aren't a bug. They're his best feature.


Posted in No Politics Friday on May 5th, 2016 by Ed

My commute to and from work is very long, but so far I've had a great deal of luck avoiding the kind of unforeseen events that make it even longer. If I can do the drive in three hours or a little less that counts as Normal. On Thursday, in a series of events that would be considered comical had I not known for a fact that people died, the drive took ten minutes short of six. Six hours sitting in a car, mostly riding the brake, is enough to ruin anyone's day. Five hours into that you will find yourself quietly envying the dead.

First a major interstate was shut down and everyone forced off it (to continue an agonizing northbound crawl along the tiny rural roads of central Illinois). This easily set me back 90 minutes. Another major accident that necessitated landing a helicopter on the highway to remove victims (presumably) cost another hour. When yet another accident promised to add time to my stint on I-90, I exited to navigate my way home on Chicago side streets…only to find the major non-highway east-west road closed for maintenance. We were re-routed through, among much else, a cemetery.

At this point I began to wonder if it might not be best to stop, give the car keys to the first pedestrian in sight, and start a brand new life wherever I found myself.

Accordingly the vigor to write a proper NPF is missing. If you're in the mood for some environmental realism, check out these sad-funny pieces on Norilsk, Russia and Baotou, China, two cities dependent on the smelting of extremely toxic heavy metals for their economic existence. If anyone lives to 50 in those places, he or she should be whisked away and studied to learn their secret to immortality. Baotou is the source of 90% of rare earth elements upon which modern electronics rely, although interestingly they are not called "rare earth elements" because they are scarce. Most aren't.

It's not your typical NPF, but do you notice in the pics from those two cities there isn't a single living member of the plant kingdom? Not a tree, shrub, or blade of grass. Yeah. That's kind of jarring.


Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2016 by Ed

It has happened. After months of being reassured that it wouldn't happen, here we are.

Early in the primary season I said that the weakness of the rest of the (non-Trump) Republican field is a serious problem. But I was wrong too; I thought eventually the non-Trump votes would coalesce around Marco Rubio. He turned out to be one of the worst candidates of all, which is like calling someone one the meanest guards at Auschwitz. Standing out among this group is a feat. But the reality is that Republican voters likely would have voted for just about anyone over Trump, and the party is such a shitshow that finding "just about anyone" turned out to be impossible. In the end they had to pin their hopes on a man so loathsome that not one person who knew him personally or professionally could be found to say something good about him. Oh, and Kasich, whose strategy seems to be to get 8% of the vote in every primary but refuse to quit because something something I guess there's a strategy there but probably not.

The big money and bag men in the conservative movement bet on a candidate (Walker) so marble-mouthed, uncharismatic, mean, and stupid that he didn't even make it to the Iowa Caucus and one so fundamentally incompetent (Bush) that not even a famous name, all the money in creation, and the blessing of the entire GOP establishment could win him better than a third place finish anywhere. The field was so bad and the Republican electorate is so mentally skewed that a man with no elected experience who is quite possibly insane and who never even pretended like he was campaigning seriously (Carson) got 10% of the vote. Red-meat Bible thumpers like Huckabee and Santorum never got off the launching pad. Recycled losers like Jindal, Rick Perry, and Lindsey Graham got so little attention other than mocking laughter that they quit before they too could win their 1% in Iowa. Rand Paul proved that he has a cult following of about 8% of the GOP electorate, just like his dad, and nothing beyond that. Shockingly, it turned out that nobody in any party was prepared to take bloated live-action Nelson Muntz / Tony Soprano hybrid Chris Christie seriously, nor a hatchet-faced sociopath with literally no professional, political, or personal qualities to recommend her to serve as dog catcher let alone president. It was worse than a clown car; clowns are, at least occasionally, funny.

That left three "serious" candidates – Rubio, because he was the only one who could accurately impersonate a human; Trump, because he was winning; and Cruz, because nobody is quite sure why but there he was. Perhaps he was just enough of a bloodless cipher that your average oligarch felt he could be an effective placeholder. Perhaps because someone deluded someone into thinking Hispanics would vote for him. Perhaps because he was just…there. In the end, existing and taking up space seemed to be his strong suit. After Rubio's oh my god this is so embarrassing I can't even watch this software malfunction on live TV, that's what Cruz was. He was Present. If half of life is showing up, I'm struggling to figure out what the other half was for Cruz.

Kasich won one state – his own – and was not a serious candidate except in the minds of people who managed to convince themselves that despite winning 8% of the vote in every primary, the system could somehow be rigged to make him the winner because, well, he doesn't seem like he's going to leave behind a safe deposit box full of preserved skin samples from the people he's eaten. And in this field, that was an achievement on his part not to be taken lightly. But he was never going to sniff the nomination, not even close.

And so Republicans have to grapple with the reality that maybe, just possibly, the reason they couldn't produce a candidate to wrest the nomination away from a con man who isn't even a Republican and doesn't stand for anything in particular but sure is good at getting attention is that everyone they've been electing for the past 25 years is terrible. Almost without exception. By electing anyone willing to say "Obama sucks, we can bomb our way to security, brown people are scary, and the government needs to be drowned in a bucket" without bothering to vet them for, you know, sanity or a modicum of human interpersonal skills, they have loaded their party's ranks of potential candidates for high offices with people who are unelectable without the help of gerrymandering and low midterm election turnout. When it ceased to be important whether a candidate was creepy or insane or borderline illiterate or totally ignorant of the world outside of South Carolina and Fox News, the die was cast and it was only a matter of time until someone came from outside of the party and stole this from them. It turns out that when the system can't be manipulated and rigged to guarantee Republican wins no matter how bad the candidates are, those candidates struggle. Shocking, really. They turned to their party's bench and found nothing there. Imagine a sports team that abandoned tryouts and instead just took the first 20 people to show up and state a loyalty oath with apparent sincerity. What would that team look like on the field? Well, imagine no more. Here you have it.

The best part about this as an outsider who actively wishes ill upon the entire conservative movement is the knowledge that its reaction to this crisis will be to insist that it needs to get even more conservative and vicious. I can't wait.


Posted in Rants on May 2nd, 2016 by Ed

If it is impossible to understand a place completely without having lived there, then I guess I know the Midwest and not much else. Sure, I've moved around, but mostly around the region. This hasn't been intentional. It's a matter of where my academic and professional opportunities have been. Now that I teach here, there are a lot of frustrating reminders of one of the worst things about Midwesterners: being modest to a fault, and screwing themselves in the process. We aim low for the same reasons we buy shitty American cars even when we can afford better ones: because nothing is worse than being cocky. If we don't revel in mediocrity, our friends and neighbors are more than happy to knock us down a peg.

One thing I like about my current job is doing advising. Many schools have dedicated advising staff, but this way the faculty and students get to know one another a little better. It is, however, endlessly frustrating to try to get students to expand their worldview beyond central Illinois. As I have told them many times, the biggest difference between them and students at a fancy name brand East Coast university is not intelligence but ambition. Given equivalent academic skills, the student from Williams or Villanova or NYU wants to move to The City and be a big shot; my students want to move back home. Those students want to go to law school or to get a Master's and they aim for Ivy League schools; mine apply to unranked programs "close to home", i.e. in the middle of nowhere. It's not a question of resources, either, as the people I deal with are more than average in that area. It's the fact that no one has encouraged them to do anything for their entire lives except to live At Home. Aiming high to them means getting a middling law degree and then moving back home to work at the county courthouse on the square.

If that's the life people want for themselves, then that's great. More often I get the feeling that it's less the life they want than it is the only life they can conceive of, which isn't great. Maybe I can't explain this well enough to make sense to anyone else, but it's hard to hear the same excuses I've made all my life: it's too expensive, it's too far away, I'm not good enough for that. Is going to law school at Stanford or Harvard expensive? Sure is. But for that price you get to do whatever the hell you want for the rest of your life while getting paid well to do it. Which is, you know, a pretty good trade off.

It's not rare for college-aged people to be lacking in life experience and limited in worldview, so in that sense there's very little unique about my experiences. I simply never expected to be in the position of having to inflate their expectations. I assumed they'd all be aiming too high and I'd end up having to talk them down to something more realistic. This is a weird issue for me because more than anything I wish someone would have encouraged me to aim a little higher when I was younger, so I don't doubt that I'm projecting a little. Most of all, though, I want students to give themselves options so that whatever life they end up with does not make them feel trapped.

We tend to dislike people from the coasts for being egotistical and full of themselves, but honestly we would benefit from taking a page out of that playbook once in a while. In grad school a professor explained to me and my cohort that one of the reasons we (public school kids) have a hard time competing with the Ivy League kids is that they've spent their whole lives learning how to talk about how great they are and we've spent our lives downplaying and underselling anything that makes us stand out. It's not a difference in ability – although that factors in as well – it's a difference in attitude. It took a while to appreciate just how right he was.


Posted in Quick Hits on May 2nd, 2016 by Ed

Here's a screenshot I grabbed from CNN early last week. See if you notice anything odd.


Take a look at the secondary stories in the column on the left. You know, the "Kinda important but not too important" list. Halfway down, beneath the story about a zookeeper who got eaten by a tiger, we have two separate incidents with a total of 13 people shot dead.

What can you say anymore about a country in which eight and five people being shot to death almost simultaneously is barely news. We're so used to it, it is the background radiation of living in the U.S. We long ago passed the point of caring; now we're not even noticing.