Friday, 9 December 2016

And Then There Were None

Over the nearly 10 years I've posted comments (more off than on), I have not spent a lot of time talking about the job that I do; this is in part by design and in part because making mathematical models is not really terribly interesting to most people.  Now that I am back in the USA, I am frequently asked by people what it is that I "do," a practice that is not nearly so common in France, the country I had been living in until last summer.

I live now in the San Francisco Bay area, and telling people that I work in outcomes research making models for a biopharmaceutical company engenders a variety of reactions. People are not quite sure how to respond - it's not exactly "tech," so the people in my neighbourhood who are angry that young tech workers are pricing them out reserve their vitriol, since I am not young nor a techie.

But still, Big Pharma is one of the nefarious "Bigs" - one of the worst depending on the day, news, and mood. Just two days ago, Senator Bernard Sanders, who ran for and ultimately failed to win the nomination for president in the Democratic Party tried to introduce an amendment to a bill in the Senate that would have allowed CMS (the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid, the public health insurance entity of the US government for Americans over 65 and the poorest Americans) to, among other things, negotiate drug prices directly, and lift restrictions on the re-importation of medicines to the US.

He and his supporters reached for the usual rhetoric about pharmaceutical price gouging, and even went so far as to say that our industry are "ripping off" Americans.

I am not going to defend the pricing practices of my or any other company in a forum like this. It is my personal opinion that our spending patterns on health care is, in the long term, unsustainable, and anyone looking at the various curves with more than an ounce of understanding about accounting and algebra will agree.

I would, however, like to talk a bit about why I am not only not ashamed of my company and my industry, but I am proud to come to work every day, and why I reject - vocerifously - the idea anyone is being ripped off.

I'd like to start with an observation.

Again, I make mathematical models to estimate the long-term health benefits and risks of medicines as they are submitted for approbal by regulatory bodies like FDA (in the US) or EMA (Europe). Part of this work is so that, if approved, insurers - like Medicare - will then allow patients to have reasonable, appropriate access toi these medicines.

I am not a medical doctor nor a "scientist" in the sense that I don't own or wear a white lab coat. There is no stethoscope around my neck.

The main area of focus for me is in development of treatments for HIV.

Currently, according to CDC, there are more than a million Americans who are HIV positive.

Last Thursday, 1st December the world marked World AIDS Day, a day where people reflect on the impact of the disease, show solidarity and support for those living with HIV, and commit to fighting the disease.

Also, it's a day to pause and commemorate the people who are not with us.

People in my company, in a sense, are engaged in this sort of reflection every day. Teams work to improve the treatments available, to understand the nature of the disease better, and to continue research to discover a cure.

To say that the progress in our undestanding of the epidemic is profound is to understate the case. When I first left graduate school, I worked as an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. At that time, nearly 25 years ago, the course of disease was radically different, as was the language we used. Among other projects I worked on was a desperate search among thousands of patient records for any sort of marker that might indicate why some people who tested HIV+ progressed very rapidly through ARC (AIDS related complex), full blown AIDS, and in virtually every case, death (ARC is not even in the lexicon anymore), why some slowly, and why some seemed never to progress at all. It was hoped that something could be found that might lead to effective treatments.

There were essentially no effective options in those days.

But we were on the dawn of the era of the HAART era (highly-active anti-retroviral therapy), what came to be known as drug 'cocktails.'

Now, people diagnosed with HIV who are treated have life expectancies that are approaching those of HIV- individuals. One of the challenges now faced is how to deal with the comorbidities of old age in HIV patients. We have moved from dealing with people dying of AIDS to helping people live with HIV.

I recently attended a panel of HIV survivors here in San Francisco. One of the panelists was a man in his early 60s, whom I will call "Bob" (a three letter name for brevity).

Bob is a gay man, who had been living in the mid-west; 40 years ago, he moved to San Francisco, to the Castro neighbourhood because in those days, that was one of few places in the US that was welcoming to him. Here, he worked to create a life with new friends and social connections.

"Bob" felt that he had really arrived when he scored an invitation to a Christmas party. It was, at the time, quite a social coup,  That Christmas, he and perhaps 100 others gathered at a local auditorium to celebrate.

It was 1981.

In 1982, a strange illness started to strike his circle of friends, and at the party that December, there were noticeably fewer people.

In 1983, the group had grown smaller, and so the venue was moved from the auditorium to a restaurant dining room.

By 1985, the group met in someone's apartment.

Today, Bob is the only one left alive.

I think about Bob from time to time as I do my work. While in any group of friends, there is always going to be one final person left behind. But in this case, the entire cycle took less than 10 years. A whole group of friends, save for one, gone.

Because of the work that people in "Big Pharma" are doing, Bob's experience is not going to play out for the next generation. My role in this is small, but the one played by the people I work with is not.

My own father died more than 20 years ago of lung cancer. Big pharma is working on treatments that, undeniably, are expensive. But what these treatments mean is that some people - like my own father, perhaps - are going to live. It means empty seats at weddings and Christmas parties will be filled. It means life and it means hope.

Here, on the cusp of Silicon Valley, companies are fond of talking about how what they do will "disrupt" the status quo - how they are "changing the world." In a sense, this is true. But the world that they are changing is usually "how can I get from my apartment to dinner and back without trying to hail a cab" and what they are disrupting is communicating in less than 140 characters.

The world that medical research companies have disrupted is not measured in characters or tweets.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Last Week the Bird Tipped

There He Goes
Last week, as anyone who has not been watching "another channel" (Another channel?!? It was on all of the channels) knows, the United States held general elections, and the voters shocked, I suspect, even themselves in electing Donald Trump as the next president.

I confess, I, too went from sceptical, to surprised, to flabbergasted as the returns came in. Since we live on the west coast in San Francisco, California, the polls on the east coast - and subsequent projections - began to roll out before our work day was over.

Most everyone in the immediate offices around me were dialled in to CNN or ABC News, or Nate Silver's (creator of the 538 blog that had been tracking the polls for better than a year) web sites, tracing the results.

The Bay Area is decidedly to the left of even the state of California, which itself is left of the US as a whole, so needless to say, the day had begun with an almost gleeful anticipation.

There had been almost a festive atmosphere, as friends, peers, and others spoke of what voting for the first female president (and I do not know of a single person here, personally, who voted for Donald Trump) meant to them. (Aside: I did not vote for Trump or his opponent, Hillary Clinton, so my candidate was assured to lose).

ALL of the pollsters had projected that Hillary Clinton was a prohibitive favourite - some putting her likelihood at 98% (Sam Wang, a neuroscience professor at Princeton, and head of the Princeton Election Consortium). Wangwas confident not only that Clinton would win, but was going to win big (bigly, for those speaking Trump), and stated "If Trump wins more than 240 electoral votes, I'll eat a bug."

The authors mocked Silver for being overly cautious (Silver had projected Trump's likelihood of between 30 and 40%). Seems that the "bug" here was in Wang and his team's methods.

Nate Silver, who used more traditional methods, had been cautioning that estimates were exactly that - estimates with sampling error of 3 or 4% around them. In statistical terms, a 3% "margin of error" is based on what is called a "confidence interval," which is to say, that there is, in reality, an actual, accurate, existing value for that which is being estimated, and when one draws a sample, the range - tied to the sample, and not the value which itself does not move - will cover the true value in 95% of the experiments.

What Silver said was, there is a high confidence that the actual vote will result in Hillary's election, but there is a realistic chance that polls are NOT covering the true vote. And going further, Silver indicated that, IF there is something systematic that is driving biases, then there is a good chance that not one, but many, of the polls are erring in the same direction.

THAT is why Silver's models were much more sanguine about Trump's chances.

Put simply, IF there is a bias that under-estimates Trump's support in Ohio, it likely will under-estimate that support in Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and... 

Well, as we all know, there did appear to be something going on, and the result is President Elect Trump.

What happened?

I am not going to puff my own bona fides up, but I will point to a piece I wrote two months ago here.

In August,  Hillary Clinton had put together a large lead, and seemed on her way to an easy election. Pundits talked about how important the state of Florida was - and that that people needed to focus on Florida and Ohio, the two ultimate "swing" states.

My own feeling then was that the key state to watch was actually Pennsylvania, what I called at the time the Democrats' "canary in the coal mine."

I have long felt that Trump's chances in the general (election) rested on the state of Pennsylvania, and I think that looks stronger today than ever before. The electoral maths favour the Democrats in the short term, and the numbers are going to get longer, rather than shorter for the Republicans over the next few elections.

Just prior to the post, Hillary Clinton made her (now infamous) "basket of deplorables" comment - what I think just has to be regarded as one of the dumbest own-goals in modern politics.

A lot has been said and written about the comment since, with many (to this day) still clinging to a defence that the statement doesn't go far enough, and that there are millions and millions of "deplorable" (or worse, "irredeemable) people in the US. 
When Mrs Clinton made her "basket of deplorables" comment - to a roomful of people who had paid thousands of dollars to have dinner and listen to her, hosted by Barbara Streisand, she was talking about people in central Pennsylvania. Some of them, to be sure, are deplorable racists. But I suspect not as many as Hillary Clinton imagines, and surely, not half of the people.

To be fair, there surely are many Trump supporters who are racists, or sexists, or guilty of any of the accusations about them. But it was just, in my opinion, unprecedented for a major party candidate to make such a naked attack against a huge number of his or her own countrymen - who anyone with any sense must know are more likely to live in states like Pennsylvania or Michigan than they are in California or New York, where the comment was made.

As the election drew closer, Hillary Clinton and her campaign made almost no effort at all to convince working-class people in these states to vote for her, instead, focusing her efforts on driving out the base - what some have called a "coalition of the edges," - radical feminists, black activists of the BLM sort, Latino activists - who really, if we are being honest, have very little politically in common. Rather than talking about trade problems, or job issues, or any of the other myriad legitimate concerns of voters, we were treated to endless scare-mongering propaganda that more or less tried to convince her base that Trump was Hitler with a comb-over and spray-on tan. 

It didn't work.

On the day before the election, Trump was in Michigan, talking to a blue-collar audience in Grand Rapids, while Hillary Clinton was on stage in Philadelphia, being serenaded by Lady Gaga.

This Is All YOUR Fault
As I wrote then:

I think that Donald Trump is going to win in Ohio. And of course, he cannot win without Florida (which also is close).

But if he closes the gap in Pennsylvania, it is almost surely going to be a bellwether of bigger gains. IF Trump wins in PA, he is going to win in Florida, and he is going to win - easily - in Ohio.

So far, the drinking bird is not in the glass, but he may be tipping.

Well, in the end, the bird tipped, and with that, knocked away the presumptive Democratic president-elect.

Trump won not only Pennsylvania, but also, Michigan and Wisconsin, and very nearly Virginia and New Hampshire as well. Hillary Clinton's popular vote total will, ultimately, by higher than Trump's, as she ran up massive advantages in California and New York (she won New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago by nearly 4 million votes), which reflects the strategy her campaign selected to drive up her own base turnout rather than to try to win over fence-sitters. 

The result has been large protests against Trump, and cries to do away with the electoral college. Blame, as well, has been put on FBI Director James Comey for his comments that additional consideration of emails in the on-going, on again, off again "scandal" of Clinton's use of a private email server to send and receive clasified documents. It is very likely that Comey's actions had some effect on the vote totals, but exactly how much will never be known.

As we move forward, it is apparently going to be the Democrats rather than the Republicans who are going to face an internal civil war for the sould of their party. It is hard to state just how remarkable a reversal this is going to be - just weeks ago, all the opinion-makers were discussing whether the election would be, literally, the end of the Republican party.

What I see is that both the Democrats and Republicans are looking at a bit of a preview of the end-game of years of subtle, and more recently, overt identity politics.

As I said in early September:

Mrs Clinton has tried to clarify her comments - no, I didn't mean you are an ugly, irredeemable bigot - I meant the guy across the street. But if YOU lived in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and were historically a Democrat but considering Trump because of Hillary's comments about putting coal miners out of work, is it not possible that the thought might cross your mind that, "maybe she really meant me." These are, as I've said before, the working poor whose prospects under Obama (and to be fair, Bush and Bill Clinton before him) have dimmed, but who entitled Yale students whose apparent greatest problem is Halloween costumes libel as "privileged" in perhaps the single greatest example of lack of self awareness in the past 25 years.

What we saw this year was, finally, the real split in the country coming forward. To the ugly fighting among race, sex, and class, we can now add regional animus.

The Republicans have for some time targeted drinking birds in Pennsylvania, and this year, they finally tipped.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Everything IS OK Until it Isn't

Yesterday, the 20th of October was the Great California Shakeout; it's an annual event in which people living here in California go through a series of events designed to remind us that we are living in an area where earthquakes - damaging earthquakes - happen with some level of regularity, and help us to prepare as best we can for the next event. 

Coincidentally, just three days before on the 17th, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we marked the anniversary of the (in)famous 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that shook the region, killing dozens of people and causing billions of dollars in damage.

For most Americans, the quake is probably best remembered for the disruption it caused in the 1989 "Bay Bridge" World Series between the Giants and the Oakland A's.  The two teams were just about ready to start Game 3 in Candlestick Park; the game obviously never took place.

Much has changed since 1989 here. Candlestick Park is gone (the Giants moved into Pacific Bell Park in 2000, the football 49ers moved to Levi Stadium - itself not even in San Francisco a couple of years ago); several freeways - the Central Freeway, Embarcadero Freeway, and Cypress Structure were damaged and ultimately removed. The eastern half of the Bay Bridge - which partially collapsed - has been demolished, with the final pylons supporting it being systematically dynamited over the past few months.

Those of us who live in the Bay Area, and indeed, California, accept that living here brings with it risks. It is a certainty that another damaging earthquake is going to happen; we make a wager that it will either not be in our lifetimes, or if it comes, it will be focused in another part of the area - perhaps the East Bay (the Hayward Fault under Alameda County is the current front-runner according to the USGS for the next "big one") - and thus it will spare us.

It's all part of the bargain we make with Fate. We accept that a catastrophe can happen in exchange for the climate and physical beauty of the area. In fact, our mountainous, rugged coasts that abut the Pacific and encircle the San Francisco Bay are created by the very faults that threaten to destroy at any time.

Life itself comes with risks, of course. Some are distant and somewhat abstract, whilst others are immediate and quite concrete.

It all is a reminder that everything is, in a sense, sudden.  

Put another way, everything is OK until it isn't.

And that I guess is the lesson for me of the "California Shakeout."

I'm fond of thinking of the quip of John Lennon that life is what happens when you're making plans. 

My father was a planner; he liked to think of the long term. He was always imagining a day that he thought would come. 

It didn't work out that way. My father ran out of tomorrows almost 25 years ago.

Sometimes, tomorrow simply doesn't come. For 63 people who woke up on 17th October 1989 in the Bay Area to a sunny, warm October day, there would not be an 18th.

I, too, like to plan. But I always try to stop to remind myself that ultimately, whilst planning for tomorrow is prudent, there will be a day when, like my father, I am going to run out of tomorrows. 

My wife, son, and I have been most fortunate to have opportunities - opportunities to travel, to live in abroad (in Paris, France), to see plays on Broadway and in London's Covent Garden. Of course, we plan for the days that are to come, saving for schooling, for retirement, for the unforeseen leaking roof.  

But it's important - every day, if possible - to take some time and just enjoy being alive. Spend some money on a nice meal from time to time. Take a trip to a foreign land. Simply do nothing at all.

I have long thought that pain and tragedy are perhaps the greatest teachers we have; experiences from misfortune are like the ashes left behind after a fire. The looming possibility of earthquakes (or fires, or, if you live in the mid-west, tornadoes) are not only threats; they are reminders to us that our lives are ephemeral.  We should not be afraid, but we should be aware. Guard your time preciously, jealously, because it is precious.

Friday, 30 September 2016

What Is in YOUR Wallet?

Another quick essay stolen from myself over at Quora (I highly recommend the site)
Today, I received a question asking if I "believe that (I) pay more taxes than Donald Trump?" The explicit subtext to the question, presuming a "yes" answer, was "Does that make you less smart or even stupid for paying your fair share of taxes?" [emphasis added]
Since the Monday cage match that masqueraded for a debate between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, I have been almost literally bombarded with posts, tweets, radio ads, expert opinions, and decidedly un-expert opinions about Donald Trump's implicit admission (to some) that he paid no taxes. 
To answer the question, no. Of course I don’t. 
And neither do you.
I have no idea what Donald Trump’s income taxes are. Frankly, I don’t really care. I have no idea where or when it became expected that our presidential candidates would release their income tax returns, but unless there is something in there that is against the law (and there were, I would *hope* that the IRS would have found it by now and prosecuted him), all that I am going to find out is how good his accountants are. I suspect that, given his riches and access to a veritable army of accountants and attorneys, Donald Trump has been able to take advantage of tax deductions that I can scarcely imagine.
Of course, Trump screwed up, big time, in how he handled this. His "that makes me smart" answer was as glib as it was stupid, and the optics of it were horrible. He practically gave Hillary Clinton and her unpaid servants in the popular press a club with which to beat him.
But the likely fact of the matter is that he, like you, or me, or Hillary Clinton herself, tries to reduce his tax burden as much as is legally possible.
For example, if you pay mortgage interest, I suspect that you take that deduction. I suspect that you take deductions for state income taxes. If you’ve given substantially to charity, do you take advantage of that deduction?
Of course you do.
If you think Trump is “cheating” on his taxes by using the laws that other people, including Mrs Clinton as a senator wrote, then I suggest that you are placing the blame in the wrong place.
Whether Trump should pay more is a different issue, and one we can debate. I suspect also that whatever he has paid in taxes over the years short of 100%, cries from the Clinton campaign that he has not paid “his fair share” would immediately follow.
Have you taken tax deductions? Are you paying your “fair share?” Who decides?
As an aside, what his “fair share” - or yours or mine - is never of course specified. The word “fair” is a children's word.

The tax code is literally hundreds and hundreds of pages long. It was produced by professional politicians who take contributions from lobbyists.

People like, well, Hillary Clinton.

I know what my tax burden is each year, in federal, state, and property taxes. On top of that, I also am tapped for sales, usage, gasoline, and other taxes. In short, I can conservatively say that I pay more than half of my income annually in one sort of tax or another.

That is actually not a problem for me, necessarily.  I lived in France for a couple of years, and the tax burden there is far higher than it is in the US. For a start, just about everything you buy has a built-in value add tax of 20%.

We demand all sort of services from government. In France, I liked that there was convenient (if not 100%) reliable public transportation. The parks were generally well-maintained. The city of Paris offers many recreational and other quality of life programmes at zero or low cost. 

These things cost money.

As I see it, taxes exist for the sole purpose of raising the revenue needed to provide the services of government that we demand. In my opinion, the use of the tax code to encourage or punish behaviours and outcomes is in a word, abuse. 

So, how much should one pay in taxes, given the services we in the USA demand?

One snarky comment about Donald Trump is that his failure to pay "his fair share" (due, ostensibly, to his use of - again, legally allowed - deductions) means that the rest of us get stuck carrying him.

Donald Trump is shifting his obligations to pay for "military, roads, schools" onto your shoulders. Not very nice.

OK.  So, when you deduct for mortgage, or charitable contributions, or other items, are you shirking your "fair share?"

I looked through Mrs Clinton's tax return very briefly. On her Schedule A, Mrs Clinton deducted more than a million dollars for gift to charity. That's a big gift. A yuuuge gift. Of that, $42,000 went to the "Desert Classic Charities," whatever that is. The rest - a cool million - went to the Clinton Family Foundation.

I am not going to speculate or carp about the apparent conflict here of charity bootstrapping; but by deducting that "gift," at the Clinton's reported 34.2% effective federal rate, she was able to avoid $342,000 in federal tax obligations.

Applying the standard by which Donald Trump is being evaluated, Mrs Clinton shifted $342,000 of her responsibility for our military, roads, and schools onto you.

Is Donald Trump paying his "fair share?"  Is Hillary Clinton?  Are you, for that matter?  Who is to decide?

The bottom line is this: the tax laws were written by elected officials, not by you or me or Donald Trump. NONE of us volunteers to pay more than we have to, because we are not stupid.

This "issue" is, simply put, bullshit.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Cloudy With a Chance of Smug

One of the benefits for people who enjoy information sharing of the internet is that there is a multitude of fora where one can engage like-minded (and more importantly, people of differing views) individuals on various topics.

My personal favourite is Quora, where people can ask questions on manifold topics, and solicit answers from people. I like to read and post (follow me here!), and as you post, you build a sort of virtual CV that indicates your interests (and with enough "Up Votes", reputation for knowledge on topics).

I was recently asked to answer (A2A) by a couple of users, on the question:

Should we thank Donald Trump for pulling the Politically Correct bandaid off showing us all that racism and sexism is still rampant in the USA? 
I reviewed the dozens of responses which, frankly, had a high variance for quality.

As someone not supporting Donald Trump -or- Hillary Clinton, I took a somewhat different tack on the question itself.

The larger question (I think) being asked is, “Is it useful for someone to hold up a mirror to the country and show us how we actually behave rather than what we say?” And, additionally, is this, in fact, what Donald Trump has actually done?

I think it’s extremely useful for a nation to recognise its short-comings, just as it is for an individual. As I have said here (and elsewhere), I find negative feedacbk far more valuable than positive re-enforcement, provided it is done in an actionable way (e.g., correcting how I pronounce a name rather than pointing out that I am not tall enough to be in the NBA). I am very happy to be corrected when I am wrong, because I do not desire to persist in holding beliefs that are false.

Reading the responses, and especially, the undertone of smug self-assurance in far too many that the issues of sexism, racism, etc. (what John Lennon mocked as -ism -ism -ism in a sense) seem to be a problem that confronts “them.” It’s not that I am bigoted; it’s a bunch of middle-aged white guys in central Pennsylvania.

WAY too many Americans (and I honestly think, Mrs Clinton and perhaps even the Obamas themselves included) talk very nicely about how open, tolerant, and progressive they are. But what about their actual actions? This is certainly true in San Francisco, California (where I live), which has a reputation for being incredibly diverse and tolerant. Which of course it is. On the surface.

In economics, there is a term called “revealed preferences” where people implicitly indicate what their values really are by how they behave.

Here is an extremely telling link to how we behave rather than how we talk:

One Dot Per Person for the Entire U.S.

Look at this first map:

It shows how “diverse” San Francisco is - red dots represent clusters of Asians, green dots, black people, blue dots whites, etc. The bottom line is that, from how people have chosen to distribute, we do not actually live (and really, associate) with people unlike ourselves. Put simply, liberal San Franciscans seem, by their choices, to like the idea of black people a lot more than they like, well, actual blacks.

Here is a blown-out view of the area:

That blue cluster of whiteness to the north of the city is Marin County, one of the most progressive in the US, and reliably, and overwhelmingly, supportive of the Democratic Party. I would be shocked if Donald Trump got more than 20% of the vote there (NB: in 2012, Barack Obama polled 75% of the vote in Marin).

Marin is - by far - the whitest county in the Bay Area, at about 80%. The 15% of the population that is Latino is clustered together in one city. Again, folks in Marin like the idea of Latinos; they don’t, apparently, much care for Latino people themselves.

By another metric here, it appears that the majority of families in SF put their kids in schools with the effect that they will encounter as few black and Latino kids as possible. Whites make up 42% of the population of the city; their kids, 12% of the public schools. According to this site, San Francisco has the highest percentage of its kids in private schools in the entire state of California, and the third highest in the whole country. More than Dallas (in horribly right-wing Texas). More than Salt Lake City (in even more retrograde Utah).

Only Honolulu (where, ironically, our president hails from - and attended private schools) and New Orleans have higher numbers.

Again, we love diverse schools - for other kids.

The point is not that progressives are ‘bad’ people, or that Donald Trump is a good one. But what he has not, in any way at all, done is address the reality that we are as a nation at a cross-roads where we are re-segregating, and the problem is not “them” alone.

Thus, in my humble opinion, what Trump has *actually* done is provided too many self-congratulatory progressives a fig leaf to paper over their own very real prejudices and pretend that the problem is somewhere else.

If we are unable to recognise (and hopefully, root out) our own biases, then we are going to keep replaying these scenarios. 

Long after Donald Trump becomes as relevant to our discussions as the punch line of 1975 (Francisco Franco is still dead!) is today.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Because Numbers Matter

Trigger warning (with no irony intended): I am going to be trying to make some points based on numbers. Some of the numbers might be considered controversial, the consequences of those numbers may make some unconformtable, and the conclusions may even be offensive.

If looking at a controversial topic is likely to offend you, perhaps this particular post is not for you.


For those who have not left the virtual room to go read about football or to reinfornce your political prejudices at Breitbart or DailyKos, let's continue.

There has been an enormous amount of energy - understandbly angry energy over the past few weeks. Anger, fear, and recrimination. Over the course of a few days, police in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then Charlotte, North Carolina shot and killed two black men under different, but not entirely dis-similar circumstances. The killing of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa appears to be a tragic case of police violence. The accused officer will have her day in court, but if the facts back the current narrative, then this officer needs to be held to account.

The jury to a degree is still out on the killing of Keith Scott in Charlotte (Was he sitting in his car holding a book or did he have a gun? Did his wife have a prior court order against him because he threatened to kill her with a gun?) Ultimately, the video and testimony are going to uncover what really happened.

Oddly, the reactions to the two have been completely different. In Tulsa (as of now, the more egregious case), the community has allowed the wheels of justice to turn, however slowly and imperfectly. In Charlotte, mobs immediately mobilized, assaulting unfortunate people caught in their way and destroying property in an all-too-familiar way.

Fingers are pointing and, as Newton's Second Law applied to sociology predicts, reactive "solutions" have been offered.

At the heart of the controversy has been the "Black Lives Matter" movement, simultaneously painted as champion and villain, depending on whom you speak to.

The issue has become centre-stage in the national election, and yesterday, Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton was in North Carolina, basking in her debate triumph over Republican rival Donald Trump.  NPR this morning interviewed several of her supporters, including Joan Tilghman, an enthusiastic supporter of Mrs Clinton's campaign of "inclusion."

It's no mystery that Ms. Tilghman - a black woman - supports Secretary Clinton, as she is in the intersection of two core Democratic constituencies.

What stood out was her language describing the reason for her support:
I'm terrified. I'm a black woman. I've got black sons. I've got black grandsons. Some police officer in a helicopter is going to think my grandson is a bad dude because he's tall and dark skinned, so I'm terrified. [emphasis added]
Much has been said over the past few years about how black parents - particularly of sons - need to have a "talk" with their children about the particular dangers of encounters with the police. I am not black, and I am not going to fall back on the obvious cliche about "having black friends," and thus I will certainly accept perception as reality.

It seems that, indeed, there exists amongst a large segment of our fellow Americans an all-too-real fear that at some point in their lives or, in a sense worse, the lives of their children, a rogue cop is going to kill them indiscriminately.

Setting aside the arguments about a football player refusing to stand for the national anthem or whether BLM is hero or villain, this is a serious problem. It's an insidious one. It's a corrosive one.

It may even be an existential problem for a nation that is rapidly becoming truly diverse in that there will, in my lifetime, be no majority group. I've read books ranging from the Sneetches (Dr Seuss) to The Lord of the Flies. Increasingly fractious tribal cultures typically do not end well.

But, there has been so much heat, and precious little light.

I accept as true the idea that parents of black (particularly) sons feel a fear that requires them to warn their children against police.

Is that fear based in reality? Is it healthy?

Looking at the data published in the Washington Post, there were 991 people killed by police in 2015.

That is a large number. Nearly 1,000. I am not at all anti-cop, but now matter how you slice that, it seems to me that far too many Americans die at the hands of people sworn to protect and to serve. I personally think that that reflects the unfortunate, violent nature of our culture.

Digging deeper, of the 991 killed, 949 were men - more than 95%.

At the least, parents are rightly identifying that their sons are at far, far higher risk than their daughters. As an aside, I have not heard of a single protest or march declaring that Men's Lives Matter, despite the reality that males are more than 9-1 more likely to be killed than women. In short, police violence (justified or not) is not an equal opportunity offender.

The problem identified with such an argument is that men are far more likely than women to be involved in violent crime. The data are pretty incontrovertible, and, more to the point, uncontroversial. According to FBI data, men represent 89% of the arrests for robbery, 78% of the arrests for aggravated assault, and 91% of the arrests for homicide. (For what it's worth, males also make up more than three of four victims of murder).

Violent crime is a man's game, and thus, are simply in situations where they are likely to encounter an armed, police response.

No one (I hope) disputes this.

Drilling just a bit further, of the 991 people killed by police, 258 were black (26%). As black people make up just over 12% of the population (based on 2010 census figures), so statistically, black people are more likely to be killed by police.

That is an undeniable fact. I am not going to wander onto the thin ice of whether a similar sort of logic that excuses the excess of men killed by police vs. the excess number of black people killed by police. I do not know for a fact that black people are inherently more violent than others; I don't know for a fact that men are inherently more violent than women. The numbers are what they are, and the belief that black people are more likely than white people to die at the hands of police is true.

Now, if one were to take the meta-step that blacks, more than whites, are at risk for police violence, and that men are (far) more likely to die by cop than women, then the choice of blacks to warn their sons seems on its face a rational one.

But is it?

Also reported in the data is the fact that, of the 991 people who were killed by police in 2015, 782 of them were reported to be in possession of a deadly weapon at the time. That is nearly 80%. 34, in addition, had "toy weapons" (the sad case of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio comes to mind).

A total of 93 of the 991 who were shot and killed by police in 2015 were "unarmed." That is less than 1 in 10.

If we look at the intersection of all of these items:

  • 991 police shootings
  • 96% male
  • 26% black 
  • 9% unarmed

we arrive at an estimate that 23 unarmed black men were killed by police in 2015.

Now, one is too many. Police are there to uphold the law; as the motto goes, police are supposed to serve and protect.

But 23.

By contrast, there were 59 shark attacks in 2015 in the US. 

Again, I understand that the police are there to serve and protect, and that sharks are under no such obligations.

But 23.

Stories like Terence Crutcher are tragic, and they (rightly) get headlines.

But looking at these data, the idea that a black parent should be "terrified" that a police officer is going to shoot his or her child is just not backed up by the facts.

It's an old cliche, but it's true: People need to guard themselves against real threats. Claims that one should be paralyzed by fear - terrified - that any day, your kid could go off to school and not come home because a racist policeman in a helicopter is going to shoot him is just not reflective of any sort of mathematical reality.

Racism exists.  Police are human beings, and hence, yes. There are racist cops. As a society, we need to look in the mirror (white, black, as well as Asian, Hispanic, or anyone else for that matter) and decide whether we really can try to check our biases and actually tolerate, if not embrace, each other.

But it's extremely unhelpful to a functioning society to perpetuate what has to be, by any sort of yardstick calibrated in reality, little more than a paranoid fanstasy.

Your sons are simply not going to be killed by police.

When I was 16 and started to drive, my father sat me down and told me how to behave if I were ever to be stopped by a police officer, and I remember to this day.

Be respectful.
Show your hands (particularly at night)
Do not talk back or make sudden movements.
Always show  your hands.
Answer the questions trutfhully and courteously.
Always show your hands.

I've been pulled over, multiple times, in the three decades that I've been licenced to drive. I always follow the above. These rules seems equal parts common courtesy and common sense, which are not restricted from black, white, or any other sort of person.

Go ahead and teach them to be respectful of cops, as they would be of any person that they meet. Remind them that, if they happen to be stopped, the police have no way to know just by looking at you what you intend to do, so be smart. Teach them that police officers, like anyone else, are human beings and have among the ranks about the same distributions of honest, crooked, nice, and bigoted people as any other.

But we have simply got to try to stop perpetuating irrational fear, which necessarily is going to continue the divide among our communities that, for better or for worse, have to figure out a way to live together.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ralph, I Was...Not Exactly Right

Yesterday, I hustled out of my office and got into the car a bit earlier than usual. The traffic on the Bayshore Freeway conspired to make me 15 minutes late anyways, but I still was able to catch most of the action.

Not the Monday Night Football game (I find American football somewhere between watching my wife use an emery board on her nails and the dog try to pick up a basketball in his teeth in terms of entertainment value), nor the latest collapse of the Blue Jays' bullpen (30 losses this year, and counting).

Last night was the much-ballyhooed debate between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

I've had many things to say over the months regarding my opinion of the candidates and the choice we are left with, so I will only say I have no intention to vote for either. This is not even a Hobson's choice we have, but one of these two awful candidates is going to be sworn in in January.

Contrary to the clutching of pearls and threats to flee to Canada, our country will survive whichever of the two is tapped by the majority as being the less offensive of the choices.

In my opinion, Mrs Clinton overcame a terrible start, where her manifold shortcomings on ethics and economic judgment were plainly exposed. I find it incredibly difficult to see how any objective viewer can say that Mr Trump was the winner.

But the main thing I take away from the debate is just how strongly reified the meme that Donald Trump is simply so narcissistic that he simply is preternaturally incapable of admitting a mistake. 

In the above, humourous video from the old "Happy Days" television show, The Fonz, when confronted with incontravertible evidence that he is mistaken, struggles to say the simple words "I was wrong."  Hemming, hawing, and slurring over the word "wrong," he settles into saying "I was not exactly right."

It was, apparently, a big deal to the leather-clad lothario,

Last night, Donald Trump was not even capable of that.

The issue that, in my view, ultimately will sink Trump is not going to be his demonstrated lack of understanding of macroeconomics (i.e., the US government cannot just "negotiate" its sovereign debt down without destroying the world economy), nor his cartoonish approach to diplomacy (no; the US Navy is not going to sink Iranian ships because their sailors are taunting ours; the Navy is not the Little Rascals' He Man Woman Haters Club).

No - it was his repeated intrasigence to accept that his eructations about President Obama's birth certificate was a mistake.

Worse, Donald Trump tried to turn the issue to his advantage by declaring that he had solved the issue. His foolish insistence, over many years, despite all common sense that Barack Obama was somehow secretly born in Kenya 50+ years ago, and the records covered up or falsified in a conspiracy that could only involve the mind of Dan Brown.

Trump finally decided to swallow the red pill and admit that the whole thing was a big con.  Only, rather than just admit he was, well, in the words of the Fonz, not exactly right, apologize, and move on, Trump decided to frame the whole thing as a great triumph of his own will.

You see, HE was successful to force President Obama to release the birth certificate (oddly enough, in 2011, a full five years before Mr Trump went full Fonzie). HE put an end to the debate. Veni. Vidi. Trumpi.

Trump succeeded and Hillary failed. 

The whole thing was a surreal March of the Wooden Soldiers. 

The whole issue of President Obama's birth has exactly -zero- relevance to the 2016 election. President Obama is going to leave the White House in four months, hang up his loafers, put on a pair of golf spikes, and not be seen again save for the opening of his presidential "library."

No one cares about the birth certificate. But yet, there it was as an issue, front and centre.

In any other context, the display could only be called laughable and pathetic. Only, I believe that Donald Trump himself actually believes that this is a great personal triumph. Despite all logic, it's a feather in his cap rather than an egg on his face.

I do not agree generally with the Clinton campaign and its surrogates in the mainstream media that Donald Trump is crazy.  But I do believe that the display last night has to be down to one of two things.

  1. Donald Trump really believes that the series of events is a yuuuge success.
  2. Donald Trump deep down knows that he's not entirely right, but he thinks the rest of us are just too stupid to notice.
Neither one of these options really recommends the man for the presidency. In the first case, I do not want a president who is so blinded by his own sense of greatness that his view of the world is completely untethered to reality. In the latter, I don't want a president who holds the population in such low regard that he thinks we will just believe anything so long as it is said loudly enough and with sufficient "great greats" placed before it.

He should just admit that he was, not entirely right.

Monday, 19 September 2016

When I Was a Lad...

I was once like you are now.
And I know, that it's not easy
to be calm, when you find something's going on. 
But take your time.
Think alot.
Why, think of everything you've got.
For you will still be here tomorrow. 
But your dreams may not.

Summer is turning to autumn and we are settling down into the routine of work and school. Our son has this August turned eleven years old - hard to believe - and is now on to collège (middle school; he is enrolled in a French-based curriculum after our return to the US from a couple of years in France).

Yesterday, his school (Lycée Français de San Francisco) held its annual back to school picnic for families up in San Rafael, California. It was a tremendous, warm, sunny day on the edge of the bay. As our son, and indeed all the new kids in collège, move into a brand new school, they face the excitement and challenges together of a new building, new kids, new teachers, and new rubrics.

For the first time, all have to confront changing classes - your maths teacher in one room on the first floor, your science teacher on the second floor in a separate room, of lockers and combination locks.

All of these experiences are familiar to us as adults; I don't reckon that trying to retain your combination, planning which books to leave in the locker for period four and which to bring to first period, the choice of whether to leave period two behind in the locker to grab on the way to third, or bundle with first has changed much in the 35-odd years in between my first day of junior high (as it was known in those days) and today. And of course, the fear of the five paragraph essay and multi-day assignments looms much as, I suppose, it did back in the Reagan administration.

As a parent, I've found that as often as not, life becomes a bit like the never-ended Groundhog Day scenario where victories, defeats, challenges, and thrills replay in the lives of our children, very much like they did in our own.

With apologies to Cat Stevens (see above), as the song goes, one cannot help see in your child flickering glimpses of the past - of the road taken, how it played out.  But also, of the choices not made.

Some of those choices turned out well, but not all of them. And therein lies one of the most difficult challenges of being a parent.

When you see an opportunity where a collision is (almost surely) down the road, when do you choose to act? Are some lessons worth learning (a second time), and which are best so that the learning is virtul rather than real?

When I was younger, my own personality could have been accurately described as aloof. I've never been an extrovert, and have struggled virtually my entire life trying to socialise with strangers. "Making friends" was never a long suit, though I always have recognised it as an extremely valuable strength. Just not one that I have.  I'd like to think that I'm much better - more "friendly and outgoing" now than I was, but still, my wife is the gregarious one in our family. And I'm not a close second.

As a kid, my older brother was far, far more naturally personable - many friends, homecoming king in high school. It all looked so easy from my side of the virtual window peering in.

Being able to "fit in" is an extremely valuable life lesson; one I've tried to instill in my own son, with mixed results.

Yesterday, as my wife and I tried to encourage our son to approach a group of boys at the picnic, I got one of those "through the wayback machine" looks at my own youth. Not at all unlike my own experiences, our son stood at the side, watching the other boys running around, laughing.  Eventually, he mustered the motivation to join the group, for a little while.

When we asked him, why he was reluctant to approach the other kids, his answer struck me - "What if they reject me?"

The answer caught me off guard a bit.

Trying to be re-assuring, and to disarm a bit with humour, I suggested that a) they are 11 year old little boys shooting each other with water pistols; it's not likely that they are going to reject a recruit into the aqua army,  and b) it's not like he's asking them out on a date - THAT'S 'rejection'.

(As you might expect with a pre-adolescent boy, that second comment went over rather like a lead zeppelin.)

It's terrific to see our strengths reflected in our children - our son is a thoughtful, well-mannered little boy who loves to read. He is curious about the world.  It's even better when we see our weaknesses and failings overcome (at that age, I personally was an awful student who talked back to his teachers).

But it's equally terrifying to see our own failings reflected back, mainly because of this gnawing feeling that we know how the story is going to end. And I just honestly don't know how to help here.

Parenting is a juggling act to say the least. You balance intervening and avoiding the pain of a mistake, while at the same time recognising that there are times you simply have to let your kids figure things out.

Most of the time, keeping the balls in the air is thrilling, and we are good at keeping them in the air.  But sometimes, they fall. And sometimes when they fall, they break.

We just hope that we can put them back together when they do.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The Tipping Point

When I was a kid, my parents had a novelty toy - a plastic bird that appeared to "drink" water from a glass set before it. The bird would start upright, then gradually begin to tip, tip, tip, until it finally, fitfully, bent down, dipped its beak in the glass, and then sat bolt upright, only to repeat the process again.

I was, in a word, mesmerized.

Later, as a fan of "The Simpsons," I ceased being a fan after the bird was nearly to blame for a nuclear meltdown. Luckily, Homer's wide behind helped turn "a potential Tchernobyl into a mere Three Mile Island."

To mix birds, if not metaphors, I have seen the canary in the Democratic coal mine coughing.

Literally as well as figuratively.

As I read two blog posts this morning about the coming election (one, which tracks the polls in attempting to predict which states will go for whom; the other, the famous Five Thirty Eight blog of celebrity statistician Nate Silver - yes, you read that combination of words) I have begun to wonder if the outcome is as much a slam-dunk as I had thought.

As I've said, over and over again, I think that Hillary Clinton would make a singularly awful president, and should be kept far, far away from the levers of power. Simultaneously, I am not a supporter of Donald Trump, the crude, vulgar human mouth whose "ideas" indicate he has no more the skills or qualifications to be president than an anteater has for dancing the lead in "Swan Lake."

But I reckoned that Mrs Clinton, based on the electoral map, the pretty much unobscured support of the press and opinion makers (the universities, writers, the entertainment complex), was going to win and win easily.

What I had not counted on was just how awful a candidate she would turn out to be; I forgot the lessons of 2008, when she re-created the 1964 Phillies Phlop in givning the Democratic nomination - and ultimately the presidency - to a green, one-term Senator who is second perhaps only to The Donald in being unqualified to sit in the big chair.

Last weekend, Mrs Clinton scored a daily double with her idiotic, own-goal comments about "Basket of Deplorables" and subsequent collapse on Sunday at a 9-11 memorial ceremony after denying for weeks that she was unwell.

Now, I am not so sure that she is going to win.

For one, the Electoral Vote website, run by a guy who, blending Napoleon (self-coronating) and Louis XIV ("l'etat c'est moi") calls himself "The Vote Master" with no sense of irony, is a pretty thinly veiled cheerleader for Hillary. The data seem unbiased and useful, so the snark are worth listening to.

WELL, the narative has changed from "Republicans are rallying to survive damage from devastating Trump loss" to "Republicans panicking about possible Trump win."

The change is subtle, but it is important. It's the first real crack in the Democratic happy face, which to be fair, is always a smirk rather than a smile, he's put on.

Over at Nate Silver's blog, Trump continues to close on Hillary, his odds in the Polls Plus predicitons having grown from about 20% two weeks ago to 34% today.

That is a substantial change as well.

I suggest that, where Silver focuses his attention on Florida and Ohio, the real canary in the coal mine is neither Ohio nor Florida, but the Keystone State.

I was a strong sceptic about Trump's chances to win the GOP nomination, but here he is.

I have long felt that Trump's chances in the general rested on the state of Pennsylvania, and I think that that looks stronger today than ever before. The electoral maths favour the Democrats in the short term, and the numbers are going to get longer, rather than shorter for the Republicans over the next few elections.

Mind you, I think that the Democratic coalition of the fringes is ultimately going to come apart - what, other than animus to historical boogeymen unites black, Latino, Asian, feminist, gay, and environmental activists? The forces pulling them apart are so obvious and strong, that once "old white men" are put into their place, it is just a matter of time until the Democratic party succumbs to what Singaporean President Lee Kwan Yew said decades ago about pluralistic democracies.

But Trump, ironically, is different from the big business, Wall St crowd who have controlled the Republicans for the past 80 years. And his loud - some say xenophobic - bluster can appeal to people that the cosmopolitan President Obama derided as losers who "cling to guns or religion".

It's no accident that these people Mr Obama disparaged live in Pennsylvania, a rust belt state of hunters where the coal industry was once a huge employer.

When Mrs Clinton made her "basket of deplorables" comment - to a roomful of people who had paid thousands of dollars to have dinner and listen to her, hosted by Barbara Streisand, she was talking about people in central Pennsylvania. Some of them, to be sure, are deplorable racists. But I suspect not as many as Hillary Clinton imagines, and surely, not half of the people.

Mrs Clinton has tried to clarify her comments - no, I didn't mean you are an ugly, irredeemable bigot - I meant the guy across the street. But if YOU lived in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and were historically a Democrat but considering Trump because of Hillary's comments about putting coal miners out of work, is it not possible that the thought might cross your mind that, "maybe she really meant me." These are, as I've said before, the working poor whose prospects under Obama (and to be fair, Bush and Bill Clinton before him) have dimmed, but who entitled Yale students whose apparent greatest problem is Halloween costumes libel as "privileged" in perhaps the single greatest example of lack of self awareness in the past 25 years.

The Keystone State has not had polls released since the remark, but it will be instructive to see what, if any, impact the remark has.

Right now, Silver puts Hillary as about a 3-1 favourite to win PA. But 38 polls - all before the "deplorables" comment - have been taken, and virtually all put Trump within 5 points of Clinton.

I think that Donald Trump is going to win in Ohio. And of course, he cannot win without Florida (which also is close).

But if he closes the gap in Pennsylvania, it is almost surely going to be a bellwether of bigger gains. IF Trump wins in PA, he is going to win in Florida, and he is going to win - easily - in Ohio.

So far, the drinking bird is not in the glass, but he may be tipping.